STATEMENTS ON INTRODUCED BILLS AND JOINT RESOLUTIONS -- (Senate - April 26, 2007)
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By Ms. MURKOWSKI (for herself and Mr. STEVENS):
S. 1236. A bill to amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of
1965 regarding highly qualified teachers, growth models, adequate yearly progress, Native American language programs, and parental involvement, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.
Ms. MURKOWSKI. Mr. President, I rise to speak about legislation I am introducing entitled the School Accountability Improvements Act. We all know about No Child Left Behind, the Federal legislation that was introduced in 2001. We recognize that NCLB made significant changes to Federal requirements for school districts in our States. Many of these changes have been very positive and truly quite necessary. Because of No Child Left Behind, there is clearly more national attention being paid to ensure that school districts and the States are held accountable for the achievement of students with disabilities and for those who are economically disadvantaged and for minority students.
In Alaska, this has meant, for example, that more of our urban school districts are paying closer attention than ever to the needs of our Alaska Native students. People across the Nation are also more aware that a teacher's knowledge of the subject matter and his or her ability to teach that subject are perhaps the most important factors in a child's achievement in school. Teachers, parents, administrators, and communities have more data now than they have ever had, more data about the achievement of the individual students and the subgroups of students and about our schools. With that data, we are making changes to school policies and procedures, and more students are now getting the help they need to succeed.
While these are just a few of the positive effects of No Child Left Behind, we recognize there have been problems. This is not surprising, as it is quite difficult to write one law that will work for a large urban city such as New York City in the East and have that be made generally applicable to a small remote rural community such as Nuiqsuit, AK.
My bill, the School Accountability Improvements Act, is meant to address five issues that we have identified in Alaska that are of particular concern to our State and of equal concern to other States. The first area we are focusing on would give flexibility to States regarding NCLB's highly qualified teacher requirements. In very small rural schools, particularly in my State, we will see a school where you have one teacher who is tasked with teaching multiple course subjects in the middle and in the high school grades.
Under NCLB, the requirement is that the teacher must be highly qualified in each of these subject matter areas. But I have been listening to some of the teachers out in my remote communities. They may be hired to be the English teacher, but in a remote community with a small school, something may happen during the year. Say, the science teacher or the math teacher has left in the middle of the school year--not an uncommon situation--they are not able to get anyone into that school to help. So now the English teacher is tasked to teach another subject.
Under NCLB, he or she would then be required to be highly qualified in every subject they teach. So what my legislation would allow is for middle and high school teachers who work in schools with fewer than 200 students and that have difficulty hiring and retaining qualified teachers in these areas to be deemed to be ``highly qualified'' if they have a degree or they pass a rigorous subject matter test in one of the core subjects they teach, as long as they can demonstrate they are highly effective at delivering instruction on a State-developed performance assessment.
We are doing this in the State of Alaska now, where essentially a teacher can demonstrate, through the use of a video, their teaching methodology. But we must recognize we will have situations in our smaller schools, in our rural schools, where in order to be highly qualified in every core subject area they are teaching, we simply are not able to meet that. So we are asking for a level of flexibility for the States.
We recognize it is vital that the teachers know the subjects they teach. This is critical. But it is also unreasonable to expect teachers in these very tiny schools to meet the current requirements in every single subject they may end up teaching. It is almost impossible for school districts to find and then hire such teachers. So this provision is offered as a compromise in these limited situations.
The second area the legislation focuses on is how we determine or how we calculate Adequate Yearly Progress. My legislation would require the U.S. Department of Education to approve a State's use of a growth model for calculating Adequate Yearly Progress if that model meets the core requirements of No Child Left Behind.
Now, we know it can be useful for teachers, certainly for the administrators, to know how one group of third grade students, how one class compares to, say, the next year's class. But it is much more useful for educators, students, and parents to know how well each individual child has mastered each year's State standards.
As a parent, yes, I want to know how my son's class is advancing as a whole. But as a parent, I want to know how he is doing from year to year, not just how his third grade class did and how the next class coming up behind him is going to do. I want to know what it means for me and my child as an individual.
Schools should be held accountable for how well they are addressing each child's needs. Is the child proficient? Is he or she on track to be proficient? Or is he or she falling behind? These are things parents want to know. Are the schools making great progress in bringing all children to great proficiency, or are they maybe just missing the mark, or are they having very systemic difficulties? We know so many of the States now have very robust data systems that will allow them to track this information. NCLB should allow them to use the statistical model that is going to be most useful. It will actually be the best indicator of how each child is doing.
Another area the legislation addresses is the issue of school choice and tutoring. As you know, No Child Left Behind gives parents an opportunity to move their children out of a dysfunctional school. If the school fails to meet AYP 2 years running, then the next choice that is offered the parent is your child can go to another school. In some parts of my State, that is geographically, physically impossible, and we have made accommodations around that. In the more urban school districts in Alaska, what we have found is parents are not choosing, as a general rule, to exercise that option. They are looking for something else. The law requires school districts to offer the school choice and to set aside funds to pay for the transportation in year 2 of improvement status. Then, in year 3, schools are required to offer tutoring if they reach that needs improvement status then.
