Good & bad of 'No Child'
A dozen trips to Washington D.C. to plead for support for educators.
Twenty-four flights, 24 bags of honey-roasted peanuts.
Countless hours with political types.
One attempted mugging.
And when it comes to results in the defining No Child Left Behind controversy - some very good, and some very bad.
"There have been some real positive things about the No Child Left Behind legislation, but the big problem is that some of the expectations are not realistic, and of course, it has never been fully funded and that doesn't look like it's going to change."
So says Juli Kwikkel, the Storm Lake elementary principal who recently returned from Washington on her latest trip, lobbying on behalf of the School Administrators of Iowa and the National Association of Elementary School Principals.
Kwikkel said that the reception from lawmakers was mostly positive, but that the outlook seems to be for little change to No Child Left Behind programs, at least not until the next round of elections.
After a few years of trying to implement the administration's ideals, Kwikkel said that No Child has had its impact in the Storm Lake Schools, as nationwide.
"There have been some good things. The fact that we now have real data and scientific research to look at in implementing our curriculum has been good for us.
"We have been able to work on some teaching strategies that make a difference. The idea to look at every element of the population and move them forward is good," Kwikkel said.
"The downside is that the expectations are so stringent that they are just not realistic," she added.
"We talked about giving the tests to immigrant children after they have been here a while. How are we going to expect them to score well on a test when they haven't learned the language well that the test is presented in?"
For a year, the schools have been promised that the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills would be coming out with a Spanish language version of the test for students that have not yet reached fluency in English - a situation that is not at all uncommon in Storm Lake.
"That still hasn't happened. One question on the ITBS asks about Elvis Presley. Our students who have come from Mexico have no idea who that is, yet they would know if the question asked about Caesar Chavez. It is definitely a culturally-biased test," Kwikkel said.
A major fault of No Child Left Behind is that it measures students in a particular grade against students in that same grade in another year - a different set of human beings with different inherent abilities.
"What we have continually asked is that in order to actually track the school's progress, they should track the same student's progress over the course of the years. That's the only way to get a true picture of what the school is doing for students," the principal said.
Kwikkel also protests the fact that No Child does not make provisions for mainstreamed students with learning disabilities. "What about students with disabilities? We have one fourth grade student who is working at first grade-six month level. When we get the results back, we are expecting that student to measure against fourth grade students, instead of measuring the student with the disability at closer to the level they are actually performing."
Kwikkel said the politicians have resisted that argument, but that when she explained the situation one-on-one, it seemed to make more sense to them.
Funding, of course, is where the rubber meets the road.
Not only has No Child Left Behind never been fully funded, leaving schools to their own devices to pay for the testing and most of the efforts to meet the expectations, but the budget proposed by the Bush Administration this year is particularly disturbing to education leaders.
"This is the least that has been budgeted for education out of any budget in the past 10 years. It'd down $503 million," Kwikkel said. "The response that we get is that if you want more money in a schools program, it has to be taken out of some other program either in education or health. No money can be considered from anywhere else in the budget to go into education."
While there has been talk of extending the No Child Left Behind efforts further into the high school programs, Washington is threatening to zero out funds in several important programs that will impact rural high schools and vocational education, she said.
"There are programs like Reading First that has been an excellent help for us in Storm Lake, but that's because our demographics allow us to apply for that money to get the program going. There are 367 school districts in Iowa, and 330 of them don't have access to Reading First. There are rural schools around us here that would love to have those resources, but there are no funds available to them," Kwikkel said.
Schools that fail to show the prescribed levels of improvement stand to be penalized under the No Child regulations. "It is totally unrealistic. We will just make our goals this year, and then next year, we have to do 5 percent better than that, even if we have students with severe learning disabilities and an inability to read the language well included in those test scores," Kwikkel said.
To make the grade, schools have had to change the way they operate, especially by looking at reading before all else.
Still, Kwikkel said, Storm Lake schools have so far resisted the temptation to begin teaching to the tests instead of for the good of a well-rounded student, something she's not sure can be said for all districts around the state and nation. While test preparation and testing also takes key time out of the precious 180 days of classroom education each year, she feels Storm Lake has not allowed that to hurt the learning process.
"I just wish we could change the focus to growth for the students," she said. "That hurts us. We can't determine all of a school's success on one high-stakes standardized test."
Several of the Iowa delegation or key members of their Congressional staffs are highly attuned to the issue this year, Kwikkel found.
"Both of our Senators and the Republican members of the House from Iowa are starting to realize what this law is doing. I've said it before - education is not a one size fits all proposition. What is happening in central Los Angeles is different from what is happening in rural Iowa."
Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell confided to her on No Child Left Behind, "We got snookered by that law."
There is no indication that Congress is going to be willing to make major changes in No Child legislation during the Bush Administration, but Kwikkel hopes that groundwork laid now can make help make education a central issue when the next presidential race comes around.
While the lawmakers are beginning to see the cracks in the program, the attitude is to let it go on for as long as they can, in hopes that most of the national effect will be positive.
Kwikkel does not want to see the initiative killed all together. "There are components of it that I would keep, and things like the Reading First program as it has been initiated in Iowa I really applaud. But whatever they mandate, we also need the money to carry out."
For example, schools continue to be bound by the Disabilities Education Act, which was passed in 1976 with a promise of 40 percent funding to make the necessary changes in schools and programs. "It has never been funded at more than 18.6 percent, and that means there is not enough to pay for the assistance that some of our children need," Kwikkel said.
Another plan to assist smaller rural districts to attract quality principals has been zeroed out in the Bush budget proposal. "It is getting frightening how few applicants these districts are getting when they have to replace an administrator."
The principal also fears that under No Child Left behind, quality superintendents, principals and other leaders are going to begin to shun jobs in districts that are failing or close to failing to meet the standards - just where they may be needed most. "We are right at the front door of that being a major problem," Kwikkel said.
She also is shocked to learn that some districts in Iowa are beginning to refuse allowing student teachers into their classrooms, for fear it could lower test scores. Storm Lake is not among those. That could bite the system later, she feels, as the next generation of teachers is needed in those classrooms.
She also pleaded for more support for early childhood education programs, including the long-sought full funding for Head Start programs. "We really have to connect our school districts with the preschool programs. They say that every dollar you spend on early childhood education will save you seven later, and I believe that."
She was pleased to note that what national education leaders are proposing as the ideal for early childhood is exactly what Storm Lake has already implemented. "They said that wouldn't it be wonderful if we could collaborate and combine resources among schools, Head Start, preschool and so on. I told them that what they describe is just what we have done here," Kwikkel said.
"The preschool programs are helping us so much. With our ethnic diversity, we have kids moving in that don't speak English, but if they are in those programs, by the time they get to school, they are able to take those tests."
The progress locally has been dramatic. Less than 10 years ago, about 42 percent of children were taking advantage of preschooling education programs. This year, the figure is 92 percent.
Sadly, the transiency issue is erasing some of that success in Storm Lake. "In one of our classrooms with 21 students last year, that teacher had 11 students move in or out during the academic year. She would just get a student caught up, and they would be gone, and then there would be a new student in that desk possibly with new language issues. It is very hard to run a classroom that way," Kwikkel said. "I cannot say enough about our teachers and staff here in Storm Lake. What they have done has been brilliant."
Congressman Steve King indicated that he plans to visit the Storm Lake schools personally soon to see how they are operating.
For Kwikkel as an educator, being called upon to make repeated trips to try to work with politicians can be frustrating, but it also has its rewards. "Every time, I learn a little more about how this system works," she said.
And, for the record on that scorecard:
Kwikkel 1; Washington attempted mugger, zero.