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Big Changes Ahead For American Schools?


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

President Obama's new budget is the talk of Capitol Hill this week. And while most of the headlines are about the ongoing fight over how best to reduce the federal deficit, the president's proposal also calls for a significant boost in education funding. It's yet another window into his administration's philosophy around education.

And that's what we want to focus on in the first part of the program today. We want to talk about the administration's plan being rolled out today to restructure the way teachers are trained, evaluated and rewarded across the country. The budget proposal also includes $8 billion to help community colleges train potential workers.

We've called NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez to tell us more about that. And we're also going head to Kentucky where, as in many states, schools have struggled to meet the requirements of the previous administration's signature education policy No Child Left Behind. The Obama administration has promised to mend, not end, that policy and we'll hear how that's working out in one school in Kentucky.

But first, to Claudio Sanchez. Claudio, we mentioned some major education elements in the president's budget proposal. Is there anything new here? Is there anything that signals a change in what the administration is trying to do?

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Well, as the cliche goes, follow the money. And the money is saying that there will be changes, and there are significant changes ahead. I should say that the problem I've had is only one of two federal agencies that is getting any kind of boost in its funding. It's not a huge boost, but it's significant in the sense that how it's being targeted.

For example, there were three new education initiatives that are unprecedented in funding and scope. Number one, $8 billion to fund and to train two million workers in health care, transportation, information technology, advanced manufacturing. And a lot of that moneys being targeted to community colleges, because community colleges, certainly in the administration's view, is that one institution that can partner with businesses to identify what skill levels and what new careers can be forged in the future certainly to guarantee that Americans have jobs.

MARTIN: And what about - there's a new proposal, it's in the style of Race to the Top, which allows states to - or requires them really to compete for certain pots of money. This is an initiative that will let states compete for a share of $5 billion to train teachers. Is that new and what's behind this idea?

SANCHEZ: That is new. It essentially would help states keep good teachers, reward the best ones, overhaul teacher training and development. The goal the administration says is to, quote, "elevate teachers and change society's view of teaching by making the profession more appealing with higher pay." This is a tricky one because, you know, states are cutting education left and right.

And $8 billion sounds like a lot of money. But even if you make it a competitive grants program, states would have to turn on a dime to do a lot of these things. And remember that there's an ongoing debate at the state level about how you identify good teachers. I mean, the unions are still not agreeing with many of the proposals out there, namely those that say look merit pay is the way to go. Here's how you evaluate teachers to include test scores of kids to evaluate teachers.

The administration, years ago, I think really angered the unions when it came out in favor of what unions considered to be very draconian efforts to redefine the evaluation of teachers and the process. And it has since been struggling to reconcile that. I see this effort as very much an election year effort on the part of the administration to reconcile this, because it's going to need teachers in supporting the president.

MARTIN: We're talking education and some of the president's priorities in that field. I've been speaking with NPR's education correspondent Claudio Sanchez.

Now, we'd like to get an educator's perspective on some of these issues. So, we've called upon Tim Roy. He is principal of Webster County High School in Kentucky. We wanted to talk to him in part because last week the Obama administration granted waivers to 10 states, including Kentucky, freeing them from some of the strict standards of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was of course the signature education policy of the Bush administration. It's been controversial since its inception. And Principal Roy is with us now. Principal Roy, thanks so much for joining us.

TIM ROY: Hi, Michel, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Well, first of all, can I just get your kind of overall assessment of how No Child Left Behind has been working in your state? I mean, obviously the intention was exactly as the program applies, to not allow kids who are not meeting important standards to kind of hide behind the kids who are. but educators have been criticizing it and parents saying that it really encourages a teach-to-the-test mentality. What's your sense of how it's worked in your state and how is it viewed?

ROY: Well, I think, Michel, that NCLB is well intentioned. However, I think that the system that's currently in place is quite restrictive. As you're probably well aware, there are goals that each school must meet and each school district must meet, particularly in the areas of reading and math. And it's our responsibility to report whether we're meeting annual yearly progress in those areas.

And the way the system is set up, those goals are determined for us based on past testing data. And it's restrictive in a sense that if we don't meet our annual goal, it's nearly impossible to get out from underneath that because not only do you have to make up ground from where you score to where your goal was for the previous year, but then you have a higher goal for the next year. So, it's one of those systems where if you fall behind, it's almost impossible to get out.

MARTIN: Why did your state apply for the waiver? And what do you hope that it will help you to do that you cannot do now?

ROY: Well, first of all, I think one of the key reasons for not just Kentucky, but for several states, to seek a waiver is that if we're granted the waiver, we no longer are held to the standard of having all students proficient by 2014.

