Ed. Dept. Weighs Changing Blue Ribbon Program

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The Department of Education is making final plans to overhaul the popular Blue Ribbon Schools awards program, transforming it into an honor for schools that improve test scores, especially among minority students.

Agency officials held a high-level meeting last week to discuss the future of the program, but the department refused to provide details about those discussions.

"We're in the final discussions here at the department on what that will look like," said Daniel Langan, an Education Department spokesman.

He predicted an announcement on the changes in the next several weeks, but declined to answer questions about whether the department had made a final decision on a new name for the program, its criteria, or the application process.

Last October, Secretary of Education Rod Paige outlined his plans to change the program before an audience of educators gathered here to receive their schools' Blue Ribbon awards. He said that starting in 2002, the Blue Ribbon program would be transformed into the "No Child Left Behind Schools" initiative, named for President Bush's education plan that has become law.

"The program will focus squarely on student performance. We will evaluate schools based on objective measurements," Mr. Paige said last fall, according to the text of his remarks. "We will have more details on the program in the coming months."

Nearly seven months later, the department isn't saying what the changes will mean or when they will happen—even as hundreds of schools may be preparing applications for the awards, and as the latest winners are announced this week.

A Blue Ending?

The current uncertainty surrounding the Blue Ribbon Schools program also comes after the independent Brookings Institution here published a report two years ago critical of what the author saw as the program's inadequate rigor. Evidence also shows that some schools have won the award even with serious weaknesses in their academic programs. ("In the Age of Accountability, a Blue Ribbon Means a Lot," May 24, 2000.)

But the program is well-regarded by many school people, and hundreds of educators flocked to Cleveland last month for a conference on how to use the Blue Ribbon application process as a way to improve their schools.

Some of them said that doing away with the program would be a terrible mistake.

"That eliminates a dream for them," said Bart Teal, an organizer of the conference and the director of the Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence at Nova Southeastern University in North Miami Beach, Fla.

Through that program, Mr. Teal has helped more than 100 schools across the country use the Blue Ribbon application as a model for school improvement.

The Blue Ribbon program began in 1982, during the Reagan administration, and over the years has expanded and developed a more stringent application process. Schools in every state and U.S. territory have won the award. Last summer, the Education Department announced its intention to overhaul the program. ("Administration Eyes New Rules for Blue Ribbon Schools," June 13, 2001.)

Rep. John A. Boehner, the Ohio Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, supports Mr. Paige's proposed changes to the program.

"We're very pleased the department is talking about improving and strengthening the program, and not eliminating it," said David Schnittger, a spokesman for Mr. Boehner, said last week.

But eliminating it is exactly what the Bush administration plans to do, supporters of the program contend. They say the program already may be the most extensive school improvement model, based on student achievement, touted by the federal government.

Jim and Sally Ann Zoll, who help choose some of the Blue Ribbon winners as members of the program's national review panel, said the program has made enormous improvements in the past few years and should survive.

For instance, a committee of testing experts reviews student-achievement data for every school to look for weaknesses that might disqualify applicants. Three years ago, that wasn't the case, said Mr. Zoll, a former superintendent of the ribbon-winning, 250-student Julian High School District in a rural area outside San Diego.

"Why is it disappearing? It's one of the most successful things I've ever seen in education," added Ms. Zoll, a former teacher and now the president of LearnStar, a school technology company in Dallas.

Political Context

Principals across the country will be disappointed if the program ends up judging schools only on test scores, said Vincent L. Ferrandino, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va., a co-sponsor of the Blue Ribbon program.

Mr. Ferrandino, who said his group had been provided with few details about the proposed changes, added that renaming the program after the new federal education law "unfortunately puts it into a political context that I hope it would avoid."

President Bush and Mr. Paige want a bigger and better education awards program, said the press secretary for Rep. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican on the House education committee who has several Blue Ribbon schools in his congressional district.

"It's an honor now," the spokesman, Dan Lara, said. "My understanding is that they want to change it into even more of an honor."

The Education Department's determination to change the popular program was a main topic of conversation at the Cleveland conference.

Stan Williams, who was the Southeastern representative for the Education Department under Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley during the Clinton administration, urged the Bush administration to keep the program, even as he told educators not to give up on using the Blue Ribbon process to improve their schools.

"What you are doing is worthy, it's noble, it's needed, and we've got to make sure it's continued," Mr. Williams said. "It really doesn't matter what happens at the federal level. Whether or not this movement continues really is in your hands."

Vol. 21, Issue 37, Pages 24, 27

Published in Print: May 22, 2002, as Ed. Dept. Weighs Changing Blue Ribbon Program
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This story misnamed a recipient of the award from a rural area outside San Diego. It was the Julian Elementary School District.

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