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Staff photo by Don Himsel

President Obama, Nashua, February 2, 2010Staff photo by Don Himsel

Judy Loftus asks President Barack Obama about No Child Left Behind at Tuesday's town hall meeting at Nashua High School North. Loftus is a teacher in the Careers in Education department at Nashua High School South.
Thursday, February 4, 2010

City teacher among 6 Obama questioners

Michael Brindley

President Barack Obama can expect a follow-up letter from Judy Loftus.

At the town hall-style event in the Nashua High School North gymnasium, Loftus was one of six people chosen from the audience to ask a question. Loftus, a teacher in the careers in education program at Nashua High School South, was sitting on the stage behind Obama and said she had no idea he’d be calling on her. She asked a two-part question.

“First of all, what are you going to do about No Child Left Behind?” Loftus asked Obama on Tuesday. “As an educator, I’ve seen the impact of that in my school and it hasn’t been a positive impact. We’re focused more on testing and worrying about test scores than what’s right for kids.”

Obama said he would want to keep the accountability aspect of the law. He hopes to ensure that student progress is being accounted for instead of simply measuring all schools with the same set of benchmarks. It’s important to realize that not all students are starting from the same point, he said.

“We’re trying to find ways we can improve the assessment system so we’re still holding schools accountable, and we’re still holding teachers accountable, but we’re not just holding them accountable for a score on a standardized test,” Obama said.

Loftus, who has been teaching for 21 years, said she wanted to hear from Obama that the focus would be moving away from standardized testing, not just changing the tests that are given. She plans on following up with a letter to the president. She just hopes he remembers who she is, she said, joking.

“He needs to know about the impact of standardized testing,” Loftus said, shortly after leaving the town hall-style forum Tuesday. “He’s looking to make modifications, but what I’m seeing happening in the schools is we’re still worried about test scores. I’m worried that need for accountability and the drive to meet some accountability is impacting the classrooms.”

No Child Left Behind, the signature education law of the George W. Bush administration, was enacted in 2001 and implemented an accountability system, measuring school progress based on test scores in reading and math. The law, formally called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, has been up for reauthorization since 2007, but Obama has said he will push for an overhaul of the law this year.

Obama told Loftus that he met with his administration recently to talk about their proposals for changes to the law, which has been a thorn in the side of educators who argue that it forces them to teach to the test.

In his response, Obama played to the middle, saying that the left will always argue for more money, while the right will call for taking the bureaucracy and teachers unions out of the equation.

“We need more money, but we need to spend the money wisely and we need to institute reforms that raise standards,” he said.

Obama also touted his Race to the Top initiative, which he said “carved out a little bit of money” from his federal stimulus package and asked states to show they are working to implement certain reforms to get a piece of that money. That “little bit of money” is actually $4.35 billion (that’s in the context of a $787 billion stimulus package).

It wasn’t clear whether Obama realized he was speaking in a school district where the teachers union had recently chosen not to sign on in support of the Race to the Top application. The union cited concerns about lack of clarity over how student performance would be factored into teacher evaluations.

The school district moved forward with its application, which was included as part of the proposal that New Hampshire submitted last month.

Loftus said she was part of the union discussion about not signing on. Her concerns were whether teachers would be evaluated on student performance, but not taking into account the wide disparity of backgrounds that students are coming from. Some schools are more diverse than others in terms of race and income levels, she said.

“It’s hard to look at that without having an idea of how do you measure accountability,” she said.

As the second part of her question, Loftus asked Obama about what he plans to do to make sure people graduating from college but going into low-income professions like teaching will be able to afford to pay back their student loans.

“They’re working, as many teachers in Nashua are, two jobs to make ends meet to pay their student loans,” Loftus told Obama.

Obama told Loftus about his plan to reduce required payments of student loans to 10 percent, from 15 percent and for lowering the threshold for when student loans are forgiven, from 25 years down to 20 years. Loans would be forgiven for people working in public service after 10 years, which would include teachers, he said.

“You won’t go bankrupt if you decide to go college but what it also says is you can make the choice for the lower salary but greater fulfillment,” Obama said.

Obama went on to explain how he expected to pay for the proposal, eliminating the banks and financial institutions that act as the “middle man” when guaranteeing federal loans, and using the savings for the program.

Loftus said she was glad to see Obama was addressing the issue of student loans and was satisfied with his response.

And she was glad to hear the president talk about education, even if she had to ask the question.

“I was sitting there,” she said, “looking around in a gym in a school with all these teachers, and nobody asked anything about education.”

The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or mbrindley@nashuatelegraph.com.