Educational challenges discussed

The Baltimore Sun

Raymond Simon, deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, met with 19 of Maryland's high-ranking educators yesterday and fielded their questions and concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act.

State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, state school board president Dunbar Brooks, and superintendents of a number of school districts participated in the discussion at Annapolis High School, which remains on the state's watch list for improvement after failing to meet annual academic benchmarks set by the act.

Simon and U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have visited 25 states since February to discuss the impact of the act, which requires school systems to bring students up to grade level in reading and math by 2014. President Bush has called on Congress to reauthorize the act, which he claims as a key part of his domestic policy.

During the discussion, the educators spoke about the shortage of qualified teachers, financial hardships caused by trying to meet the act's goals and the challenge of closing the achievement gap for foreign-born students and special education students.

The hour-long discussion started with Simon congratulating Maryland on exceeding the national average in almost every aspect of student achievement, which included: the percentage of schools being taught by highly qualified teachers, graduation rate, percentage of high school students taking advanced placement exams, and math and reading scores for fourth-graders.

"You have a lot of positive things here," Simon said in reference to Mapping Maryland's Educational Progress 2008, a pamphlet which shows how the state compares to the rest of the country on certain No Child Left Behind indicators.

Dr. Jacqueline C. Haas, Superintendent of Harford County schools, asked Simon about the relationship between No Child Left Behind and special education students. In particular she pointed out discrepancies between the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which looks at the individual student, and No Child Left Behind, which looks at the entire student population.

"The timeline and pace is different for them to achieve different goals," she said.

Anne Arundel's Superintendent Dr. Kevin Maxwell asked if there would be any flexibility in requiring all students to reach the target goals of No Child Left Behind in 2014.

Simon stressed that there was no flexibility on this issue.

"The 2014 is nonnegotiable to us," Simon said.

Another area of contention was the lack of highly qualified teachers. According to Simon, only 82.2 percent of core academic classes are taught by highly qualified teachers, which is below the national average of 94.3 percent.

Maxwell lamented about the lack of a pool of highly qualified teachers. He added that universities are not producing large numbers of highly qualified teachers and that local school systems are being held responsible for it.

"All we can do is hire what is there," Maxwell said last night after the discussion ended. "It would be great if our colleges and universities could produce enough teachers for us."

After the discussion, Grasmick explained that Maryland public schools hire 7,000 to 8,000 new teachers a year. Only 1,600 of those teachers are a product of Maryland colleges and universities, Grasmick said.

Howard County's superintendent, Dr. Sydney L. Cousin, questioned the fairness of testing students from foreign countries who are learning English.

Education research shows that it takes five to seven years for foreign-born students to become fluent enough to take tests in English, yet No Child Left Behind gives foreign-born students a one-year waiver before applying their test scores as part of a local school's achievement, Cousin said.

Other comments included: the need for the federal government to provide more funding at the local school level, finding a way to better share best practices among all school systems, and rebuilding the reputation of schools that are labeled "persistently dangerous."

Grasmick said she was pleased with the questions that the educators asked.

"I thought they put into context some of the issues they have been grappling with," Grasmick said.

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