ISBE Banner
State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips - March 4 - 11, 2005

TOP OF PAGE

STATE 
Illinois cuts testing on 1 of 3 R’s – ISAT drops writing, plus social studies / Chicago Tribune 
South suburbs rep dropped from education funding board / Daily Southtown
State pension plan hits key campaign donors / Daily Herald
No Child Left Behind election issue / Daily Herald
Schools' financial gains questioned / Chicago Tribune
Funds to be raided named / State Journal-Register
Tax reform advocate promotes school funding bill / Quincy Herald-Whig
Mayor dangles home discounts for teachers / Chicago Sun-Times
Police say girl brought gun, ammo to Aurora school, showed others / Chicago Sun-Times

NATIONAL
SAT's English Focus Worries Students  / Washington Post
'No child' law/Earth to feds: Fix the flaws
/ Minneapolis Star Tribune
South Beach' a hot lunch? / Chicago Tribune
Police: Teacher let kids make drug equipment / Peoria Journal Star
How do the new teachers measure up? / Christian Science Monitor
Kansas to hold six days of hearings over evolution / USA Today
First Lady's Initiative Aimed At Providing Stability for Youths / Washington Post
Schools moving to rid mercury from labs / USA Today
Building a better SAT? Yale psychologist thinks he's done it / San Diego Union-Tribune
State seeks White House commitment on No Child / Provo Daily Herald (UT)
State ban on paddling unruly students not yet approved / Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Bill would help public school students go to private schools / St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Ex-superintendent admits losing school's $844,478 on gambling / Kansas City Star
Schools spread their news quickly with giant phone networks / Sacramento Bee
Private firms, cash crunch drive out driver's ed / Detroit News
Texas school chief risks funds in feud with feds / Houston Chronicle
Despite ads, Detroit can't lure students / Detroit Free Press
Kentucky passes exercise, nutrition bill / Boston Globe
Md. teen protests foreign language Pledge / Boston Globe

FROM "EDUCATION WEEK"
Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools
‘First Things First’ Shows Promising Results
Texas Stands Behind Own Testing Rule
Minn. Students’ Anti-War Effort Fuels Web Rumors
Calif. School Workers Compete to Lose Weight
Education Department Tracks Growth in Distance Learning
Utah Legislators Delay Action on NCLB Bill
The Virtual Stage

TOP OF PAGE

STATE

Illinois cuts testing on 1 of 3 R’s – ISAT drops writing, plus social studies
By Diane Rado, March 11, 2005

For the first time in more than a decade, Illinois students no longer have to take substantive writing exams or tests measuring their knowledge of fundamental principles of U.S. government and history--the result of some of the most severe state testing cutbacks in the nation.

The cuts are playing out this week, as hundreds of thousands of grade school children take the Illinois Standards Achievement Test used to judge school progress.

The state's 3rd, 5th and 8th graders are taking only reading and math tests, and 4th and 7th graders are taking only science tests. Next month, high school juniors will take pared-down exams in reading, writing and math, the only tests required under the No Child Left Behind federal education reforms.

Wiped out is a writing test that dates to 1990 and was being given to 3rd, 5th, 8th and 11th graders, and a social studies exam for 4th, 7th and 11th graders, first instituted in 1993. Test questions in fine arts, physical development and health were stricken from ISAT tests this year as well.

Lawmakers approved the cuts in July because of state budget constraints. Eliminating the test was estimated to save some $6 million in administration costs.

Criticism of testing has heightened since No Child Left Behind took effect in 2002. The law put extraordinary pressure on schools to ensure that children of all backgrounds perform academically and has led to what critics say is too much test preparation and even cheating in some schools.

While some states have cut back on which grades are tested or made other changes, testing experts and education groups say Illinois is the only state to eliminate its writing exam. In Colorado, legislation to eliminate the writing exam was vetoed in 2003. A year later, Illinois got rid of its writing exam.

"We're stunned. What can I say?" said Richard Sterling, executive director of the National Writing Project, a nationwide effort to improve youngsters' writing skills. "It's a disaster, because you can use writing to learn, to explore ideas and information. It helps you to think."

Illinois has cut its writing test at the same time that college-entrance tests are emphasizing writing, with SAT adding a new essay section to its test this year and competitor ACT including an optional writing test.

"I think we ought to be embarrassed by what we did," said state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), who is leading the charge to restore the writing test by 2006-07.

His bill to reinstate the exam was approved by the Senate Education Committee this week and is headed to the Senate floor for consideration.

A House bill to restore all of the eliminated tests was voted down in a House committee last week, with opposition from an alliance of the state's major school organizations, including the Illinois Association of School Boards.

Ben Schwarm, the coordinator of lobbying efforts for the alliance, said that with the state facing severe deficits and education funding expected to be tight, school districts would rather have money for overall operating expenses, such as teacher salaries, than test administration.

"We certainly think it's better to have the funding to teach children rather than test children," he said.

In fact, some educators criticized the Illinois test as encouraging formulaic writing, heavy on repetition and short on creativity.

Doug Hesse, an English professor at Illinois State University who chairs a national organization for college-level writing teachers, said the state should rethink how it assesses writing, possibly using student portfolios with several writing samples. He said he would oppose reinstating the same writing test that has been used in the past.

Former State School Supt. Glenn "Max" McGee, now a local superintendent in Wilmette, agreed, saying he has recommended to Gov. Rod Blagojevich that the state borrow successful strategies used in local districts for any new statewide writing assessment. "We know we can do a better job of assessing students in writing," McGee, of District 39, said.

His district now has its own writing exam, which involves evaluating rough drafts as well as final drafts of student writing.

East Maine School District 63 in Des Plaines gives a writing assessment in September, and another in April, to judge student progress. "I feel the pre- and post-assessments are much more valuable than just a one-time snapshot," said Katherine Ruh, executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Her district has yet to devise its own assessment for social studies but it has not reduced its emphasis on the subject, she said. The district just spent more than $100,000 on social studies teaching materials.

But national social studies organizations are alarmed at what they see as a retreat from such critical subjects as U.S. history, geography and economics, which they blame in part on the narrow testing focus of No Child Left Behind.

In Missouri, the legislature has provided funding only for communications arts and math testing. Since 2003, districts that want to test in science and social studies have to do so at their own cost, said Sharon Schattgen, coordinator of curriculum and assessment for the state education department.

The problem is that, "What gets measured is treasured," said Roger LaRaus, a retired Evanston school administrator who now teaches social studies methods at the college level and is active in national social studies organizations.

That means teachers will be less willing to spend time on subjects for which there is no high-stakes testing attached.

"People won't say they're not teaching social studies," he said. "But the truth is, they're not teaching it."

