Potomac News Online | Education chief answers teachers

WASHINGTON — Ann Miller, a teacher at Forest Park Senior High School in Woodbridge, says special education teachers are struggling with the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Under the act, she said, “special education students who are reading three and four levels below their classmates are now challenged to keep up with their peers to accomplish the same outcome on tests.”

And now, she said, special education teachers in middle and high schools are required not only to be competent in special education skills, but also in a core academic subject.

If she could, Miller would ask Education Secretary Margaret Spellings this question:

“Given all the paperwork required for special education teachers, isn’t the No Child Left Behind law making unrealistic demands?”

Normally, Miller would have no way to ask her question. But Media General News Service earlier this month sat down with Spellings and asked Miller’s question and 21 others submitted by teachers who read Media General’s newspapers in the Southeast.

As Miller’s question suggests, many public school teachers feel personally affected by No Child Left Behind. Under the law, each school must make “adequate yearly progress” toward getting all students proficient in reading and math by 2014. Schools that miss that goal suffer the stigma of being singled out as needing improvement. Some schools even have to give their students the option of transferring to a better school.

As President Bush’s chief education adviser in his first term, Spellings was instrumental in creating the law. Now as education secretary in Bush’s second term, she is in charge of implementing it.

Responding to Miller, Spellings said the law may be making new demands on special education teachers, but it is also providing new opportunities for children with special needs.

“We can do a better job of serving these kids,” Spellings said. “In the absence of No Child Left Behind, I’m not sure we would be having these discussions. For far too long, these kids were simply off the books and unattended to. This is requiring us to be much more sophisticated towards approaching these children and getting these kids to the goal line because they can get there.”

Margaret Griffin, a teacher at Ashland Elementary School in Manassas, said she is worried that the emphasis on special education children is hurting the education of regular students.

“In low-income schools there are many students whose IQs are below average but above the cutoff for special services,” Griffin said. “What is the federal government doing to help teachers make sure these students pass testing requirements without holding brighter students back?”

The Education Department is spending $14 million on a “tool kit” to help special education teachers improve their teaching techniques, Spellings replied. It will be available this fall.

When No Child was written, only 1 percent of students — those thought most severely disabled — were exempted from taking the tests, Spellings said. “Now we think there’s about 3 percent of those students that need a little different treatment.”

Griffin also wanted to ask Spellings about federal support for school renovation.

“I’ve worked at newly constructed schools and in crumbling schools and I know what a difference it makes in the ability to learn,” Griffin said. “Does the federal government plan to provide any incentives to so that states and school systems can bring parity in school construction quality?”

That’s not the federal government’s job, responded Spellings.

“Issues like class size, school facilities, construction issues, teacher pay — those are all left to state and local governments,” she said. “The federal government really is an 8 or 9 percent investor in public education.”

Maria Luzzi, a special education teacher at Henrico’s Tuckahoe Middle School, asked: “How can we expect the schools to show yearly progress when we’re constantly getting a new set of immigrants who have to start from the beginning to overcome language barriers, culture shock and economic hardships?”

Spellings, who was education adviser to then-Governor Bush in Texas, said she has been working on the immigrant education problem a long time and still doesn’t have the answer.

“I’ve convened a group of experts and practitioners, educators, to see what we know about how best to serve those kids and I’m looking for their guidance,” she said. “I want to do a lot of listening to the people who are out in the field and am hopeful that by the early part of the school year we’ll have some additional clarification around our ability to better serve limited-English kids.”

Nancy Welch, the instructional technology resource teacher at Mathews County High School, wanted to know if, when the No Child is up for renewal in 2007, Spellings will be recommending any changes.

Spellings said there may well be changes in provisions for special education children, for children with limited English and to give schools credit for making progress over time.

“I’m anxious to visit with educators about what they think the issues are,” she said, “and I’ll be working with Congress as we head into reauthorization.”


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