Educators say Obama plan relieves stress

It didn't matter whether they worked at a small city elementary school or a large, suburban middle school. Educators said Friday that President Obama's decision to lift the increasingly rigorous targets of the No Child Left Behind law would mean less pressure and a greater freedom to be creative in their classes.

But, they also said they wouldn't want to undo what the law seems to have ingrained in the current generation of educators: the idea that even struggling students should be expected to succeed.

At a White House news conference, Obama announced that he was taking the unusual step of bypassing Congress to effectively rewrite the nine-year-old law that set the goal of having all children proficient in math and reading by 2014. His plan would allow states to apply for waivers from the law's targets.

Obama said that former President George W. Bush "deserved credit" for the law's goals, but added that there were "serious flaws" in its implementation.

"Given that Congress cannot act, I am acting," Obama said. "We can't let another generation of young people fall behind because we didn't have the courage to recognize what doesn't work, admit it and replace it with something that does. … We just have to make sure that we figure out what works and we hold ourselves to those high standards."

Revamping No Child Left Behind has become a partisan issue on Capitol Hill, but outside Washington several Republican governors have endorsed the administration's plan. Two of them, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, joined Obama on the stage Friday.

The announcement was greeted by educators around the region with a collective sigh of relief. Maryland is likely to be one of the states that will see a lifting of key provisions of the law by the beginning of 2012.

Baltimore schools CEO Andres Alonso joined Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and several state school chiefs on stage at the announcement. Alonso said "there is an opening now if districts and states are allowed to redefine success."

"To tie their hands with a draconian and punitive system is unfair," Baltimore County Superintendent Joe A. Hairston said of the current system. Obama's plan "will give teachers the freedom to design more effective lessons for students without the pressure of [the federal targets]."

States would set their own standards and rate schools on the progress they make rather than whether they have reached a target. Some principals were upset by the idea that under No Child Left Behind law seemingly successful schools might be labeled as failing if less than 90 percent of the students did not meet the federal target this year.

"I used to have 300 kids who didn't meet the standard. Now I have 30. We will continue to work on the 30, but don't give us the added pressure of calling us a failing school when we are anything but failing," said Donyall D. Dickey, principal of Murray Middle School in Howard County. The school has met the federal standard but likely wouldn't hit the higher targets this year and next.

George Washington Elementary School principal Amanda Rice said her school, like many other good schools in the city, didn't meet the target this year. "I want to be recognized for what I am doing well," she said. Rice and Dickey were happy about the changes they hope are coming. They said it has been difficult for staffers who feel that hard work has not been acknowledged if students don't succeed on a test.

But not everyone welcomed the Obama plan.

"Preliminarily, I have concerns that this is going to decrease the level of accountability that has been in place for students with disabilities," said Leslie Seid Margolis, managing attorney at the Maryland Disability Law Center. The No Child Left Behind law "has forced educators to think about access to the general curriculum. … It has definately raised the bar for students with disabilities."

And Cecily Anderson, chair of the English Department at Catonsville Middle School, said, "I don't fear the expectation of having everyone pass. It drives teachers to perform better."

She acknowledged, however, that Obama's changes could relieve stress, which will "probably create more opportunity for creative lessons."

But for Maleeta Kitchen, who teaches at Running Brook Elementary in Howard County, the new approach will mean "learning can be fun again." Elementary teachers will spend more time on science and history, subjects that don't count in the testing.

"Sometimes we are just pushing our students rather than taking them to a deeper level," she said. "I would like to think I have the next president, the next Nobel Prize winner in my classroom and I have to prepare them for the future."

The practical effect for Maryland teachers, said Jack Jennings, president of the Center for Education Policy, will be a return to where they were under the state accountabilty system in effect in 2001. He believes that if done well, the new approach will help inner city children whose schools "have become factories to produce better test scores" rather than places to provide a well-rounded education.

Some national experts believe the waiver will change the landscape in education policy.

"Tens of thousands of schools will no longer be labeled under a federal law. I think that is a momentous change in who is responsible for education accountability in America," said Chester E. Finn, Jr. at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Although the No Child Left Behind law hasn't produced a lot of improvement, he said, the change will mean that a lot of schools are "let off the hook."

Reporter John Fritze contributed to this report.

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