Again, while that's a worthy goal, it's a bit unrealistic under the current system. And, you know, while we can agree that all students can learn and can achieve, not all can learn and achieve at the same rate and given the same deadline. And so, by being given this waiver we're kind of out from under that 2014 deadline.

MARTIN: Claudio, can I ask you if educators across the country with whom you've been speaking agree with Principal Roy's assessment? I do think it's also worth mentioning that Republicans and Democrats in the Congress who don't seem to agree on a whole lot about a lot of things these days do seem to agree on that.

SANCHEZ: Well, Congress agrees to a point. But remember, they're still angry - Republicans in particular - with the president because he's doing this unilaterally. And, of course, many say the president had to because Congress was sitting on the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. And who knows when that's going to be reauthorized.

I should say, though, that groups both on the right and the left aren't thrilled about this waiver business because conservatives say the waivers themselves, they'll come with too many strings attached. Liberals, especially in the Civil Rights community, are afraid that the states will use these waivers to mask what some view as the feeble attempt of states to raise the performance of Latino, black, poor kids, special education students.

Now, the administration, I should say, insists that it's not going to give states so much flexibility that they won't be held accountable. States that get waivers still must adopt rigorous standards, fix dysfunctional schools, close the achievement gap, and just do a better job training and evaluating teachers. Which, by the way, is no, again as we had said before, it's no easy task.

MARTIN: Well, Principal Roy, can I ask you though about that, because Kentucky does have students who fit all the categories that Claudio described. How does your state plan to hold itself accountable?

ROY: Sure. Well, going back to NCLB, I think we need to clarify a couple things. First of all, in addition to that unrealistic goal of having all students have proficiency by 2014, a couple of other limitations of that legislation is that there is essentially no accountability whatsoever for students that were built into that system.

A judgment was rendered exclusively on schools and districts as a part of that testing system. And there was nothing that would hold students accountable. And there was no connection to their performance in the classroom, to their grades that they would receive in the classroom. Essentially, we were at the mercy of the students in that situation. And so, with the new testing system that Kentucky has put in place, students are held accountable for their performance on the tests.

MARTIN: Tell me what that means.

ROY: Well, again, in the past, we were given a rating of how we performed as a school, but now, particularly at the high school level, we have what's called End of Course Assessments and we have those in four of our core classes, English II, Algebra II, Biology and U.S. History. And when students take those exams at the end of the year or at the end of the term that they're taking the class, there is a percentage that was recommended by the state of Kentucky that the EOC would count as 20 percent of the student's overall grade in that class.

Districts were given a little leverage to negotiate that percentage, so students are held accountable under this testing system and I think there will be a little bit more buy-in on the part of students, knowing that this could adversely or very positively affect their overall grade in the course.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go, Principal Roy - and I do appreciate your taking the time - I'm not asking you to render a judgment on sort of the politics of these education proposals, sort of, federally, but just in terms of the kinds of priorities that are set out, focusing on teacher training, community colleges, offering more flexibility on those standards - are those the kinds of things that educators working in the field, as you are, think are important? Or do you think that there are other priorities that still aren't getting talked about?

ROY: I think those are important. I think an increased focus on teacher preparation and what it takes to be an effective educator in today's educational climate and economic climate, as well - I think those are very important and I think that our teachers need to be trained in a way that is going to help them to be successful in leading their students as we move forward.

The face of education is continually under construction and the needs of our students and the needs of our communities are changing and I think that we need to make sure that our educators are keeping up with that change.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez, a final thought from you? We've talked about the fact that there seems to be broad agreement on No Child Left Behind in need of an update, but on sort of the broader trend of educational policy, is this one area in which people from different political perspectives agree on the substance of what - the direction the country needs to go in or not?

SANCHEZ: We don't know exactly where this is headed, but the president is doing something really important. I think he's redefining the federal role in education in subtle ways and charting a new path. And what is it going to take to raise the quality of education, to raise the performance of children at a time when we most need it?

Remember, Michel, that one of the more worrisome things these days is that there are three million more children in poverty since the beginning of recession and the academic gap between poor and well-to-do students grew 40 percent from 1960 to 2007, so talk about a challenge of educating children that, these days, are really struggling. Their families are struggling. And, you know, some would say maybe this is a little too little, too late.

MARTIN: Claudio Sanchez is NPR's education correspondent. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. We also heard from Tim Roy. He is the principal at Webster County High School in Dixon, Kentucky. That's about two and a half hours west of Louisville.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SANCHEZ: Thank you.

ROY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.