School administrators, teachers and others from the area voiced little praise and much concern about the federal No Child Left Behind law Thursday night in Bemidji.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's staff members Joe Campbell, outreach director, and Andy Martin, regional director, held a forum on NCLB at Bemidji High School.
The senator's staff is holding a series of forums this spring around the state to get Minnesotans' thoughts on NCLB, which is up for reauthorization by Congress this year.
"I want to hear what you like, what you don't like, what you think needs to be changed," said Klobuchar, DFL-Minn., in a statement recorded on video.
The senator said NCLB was intended to improve the performance of schools by increasing accountability for states, school districts and schools.
"It has done some good things," she said. "There have been some improved scores."
However, Klobuchar said, it also has been an underfunded mandate that often seems designed to penalize schools and students rather than support them.
At the forum, a panel of three Bemidji School District staff members offered comments.
Superintendent Jim Hess, one of the panel members, said the federal government must determine its role in education.
"The federal government needs to decide what it really wants to do," he said.
While about 97 percent of the rules facing the school district come from the federal government, most of the school district's revenue is from local taxes and the state, Hess said.
"I think it's way out of balance," he said.
Hess said No Child Left Behind "hasn't worked well for us." He said, for example, NCLB has flattened curriculum and taken some of the joy out of teaching and learning.
"We need to substantially revise it or start over again," Hess said.
Another panel member, Kathy Palm, director of curriculum and administrative services, offered a list of positive features of NCLB and a longer list of areas that need improvement.
Among the positive features, she said, are the emphasis on accountability, on examining assessment data for all subgroups of students and on having highly qualified teachers and paraprofessionals.
Also, Palm said she agrees with some revisions proposed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. For example, she said she agrees with his proposal for improved state assessment and data systems.
On the "needs improvement" side, Palm said NCLB leads to a negative perception of public schools by the public.
Among other concerns, she said NCLB is not consistent from state to state for the size of subgroups or the difficulty of state tests.
Special education participation is also a concern, she said. She said the federal government allows 3 percent of special education students to take an alternative assessment, but the state only allows 1 percent.
Meredith Kehoe, language arts and reading teacher at Bemidji Middle School, also was a member of the panel. She represented the Bemidji Education Association.
All the time spent in school preparing for standardized tests takes away from other valuable classroom experiences, Kehoe said.
She added that education shouldn't fall completely on the shoulders of schools, but there needs to be community and family involvement.
Several others shared their thoughts at the forum, including Bemidji School Board member Ann Long Voelkner, who said she sees a number of fatal flaws in NCLB.
She said NCLB is an unfunded mandate. Also, she said, what happens with NCLB is that school staff and students become political fodder.
She added that she challenges the federal government to create federal standards so that all children's success is consistently measured across the nation.
Paula Brown, a sixth-grade teacher at Cass Lake-Bena Middle School, read a letter from the members of the Cass Lake Education Association.
Since the inception of NCLB, the Cass Lake-Bena School District and the CLEA have "worked diligently to meet the federal standards" and student performance has improved every year, "but it has not been enough to satisfy all areas of the law," the letter states.