TOP OF PAGE

South suburbs rep dropped from education funding board
By Kati Phillips, Staff writer  Daily Southtown 3/11/05
The south suburbs no longer have a representative on the state board that decides how much it costs to educate a child.
Bert Docter, the former president of the Southland Chamber of Commerce, has been dropped from the Education Funding Advisory Board.
Docter said Gov. Rod Blagojevich denied his request to remain on the board for another four-year term because Docter backs an income tax increase the governor said he will veto.
One incumbent and four new members were appointed this week, and an updated school finance report is expected later this month.
The board will not recommend a way to raise revenues, just figure the cost of a quality education, said Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Becky Watts.
"The governor wanted to go in another direction," said Docter, CEO of Docter Enterprises in South Holland.
The fresh appointments come at a crucial time for Blagojevich, whose budget proposal as been assailed by typical Democratic allies, including Mayor Richard Daley and Senate President Emil Jones, as shortchanging public schools.
Created by a 1997 law, the advisory board recommended in 2002 that the state significantly increase the income tax in conjunction with a reduction in property taxes to mend what many say is a broken system of paying for elementary and secondary schools.
The law requires a report from the board Jan. 1 of each odd-numbered year, but many of the original board members resigned or their terms expired, and Blagojevich did not replace them.
Education reform advocates pleaded with the administration to name a new board, to no avail. Finally, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in January wrote Blagojevich, threatening to sue unless he followed the law, named a board and delivered a report by April.
Blagojevich spokeswoman Rebecca Rausch has said the administration did not move more quickly on forming a new board because of the multibillion-dollar budget deficits the governor faced in his first three years in office.
"It was not a top priority of this administration because we're still fighting to increase education funding, and we hadn't achieved the last EFAB recommendation," Rausch said.
That recommendation was to raise the "foundation level" —the minimum amount guaranteed for each of the state's 2 million students — by $1,000. Blagojevich promised to do that during his first term in office. He boosted the level by $250 in his first year but only $154 this year.
In the budget he proposed recently, Blagojevich offered only $140 million in new money for kindergarten-through-12th-grade schools. Even if all of that went to the foundation level, ignoring other needs such as early childhood education, special education and transportation, the foundation level would rise by just $87.50.
Illinois school districts currently get the bulk of their funding from real estate taxes based on property values that vary widely throughout the state, creating canyons of disparity in spending between schools in wealthy areas and those in less-affluent locales.
TOP OF PAGE

State pension plan hits key campaign donors

John Patterson, Daily Herald
 
SPRINGFIELD - A call for massive reductions in pension benefits probably wasn't what state employee and teachers unions had in mind when they collectively gave Rod Blagojevich nearly $2.4 million for his 2002 campaign.
 
That may partly explain why these unions so vehemently oppose the governor's plan, one that generally would make future employees work longer and receive less in retirement than current state workers and teachers.
 
Blagojevich is relying on the plan and his predictions of $800 million in savings this year to balance the budget. But in pitching the idea, he's picked a fight with arguably the most powerful groups in state politics.
 
"I think they're influential for two reasons: Because they give extraordinary amounts of cash to the candidates they back, but they're equally influential because they have numbers, they have foot soldiers, they have voters," said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a group that tracks campaign contributions.
 
The Illinois Education Association, the state's largest teachers union with 120,000 members, gave more than $3.1 million to candidates in 2002, making it the single largest donor in the state during that election. Ranking second was the Illinois Federation of Teachers with more than $1.9 million and 90,000 members. Two state employee unions were among the top six donors.
 
These groups were among the top donors to Blagojevich's 2002 campaign, too, campaign records show. Combined, they have more than 250,000 members covered by state pensions, members who often volunteer for political campaigns and can be counted on to vote.
 
Blagojevich offers no apologies.
 
"Change sometimes means having to tell your friends bad news," said Pete Giangreco, a Blagojevich spokesman. "And for too long, we've had governors who would only take care of their friends and leave everybody else in Illinois to their own devices."
 
Ever since the governor unveiled his pension ideas last month, political fur rather than union dollars has been flying.
 
"We think the plan is a terrible idea," said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 31 and its 37,000 state employees. "It's unconscionable to attempt to balance the budget by digging into the pockets of future retirees."
 
For teachers, the state would no longer fully fund in retirement the double-digit salary increases that often occur in their final years. Instead, the state would pay only for 3 percent raises those final years, shifting anything in excess back onto local schools. Pension system officials say it would cost school districts $149 million the first year.
 
For state workers and teachers alike, the annual 3 percent pension increases in retirement would end, too. Instead, the state would apply the actual rate of inflation or 3 percent, whichever is less. And that annual increase would apply only to the pension's first $12,000 or $24,000, depending on whether the retiree were entitled to Social Security. Teachers are not eligible for Social Security but most state employees are.
 
Despite the union criticism, some of Blagojevich's needed allies are standing with him.
 
"It's not a Democrat-union issue. It's an issue related to the cost of government," said Senate President Emil Jones Jr., a Chicago Democrat.
 
But the union line might be taking its toll elsewhere.
 
Blagojevich's point man for pension reform - state Rep. Bob Molaro, a Chicago Democrat - is already backing off some of the provisions in meetings and offering to compromise.
 
Meanwhile, Republicans, whose ranks are no stranger to union campaign donations, say the governor's savings won't happen and the entire plan is doomed.
 
"I don't even think we'll need the weight of the teachers unions," said Senate Republican leader Frank Watson of downstate Greenville.
 
The Illinois Education Association is one of Watson's top contributors, and nearly 40 percent of its contributions over the past 10 years have gone to Republicans, according to a database maintained by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.
 
As for whether the unions will support Blagojevich for a 2006 re-election bid anyway, the early answer from at least one of the influential groups is "yes."
 
"There's been no irreparable damage done to the relationship," said Charles McBarron, Illinois Education Association director of communications, "at this point."

TOP OF PAGE

No Child Left Behind election issue
Avian Carrasquillo, Daily Herald
 
The No Child Left Behind Act is a major concern for candidates in the April 5 election for Wheeling Township Elementary District 21 school board.
 
The federal legislation requires standardized testing in reading and math for all third- and eighth-graders and at least once in high school. It also mandates that by 2014, all students in schools that receive federal funds must meet or exceed state standards in those areas.
 
According to the law, if a school fails to reach its state's goal two years in a row, that school must offer students the option to transfer to a better-performing school in the district. The district must also provide students with private tutoring services.
 
Currently, Frost, Field and Whitman elementary schools in District 21 did not make adequate yearly progress two years in a row and had to offer students in those schools the chance to transfer to a passing school.
 
The five candidates for District 21 school board - Randi Asquini, Richard Rosen and incumbents Arlen Gould, Bill Harrison and Phil Pritzker - all agree the legislation is a primary subject the district will be dealing with over the next four years.
 
Pritzker, seeking his fourth term as a school board member, said that while the act is good in theory, its setup is designed to fail.
 
"The law is punitive in its implementation. If there are legitimate reasons why groups of students aren't performing, be it from low-income families, English as a second language or a combination of those, by taking resources away from the schools and children, failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy," Pritzker said.
 
Asquini, a parent of three children in the district, is running for a school board seat for the first time.
 
"NCLB, (No Child Left Behind) it drives me nuts like everyone else, because schools are labeled failing when they are not. It isn't appropriate, but it has a correct philosophy: no child left behind," she said.
 
"We in District 21 have fine teachers; if anyone can meet NCLB requirements, we can," Asquini said.
 
Asquini proposes lobbying local businesses for additional funding to help the district pay for programs to meet those requirements.
 
Harrison, now seeking his second term on the board, has been so frustrated by the law that he has been sending letters to the U.S. Department of Education pointing out the act's flaws.
 
Harrison said one of his greatest disputes with the Education Department is the lack of federal funding to support the law.
 
"The government has this one-size-fits-all plan, but that plan doesn't work. We could be better, but we don't need a federal law siphoning out money that could go to the children," Harrison said.
 
Gould is seeking his third term on the school board. Regarding the legislation, he said, "The program and its Title I funds are set in such a way that the only benefit to succeeding is a pat on the back, but if you fail, you become a district in disgrace.
 
"Every child deserves to learn and can learn, just at different measures," Gould said.
 
Rosen, who has a son in the district, is seeking a school board seat for the first time.
 
"NCLB is probably one of the most difficult things our district has ever faced, it's doubly difficult because our district is so diverse," he said.
 
"I think this problem is going to be solved by legislators themselves. I think there's been enough negative feedback about the law," Rosen said.

TOP OF PAGE

Schools' financial gains questioned
Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, 3/8/05
 
State Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago) criticized state education officials Monday for portraying school districts as making remarkable progress in improving their finances.
 
