Federal education policy is failing

Iwas privileged to teach in a National Blue Ribbon School in Los Angeles during the 1990s. What is now being done to the Medford School District (reported in "Does this add up?" Nov. 11) is an abuse of the federal government's power to encourage and recognize educational excellence. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 punishes public schools for the diversity of their students' achievements.

Your lead paragraph says it well: "Students who failed state math tests at four schools have tipped the Medford School District into a punitive status known as a district 'in need of improvement' under the No Child Left Behind Act." The article explains that every subgroup of students within every Medford school must meet grade-level standards in math. Otherwise the school is labeled a failure in that subject.

If at least one elementary, one middle and one high school in the district earns that label, the entire district is put on the "needs improvement" list, and punished accordingly. In Medford's case, the issue was a handful of special needs students — some with disabilities or limited English proficiency — who did not perform at grade level in math at one elementary school. Those few students pushed the whole school district into its current negative designation, despite all its students' achievements.

I taught pre-algebra and algebra 1 at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies — or LACES — a public magnet school for grades 7-12. Students are chosen by lottery and come from dozens of elementary schools throughout the vast district. They bring a diversity of abilities and socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. The goal of the magnet school, founded in the late 1970s, is to encourage voluntary ethnic integration with the promise of academic excellence.

The school offers a wide variety of coursework including honors and Advanced Placement classes. My students ranged from average ability to honors level; they were placed according to their math readiness rather than grade level. I would argue there is no exact grade level performance for special needs students, or even for honors level students. My honors algebra classes included seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders. I also taught a remedial math class of special needs students in grades 10-12; they had not yet mastered the prerequisite skills to take algebra.

Our school was deemed a National Blue Ribbon School despite having entire classes of remedial students performing below "grade level" in various subjects. Federal education policy in the 1990s focused on positive indicators and designated LACES as an outstanding secondary school. It evaluated all levels of student achievement, recognized the need for some remediation, and rewarded the overall pursuit of academic excellence. No Child Left Behind focuses on measuring failure and proclaiming schools' negative indicators.

Clearly the Medford school system has excellent academic programs that prepare students for success in college and the work force. The Oregonian recently reported a surge in enrollment in Oregon's colleges, with Southern Oregon University achieving a 26 percent increase over the previous year. Growing numbers of students are transferring from community colleges. Many come from Rogue Community College and the Medford District's high schools, where they achieve academic excellence. The secondary schools deemed to need improvement are all striving to raise test scores, even as their high-achieving students excel in advanced-level math courses. The few special needs elementary students who did not reach grade level all showed significant yearly progress. Yet none of that counts in the negative designation bestowed on Medford schools.

Beyond the semantics is the cost in scarce resources. Federal policy requires that 10 percent of the total federal funding for students in poverty must go to providing special services such as tutoring at the four schools deemed in need of improvement. Thus $400,000 must be diverted from all other Medford schools to those failing four. Students in poverty who excel academically will now lose funding for enrichment programs that benefit and motivate them.

No Child Left Behind is a sad misnomer. A few special needs elementary students who struggle with math seemingly outweigh all other measures of achievement in the Medford schools. What kind of math is the U.S. Department of Education promulgating, and at what cost to the morale and success of our school communities?

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra for 20 years in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools. She was a member of the board of education in Willard, Ohio.

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