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"By identifying schools as "in need of improvement," you are indicating your commitment to help them reach their potential as soon as possible. In fact, you are blazing a news trail as you confront the evidence and do something about it… Such honesty is a badge of courage and should be acknowledged as such by citizens in your state."

Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige estimated that 8,600 schools, serving as many as 3.5 million students, would be labeled “in need of improvement” under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). After learning that many of their well-performing schools would fall in this category, many states are rethinking their education standards to avoid federal sanctions that would apply to schools in need of improvement.

Under NCLB, any Title I elementary or secondary school that fails to meet the state standard for two consecutive years must give students the opportunity to attend other, non-failing public schools. The school district would use a portion of Title I money to pay for transportation. A third failing year would mean a school would have to provide supplemental services, such as tutoring.

According to the law, states are required to set definitions of student proficiency in reading and math and must begin assessing student performance for those subjects by the end of the 2005-2006 school years. However, because the law allows states to define proficiency in a variety of ways, some states are being hit harder than others. Michigan has over 1,500 schools considered “in need of improvement.” Likewise, in Louisiana and North Carolina, up to 80 percent and 65 percent, respectively, of their schools could be identified as needing improvement. In contrast, two states, Arkansas and Wyoming, reported having no schools in that category.

In a letter sent to chief state school officers around the country last month, Paige issued a dire warning to states to stop altering their education standards to give themselves wiggle room under the new law (A copy of the letter is available at: ). On the other hand, he praised states that sought to improve schools performing below state standards rather than simply lowering the bar:

By identifying schools as “in need of improvement,” you are indicating your commitment to help them reach their potential as soon as possible. In fact, you are blazing a news trail as you confront the evidence and do something about it… Such honesty is a badge of courage and should be acknowledged as such by citizens in your state.

Meanwhile, rising frustration among state and local officials has already led many states to consider lowering their standards to reduce their number of failing schools. In Michigan, State Board of Education members are trying to decide whether to lower Michigan’s education standards and retain freedom to spend federal funding, or to keep current standards as a way to encourage kids to achieve higher levels. Those in favor of lowering Michigan’s standards argue that they are simply leveling the playing field and suggest that standards should be the same nationwide.

Other states have already taken action to redefine their standards and reduce the number of schools in need of improvement. In Louisiana, students will be considered “proficient” if they score at the state’s “basic” achievement level-essentially a level lower than in the past. The state also changed the label of its “proficient” category to “mastery.” In Colorado, students who rank in the “partially proficient” category on state assessments will be considered proficient under the federal law.

Paige offered this assessment of those who are adjusting their education standards, “These individuals will rethink their approach for the benefit of the students in [their] state.” At the same time he says, “It is nothing less than shameful that some defenders of the status quo are trying to hide the performance of underachieving schools in order to shield parents from reality.”

Raising the Standard for Title I Teacher Aides: New Requirements

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) initiated new standards to raise the qualifications of paraprofessionals, or teacher aides. According to the law, all paraprofessionals who work in Title I programs must have a high school diploma or equivalent by Jan. 8, 2002.

However, even though the deadline has passed, the U.S. Department of Education has yet to publish clear guidelines on how to define a “paraprofessional.” The closest thing to guidance is a letter issued on April 30, 2002 from the Department to chief state school officers. The letter differentiates between instructional paraprofessionals and non-instructional staff, stating that only “paraprofessionals with instructional duties” need to meet the requirement of a high school degree or its equivalent.

Paraprofessionals hired after the Jan. 8 deadline must have:

  • Completed at least two years of higher education;
  • Received an associate’s or higher degree; or
  • Passed formal state or local tests designed to demonstrate knowledge and ability in certain subjects.

Paraprofessionals hired before the Jan. 8 deadline must meet one of the above three criteria before January 8, 2006 unless they work primarily as translators and are proficient in English as a second language, or work only with parental improvement activities.


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