"Don't you think that was a bit misleading?" he asked Illinois State Board of Education finance administrators Monday at the first meeting of a new Senate Select Committee on Education Funding Reform at Thornton High School in Harvey. Del Valle is a co-chairman of the committee.
 
The board released a preliminary report last month of districts that were deficit spending in 2004 compared with 2003. The report showed the number of deficit districts had declined significantly, progress praised by Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
 
But the Tribune later reported that some of those districts remained deeply troubled, borrowing heavily to meet payroll and to shore up their fund balances.
 
Del Valle also asked why the state board, now controlled by the governor's appointees, released the preliminary figures without a more thorough analysis. The release came just a few days before Blagojevich's budget address to lawmakers.
 
Education board members said the media had been asking for the figures.
 
The exchange illustrates how contentious the battle over school finance reform is expected to be over the next several months, as key senators under the leadership of Senate President Emil Jones press to reform the school finance system.
 
The main proposals involve raising the state income tax and lowering property taxes long relied upon to pay for schools. The system creates major inequities between wealthy and poor districts and often shortchanges disadvantaged students, education officials say.
 
But Blagojevich is steadfastly opposed to raising the income or sales taxes, and critics have accused him of downplaying financial problems of schools and dragging his feet on addressing major education issues.
 
After the threat of a lawsuit by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Blagojevich on Monday appointed new members to the Education Funding Advisory Board that recommends per-student funding levels for schoolchildren. The group is scheduled to meet Wednesday.
 
A long line of speakers emphasized the need for reform on Monday, saying school districts have laid off teachers, increased class sizes, cut extracurricular programs and taken other drastic measures because they don't have enough money to operate. Health care and special education costs, fuel and other expenses have risen at a faster pace than revenues, they said, even with significant increases in education funding pushed through by the Blagojevich administration.
 
However, some speakers were critical of school districts that give out 20 percent raises to retiring teachers and borrow heavily to cover operating expenses, burdening taxpayers.
 
The debate over the way schools are funded has gone on for so long that several speakers expressed impatience.
 
"I come here as a tired person," said Bert Docter, a former member of the Education Funding Advisory Board. "It seems like it's always the same old, same old. It's not about quality education. It's all about politics."
 
The last time Illinois seriously considered education finance reform was in 1997, when then-Gov. Jim Edgar tried unsuccessfully to cut property taxes and raise income taxes to fund schools.
 
Del Valle said Monday that it would take a bipartisan effort by lawmakers, and support from local officials, such as city mayors, to make reform happen. But with Blagojevich against tax increases, del Valle made no promises Monday.
 
"This is a real, honest, bipartisan attempt to come up with some solutions," he said. "We won't guarantee that over the next few months, we'll be able to do that."

TOP OF PAGE

Funds to be raided named
In governor's plan to hike school spending
Doug Finke and Adriana Colindres, State Journal-Register, 3/9/05
 
To increase state spending on education next year, Gov. Rod Blagojevich plans to raid funds set aside to build parks, prevent fires, discipline doctors, buy computers for schools and hundreds of other purposes.
 
However, almost immediately after a list of Blagojevich's proposed fund "sweeps" was made public Tuesday, lawmakers and interest groups were complaining that his plan will take vital dollars away from programs that need the money.
 
In his budget speech nearly a month ago, Blagojevich said he wanted to use money from dedicated state funds to give education a $140 million spending increase in the fiscal year that begins July 1. He said the money to be taken from the funds would be dollars not needed to keep programs running.
 
The governor's budget office Tuesday finally released a list of the funds the administration wants to sweep of surplus cash. About 350 funds are on the list, including the Open Space Lands Acquisition and Development Fund. A portion of the real estate transfer tax is deposited into the fund, and the proceeds are used to finance park projects.
 
Just a year ago, lawmakers rejected Blagojevich's request to divert money from the OSLAD fund for one year to help balance the budget.
 
Dave Kelm, coalition coordinator for Partners for Parks and Wildlife, said OSLAD and other park-development funds do not have surpluses. In many cases, he said, what appears to be a surplus is simply money that hasn't been spent because a particular project takes several years to complete.
 
"It's a bit disingenuous to say there are surpluses," Kelm said. "Every year there are far more requisitions for funds than there is money."
 
Kelm said the same conservation interests that fought Blagojevich's plan last year will do so again this year.
 
"Clearly, we are not going to be alone this time," Kelm said. "Last year, we were one of the few groups that faced a sweep. This year, the governor has indicated (hundreds) of special funds will be swept. This just broadens the constituent base."
 
Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for Blagojevich's budget office, said the governor's plan will not harm programs financed by the special funds.
"These are surplus dollars that have gone unused year after year after year that can be going to a useful purpose," Carroll said. "There is probably no more useful purpose than our classrooms."
 
As of last June 30, the funds that will be swept had more than $1.1 billion in them, Carroll said. The governor wants to take $420 million and set it aside for schools. Each year, $140 million of that amount will be spent on education. Using only part of the money each year, Carroll said, will enable the state to maintain a pool of money if one of the special funds needs an influx of cash.
 
Some state funds would not be swept, even if they have excess cash in them. Pension funds would be left untouched, as would the state road fund. Funds that get federal money would also be left alone because federal money cannot be diverted by states for other uses.
 
Several state lawmakers are already lining up against the plan.
 
Rep. Renee Kosel, R-New Lenox, said a Chicago TV station recently reported that state officials had complained there was not enough money available to investigate incompetent doctors. However, the governor plans to sweep funds dedicated to investigating doctors, podiatrists, pharmacists and dentists.
 
"We are taking dollars away from people we are supposed to investigate," Kosel said.
 
"To be taking money from health-care provider disciplinary funds is amazing to me," said Rep. Beth Coulson, R-Glenview. "We should be beefing that up, not decreasing it."
 
Most of the funds collect money from licensing and other fees and are replenished constantly. However, Rep. Connie Howard, D-Chicago, noted that Blagojevich wants to take money out of a fund designed to help the poor obtain access to computers and the Internet. The fund got all of its money at one time from a provision in revised telecommunications laws passed by the General Assembly. Howard also said the administration overestimated how much money remains in the account.
 
Some money would come out of a fund to promote computer literacy administered by Secretary of State Jesse White's office. Money in the fund came from a grant from Microsoft owner Bill Gates.
 
"Quite frankly, I don't think Mr. Gates intended it to balance the state budget," said White spokesman Dave Druker.
 
Another fund the governor would tap is set up to help victims of domestic violence.
 
"So what this means is we're going to fund education by letting battered women be battered or killed?" asked Cheryl Howard, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "We're not against funding education, but this is not the way to do it."
 
Not all lawmakers oppose the sweeps. Sen. Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete, said the plan "has merit."
 
"These are funds that have a huge surplus in them," said Halvorson, a top lieutenant to Senate President Emil Jones, D-Chicago. "Very seldom do you have six months of pay in your checking account."
 
Halvorson said lawmakers need to discuss the sweeps idea now.
 
"If it doesn't work, it's more important to discuss it now than in May and June," Halvorson said.

TOP OF PAGE

Tax reform advocate promotes school funding bill
Edward Husar, Quincy Herald-Whig
 
Ralph Martire says an education funding bill he is promoting would not adversely impact businesses as some detractors have suggested.
 
If anything, he said, "businesses will pay less in taxes" if House Bill 750 becomes law.
 
Martire defended the proposed bill during a two-hour presentation Monday evening in the John Wood Community College auditorium.
 
Martire is the moving force behind the development of HB 750, which calls for increasing funding for public schools while providing property tax relief for homeowners and businesses.
 
