Education commissioner praises challenge of federal law

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- The federal No Child Left Behind Act will put teeth into Alaska's own school reform efforts, Education Commissioner Shirley Holloway told a House committee Friday.

Her upbeat tone contrasted sharply to a meeting last week in which several Democrat and Republican legislators grilled a federal education official about the difficulties of implementing the law in Alaska.

Holloway said the Murkowski administration has embraced it.

There are many similarities between the law and Alaska's own efforts of the past decade to improve schools, Holloway told the House Finance Committee. For instance, both require new standards and testing, the preparation of school or district report cards, and a system to designate the quality of schools.

The federal law has greater consequences for schools, Holloway said.

Schools must test students every year, and those tests must show a school is making adequate progress teaching not the overall student body, but also 10 subgroups, including white, African-American, Hispanic, Native American, Asian, disabled and low-income students.

''The old way of looking at school achievement, there was much hidden,'' Holloway said. High-achieving students could bring up a school's average scores, masking problems of struggling students, she said.

Under the federal law, if adequate progress isn't made in any one of the subgroups for two years in a row, a school district must give parents the option of sending their child to another school. After three years of inadequate progress, a district must also provide supplemental services, such as tutoring.

Holloway said federal officials are not providing any waivers to the law but they are giving states ''flexibility'' in meeting its requirements.

They have already agreed to allow remote rural schools -- where school choice would mean flying kids to a distant school, away from their families -- to offer supplemental services instead.

The state is continuing to talk with the federal government about other problems the law will pose in rural areas, Holloway said.

For instance, the law requires middle and high school teachers to have a college major or similar qualification in the subject they are teaching.

Holloway said it's not feasible to hire experts in several high school subject areas for a 17-student school.

The state is proposing, instead, to use distance delivery. That might involve an expert teacher at a central location teaching math to students in several tiny schools at once, through teleconference, videoconference, the Internet or other technology.

Meeting the law's requirements will challenge the educational system and require a great deal of time, resources and energy, Holloway said, but it is possible.

One of the overarching challenges will be changing attitudes, Holloway said.

''For so long we have used a lot of reasons and a lot of excuses about why students can't learn and we need to get rid of those,'' Holloway said.

Schools have done a great job teaching the top third of students, an adequate job teaching those in the middle, but have failed those at the bottom, who are mostly poor and minority students.

''What this law says is that is no longer acceptable,'' Holloway said.

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