Schools left behind
ONE OF the stronger components of the federal No Child Left Behind law mandates that failing students who attend poorly performing schools receive supplemental tutoring. But Boston's school superintendent, Thomas Payzant, says a wrinkle in the law could prevent qualified teachers from helping failing students in Boston's after-school programs.
Poor performance by one or more student subgroups, such as special needs or low-income, caused more than 100 school systems across the state to fail to meet the law's "annual yearly progress" requirement. But Boston was one of just a handful of school systems to receive an overall failing grade. As a result, the city's entire public school system is technically ineligible to tutor its own students in poorly performing schools.Boston is showing good progress overall on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System tests. But the confusing federal measurement system gives greater weight to poor attendance in the city's district high schools. Hence the failure. The federal law cannot be used to good effect when wielded so bluntly. Although it allows for students in failing schools to get private tutoring at public expense, tutors are expensive and limited in number. Payzant estimates that Boston teachers could provide a student with twice the amount of tutoring at about half the cost of private services. And the private tutoring option assumes that parents are motivated to locate such services, which is not a good assumption.
The state Department of Education, which implements the federal law, is considering a waiver for Boston. That would be a sound course. Skilled, certified teachers are available in Boston to provide the kinds of supplemental services envisioned by the law. It would be folly to sideline such teachers because the school system fell two-10ths of a percentage point shy of the required 92 percent overall attendance rate.
Congress needs to review the "annual yearly progress" benchmark, which combines test performance, test participation, improvement rates, and attendance. Failing scores sometimes reflect the social disadvantages that can burden some children before they even start school. In other cases, poor performance may merely reflect the peaks and plateaus common in educational advancement. The annual yearly progress standard does not seem well enough calibrated to justify major policy decisions.
The ability to intervene in failing schools is an essential element of education reform. In some cases it may be necessary for superintendents to take a direct role in filling teacher vacancies. In chronic cases, schools could fall under state receivership. But all school systems should be provided reasonable opportunity for redemption through intensive tutoring programs. Boston is no exception.