The bill has come under attack by some business leaders. They contend it is bad for business because it not only would increase the state income tax to 5 percent from the current 3 percent — primarily impacting the state's wealthiest residents — but also because it would raise the corporate tax, close certain business loopholes and impose a new sales tax on many consumer services.
 
Martire insists businesses would see a "net tax break" under HB 750.
 
"Yes, the corporate income tax rate goes up. Yes, we take away a couple of breaks that favor one business over another but don't seem to have any economic justification," he said.
 
"But because businesses share in the property tax relief, their net tax burden goes down significantly."
 
Martire is the executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago, a bipartisan "think tank" striving to make the Illinois tax system fundamentally fair and economically sound. He says HB 750 would generate about $1.8 billion in extra state aid for schools while providing about $2.4 billion in property tax relief.
 
What that would mean for the five school districts in Adams County would be $9.6 million more state aid and $6.5 million in tax relief, according to Martire's Web site.
 
However, former state Rep. Jeff Mays — now president of the Illinois Business Roundtable — has been circulating figures contending Adams County would end up with a net loss of $10.9 million because county residents would pay $17.7 million more in income taxes and $9.3 million more in corporate taxes.
 
Martire disputed Mays' assertions in response to a question from Quincy businessman Mike Nobis.
 
"I looked at those figures that Jeff Mays provided, and they are inaccurate," Martire said. "Jeff Mays has provided inaccurate information before, and I don't like to say that stuff publicly. But when he's given his numbers to us, we have corrected them repeatedly."
 
Martire said Mays "never factors in the tax relief and refundable credit" that make the bill much more palatable for Illinois residents — particularly low- and middle-income wage earners who would end up paying no more in income taxes because they'd qualify for a refundable tax credit.
 
"And he (Mays) changes the amount of tax relief that goes to businesses," Martire added. "He gives less than House Bill 750 gives because he doesn't believe the relief will be there. So I'm just telling you those numbers are inaccurate."
 
Nobis, who also has been openly critical of HB 750, said he intends to find out if the projections presented by Martire or Mays are correct.
 
"I want to make sure that we don't end up losing overall," he said.
 
State Sen. John Sullivan, D-Rushville, who was in attendance , said he plans to meet with Martire and Mays to inquire why their financial projections for Adams County don't match up.
 
"I'm going to find out," he said. "I have a funny feeling they're never going to agree on that. But we'll at least look at the numbers and see how each of them came up with them."
 
Sullivan may have a say in the fate of HB 750 because a similar measure has also been introduced in the Senate along with an amended version proposed by State Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Champaign, who also attended Monday's meeting.
 
Winkel's proposal would set the individual income tax rate at 4.75 percent (instead of the 5 percent Martire proposes) and the corporate rate at 7.6 percent (instead of 8 percent). In addition, Winkel would do away with some of the other tax increases Martire has proposed, including the sales tax on services.
 
Winkel said HB 750 will never pass the General Assembly if the sales tax on services remains in the proposal.
 
"That sinks that boat, in my opinion," he said. "That is a very, very controversial sort of provision that would make it very difficult for colleagues to commit to a vote."
 
Sullivan said he, too, has "a big concern" about the sales tax proposal in Martire's bill because Illinois is a border state, and any additional sales tax could put Sullivan's 47th Senate District at a competitive disadvantage because of its proximity to Missouri and Iowa.
 
Winkel said a supermajority of the House and Senate will likely be needed to pass the bill because Gov. Rod Blagojevich has promised to veto any legislation containing an income tax increase.
 
"I believe that is one promise he would keep," Winkel said.
 
Sullivan said the bill is bound to face a tough road unless it can somehow generate bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. It remains to be seen if that will materialize.
 
Sullivan said he believes some sort of education funding reform is needed in Illinois.
 
"I think we need to reduce our reliance on property taxes. And so we have to look at other revenue sources," he said. "We need to look at what's best for the kids."
 
Louise Crede, president of the League of Women Voters of Adams County, which co-sponsored Monday's event with several other organizations, said the League of Women Voters of Illinois is backing HB 750.
 
Diane Robertson, superintendent of the Mendon School District, which has been plagued by financial troubles in recent years, also believes the time has come to revamp the way Illinois schools are financed.
 
"The current structure for funding Illinois public education is outdated, unreliable and inequitable," she said. "It's time to fix it."

TOP OF PAGE

Mayor dangles home discounts for teachers
Fran Spielman, Chicago Sun-Times, 3/9/05
 
Chicago public school teachers who agree to purchase homes in the mixed-income developments that replace demolished CHA high-rises would be eligible for $7,500 grants -- and $3,000 if they buy homes elsewhere in the city -- under a mayoral plan unveiled Tuesday.
 
Five months after authorizing a strict new residency policy for school employees hired since 1996, Daley offered teachers a carrot along with the stick through a program patterned after a 10-year-old housing incentive for police officers.
 
Teachers on the job for at least one year who have not owned a home in the city during the prior three years will be eligible for the $7,500 grants for the CHA developments. Teachers buying in other Chicago neighborhoods would get $3,000 grants.
 
But they must agree to keep teaching in the Chicago Public Schools for five more years or return a portion of the grant if they leave earlier. Moving within the city would not trigger loss of the grant.
 
"We want our teachers to be more than just employees. We want them to have a personal stake in the progress. That's not likely to happen when you live in a suburb among people who have little interest in the Chicago Public Schools," Daley told a news conference at West Haven Park, a CHA replacement development at 140 N. Wood.
 
"When teachers live in the city, they participate in civic life by joining block clubs, community organizations. It's easier for them to come in early or stay late -- to tutor children, coach teams or advise student organizations. They're also more likely to see their students -- and have a positive effect on their lives -- on weekends and during the summer outside of school. And quite frankly, we want our teachers to spend their money and pay their taxes in the city, so their salaries are recycled throughout the community."
 
From renter to homeowner
Patricia Roby, an English teacher at Senn High School, said she got a developer discount on the home she bought at Jazz Boulevard, thanks to a Teacher Housing Resource Center opened three years ago to give Chicago a leg up in the battle for qualified teachers. She now plans to apply for the $7,500 grant.
 
Without housing assistance, Roby said, "I would probably still be renting. It's hard to come up with that much money. My son is a sophomore in college. I've only been teaching eight years. This is a career-switch for me. I had to start all over again."
 
Last fall, the Board of Education voted to end its lax, "don't ask, don't tell" policy of residency enforcement in favor of a crackdown that requires principals and supervisors to verify that new employees live in the city. Those who don't have two months to move back in or lose their jobs.
 
Roby has no problem with that policy after growing up in Stateway Gardens and getting homework help from the teachers who lived in her building.
 
"Miss Walters, she was my sister's second-grade teacher. If we had [a problem], we just knew that she was there for support. It made a big difference to me," she said.

TOP OF PAGE

Police say girl brought gun, ammo to Aurora school, showed others
Dan Rozek, Chicago Sun-Times, 3/10/05
 
A 12-year-old Aurora girl carried an unloaded .32-caliber handgun and a clip of ammunition in her purse to her middle school Wednesday morning, then showed them off to several students, authorities said.
 
The sixth-grader was arrested later in the day after a student at Still Middle School on Aurora's east side told a teacher about the gun, which was found in the girl's purse inside her locker, Aurora police and DuPage County authorities said.
 
The girl was charged as a juvenile with three felony weapons offenses and was being held overnight in the DuPage County Youth Home. She is expected to appear in juvenile court today.
 
The girl, who was not identified because of her age, told authorities she found the handgun and ammunition clip -- which contained several live rounds -- stuffed in a plastic bag in bushes near her bus stop. She told officials she picked up the bag and put it in her purse without looking inside, a law enforcement source said.
 
