Original URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/19/education/19EDUC.html?ex=1046670949&ei=1&e

Defining Success in Narrow Terms

 February 19, 2003


 THE students, the parents, the teachers at Gonzales Elementary thought they had a terrific school. Though the mostly Mexican-American student body is very poor (83 percent receive free lunches), though Spanish is the first language of half the children, though many are migrants and the school's annual mobility rate is 29 percent, though they live in a drab little town that smells of blood from the nearby meat-packing plant, they are proud of their handsome school.

 The campus is modern and well kept. A tank of tropical fish decorates the entryway. There are many sports and clubs to pick from: Odyssey of the Mind, a history research club, band, chorus, yearbook, the principal's math club.

 The school has a gifted program, and though Arizona ranks near the bottom in education spending and does not pay for basics like kindergarten, local residents passed a special tax so their children would have kindergarten, too, same as the rich. To these first- and second-generation immigrant families, Gonzales represented America's generosity: a free breakfast program, an after-school program and a health clinic, with a dental clinic soon to be added.

 In a recent survey, 88 percent of parents gave the school an A or B. They love their principal, Jim Paxinos, an Anglo who speaks Spanish, works 12-hour days, lives nearby and learned his profession the hard way, teaching in inner city Phoenix. In that survey, 94 percent of teachers gave Mr. Paxinos high marks for leadership.

 "He'll do whatever it takes," said Zulema Carter, a first-grade teacher. "I had a broken bookshelf; he fixed

 Average attendance has climbed to 97 percent from 93 percent in Mr. Paxinos's six years at the school; discipline referrals fell by half.

 Ms. Carter has first graders with parents in prison, students who sleep four to a bed, children who don't know what she means when she mentions a trip to the zoo, and so she understands how great these accomplishments are. On national and state tests that measure a student's yearly academic progress, this poor school scores above average. Last year, 77 percent of students made at least a year's growth in reading and 75 percent made a year's growth in math, compared with a state average of 73 percent on each.

 "That tells me we're doing our job," Mr. Paxinos said. "In a year, most students are getting a year's worth of education."

 The state's education commissioner, Tom Horne, a conservative Republican, agrees that is an excellent way to assess a school, but under the No Child Left Behind Act signed by President Bush last year, states cannot rate schools this way. The federal law says a school must be judged solely on how much the student body improves on math and English competency tests. The fact that 100 transient students may have been at Gonzales Elementary just a few months when they take the tests is not a mitigating factor. It's the school's fault if they score low. Nor does it matter that hundreds have serious deficiencies in English. If teachers can't get new arrivals fluent by test time, blame the school.

 Unfortunately, last year the fifth grade did not make adequate progress on the state competency exams. And that's all it takes under this great new federal law. So Mr. Paxinos and his teachers, who should be up for sainthood, instead had their school labeled "underperforming," and by next fall, in all likelihood, it will be labeled "failing" under the new federal law.

 What happens to a hard-working principal at a school that the government has decided is failing? A nightmare worthy of Kafka.

 Last October, principals at Arizona's 275 "underperforming" schools (19 percent of the state's schools) were summoned to Phoenix for an audience with the state bureaucracy. "They told us the law requires us to submit a school improvement plan," Mr. Paxinos recalled. "One principal asked, `Who will evaluate the plan?' The woman from the state laughed. She said, `We don't have the resources.' "

 But Mr. Paxinos is determined. It took him six weeks, working six hours a night, to produce a 120-page report that supplied all the statistics and covered all the questions that the law needs answered. Of course, he got no help from the state. Arizona, like most other states, has a huge deficit and is cutting education financing.

 Nor did the federal government help with his report. The president needs $380 billion for a colossal military budget, he needs to cut taxes to jump-start the economy. Though the new federal law calls for up to $18 billion to assist schools this year, the president has budgeted $12 billion.

 Last month, Mr. Paxinos drove a half-hour to Phoenix to deliver his report. "I went to state education, fourth floor. I said, `Here's my improvement plan.' I wanted a stamped receipt. The first person says, `You know, I'm not sure where it goes.' She had to ask three others - `You know I'm not sure where it goes.' " After 15 minutes, someone agreed to take it.

 The law requires a public hearing so parents will be informed about their "underperforming" school. Mr. Paxinossent letters home with his 820 children. Two parents came to the hearing. When I asked Ruth Ramirez, a parent, why, she said: "Failing school? I love this school."

 To his credit, Mr. Horne, who became state education superintendent last month, was upset when he heard there was no one to read the improvement plans. So he hired 10 retired teachers to evaluate the plans. That will be roughly 27 120-page reports per evaluator.

 Sad to say, there is no money to have the evaluators actually visit the schools before critiquing the plans. But who cares? That's the beauty of the No Child Left Behind Act. All that matters anyway is a school's performance on one test per year. It's perfect for politicians and bureaucrats in Phoenix and Washington who are far too busy to leave their offices and spend a day at a real school.