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Schools want answers on No Child Left Behind

Oregon educators, including Ashland's superintendent, want answers to the many unanswered questions they have about the state's application for a waiver to the No Child Left Behind law.

Oregon turned in its application Monday, weeks before a Feb. 21 deadline, and also before addressing the concerns of educators.

"They're supposed to be taking our questions into account before they turn it in," said Terri Dahl, Medford schools' supervisor of federal programs.

Dahl said that during a webinar last month, she learned that Oregon school districts had posed 350 questions to the state, and had expected answers before the waiver application was turned in.

A draft of the waiver, which would exempt the state from parts of the one-size-fits-all regulations of NCLB, was released to the public for comments Dec. 20.

"They're not giving us a clear picture about the funding," said Dahl, who had many concerns herself about the waiver application.

Ashland schools Superintendent Juli Di Chiro agreed with Dahl that there are many uncertainties about what changes the proposal will bring. She also questioned how school districts — especially small and medium-sized districts — would be able handle extra duties that may come with those changes.

"My primary concern," Di Chiro said, " is that while philosophically, a lot of what they propose, I agree with . . . I have a great concern about the capacity for districts to respond.

Di Chiro noted that the process would require new standards with "multiple measurements" of both teacher effectiveness and student achievement. That, she said, will be a difficult task for districts that have been cutting budgets for years.

Di Chiro noted that the Ashland district no longer has a curriculum director, who previously would have been expected to manage projects such as implementing new measurements. She said the task would be even more daunting for Oregon's many small districts that have skeletal administrative staffs.

"It's great work, and probably work we should be doing," she said, "but I don't know if every district in the state of Oregon has the capacity to do that."

In addition to recognizing schools that make large improvements, Oregon would also identify schools that typically have high test scores but aren't making improvements.

Dahl said that while the proposed waiver has some strong ideas that would correct many of the flaws of NCLB, the changes are vague, and the implementation is unclear.

President Obama announced in September that states would have the opportunity to request an exemption from many of the rigors of NCLB, including the requirement that 100 percent of students achieve proficiency in federal math and reading standards by 2014 .

Oregon's 112-page waiver application shares many similarities with Colorado's waiver, which has already been approved by the U.S. Department of Education.

Colorado and Oregon asked to replace strict NCLB benchmarks with growth models, which would detail schools' improvement, or lack of, rather than whether they meet certain minimum standards each year.

The Medford School District was labeled as "needs improvement" for the second time this year, with 12 of the district's 21 schools failing to make adequate yearly progress scores, even though they had made improvements over previous reports.

Dahl said that with No Child Left Behind's benchmarks, some schools or populations of students would make improvements that wouldn't be acknowledged.

"They would have growth, but still feel like failures," said Dahl. "They would cover so much ground, but still not meet grade-level benchmarks."

If the current waiver application is approved, schools will be labeled as model, focus or priority, a range of most to least successful. The staff of model schools would be teamed up with struggling priority schools to share their best practice knowledge.

Additional specialists and outside agencies would work with struggling schools, but how everything would be funded isn't spelled out in the waiver, according to Dahl.

"We don't have all the details, so we can't judge the waiver," said Dahl.

Oregon is one of 12 states that has applied for the waiver; 27 more are expected to apply by the February deadline.

Oregon should know by late March whether the waiver request is approved, and would likely implement the changes in the 2012-13 school year.

Reach reporter Teresa Ristow at 541-776-4459 or tristow@mailtribune.com.