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The law in review.

I recently read an article in our local county newspaper reporting on a study commissioned by a group of Maryland state businesses lobbying on behalf of military installations, including nearby Fort Meade and Fort Detrick. The purpose of the study was to assess the supply of new scientists, especially engineers, mathematicians, and bioscientists, necessary to meet the current and future needs of the military and homeland security. The study, conducted by the Sage Policy Group consulting firm, concludes that the state's public education system is failing to supply sufficient new college and university graduates with the necessary skills to be successfully employed in these fields. While enrollment in Maryland colleges and universities has increased in recent years, the number of students majoring in these fields has actually declined, resulting in a growing shortage of skilled job applicants. I know of other government agencies that are facing the same dilemma.

This trend, according to the same study, is consistent with national data that places many U.S. students behind their foreign counterparts in science and math, as well as lacking the same proficiency in foreign languages and knowledge of other cultures. The Fort Meade Alliance, as the group is known, also found that college and university graduates in Maryland too often lack such other basic skills as understanding the concept of teamwork, leadership experience, and the ability to communicate effectively enough in writing or verbally to be able to succeed in business. Maryland schools, the Alliance concluded, need to revise their K-12 curriculum to help students develop an interest in math, biological science, and engineering at an earlier age. This is necessary, they believe, to meet the needs of the expanding job market.

I found this article particularly interesting in light of all of the attention that has been focused on the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act this year. The law is currently being reviewed in Congress for reauthorization. NCLB, among the most significant U.S. education initiatives, reauthorized the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act and is founded on four primary objectives: increasing accountability for states, school districts, and schools; giving parents and students greater flexibility in terms of transferring to another public school if the current school is not making adequate yearly progress; increasing flexibility to decide how best to use federal education funds awarded to schools in recognition of strong state test results; and, finally, promoting the President's Reading First initiative in support of high-quality reading instruction programs designed to give children the fundamental knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in school and beyond. NCLB's goal is to boost student achievement in grades 3 through 8 in reading and mathematics by 2014 nationwide. You can learn more about NCLB by contacting the Commission on No Child Left Behind at www.nclbcommission.org. I encourage all ACEI members and others concerned about the future of education in the United States to contact their representatives in Congress--and you can do this conveniently through ACEI's website at www.acei.org/legisl.htm.

I believe NCLB has served a very useful purpose in that the legislation has focused substantially more attention on improving public education in the United States by requiring states to adopt rigorous standards and testing for schools and school districts. Indeed, NCLB standards and testing have generated a great deal of media attention and, to a lesser extent, so have the sanctions imposed on schools and school districts that are not making adequate yearly progress. When enacted, the intended outcome of NCLB was to ensure that every child in public school has equal access to a high-quality education and, in the process, raise the achievement level of all elementary and secondary school students.

I think we need a more complete assessment before reaching any final conclusions about the merits of NCLB--which is why the current education reform debate in Congress is so important. Has NCLB actually improved outcomes for poorly performing students in reading and math or merely added yet another level of bureaucracy to an already heavily burdened public school system? The answer to this question is at the heart of the debate. With its increased focus on underperforming students, NCLB has made teachers, school administrators, and school boards far more aware of achievement gaps and their own accountability, which I think is good.

A letter to the editor written by Pat Heefner, candidate for a local school board in Pennsylvania, takes exception to the widely held notion that the public education system in the United States is somehow in need of extensive repair. Heefner recognizes, as I'm certain most would acknowledge, that the public school system has its share of problems. However, Heefner believes it is wrong to place an entire school district, for example, on a "watch list if only one segment of its student body fails to make adequate yearly progress"--which is what happens following current NCLB guidelines. Classroom teachers find this practice particularly troubling, especially when they feel that they are doing their best to help their students. It is far better to spend the time and money, assuming there is adequate funding, to fix the problems inherent with NCLB and not fault the public school system that, Heefner maintains, "is overwhelmingly doing a good job."

The national debate on NCLB continues. Policymakers in Washington will draw on the lessons learned over the past five years to help them as they examine the requirements of the law and consider its reauthorization and implementation. Look for new policies to better accommodate children with learning disabilities and those who do not speak or understand English, and more funding from the federal government to cover the added expense of meeting the higher standards mandated by NCLB. I think we will also see a growing number of states that believe the responsibility for education should rest with the state and not the federal government. States will develop standards, define proficiency levels, and decide how best to help all students reach their full potential. To be successful, input from educators is essential. Even with such improvements, it will be some time before new college and university graduates meet the standards that employers in Maryland are apparently seeking.

Resources

The Washington Post Extra, Howard County, September 27, 2007, by Miranda S. Spivack.

The Washington Post, Letters to the Editor, Education: If It Ain't Broke ..., by Pat Heefner, July 14, 2007.

--Jerry Odland, Executive Director
COPYRIGHT 2007 Association for Childhood Education International
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Title Annotation:From the Executive Director
Author:Odland, Jerry
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Dec 22, 2007
Words:1066
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