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Education secretary finds few fans in bid to shore up support for No Child Left Behind
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U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige found more fans in this group of Minneapolis children than he did among adults during a visit to shore up support for the No Child Left Behind Law. (MPR Photo/Laura McCallum)
U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige visited Minnesota on Thursday, the second time in two months he's come to the state to promote the federal No Child Left Behind Law. Paige says the federal government is trying to respond to states' concerns about the law. His comments didn't satisfy some teachers and school officials, who say the law is causing many problems for schools.

Minneapolis, Minn. — The stated purpose of Paige's visit was to announce that Minneapolis is one of 10 cities that will participate in a No Child Left Behind summer reading program. Paige handed out free books at Lyndale Community School in Minneapolis, and read to a group of Lyndale students, who were fascinated by Paige and his entourage.

Aside from encouraging kids to read, Paige was also here to bolster support for No Child Left Behind. The two-year-old law requires increased student testing, and calls for the identification of schools whose students aren't making adequate yearly progress in reading and math skills.

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Image "No" to standardized testing

The law has sparked criticism around the country, and in Minnesota, some lawmakers have proposed opting out of the law's requirements. An opt-out provision is included in a spending bill the Minnesota Senate passed last week.

Paige sat down with parents, teachers and school district officials to discuss their concerns, and No Child Left Behind dominated the discussion. Lyndale Community School was on the list of underperforming schools in 2002, but made it off the list last year.

Ruth Woods, who teaches English as a second language, says half of Lyndale's students are not fluent in English. She says asking them to take standardized tests is not appropriate.

"We need to focus our energy on having these students learn basic vocabulary, communication skills, reading. It's a waste of their time and ours to have to prepare them for a test that they are unable to successfully complete," she said.

Woods says being labeled as a "failing school" is demoralizing for students and teachers. Paige told Woods that he doesn't use the phrase "failing school." He says the law identifies schools that need improvement. Paige says the federal government is responding to concerns raised by teachers and school officials around the country. He says when he visited Minnesota two months ago, the superintendent of Virginia told him that one of the law's requirements didn't make sense for many rural districts.

"She had a compelling story about how one of the regulations was making her life difficult," Paige said. "Well, we want her to succeed. So I went back, and I talked to our staff about it, our policy people, I brought together our legal people to say, is there any flexibility we can help with this? ... And as a result of that, we were able to announce a policy shift that brought some relief and some flexibility to that person."

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Image "The worst legislation..."

Paige says most of the concerns have involved testing students with limited English proficiency, requiring that 95 percent of students take tests and teacher training. He says confusion over the law is understandable, because No Child Left Behind is a major departure from the way the federal government has approached education in the past.

"I think it's the single worst piece of federal legislation written in my adult lifetime," according to Minneapolis interim superintendent David Jennings.

Jennings says he considers the law federal intrusion in K-12 education.

"I just don't think it's possible for them to make a one-size-fits-all law that helps Minnesota. They can't make 50 different laws for 50 different states. So if you happen to be a state like Minnesota with high standards, when they pass a law that works for everybody, it has a tendency to equalize us down," he said.

Jennings also considers No Child Left Behind an unfunded mandate. Paige says President Bush has recommended a $1 billion increase in education funding this year, and has proposed similar increases the last three years.

"The president needs to be given credit, for the fact that he has been very aggressive with funding for education despite all these other challenges for money," he said.

U.S. Senator Mark Dayton sent Paige a letter, pointing out that Minnesota will receive nearly $3 million less in federal funding for low-income students next year. He says that creates a significant challenge for many Minnesota school districts, and should have been addressed when the education secretary was announcing the summer reading program.

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