What I am suggesting in my legislation as to school choice is that moving children in year 2, if we fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress, is too early in the process. Schools should be given the opportunity to address their deficiencies first, addressing them first within the school before they transport the students all over town. I think most parents agree with this. This is why, at least in Alaska, we are seeing fewer than 2 percent of parents choosing to transfer their children to another school. They would rather have those supplemental services offered in the school to see if they can't help address the needs of the child. Then if it still does not work, let's look to the next option.
So my bill would flip the school choice and the tutoring. It would also limit the requirement for schools to offer these options to students who are not proficient rather than to all the children, including those who are being well served by the school. It would also allow the school districts to provide tutoring to students even if they are in improvement status. It is recognizing, again, we should look at the individual child and see if we can't tailor this to make it more responsive.
As you know, assessing whether a child is proficient on State standards in a reliable and valid way is difficult. It is even more difficult when the child has a disability or has limited English
proficiency. Research has not caught up with assessments for these subgroups, and no one is completely sure whether the tests they are giving these students are measuring what they know. Yet, NCLB requires that if a school does not make AYP for any subgroup for 6 years, the school district has the option to completely restructure that school. Similarly, a State has the option to restructure an entire school district.
For those truly dysfunctional schools and districts, that may be appropriate as determined by the individual district or State. But if we do not even know if the assessment scores are valid and reliable, how do we justify taking over a school, firing its teachers, turning its governance over to another entity, or other such drastic measures? We cannot. But we recognize that each child with a disability, and each child who is limited English proficient deserves the best possible education.
So that is why my bill would not allow a school or a school district to be restructured if: No. 1, the school missed AYP for one or both of those subgroups alone; and, No. 2, the school can show through a growth model that the students in those two subgroups are on track to be proficient.
Another area in the legislation we focus on is our Native heritage languages. In Alaska, Hawaii, and several other States, Native Americans are working hard to keep their heritage languages and their cultures alive. Teachers will tell you, and the research backs them up, that Alaskan Native, Native Hawaiian, and American Indian students learn better when their heritage is a respected and vibrant part of their education. This is true of any child, but I think particularly true for these groups of Americans.
Many schools around the country that serve these students have incorporated native language programs into their early curriculums--the curriculums in grades K-3. The problem is that in many instances, there is no valid and reliable way to assess whether the students have learned their State standards in that language. Neither is it valid to test what a student knows in a language they do not speak well.
The example I will give you is that in the Lower Kuskokwim School District, in many of the schools, in an effort to get the children to connect with their education and to connect with their Yupik heritage, Yupik is taught in grades K-3. It is an immersion level program. If you go out there, the children are reading in Yupik. They are doing their math in Yupik. They are doing science experiments in Yupik. But then, in grade 3, they are required to test, under NCLB, in English.
Now, not surprisingly, the children are not doing well on these tests. We need to anticipate the results. If you have not taught a child in a language in which they are going to be tested, perhaps, initially, they are not going to be performing at the level we want.
I want to impress upon my colleagues the importance I believe we should place on allowing for those heritage languages to be preserved, to encourage our students in languages. Our research tells us--and I can tell you from a very personal experience with my two boys, who were part of a Spanish immersion program from the time they were in kindergarten through 8th grade in the public schools in Anchorage, they learned their sciences and math and geography and all their subjects in Spanish as well as English. Initially, you are a little anxious because: Are the test scores going to measure up? But what we can tell you is that by the time the children are being tested, certainly up in middle school, they are not only testing strong--very strong in both languages--but they know a second language very well.
What my legislation will do in this area is allow schools with Native American language programs in States where there is no assessment in that heritage language to count the third graders--the first time they take the standardized tests--to count the students for participation rate only. It would then allow the school to make AYP if those students are proficient or on track to be proficient in grades 4 through 7.
Then, the final area of my legislation is what I am calling the parent piece. As a parent, we know--you know; my colleague from the State of Washington was very involved with education before she came to the Senate as well--we all know as parents how important it is to be involved in our children's education.
At the end of the day, not only did my husband and I check on our boys' homework, we asked them: What happened today? What is going on? I was PTA president at my kids' elementary school.
NCLB recognizes that in many ways it is very important that parents are part of a child's education. But we also recognize we can be doing more. My bill would amend title II of NCLB, which authorizes subgrants for preparing, training, and recruiting teachers and principals, to allow--but not mandate--these funds to be used to develop parental engagement strategies, to train educators to communicate more effectively with parents, and better involve parents in their schools.
We all know how great our Nation's teachers are. But our reality is, very few of them graduate from college having had a course on how to effectively communicate with parents. They know how important it is, but they are taught no techniques. Teachers are busy people. When a parent shows up at a classroom door and says: Hey, I am here to help, teachers often do not know how to react, how to allow them to help. Many teachers have difficulty communicating with parents, who may be working two jobs or have a different cultural background or language. This section of the bill would allow schools to spend some of their teacher training funds on these sorts of issues if they feel it would benefit their students.
I know these five issues are not the only ones my colleagues and Americans may have with the No Child Left Behind Act. I have been talking with Alaskans all over the State about NCLB since I first came to the Senate. I look forward to working very hard on the reauthorization of the law this year with my colleagues. These, though, are the five issues that educators and parents in Alaska have told me are the most urgent for them, and I look forward to working to include them in the reauthorization as we move forward.
I ask unanimous consent that the text of the bill be printed in the RECORD.
There being no objection, the text of the bill was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:
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