Informer 'did the right thing'
Investigators are treating her claim skeptically but aren't sure how the girl obtained the weapon, officials said.
 
A school official, though, said it didn't appear the girl feared for her safety or had been threatened at school.
 
"There was no protection involved in this,'' Principal Jay Strang said.
 
DuPage County State's Attorney Joseph Birkett and Aurora Police Chief William Lawler praised the student who alerted school officials about the gun. About 1,100 students attend the school.
 
"The student who reported this to school officials did the right thing and, because of that, the right things happened,'' Lawler said in a written statement.

TOP OF PAGE

============================

NATIONAL

SAT's English Focus Worries Students
Nonnative Speakers Fear Disadvantage
By Daniel de Vise, Washington Post Staff Writer, Friday, March 11, 2005; Page B04
Lily Cao took the old SAT in January and scored 1520 out of 1600, a worthy complement to her nearly 4.0 grade-point average at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda.
She will take the new SAT tomorrow. She expects to tank.
Lily, 16, and many other foreign-born students around Washington fear trouble with the revised college-entrance exam, which requires them to write an essay in their adoptive tongue in 25 minutes.
The first substantial reworking of the SAT since 1994 has added a section to the test, which will now produce separate scores in verbal ability, math and writing. The language component is longer and more open-ended than before, calling for students to compose paragraphs longhand, to find errors in grammar and punctuation, and to improve a series of sentences and paragraphs.
In high schools with large populations of nonnative English speakers, students and teachers are approaching the debut of the test with apprehension.
"I'm expecting my grade to go down at least 200 points," said Lily, of Cabin John, a native of China who learned English at 7. "The problem is, the colleges don't want to see your SAT scores go down the second time. I know my scores are going to go down on this one."
The College Board, publisher of the SAT, revised the exam partly to give colleges a better sense of how applicants express themselves and a window into how they think, said Amy Schmidt, executive director of higher education research at the New York company.
But some say the expanded test will amplify a scoring disparity that has long vexed many foreign-born students who take the SAT. A straight-A student who has not yet mastered English might have expected a 100-point gap between verbal and math scores on the old SAT. Lily, for example, scored a perfect 800 in math and 720 in verbal on the old test. The new test will have a third score on the same 200-to-800 scale, a potential disadvantage for students weak in English.
The College Board is urging colleges not to weigh the new section too heavily in their admission decisions in the first year, Schmidt said. Some colleges are telling applicants they will no longer accept scores on the old SAT, however, raising the stakes for this year's juniors.
The essay portion of the new test will be graded holistically, Schmidt said, meaning that students who commit minor errors in spelling, grammar and punctuation aren't to be penalized. But an essay with serious errors throughout inevitably will be marked down, she said, because the mistakes will erode the student's message.
"If it interferes with the meaning and it interferes with your ability to communicate your ideas effectively in a written context, then it's going to interfere with your score," she said.
Research by the College Board suggests that the gap in scores between native and nonnative English speakers actually will be somewhat smaller on the new writing section than on the old verbal section. The verbal section has been renamed critical reading and is designed to assess reading comprehension and sentence completion.
"Some do fine," said Joe Hock, college career coordinator at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, where 15 percent of students study English for Speakers of Other Languages. "But some, their math scores are much higher. It's always an issue, depending on how long you've been in the school system learning English."
Schools with large immigrant populations have worked to prepare all of their students for the new test. Long Reach High School in Columbia, where 7 percent of students have limited English proficiency, offers four sections of SAT preparation during school, after school and at night, guidance director Diane Pelash said.
Seneca Valley High in Germantown, where 11 percent of students are nonnative English speakers, has teachers using sample SAT essay prompts to help students learn the format.
"The teachers are concerned about it, and the students are talking about it," said Khadija Barkley, student support specialist for Seneca Valley.
"Is it going to be more difficult? Of course it is."
TOP OF PAGE

'No child' law/Earth to feds: Fix the flaws

Minneapolis Star Tribune Editorial, 3/7/05
 
The revolt against provisions of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" K-12 law is picking up momentum. Now it is time for the administration to drop the defensiveness about its signature education plan and start making adjustments that will move education forward.

No longer can the White House dismiss the law's critics as education-establishment "whiners" bent on preserving the status quo, or resistant, contrarian Democrats. Now the chorus of complaints is coming from fellow Republicans, parents, governors and, most recently, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers that is rightly demanding change.

Last month, the National Conference of State Legislatures, which represents all 50 states, issued a scathing assessment. Sen. Steve Saland, a New York Republican who cochaired the task force that produced the report, described the NCLB law as a "weed" that's stifling state educational innovations. The review says the federal department must give states more flexibility to meet NCLB goals and lists 43 specific recommendations. They include:

• Eliminate barriers that interfere with programs that worked before NCLB and encourage innovative, successful strategies. The study said that the federal government funds less than 8 percent of the nation's K-12 programs, but No Child rules affect nearly all classroom activity. Therefore, all federal mandates should be fully funded.

• Remove the one-size-fits-all student achievement measures and call for more sophisticated assessments, including tests that track the individual progress of students. The state lawmakers said struggling schools need more opportunity to address problems.
• Recognize that some schools face special challenges, including students learning English and students with disabilities.

• Parts of the report even question the constitutionality of the law, citing contradictions with previous special-education rules and state jurisdiction over student learning. Consistent with that concern, nearly a dozen state legislatures have resolutions pending to resist the federal law's preemptions of what the states say is their authority to govern and assess their schools.

Minnesota Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, chairs the Senate Education Committee and cochaired the national lawmakers' task force. The national group stopped short of saying states should opt out of NCLB, noting that local schools could lose millions in federal funds for noncompliance. However, here in Minnesota Kelley believes rejecting the law is worth the risk. He has proposed legislation that calls for federal changes by mid-2006 -- or else Minnesota would refuse to comply and agree to pay schools to make up for federal losses. Kelley believes NCLB's requirements are too rigid, its sanctions are too harsh and that its goal of 100 percent proficiency is "statistically unachievable."

Still, any makeover must preserve important goals of the federal law. States must continue to disaggregate data to monitor how all student populations are performing. They should continue to improve rigor and set high standards to make U.S. students more competitive with their global peers. And states should continue work on narrowing the achievement gap between white students and some students of color.

Bush's new education secretary, Margaret Spelling, has shown some limited willingness to work with states on waivers and other changes. But as the legislators' study points out, much bigger fixes are in order. The administration must make those adjustments and work with states in a more cooperative, less heavy-handed way. Either that, or face the possibility that many states will ignore the federal rules altogether.
 
TOP OF PAGE

South Beach' a hot lunch?
Florida schools test diet guru's principles
Mike Schneider, Associated Press
 
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Nine-year-old Kelly Ferrer no longer gets the waffles, pancakes and sugar cereals that she loved eating for breakfast last year in her school cafeteria.
 
This year she is served whole-wheat bread, low-fat cheese and fruit.
 
Does she like it? No.
 
"I want to go back to the old menu," said the 4th grader at Mill Creek Elementary School. "We had better food last year."

Kelly's is one of six schools in this Orlando suburb taking part in a study by a research center founded by Dr. Arthur Agatston, the author of "The South Beach Diet."
 
The goal is to figure out whether school cafeterias are capable of serving more nutritious food, whether children will eat it and whether their health will improve.
 
The program underscores growing national concerns about childhood obesity. Government data suggest about 15 percent of U.S. youngsters are severely overweight or obese, a problem that may lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
 
"We're not putting the children on the South Beach Diet," said Danielle Hollar, deputy director of research at the Agatston Research Institute. "We're trying to provide healthier options for these children, and in the long run we hope they learn to eat healthier and incorporate that into their daily living."
 
