The Free Press, Mankato, MN

October 10, 2012

Our View: School fixes more reasonable under new rules

By Nita Johnson, Mankato

— It was a telling commentary on new school improvement rules when a St. James elementary school principal vowed the school's students test scores would show improvement next spring.

St. James Northside Principal Karla Beck told The Free Press that although the school ranked in the lowest 5 percent statewide, a new improvement program would lead the students to "see gains this spring. Absolutely."

It's good to hear such confidence from a school leader at a time when it seems school funding continues to be a challenge. The state's schools are operating under a new plan for improvement that is a significant departure from the old rules of No Child Left Behind.

The state of Minnesota applied for and received a waiver from the federal law that allows the state to set up its own rules for achievement and the measurement of that achievement. In broad terms, the waiver removes some of the stick involved in No Child Left Behind and offers a carrot to troubled schools. There remain requirements for strict improvement in student achievement and even more in bridging the achievement gap between students of color and white students.

Some have quibbled that the new standards are too easy and reduce accountability. But one has to remember that teachers, schools and principals can resist any improvement program or they can buy into the programs.

It seems clear the St. James school faculty and leadership has bought into the new improvement plan.

They have implemented a new reading plan called the Daily Five that focuses on five key aspects of improving reading including reading to yourself, writing, reading to someone else, reflection and spelling and word work.

The new approach to improving schools also came with a $445,000 federal grant to support improvement activities that allowed the school to hire a full-time reading specialist, a half-time math interventionist, a full-time data instructional coach and a full-time family liaison. There is in place a half-time curriculum coordinator who will help teachers assess the curriculum.

Teachers will also be given time to improve their teaching skills through professional learning communities in collaboration with other teachers who been involved in best practices.

Small schools, especially in rural areas, have not had the budget or tax bases to provide these kinds of specialists who can really move an improvement program forward.

In the old No Child Left Behind rules, federal money would have gone to uprooting schools, laying off teachers, paying private tutors and paying to bus students out of their neighborhood schools along with other punitive measures. The old system also allowed states with low achievement to set the bar lower (easier tests) to avoid the stick of lost funding.

Clearly, the new school improvement rules have turned to carrots instead of sticks. If St. James Northside is any indicator, the carrots seem to be working so far. There will be plenty of time for skeptics as well as state officials to measure the program and the progress in St. James.

And according to St. James officials, they'll be able to prove the current plan works as early as next spring.