By Jerome Tharaud/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
When Havre School Board members met Tuesday night for their annual planning session, one thing was clear: Trustees, administrators and parents alike face a daunting task implementing the strict requirements of No Child Left Behind, President Bush's sweeping educational policy.
During the four-hour session, school board members discussed their concerns with Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller. They expressed misgivings about the policy's test-based approach, suggested ideas for communicating the upcoming changes to parents, and said they are confident that Havre educators and students can meet the spirit - if not always the letter - of the law.
"We are making every effort to comply and preserve those standards," said board member Judy Bricker.
Yet the board members discussed at length their disagreements with the law, which range from concerns that it does not appreciate the unique challenges faced by rural Montana schools to stark philosophical differences with the law.
Miller talked about the "inflexibility" of the law for states like Montana, particularly its stricter certification requirements for teachers, and its provision allowing students to move to a different school if a school doesn't meet standardized test requirements.
"None of them fit very well in Montana ... because we're so strapped for dollars," he said. Also, he said, great distances separate rural schools in Montana, and teachers must often teach many subjects at once. No Child Left Behind requires teachers to have a degree in every subject they teach.
"We can't comply with it by January first of next year," Miller said. "We can't change our entire certification process and have 95 percent of our workforce be automatically qualified to teach."
Next year, Miller said, the district will be required to send a letter informing parents when their child is being taught by a teacher who does not meet the certification standards of No Child Left Behind.
"That is so scary to me, that letter," board member Teresa Miller said.
"That little tiny piece of information is going to be extremely dangerous," board member Todd Hanson said, adding that it may lead parents to begin to question the value of a diploma.
"Their fingers are going to be pointing at us, not the feds," Kirk Miller agreed, but he added that the requirements will not be a problem immediately.
"I would tell you that right now our district is not at risk," he said. "In the future, three years down the road ... we could be."
"No Child Left Behind is not going to be an easy thing to do," Miller said. "Will we accomplish what we need to? Absolutely."
Nonetheless there was a sense that some of the trustees regard the requirements as invasive.
"I think what's wrong with education is that we're forced to go with political winds," said Bricker, adding that the federal government is not willing to fund the changes it mandates.
"Where's their accountability to us?" Teresa Miller agreed.
Kirk Miller said legislators and education leaders from a group of rural states, including Montana, recently began negotiating with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige to persuade him to grant rural states adequate flexibility.
"Are you going to strip a system that continues to be one of the leaders of the nation in student performance?" Miller said. "We built our case on that."
Beyond concerns of practicality, some board members questioned the basic philosophy behind a test-based approach to education. Beginning in 2004-2005, No Child Left Behind requires that all students in grades three through eight as well as grade 10 test at proficient or advanced levels in reading and math by 2012.
In Havre that means significant changes to curricula and the way teachers will teach. It means special training to help teachers read their students' test scores and tailor lessons that will help raise the scores of students who are not proficient, and also help proficient students improve. It means mandatory reading classes in the middle school and mandatory after-school study halls for failing students in the high school.
Hanson, who teaches in the Department of Teacher Education at Stone Child College, questioned the fundamental assumption of No Child Left Behind: that tests are an accurate indicator of knowledge.
"We will be teaching how to take a test," Hanson said. "Not learning, critical thinking or problem solving. Really will it test knowledge? Will it test understanding? It's really not a fair measure of what our students know or don't know."
Kirk Miller stressed that a balance would be struck between teaching reading and math for the tests, and teaching critical thinking and problem solving.
"Does this model allow for that kind of flexibility?" Hanson asked.
"Yes, it does," Miller said. "We're not throwing out critical thinking skills. We're using our time in a more efficient manner."
School board member Kathie Newell added, "The last thing our educators want to do is teach to the test and have our kids walk out these doors a test score. We need to work really hard to keep No Child Left Behind from doing that to us."
School board member Joe Marino said the new law is "not the best thing in the world."
"It just spurs us on to continue to do the job we already do," he said.
Hanson was not satisfied, saying that what the board will be asking teachers to do is "almost impossible."
"Every instructor in the classroom will make a choice, and that choice ... is to reinforce a test," instead of focusing on creativity or critical thinking, he said.
Board chair Denise Thompson urged board members to have a positive outlook on the changes.
"You can't look at this as a negative," she said. "Well, I'm sorry, but we have to comply. You take lemons and make lemonade."
Board members acknowledged that the changes - and the grave consequences for not complying, which include closing schools - are reflected in most of the new items in the District Educational Work Plan, four broad goals for the 2003-2004 school year that are the result of hundreds of hours of work by project teams composed of teachers, administrators and trustees.
"No matter what we do, there will be a link (to No Child Left Behind)," said Hanson, who described the law's "tentacles" as pervading the school system and reaching out into the greater community.
The board also discussed ways to inform parents about the new requirements.
Hanson suggested a public forum.
"A lot of parents don't even know it's there, much less what it's doing to us on a local level," Hanson said.
Miller said HPS has done public forums on numerous issues on the past.
"At least we could say we made the effort to get them informed," Newell said.
"The problem is that the general public is only interested if it affects their child," said trustee Teresa Miller. "It has to impact them first and then they start asking questions."
"Teresa's right," Marino said. "There's public apathy. That's why we're here."
Hanson also suggested hosting an educational summit to allow other school districts to discuss their strategies for implementing No Child Left Behind.
Miller, who chairs the state Board of Public Education, said he believes state educational agencies like the Office of Public Instruction, rather than individual districts, should set up regional summits like that.