Although the 3,000 pupils in the study haven't been put on the low-carb diet, many of the diet's guiding principles have been incorporated into school menus.
 
White bread has been stricken and replaced with whole-wheat. White potatoes were subbed with sweet potatoes. French fries were abolished. Grilled chicken replaced breaded chicken. Fruit is dessert.
 
Students at the beginning of the school year were weighed, their height was measured and their blood pressure and pulse recorded.
 
Those same measurements will be taken in April. The institute has paid for the $10,000 extra cost.
 
The new menus were "a little bit slow catching on, but now the students seem to be enjoying the meals," said Jean Palmore, food service director for the Osceola County School District. Four of the schools have changed their menus and the other two are being used as controls with unchanged menus.
 
As many as half of the pupils at the test schools didn't eat their lunches at the beginning of the year. Now just 15 percent are in that category after tweaks to the menu.
 
"We tried a veggie burger, but that was not a popular thing," Palmore said.
 
On a recent day, the difference in menus between a test school and control school was apparent. Pleasant Hill Elementary School, a control school, served onion rings as a side dish. Mill Creek served veggie sticks with dip.
 
Besides initial pupil finickiness, the biggest obstacle has been access to healthier ingredients. The school district is part of a buying group with other districts.
 
But most other schools aren't ordering whole-wheat pasta.

TOP OF PAGE

Police: Teacher let kids make drug equipment
Abingdon woman set to appear in court today
Brad Erickson, Peoria Journal Star, 3/8/05
 
ABINGDON - An Abingdon High School teacher accused of allowing students to make drug paraphernalia in metal shop class is to appear today in Knox County court.

Rebecca A. Boswell, 45, of 306 N. Main in Abingdon was arrested Monday and charged with felony contributing to the criminal delinquency of a juvenile, Police Chief William Robinson said.
 
Boswell gave a letter of resignation to School District 217 and was taken to the county jail.
 
School Superintendent Magie Roberts said Boswell joined the staff last August as an industrial technology teacher after working in private industry.
 
Robinson said Abingdon police searched the high school March 1 with drug dogs from the Knox County and Mercer County sheriff's departments and the Kewanee Police Department. The sweep led to the arrest of one student for possession of less than 2.5 grams of marijuana.
 
After the March 1 sweep and arrest, numerous students told police that a shop teacher was allowing some students to make drug paraphernalia in the metal shop class, Robinson said.
 
Police gave the information to school officials, who asked for an investigation.
 
"We want all of our teachers and adults in the building to be good role models for our students," Roberts said.
 
After students gave statements, Robinson interviewed Boswell. He said she admitted allowing paraphernalia to be taken from the shop class.
 
Asked what kind of paraphernalia was being made, Robinson said, "in general terms, hitter pipes and hitter boxes." He declined to say how many.
 
Police caught a student with a hitter pipe at the high school about seven weeks ago. The student had been telling others, "Hey, here's a hitter pipe I made in shop class," Robinson said.
 
Boswell was questioned but denied any knowledge of the pipe, Robinson said. The student did not implicate her at that time.
 
But after March 1, the student said Boswell watched him make the pipe and inspected it when he was done, Robinson said.
 
The chief said police will continue to interview students at the high school for the next few weeks.
 
"The teachers and staff have been very helpful and very cooperative with us in trying to eradicate drugs," Robinson said.
 
"I think it sent a shock through the staff there at the high school as well as all teachers in the community. I have no reason to think any other teachers are involved in this," Robinson said.
 
Asked if she was surprised that school officials apparently were unaware of the situation, Superintendent Roberts said, "In my 30 years in education, I have had other things be known by the students and not be known by the adults."
 
District 217 has about 780 K-12 students in three schools.

TOP OF PAGE

How do the new teachers measure up?
The "high-aptitude" women who once chose to teach are no longer filling America's classrooms, a study suggests.
By Teresa Méndez, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, 3/8/05

No longer your stereotypical schoolmarm, a schoolteacher today has a profile markedly different from a generation ago. She - teachers are still overwhelmingly female - is less likely to make teaching a lifelong career. Having possibly worked in another field first, she's a bit older than her counterpart 40 years ago. Chances are, she's also more educated.

But there's one shift in the new demographic of teachers that has drawn particular attention - and concern. It seems that fewer "high-aptitude" women - those from the most selective colleges with stellar SAT scores - are becoming elementary and high school teachers.

"These teachers were never a big share, but they were a non-negligible share," says Caroline Hoxby, a professor of economics at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., whose research focuses on the economics of education. "People say they were important leaders. They weren't in every classroom but they were mentors." Ms. Hoxby and Andrew Leigh of the Australian National University have authored the latest study on aptitude in the newest generation of schoolteachers.

In a sense, their findings simply underscore a broader issue - the widespread need for talented teachers to step up to the chalkboard as baby boomers begin retiring. To fill the vacancies, as many as 2.2 million teachers are needed between 2000 and 2010. Certainly most experts would agree that creative new strategies must be employed to ensure the brightest are included in this bunch.

But lost in talk of how best to recruit a fresh crop of teachers has been the equally pressing problem of retention. More than 20 percent of beginning teachers quit after four years, and many barely survive the first year's baptism by fire. Some educators believe that this tough work environment and the sink-or-swim attitude toward new teachers are keeping people away.

In "Wage Distortion," however - which appears in the current issue of Education Next, a journal published by Stanford University's Hoover Institution - Hoxby and Mr. Leigh suggest that pay is the reason so few high-aptitude women opt to teach. Specifically, they cite "pay compression," whereby the salary differential between high- and low-aptitude public school teachers has narrowed since the 1960s, so that today "those with the highest aptitude earn no more than those with the lowest."

Even more troubling, say Hoxby and Leigh, pay compression has not only diminished the number of smart female teachers, but it has also increased the share of women from bottom-tier colleges who performed poorly on achievement tests.

This explanation defies conventional wisdom. Most experts hold that fewer women are going into teaching than in the past because such an array of appealing career options is open to them - both service-oriented and more lucrative. Women looking to help people can become doctors or work for public-interest groups. More graduates consider law and engineering, while investment banks and management consulting firms recruit women from selective schools on campus.

As a result, the so-called "hidden subsidy of education," those talented, well-educated women - and minorities - who traditionally filled the ranks, is disappearing, says Susan Moore Johnson, director of the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers at Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Morgaen Donaldson, a doctoral student on Professor Johnson's research team, says that during her first year teaching in a Boston public school she would be asked, "You went to Princeton. Why aren't you a lawyer?" She'd respond by asking why someone with an undergraduate degree from Princeton University shouldn't be a teacher. But Ms. Donaldson worries that some elite colleges may be sending their graduates the message that teaching is an "antiintellectual profession."

Not all research suggests that today's teachers are less able than their predecessors. According to a 2000 study by Public Agenda, the public opinion research group, about half of superintendents and principals believe the quality of new teachers has improved in recent years.

In 1999, the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J., found teachers did as well as or better than other college-educated adults on three measures of literacy, including reading comprehension and math.

Of course there are other, intangible qualities effective teachers have that may not appear in studies or on tests. "How do you measure a caring teacher?" asks Jacqueline Ancess of Columbia University's Teachers College in New York.

As a group, special education teachers tend not to perform as well on standardized tests, often because they grapple with learning disabilities of their own. But it's this experience, says Barnett Berry, president of the Southeast Center for Teaching Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C., that enables them to to pass adaptive strategies on to students.

