Fears That Children Will "Slip Back Into the Shadows"

Like many educators, Craig Gfeller doesn't like every provision in federal education law.

But as principal of a high-poverty school in the exurbs of Washington, D.C., he considers a couple of them critical for his students.

  • Annual assessment to see if students meet state reading, math, and science standards with accompanying public reports of how all students do, including student groups such as African American students, low-income students, and students with disabilities.
  • The requirement that, if a group of students in a school fails year after year, the state must have some kind of plan to fix that.

Without those provisions, he says, "minority children and children of poverty will slip back into the shadows."

Gfeller worries that when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (otherwise known as No Child Left Behind) is reauthorized by Congress, the accountability provisions might be loosened. If so, he said, it will once again be easy for a school or district to boast about its overall performance and ignore failing kids.

This was, after all, the situation for many years. Only since the era of what are called "disaggregated data" have we been able to see clearly how very deep some of our educational divides are, and that even in high-performing schools and districts, some students do terribly.

In his 11th year as a school administrator, Gfeller knows how some schools and districts ignore the educational needs of poor children and children of color. "Few people expect our kids to do it," he says, meaning achieve high standards.

Gfeller is now finishing up his third year as principal of high-poverty West Gate Elementary School in relatively affluent and high-performing Prince William County, Virginia. When he arrived, West Gate was one of the lower performing schools in the state and district.

To give you a sense of how the school was doing, almost twice as many of the school's fifth-graders failed to meet math standards in 2011-12 as in the district (51 percent compared with 28 percent). And three times as many of the school's fifth-graders failed to meet state reading standards (36 percent compared with 12 percent).

Gfeller says it is easy for some to explain such low performance as the result of student characteristics. Many of his students are the children of recent immigrants who work at low-wage jobs; more than 90 percent of his students qualify for the federal free and reduced-price meal program and two-thirds are learning English.

His school still has a ways to go, but last year -- Gfeller's second year as principal - West Gates' fifth-graders met math standards a tiny bit below the rate of the rest of the district (74 percent compared with 78 percent). Reading was below (67 percent compared with 77 percent) but still represented huge progress. It was so much progress, in fact, that Virginia Gov. Terry McCauliffe recently visited to see for himself. (Click here to see a video of his visit.) "West Gate is an excellent example of what can be done," McCauliffe said after the visit.

What made the difference in those two years? A whole lot of things, beginning with a school-wide plan for how to encourage good behavior among students and an intense focus on instruction through regular meetings of teachers and administrators who studied state standards and figured out what they needed to do to help students meet them. One teacher said that when they began studying the standards, "I couldn't believe [students] had to do this; and now I think it's so easy."

But, Gfeller says, what gave him the structure within which he was able to make those changes were the assessment and accountability systems in federal education law. They were part of what created the sense of urgency within the state and the district and allowed him to make the changes he did.

"Without them," he said, his school "[would] not be a blip on anyone's radar."