Last year, the US Department of Education honored the Kilgore School with a Blue Ribbon Award, designating the Cincinnati public elementary school an example of American public education at its best.
Last week, Kilgore got a very different message. The school so recently at the head of the class was informed of its new status as a failure one of 8,600 public schools in the country judged to be performing so poorly that its students must be allowed to transfer to other schools.
Thus dawns the brave new world of the No Child Left Behind Act, a world in which much of the status quo in public education is about to be turned upside down.
Across the United States, the implications of the law are just starting to be felt at the school level often, as in the case of Kilgore, in dramatic ways. Principals who, until a few weeks ago, were consumed with closing out another school year, are now struggling to understand the new law's requirements. Some of those with schools on the failing list are now bracing for the possibility that large numbers of their students may head elsewhere when school starts in some cases, just a few weeks from now.
Even principals with schools not on that list are staring at batteries of new annual tests, more-rigid hiring requirements, and the need to pay fresh attention to struggling subgroups of students.
The new law's advocates call it a wake-up call designed to force accountability and improvement on schools by 2014, when all schools must meet the goal of academic proficiency for every student. The measures, they argue, offer concrete benchmarks for success and immediate options for those in struggling schools. Its detractors are labeling it an unrealistic piece of legislation.
Beyond that debate, however, bewilderment is growing among those on the front lines principals, superintendents, and teachers at schools that have struggled hard to make improvements and still are being hit with punitive measures.
"The system will be jolted in the fall, and this is just the first in a series of shocks that will be administered to the public schools," says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington, D.C. "The President and the Congress meant to shock the schools."
Heavy reliance on test scores is just one factor already producing some odd results.
For example, more than 1,400, or about a third, of all Michigan schools are now considered to be failing though not one school in Arkansas has received that designation. A Kentucky elementary school that boosted its test scores by 20 percent last year is also classified as a failing school on the basis of earlier test results.
A key factor can be that schools must now demonstrate that all children are succeeding. If any one group from low-income families, minority students, special- education students, or limited-English students tests poorly for two years, that school is labeled a failure. That principle was applied as part of the Texas school reform initiative, and many applaud it as a tough but fair method of policing a system that tends to favor the affluent.
But the speed with which these sanctions are moving into place is one of the touchiest points of the new law. The dramatic reversal for the Kilgore school which already outperformed many other schools with similar demographics comes from the new law's insistence that no child will in fact be left behind, either through low test scores or a failure to improve.
Another frustration is the reliance on 1998-2000 test scores, which fail to account for recent improvement. In addition, determining failure relies heavily on varying state standards. States like Michigan, which adopted more ambitious standards, therefore, will now have to deal with larger numbers of "failing" schools.
The failure designation hurts because affected districts will have not only to allow students to transfer but also to pay their transportation costs. Those same districts may also have to worry about seeing their best schools swamped by new attendees. Even here, however, the application of the law will be uneven. Districts in which the best schools are already too crowded may be freed from any such obligation.
Failing schools will also have to offer to pay for tutoring or other academic services for the students that remain, creating a further drain on resources.
Not everyone believes the transfer issue will create massive problems. Some districts already have school choice, and others doubt parents will make such changes in large numbers.
"Parents are not going to take their children to an unknown school in an unfamiliar neighborhood," says Sheldon Benardo, principal of P.S. 86 in New York's Bronx neighborhood, who has already sent letters to the parents of his pupils informing them of their right to transfer.
And some systems insist they'll be ready for the challenge. "We've had considerable discussion and planning, and I think we will be prepared," says Marilyn Johnson, general counsel of the Chicago public school system, where at least 260 elementary schools will be affected.
Other districts simply say overcrowding will make it more or less impossible to comply with transfer requests.
Many educators say the adjustments they are currently making are onerous. But some warn that they pale in comparison with what lies ahead.
For instance, some districts that already have trouble attracting teachers may find it nearly impossible to comply with provisions that all teachers must be "highly qualified" by 2005. For states with tight budgets, the need to have a statewide testing system in place that same year may prove a heavy burden. "We like the bill," says Peter McWalters, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Rhode Island. "But this is a resource issue."
Some educators are simply concerned that certain students can't respond quickly enough. "We receive kids at all kinds of levels. We get kids who've been kept out of school for five years, and immediately we're supposed to bring them up to state standards?" asks Douglas Williams, superintendent of Perry Township, a half-urban, half-suburban district that curves around Indianapolis.
The requirement that the job be done so quickly, says Mr. Williams, is like telling President Bush, " 'Look, you eradicate every terrorist from the face of the earth in the next couple of years, or we'll get rid of you.' "
Eliminating terrorists and raising standards are praiseworthy goals, Perry says, "and they're exactly what we should be shooting for. But you just can't do it in that period of time."
The basic problem with No Child Left Behind is that it was written by legislators a group who "wouldn't know a school if they fell over it on the sidewalk," says Richard Elmore, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
The law sets target dates for improvement but never really tells schools especially those struggling with high poverty rates, shortages of qualified teachers, and limited resources how to make that improvement. "The law takes a 'and then a miracle happens' position," says Professor Elmore. "The provisions of the law are way ahead of the capacity on the ground."
But that's not necessarily a negative, argues Rick Hess, assistant professor of education and politics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, when dealing with a system that has always proved highly resistant to change.
"You can take the incrementalist tack," he says, "or throw the ball farther down the field and assume everybody's going to adjust."
The thinking, he says, was that "there is a window of opportunity. They made a calculated decision to go for what they could get."
But when it comes to details like determining which schools will be willing to begin taking children from failing schools this fall, "I haven't heard anywhere near enough conversation," says Kathy Christie, vice president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Nobody's really prepared for this." However, she points out, "you have to start somewhere."
Students in schools that have performed poorly for two years may move to another school (about 8,600 schools qualify).
Teachers hired with Title I money (targeted at poor schools) must be "highly qualified," meaning they either have a degree in the field they teach or have passed a state exam.
Paraprofessionals and aides hired with Title I money must either have at least two years of college or have passed a state exam.
Title I schools must inform all parents if their child is taught for more than four weeks by an unqualified teacher.
All schools must have annual assessments of students with limited English, and biennial use of the NAEP (a national test) in math and reading for a sample of 4th- through 8th-graders.
States must distribute annual report cards assessing their schools.
Districts must deliver annual local report cards.
2003: All schools failing to show improvement for two years must allow their students to transfer to another school.
Parents with children in schools that have performed poorly for two years may request $300-1,000 in Title I funding to provide their child with a tutor or other supplemental educational services.
2004: All paraprofessionals and aides in all schools must either have two years of college or have passed a state exam.
2005: All teachers must be highly qualified (i.e., have a degree in the field they teach or have passed a state exam).
2005: States must test all students each year in grades 3 to 8 in reading and math, and at least once for grades 10 to 12.
2007: States must test all students in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school.
2013-2014 school year: All schools, districts, and states must be making "adequate yearly progress" towards having all their students proficient in reading and math.
Two years of failure: Students can transfer, and the school must receive technical assistance from the district.
Three years of failure: Students can use Title I money for tutoring and other supplemental educational services.
Four years of failure: The school must do one of the following: replace school staff relevant to the failure; implement new curriculum including professional development; significantly decrease management authority at the school level; appoint an outside expert to advise the school; extend the school year or day; or restructure the school
Five years of failure: The school must significantly alter its governance method by allowing a state takeover; hiring a private management company, or converting to a charter school.
Sources: US Dept. of Education; Center on Education Policy