Superintendent's Message, September 2014

  • Dr. Cohn
    Dr. Gary Cohn, Superintendent
    Dear Everett Public Schools community members,
    “No Child Left Behind -- How a Federal Law is Failing Schools!”
    That has been the spirit of much conversation, much correspondence and even some headlines since the U.S. Department of Education re-established for all Washington State schools in July, the punitive sanctions of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), nicknamed No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

    What does NCLB mean for us?
    In a nutshell, the federal NCLB sanctions require that 100 percent of students in every Washington State public school be at standard this year in math and reading, based upon last spring’s state tests.

    What does NCLB mean we must do?
    If schools, and therefore districts, do not have 100 percent of students at standard, they have “failed” to meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and must tell their communities of that “failure.” Districts must pull Title I dollars away from classrooms to pay for transportation and private tutors. Here is how that has played out in Everett Public Schools:

    Early in August, Everett Public Schools mailed letters to the families of our six Title I schools announcing those schools had not met AYP. As required by the NCLB law, families were told their students could choose to attend other schools, and that district-paid tutoring is available for students who qualify for free or reduced school meals.

    Our district must set aside $2 of every $10 of federal Title I funds from the classrooms of those Title I schools. That money is to be used to transport Title I students to other schools and to pay for outside, private tutors for qualifying students (until the set aside is exhausted). In our case, that’s $600,000 that could be used in those schools to target each student’s specific learning needs.

    On Aug. 20 the district sent an email to district families, informing them that some district students were not at standard in math and reading and that the district has “failed” to meet AYP this year. Some experts are predicting that no Washington district with more than 30 students will meet AYP this year. We will know that when state test scores are released on Aug. 27.

    These "failure" letters, the sanctions, and the choices are confusing to families and the public and discouraging to staff. Our schools and staff are doing very well; our students’ achievement scores have been trending up over the last years; we are graduating a higher percent of students.

    NCLB has been waived for two years; why is it back?

    Good question -- especially when there is no basis or research showing that moving students from their neighborhood schools and using private tutors will bring up students’ state test scores.

    The federal sanctions stem from a disagreement between our state leaders and the federal government about teacher evaluation. The feds say that some portion of a teacher’s annual evaluation must be based upon state assessment results when available and appropriate. Our state balked at using state assessments to evaluate teachers – especially this year when we are going to be using an entirely different test, one that our teachers will administer to students for the first time.

    This disagreement among adults has sparked confusion and will contribute to an inaccurate perception that our schools are failing. Federal withdrawal of the state’s “waiver” also has consumed a huge amount of staff time, as well as printing and postage costs, to fairly meet federal requirements to notify families and our community about federal school choice and SES provisions.

    As long ago as 2007, federal education leaders acknowledged that NCLB’s rigidity and unrelenting march toward a 100 percent requirement were unreasonable. In the last two years, Washington State and more than 40 other states applied for and received a “waiver” from the NCLB sanctions. The waivers were granted specifically because those states were making reasonable and adequate progress toward improving student learning.

    In the last seven years, the U.S. Congress has not acted to modernize the ESEA, and the recent adult-to-adult disagreement over teacher evaluation has prompted the U.S. Department of Education to withdraw the waiver and re-apply the old, punitive, and unhelpful sanctions.

    What I “really think” about this
    I am sorry for the confusion this causes our families, students and community. I am sorry for the misinformation and misperceptions it might cause about our students' learning success. My faith in the staff in our schools and the partners in our community remains as strong as it was before the return of these federal sanctions. I will continue working with state and federal leaders to develop authentic ways schools can be supported to do this challenging work.

    While I much prefer sharing messages that are more upbeat, I also believe it is important for our community to have the “rest of the story” about key issues that impact our work together. Sometimes that means sharing, at least a little bit, my frustration with the outside influences that make our collective efforts on behalf of each of our communities' children even more challenging.

    What is media saying?
    • On Sunday, Aug. 16, in his Seattle Times opinion piece, Danny Westneat shared his view of the federal sanctions.
    • On Monday, Aug. 23, the Daily Herald front page article outlined the impact of the federal sanctions on schools and districts across the county.
    • On Tuesday, Aug. 26, the Daily Herald editorial proposes a solution, "Fully fund education as the McCleary decision requires and repeal NCLB."
    Sept. 3 still brings out the butterflies and excitement
    Despite this particular discouragement, I still experience those wonderful butterflies that accompany the start of school each fall. The first day of school has always been a joy for me. I intend to keep that first day joy in my heart and to enjoy the tremendous excitement and energy I see in the first day smiles of students, families and the incredible staff in this outstanding school district. I look forward to seeing you in September!

    Warm wishes,
    Gary Cohn