To lure talented women back to teaching, Hoxby and Leigh suggest that teachers' pay be tied to performance rather than seniority, as is often the case now.

Johnson says the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers has found that new teachers do expect differentiated pay that reflects their value and skills. It's a controversial idea that teachers unions have fought in the past. Now, all eyes are on Denver, where, with union support, the school district recently embarked on an experiment with performance pay. Still, Johnson and others warn that "performance" must be evaluated carefully, incorporating factors beyond student scores.

At the Bronx Preparatory Charter School in New York's South Bronx, performance is evaluated, among other ways, by conversations with students in addition to test scores.

Recruiting talented teachers is always a challenge, says founder and director Kristin Kearns Jordan, but she believes it's one all sectors face. Ms. Jordan graduated from Brown University in Providence, R.I. Before that she attended Phillips Exeter Academy, the preparatory school in New Hampshire - where her former history teacher told the alumni magazine, "You could see Kristin as a lawyer or investment banker. She's brought the same sort of acumen to the world of education and her vision to make a difference to children."

For a group that has proven to be inspired more by intrinsic than extrinsic motivation, pay may not be as important as economists think. Jordan says, "The people we recruit see this as a way of changing the world."

Research indicates that while most teachers do feel underpaid, unless salaries were increased substantially, other factors are more important to them. (Although Donaldson does suggest that burdensome college loans may prevent some women from the Ivy League from choosing to teach.)

In the 2000 survey, Public Agenda found that given a choice between better student behavior and parental support or a significantly higher salary, 86 percent of new teachers would choose better behavior and support; 82 percent would choose a more supportive administration over higher wages.

If Hoxby and Leigh are right, and a differentiated pay scale based on performance would draw more of the brightest women to teaching, a better working environment, with more mentoring and support, may be the key to keeping them. Teachers interviewed by the Project on the Next Generation of Teachers also said they crave more teamwork, room to grow into leadership positions, and tracks that combine teaching with other responsibilities such as curriculum development and mentoring.

Public Agenda's survey "A Sense of Calling: Who Teaches and Why" concluded that new teachers' passion for teaching is "palpable, vastly underappreciated, and a valuable asset that money can't buy."
 
TOP OF PAGE

Kansas to hold six days of hearings over evolution
By John Milburn, Associated Press, 3/8/05

TOPEKA, Kan. — Eighty years after the Scopes Monkey Trial, State Board of Education members plan to hear arguments over whether they should add information on a form of creationism to Kansas' science standards.

The board's subcommittee on science standards agreed Monday to have six days of hearings in May in Topeka. The subcommittee, concerned that the hearings might be compared to the 1925 trial of high school science teacher John Scopes in Dayton, Tenn., said they aren't putting evolution on trial. Scopes was convicted of giving lessons on the theory.

"That was a trial, these are hearings," said Board Chairman Steve Abrams, of Arkansas City. "I hope we have a greater understanding of each other's positions."

The subcommittee members are Abrams, Kathy Martin, of Clay Center, and Connie Morris, of St. Francis, all Republicans, and half of six conservatives holding a majority on the 10-member board. Later this year, the board expects to consider changes in the science standards, which currently describe evolution as a key concept for students to learn.

The three board members tentatively set their hearings for May 5-7 and 12-14, with the exact times and place to be determined. During the hearings, only scientists will testify, according to the subcommittee. The scientists will include experts on evolution and proponents of other ideas about the origins of life.

The board members also picked a theme, from a 2001 congressional report on the federal No Child Left Behind education reform law — saying science should be open to alternative theories when there are controversies.

"We're trying to get to the bottom of a great controversy," Abrams said.

Last year, the Board of Education appointed a 26-member panel of educators to propose changes in the existing science standards.

However, in January, conservatives questioned whether the panel had adequately considered views from advocates of creationism or intelligent design. A minority on the panel also sought to ensure that students are exposed to more criticism of evolution. Conservatives then called for public hearings.

The board's subcommittee on science standards had considered taking only written arguments. But Morris said she favored oral arguments, allowing more questions and giving creationism equal time with evolution. She said students should be exposed to all views and should reach conclusions about the origins of life based on what they are taught at home.

"I know in my heart what my religious beliefs are," Morris said.

Evolution says that species change in response to environmental and genetic factors over the course of many generations. Intelligent design, a form of creationism, holds that there's evidence of an intelligent design behind the origin of the universe, the formation of the Earth and biological change.

Opponents of injecting more criticism of evolution into science classes contend it would be a step toward teaching intelligent design or creationism, which holds life and the Earth were created by God from nothing.

Harry McDonald, president of Kansas Citizens for Science and a retired Olathe high school science teacher, described the hearings as a "farce" and "fiasco." His organization doesn't want scientists to participate.

As for the board, McDonald said, "They are looking for a stage to pretend they are judging science."

Abrams said the outcome of the hearings wasn't predetermined.
 
TOP OF PAGE

First Lady's Initiative Aimed At Providing Stability for Youths
By Jim VandeHei, Washington Post Staff Writer, 3/8/05

PITTSBURGH, March 7 -- President Bush and first lady Laura Bush joined up Monday at a community college here to promote their plan to help at-risk youths, especially those living in big cities, and announce a White House conference on the issue to be held this autumn.

"We have got to make sure that the great strength of our country -- the hearts and souls of our citizens -- are directed in such a way that every child can be saved," Bush told local residents and community leaders at the Community College of Allegheny County. "We are worried about gangs, we are worried about drugs, we are worried about bad choices."

First lady Laura Bush, introduced by President Bush, said the White House youth proposal includes encouraging stable two-parent households. (Kevin Lamarque -- Reuters) 

The president's solution is to promote a new, modestly funded initiative aimed at creating safer neighborhoods, more stable families and better educational opportunities for at-risk youths, particularly boys.

The first couple toured a Catholic after-school program at the Providence Family Support Center here that provides tutoring and other assistance to teenagers and younger students in the city. Afterward, the Bushes touted the after-school program and the broader White House campaign to help young people.

"The truth of the matter is I am the introducer," Bush said as he presented the first lady as the driving force behind the policy.

"This is a real role reversal," Laura Bush said. "I have listened to a million of his speeches. Now he has to listen to one of mine."

She detailed the White House plan to make grants to faith-based and other community organizations to encourage stable two-parent households and efforts to cut down on drug use and violence. This is part of a broader White House campaign to give religious groups a larger role in administering social services.

Bush's 2006 budget contains $385 million -- a $150 million increase over the current budget -- for programs to mentor children, help former prisoners and drug addicts, and provide support for young mothers. The fund, which makes grants to community groups, is slated for an increase, even as the White House is proposing cuts in funding for many traditional anti-poverty programs.

The Bushes highlighted a plan to spend $50 million to mentor children of prisoners, which the administration estimates is enough to help more than 100,000 children over three years. In documents sent to reporters, the White House also noted an effort to double abstinence-only sex education programs over the next three years. Critics charge that Bush is cutting other programs that have been effective helping teens, including for juvenile justice and delinquency prevention.

"Children and parents need to know where they can get help," Laura Bush said. White House aides said the president is exploring additional ways to assist faith-based groups help children, perhaps by calling for more vouchers to religious groups later this year. Laura Bush said she would unveil a new government guide for helping community leaders at this fall's White House conference on Helping America's Youth.

"Community groups will tell us what is working in the field," she said. "The more children hear positive messages from adults, the less likely they are to engage in risky behavior."
 
TOP OF PAGE

Schools moving to rid mercury from labs
By Ben Feller, Associated Press, 3/7/05

WASHINGTON — As mercury spills in schools disrupt classes, teachers and environmental groups want to rid student labs of the versatile but dangerous metal.

