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Paper Chase

NCLB comes with a lot of requirements, from student tests to teacher qualifications, and districts a

Iowa is not known for its mountains, but don't tell that to Juli Kwikkel. Kwikkel is an elementary principal in the rural district of Storm Lake, in the northwestern part of the state. And she is spending more time than she'd like facing the rising peaks of NCLB-required paperwork.

Now that the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is marking its second birthday and all 50 states have filed plans for meeting its requirements, the real work is beginning for school administrators, like Kwikkel. And a lot of that work is paperwork--from gathering and analyzing student data to tracking mandatory teacher development to applying for NCLB-related grants.

In the case of Storm Lake, a substantial meat packing industry means that many of the district's students are minorities, do not speak English, and are transient.

"Last year, with the 800 kids in our four elementary schools, we had 250 move in and out," explains Kwikkel. She is responsible for two of those schools. "With NCLB, you have to show where students came from, how long they've been in your district, what their ethnicity is, what their socioeconomic status is, how long your school year is. And we have to do it for the different subgroups in our schools--boys, girls, white males, Hispanic males, Asian females.

"If they don't grow in their achievement, then you get red-flagged. We have a person in the central office who works with data, and all she does is follow these subgroups as they go through the system."

Type A's Required

The central office also has bulked up in order to track the heightened teacher development mandated by NCLB. And when Kwikkel recently applied for a Reading First grant under NCLB, she and the district's other elementary principal had to digest a 222-page pre-application--and then spend 10 days of their own time writing the grant and generating the necessary documentation.

Storm Lake is not alone in its paper chase. In Troy, Michigan, the12,000 public school students speak 80 languages, 15 percent of them qualify for ESL programs, and there are high numbers of Asian and Arabic minorities. And while this suburban student body scores high on state tests, charting and analyzing their progress has taken extra time and resources.

"In a high-achieving district like Troy, we've done a lot of things that NCLB is asking us anyway," says Steve Matthews, the director of curriculum and staff development. "But we've never had to write it up and keep track in a substantial and significant way."

"With NCLB, the devil's in the details," adds Bob Greene, the district's director of evaluation and research. "Every school really needs to pay attention to finding missing data and updating student records.

It's not that we've been sloppy in the past, but under NCLB, the stakes are higher and the information needs to be absolutely correct for 12,000 students, in our case.

"For instance, I have to spend time with my ESL teachers making sure that their data accurately reflects who is in ESL, who exited, what their primary language is, and what their test scores were that either let them get into or exit ESL."

But Greene and Matthew's jobs have been made easier by several computerized programs that manage their record keeping and reporting. Michigan's Single Record Student Database, to which Troy's own student database connects, tracks individual student information and disaggregates it into all of the subgroups identified by NCLB.

"Every student has one record, with all program codes, all ethnic information, and all test scores from state assessments, and they are followed wherever they go," Matthews explains. The state system also measures and reports the Adequate Yearly Progress of Troy's 19 schools, as required by NCLB.

Matthews has also been using an Internet-based program for managing the professional growth of Troy's faculty, a process that has become more daunting under the new NCLB definitions of "high quality teachers" and "high quality teacher development." The new software, called The KALPA Professional Development Manager, lets teachers plan their own professional development and lets administrators monitor them--all without the long paper trails of the past.

Teachers browse and register electronically for courses and workshops. Principals use their own computers to check what individual teachers have registered for, when they attended, and the credit hours they received. The software also indicates whether that credit meets the "high quality" criteria of NCLB.

"There was a person whose only job was to sit there and take phone calls from teachers so they could sign up for courses. And every time they wanted to change their schedule or cancel, they had to call this one person," remembers Patrick Frenzel, the director of operations for KALPA Learning Systems, which is based in Troy and has found customers over the past two years in 18 Michigan schools districts. It costs these districts about $18,000 to get started and almost $5,000 annually to run the Professional Development Manager, expenses that Matthews is willing to pay.

"This is a much cleaner way to see whether teachers have met the 30-hour annual requirement in Michigan," he says. "It can report what they have done by category. The principal and the superintendent, and eventually the state and federal government, can see the results."

Matthews pushes a button on his keyboard and brings up a list of teachers who have logged fewer than 10 hours. "As a principal, I also can note that I have to talk to these people," he explains. "It's a much faster way for principals to see the big picture."

"The more we can streamline these processes," adds Frenzel, "not only do we save money, but we free up the district's resources, particularly the teachers, to spend time doing paperwork and preparing for class."

Going Electric

In Illinois, the State Board of Education is piloting a Web-based solution to solve another paperwork headache. It's called the eGrant Management System, and it promises to take the paper out of grant writing, the errors out of the mathematical calculations involved, and the waiting out of the application and approval process. The eGMS--which will cost close to $4 million to implement--will launch more widely later this year so that Illinois schools can use it for the consolidated entitlement grants under NCLB in time for the 2005 fiscal year. In coming years, the system will expand to target NCLB's competitive grants as well as non-NCLB grants.

"We have a very sophisticated grant design tool that goes against a repository of questions," says Dennis Powell, the eGMS project manager. "So we can pull those questions out of the repository and build our grants on the fly. There are a lot of complicated processes, such as Title I targeting, which have all kinds of mathematics involved in it. We were able to automate that, and what would take school superintendents weeks to play around with, now they can do in a matter of minutes. It's beautiful."

Taking the technological approach to paperwork reduction is taking root around the country. Powell points to other eGrant systems in Missouri and Pennsylvania, with another on the way in Nebraska. KALPA Learning Systems, meanwhile, is eyeing states such as Ohio, Texas, Virginia and Indiana, for which it could adapt its Professional Development Manager.

And according to a new study by the National Center for Educational Accountability, 21 states are now managing student data and performance, as Michigan does, with a single "identifier" that reduces mistaken or missing information and keeps track of students that have moved. Chrys Dougherty, NCEA's research director, adds that 11 more states are in the process of building such systems. And he sees an opportunity to go beyond what NCLB is asking, all in the name of a greater educational good.

"With NCLB, the devil's in the details. Every school needs to pay attention to finding missing data and updating student records. The stakes are higher and the information needs to be absolutely correct." -Bob Greene, Troy, Mich.

"No Child Left Behind says to follow students back through the fall of the school year," Dougherty says. "The kind of system that you really want will follow them back through multiple years.

This is information schools should be pulling together anyway in order to improve what they are doing.

It's going to be one of the greatest positive long-term impacts of the act."

Still, all the technological improvements to meet NCLB's mandates have come with a hefty bill that individual states and districts have had to foot. Back in Storm Lake, Iowa, elementary principal Kwikkel says that her financially strapped district simply could not afford to buy professional development software or popular student database systems such as SASI and Pentamation.

"Basically it's an unfunded mandate," says Illinois' Powell of NCLB's data-gathering requirement. "And it's very expensive. There will be some cost benefits from going to this system over time. But when you start talking about spending three-and-half or four million dollars on a system that hasn't been proven, that's a leap of faith."

Some financial relief may be on the way if $80 million designated for states to improve student databases remains in the fiscal 2004 appropriations bill currently being negotiated between the U.S. House and Senate.

Ron Schachter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass.