State school board members and other education leaders from around the country gathered here this month with a new federal education law very much on their minds.
Despite the various sessions offered during the annual conference of the National Association of State Boards of Education, held Oct. 10-12, the session on the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 drew the largest crowds and dominated discussions here.
Among other mandates, the law, which is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, requires states to report test scores by demographic subgroups and document that schools make “adequate yearly progress.”
But even as most state board members expressed support for the goals of the law, many worried aloud about how to implement it without losing the strengths of their own school accountability systems established over the past few years.
State and local education leaders here vented frustration over officials in the U.S. Department of Education and members of Congress, who they believe know far too little about how much states have already done to raise standards.
Asked if federal officials would consider changes to the law, one state chief expressed doubt during a panel discussion.
“For the most part, what I’m hearing is, ‘Stop whining and just do it,’ ” said Ted Stilwill, the director of the Iowa education department. “We’re going to have to sort through this. There are many things we don’t know about the implementation of this law. You’ve just got to accept the next three or four years are going to be nuts.”
Susan B. Neuman, the federal Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, agreed there will be bumps along the way.
“We don’t have all the answers yet,” she said. “These issues are very complicated. I guarantee you you’re going to be frustrated. No Child Left Behind is a vision of education. It’s a bold and audacious plan for education. That’s why it’s hard and that’s why it’s a challenge.”
Superintendent Roy Romer of the 723,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, who as governor of Colorado was a national leader in efforts to improve states’ academic performance, urged NASBE members to stay focused on enhancing the quality of classroom teaching.
“We have lost track in our administrative systems of how to improve instruction,” he said. “You really need to focus on what is going on in the classroom.” Mr. Romer, who said leading the nation’s second-largest school district is more challenging than being governor, emphasized setting high standards and using school performance data to target resources to struggling schools.
While many educators worry that accountability in education means overtesting students, Mr. Romer said tests are critical. “If you can’t measure it, you don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “If I were in your shoes, I would say we have to be more demanding of everyone in the system.”
Even as state board members grapple with the demands of the No Child Left Behind law, they should pay as much attention to students’ health and physical fitness, according to two speakers at the San Diego gathering.
That was the message from Phil Lawler, the coordinator of physical education in the 19,000- student Naperville, Ill., schools, and Jean Blaydes Madigan, a former Texas “physical education teacher of the year” who now consults schools on the link between fitness and academic achievement.
Mr. Lawler’s physical education curriculum, which includes checking students’ cholesterol and heart rates, has received national attention. “You’ve got to have quality, daily physical education,” he said.
Ms. Madigan, who had conference members stand and loosen tight muscles, said despite the budget crunch that most states are facing, it makes no sense to skimp on physical education. Brain research, she said, shows that students who are healthier also perform better in the classroom.
“Daily physical activity can improve academic performance,” she said.