To solicit input from the community about the controversial act enacted to improve the nation's primary and secondary schools, 53rd Dist. Congresswoman Susan Davis, D-San Diego, who is a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, invited educators, parents and citizens to a discussion at San Diego High School on Aug. 27.
While it was clear NCLB had its supporters and advocates, many present during the discussion also were quick to point out that the act still has flaws and that more fine-tuning should be done before the legislation is reauthorized.
Panelists in the forum "” sponsored by the San Diego Unified School District and Davis "” included Cindy McIntyre, president of the San Diego Unified Council of Parent-Teacher Association, Camille Zombro, president of the San Diego Education Association, Randolph Ward, superintendent of San Diego County's Office of Education, Ernest Anastos of the Lemon Grove School District and Sue Coyle of the Coronado Unified School District.
Carl Cohn, San Diego Unified School District superintendent, moderated the discussion. Before coming to San Diego, Cohn was superintendent in Long Beach, where he received the Broad Prize for Urban Education.
Cohn was portrayed in the movie "Freedom Writers" that hit theatres last year, detailing the story of teacher Erin Gruwell, who transformed the lives of at-risk students without punishing them and without destroying the students' initiative. The punishment issue is among the criticisms leveled against the NCLB.
The main goal of NCLB is the achievement of 100 percent proficiency for all students and the elimination of the achievement gap between minority and white students. The law's target is to reach these goals by 2014.
The expansive act reaches 40 different federal education programs. As with many laws passed by Congress, NCLB isn't a permanent law. As such, it expires after a period of five years and has to be revisited and renewed, if necessary.
To get a feel for what San Diegans think about the act, Davis organized the panel discussion. Currently, San Diego's schools perform well in testing, educators said. In Newsweek magazine's annual list of America's Best High Schools, 15 San Diego schools are ranked.
Nevertheless, it was apparent during the forum that there are problems in San Diego. This was made clear not only by the comments of the panelists but also by the number of banners displayed by parents and students. Exhibited were slogans like "Educate Now," "Close the Gap," "Equal Parent Voice," "Failing School "¦ no more" and "NCLB for children "“ not bureaucrats."
In her status update on NCLBA, Davis encouraged the community to be part of the discussion.
"The act is a work in progress," she said.
She conceded that NCLB has its flaws. She said improvements have been made over the last five years in the narrowing of the gap in reading and math categories.
But Davis said there is still much work ahead for parents, children politicians and teachers.
"There cannot be a one-size-fits-all solution . . . There are unique challenges each school faces," Davis said. "We need a greater flexibility to get students the help they need."
Some changes that have to be made are greater flexibility to use supplemental services, a shift to a growth model, additional funding and an adequate data system.
"This time we will get it right," Davis said
After Davis' update, each panelist gave their own perspective on NCLB.
McIntyre, who represents more than five million members of PTA, recommended a reauthorization with major improvements. From her standpoint, parents must have more opportunities to become involved.
"Students achieve more if their parents are more involved," she said. She said states must also be on the same page, and supplemental services like tutoring have to be defined more clearly so that parents actually understand what opportunities their children are being offered.
Coyle described NCLB as a valid and invaluable act. Although students in the Coronado School District typically score well, there are schools that don't meet the fundamental goals.
She said problems with the vigorous and frequent testing are that they can be time-consuming and not necessarily helpful for educational purposes.
Zombro was the one panelist who said "no" to reauthorization.
"NCLB is failing our schools," she said.
Zombro generated much audience applause when she shared three anecdotes from her life as a teacher of children from low-income families.
"Although my student improved a lot over the year, she was a failure in the system. As educators we work hard, but we are labeled failures," Zombro said.
Still other points were made by Anastos. He said that under the current NCLB structure, aspects like art, problem solving, and creativity are slowly eroding.
"We are failing the whole child," Anastos said. "We need to put more emphasis on kindness and mindfulness."
Ward offered his own thoughts. He said the NCLB is much too punitive and that teachers know what is best for their students and how to help them. Labeling students and teachers as failures because the ultimate goal might not have been met isn't very helpful, he added.
He asked audience members how many of them would work better if identified as failures for not helping all students reach the NCLB's goal of 100 percent proficiency.
He encouraged an accelerated growth system where the subgroups are given additional assistance.
"It is not by magic that a student gets proficient," he said. "We need to move the students along the level."
As the final panelist, Cohn emphasized he believes in NCLB.
"Even though a person is critical [of NCLB, it] doesn't mean we want to water down expectations. Reauthorization is important," Cohn said.
After both positive and negative comments on NCLB from the audience, Davis voiced the need for a national discussion.
"Education should be the top priority of the national debate," she said.