Valley schools ready to leave behind No Child Left Behind

School districts in Jackson County are hopeful that revisions by President Obama to the No Child Left Behind law will give teachers and students more freedom to increase achievement.

Obama said Friday that as early as November states will be able to apply for waivers declaring them exempt from some elements of No Child Left Behind, specifically the requirement that 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in federal math and reading standards by 2014.

"This is wonderful," said Terrie Dahl, Medford School District's supervisor of federal programs and school improvement. "It's a step in the right direction, as far as I'm concerned."

Dahl said across-the-board standards for raising test scores put too much pressure on lower-performing students and English language learners.

"It wasn't taking into consideration students with learning disabilities," said Dahl, "and that was one of the issues on a lot of districts' minds that wasn't fair."

The Medford School District had been labeled as "needs improvement" for the second time this year, with 12 of the district's 21 schools failing to make adequate yearly progress in math under the federal law.

The news was frustrating for school officials, because although math test scores over the past two years had improved, they hadn't improved enough for the federal benchmarks.

To be eligible for the relief, states must first develop their own reform plans designed to align schools with college and career-ready standards, develop their own accountability systems, and have plans to support effective classroom instruction.

Dahl said the state was in communication over the summer with "needs improvement" districts such as Medford, which had worked to develop a plan even before Obama's announcement.

"We will have to wait and see what the state comes up with," said Dahl.

Under the new changes, schools could be recognized not only for high achievement, but also for high levels of improvement and growth, said Dahl.

Scott Perry, superintendent of the Southern Oregon Education Service District, weighed the pros and cons of No Child Left Behind, saying the law could make schools that were improving be labeled as failing instead.

"It created high standards and influenced schools to become more accountable," said Perry. "However, it set impossible standards and created situations where schools looked like they were failing, when they weren't in so many respects."

According to Tina Mondale, director of improvement for the Eagle Point School District, the No Child Left Behind law had good intentions but may have been too punitive for schools failing to meet benchmarks.

"I think we're at the point in No Child Left Behind when we're getting up against the reality of it not working," said Mondale.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools marked as "needs improvement" would be told how to use certain percentages of their funds, including hiring outside learning-intervention specialists to help with students, regardless of what the school's own plans were.

"People in schools do know what needs to be done, but we seem to be having trouble at a national level getting consensus," said Mondale.

Despite this, Mondale said No Child Left Behind did help schools improve focus on individual students.

"No Child Left Behind had a lot of overall good ideas. We are certainly more aware of every single student," said Mondale.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or by email at tristow@mailtribune.com.

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