In recent weeks, mercury was found in stairwells and corridors of a high school in the nation's capital. The building had to be closed twice for decontamination and still more traces were found Sunday even as cleaning crews were wrapping up their work in preparation for reopening the school Monday.

"We're shocked," District of Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Leonie Campbell said.

The building would be closed again Monday, school officials announced. They were searching for an alternate location to hold classes.

Although the spills get headlines, the use of mercury in schools actually is declining, said Ken Roy, a physics teacher in Glastonbury, Conn., and co-chairman of the National Science Teachers Association's safety advisory board.

"The awareness is so high now that I would say a good part of it (mercury) is gone from schools," Roy said. "The problem comes when a teacher retires, and someone new comes in and finds a horde of it in a cabinet in a chemical storeroom. You've got to dig for it."

In its elemental form, mercury is shiny, silver and odorless. It is the only metal on earth that is liquid at room temperature.

In schools, mercury is found in fever thermometers, electronic light switches and other basic equipment. It is most common in science labs, where mercury-filled instructional tools have been used for decades.

But the fascination with small beads of mercury has given way to talk of their potential risks.

Mercury turns into a problem when it is spilled and evaporates into airborne vapors, which can be absorbed into the body through breathing.

Exposure to high levels of metallic mercury can damage the brain, kidneys and lungs. Prolonged exposure to lower levels can cause problems with sleep, sight, hearing and memory, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

The Environmental Protection Agency has encouraged schools to remove mercury compounds and mercury-containing equipment. The agency is helping schools get rid of those materials.

At least nine states have created programs to speed up the removal of mercury from schools through lab clean-outs and educational outreach to teachers, the EPA says.

Schools are finding safe alternatives, such as electronic thermometers in place of mercury ones, and generally have not reduced their science labs, Roy said. "If anything, more lab activities are being done," he said. "Professional safety training is the key here."

Mercury is required to be safely secured as a hazardous material, Roy said. But some students have taken possession of it at school or at home and caused a health scare.

No firm statistics on all mercury spills at schools are available, federal officials say.

But the number of reported spills in schools is on the rise, according to the EPA. The agency responded to 12 emergency removals in 2004, with cleanup costs as high as $200,000.

Since late February, mercury has been detected twice at Cardozo Senior High School in the District of Columbia, forcing the closing of the building for decontamination. Officials were planning to reopen the facility Monday, but mercury was found for a third time late Sunday.

In 2003, mercury stolen from a science lab ended up being spread throughout Ballou High School, also in the capital. The school was closed for 35 days, with cleanup costs of $1.5 million, the EPA said.

Since then, the city's school system has banned mercury from its buildings.

Over the past few years, reports of mercury spills have come from schools in Arizona, Kentucky, Michigan, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Nevada.

"I don't think there was the general knowledge of the health hazards of mercury that we have today," said John Risher, mercury chemical manager for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. "A lot of information was there, it just wasn't widely disseminated."
 
TOP OF PAGE

Building a better SAT? Yale psychologist thinks he's done it
By Justin Pope, AP, 3/5/05

Critics of the SATs say there's more to intelligence than finding grammar errors and solving geometry problems – or even, this year, than showing you can write an essay.

But how to measure those other abilities? Robert Sternberg, a Yale University psychologist, believes he's developed a test that does just that. The test, dubbed "The Rainbow Project," evaluates creativity and problem-solving rather than analytical skills. Instead of multiple choice questions, it asks students to write captions for cartoons, outline how they would solve a problem, or write stories with unusual titles like "The Octopus's Sneakers" or "35,381."
 
What most interests many experts about Sternberg's early experiments is that they appear to predict students' freshman GPA in college more accurately than SAT scores, and with a narrower gap between ethnic and socio-economic groups.

"If you're growing up in a poor family, there's got to be more emphasis on developing creative and practical skills," Sternberg said.

The test results could be interpreted as a threat to the College Board, which has funded Sternberg's research, and Sternberg says some in the testing field have reacted defensively. He is waiting to hear soon if the College Board will fund an expanded trial that would show if the patterns hold beyond the initial 800-student sample.

College Board President Gaston Caperton said he is excited by the project and hopes to continue to work with Sternberg, though no funding decision has been made. He said the College Board will have to look closely at whether the test could be feasibly administered and graded, and to make sure clever students can't beat the system to raise their score.

Sternberg says the problems can be overcome.

"We can't afford to have a lot of people who could do really great stuff for our society not given the chance because they can't get through the testing system," he said.
 
TOP OF PAGE

State seeks White House commitment on No Child
Jennifer Dobner, AP, 3/9/05

SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Senate's Republican caucus has asked the White House for a written commitment that ensures the state -- not the federal government -- has full control over Utah schools.

A letter sent to President George Bush on Monday said, "At a minimum, we are looking for a written statement that assures the State of Utah full control of governance and accountability 
measures in Utah schools."

Utah lawmakers and educators object to the mandates of the federal "No Child Left Behind" law because of the way it measures school, teacher and student success and because they believe education performance should be a matter of local control.

"We, as a caucus, felt like we wanted the federal Department of the Education to really understand that we are not just instituting a rebellion, but that we truly and deeply felt like No Child Left Behind was not working as it was implemented," Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, said of the letter he signed. "Utah was accomplishing many of the same goals through the program that we have, that we are now required to scrap."

Last week, the Utah Senate delayed final action on a bill that would let Utah prioritize NCLB standards behind the state's own system of performance measures.

The delay came at the request of Gov. Jon Huntsman, who asked for time to negotiate with the White House and U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

Huntsman is scheduled to meet with Spellings in Washington Tuesday, his spokeswoman, Tammy Kikuchi said.

The governor has already called for an April 20 special session of the Legislature in order for the Senate to take up a final vote on the bill, which was left hanging when the 2005 legislative session ended at midnight March 2.

Susan Aspey, spokeswoman for the Department of Education, has said that the agency looks forward to working with Utah leaders to ensure "every child has the chance they deserve to learn."

Many states have challenged NCLB, but among the 15 legislatures addressing NCLB this year, the Utah proposal is seen as one of the sharpest denunciations of the federal law.

Last year, Utah tried to opt out of NCLB but backed down after White House officials came to Utah and threatened to pull some of the state's federal education funding.

Valentine said he could list dozens of examples of schools where teachers and students are making academic progress but are considered failing under NCLB.

Still, he is optimistic about Utah's chances to negotiate with the federal government. As a former Bush administration ambassador, Huntsman is a "known quantity" in Washington, and former Gov. Mike Leavitt's post in the Bush cabinet also should help, Valentine said.

"I believe that will help us get a fair hearing, and that's all we are asking for," he said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington agrees.

She said the state should be guaranteed local control of schools under the 10th Amendment and calls NCLB a "federal intrusion" on those rights. Harrington applauded the Senate for asking the White House for a commitment.

"The federal government has a vested interested in the outcome. I wish they would back away from the process and focus on the results. That to me is appropriate," said Harrington, who will attend the Washington meetings.

Should things go awry in Washington and the Utah Senate move ahead to pass the legislation, the state could again face federal sanctions, Harrington and Valentine acknowledge.

But Valentine believes that even under the proposed legislation, Utah would have a "credible legal position to go into court and show that we've met compliance."

"I'm not advocating that," he said. "But it makes sense to be able to show the federal Department of Education that we are meeting the federal requirements, but that we are just not meeting them in the same cookbook fashion that they are attempting to enforce."
 
TOP OF PAGE

State ban on paddling unruly students not yet approved
Lillian Thomas, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
Though the paddle wielded against unruly students is a rarity in Pennsylvania schools, members of the state House Education Committee are reluctant to hang it up altogether.
 
The committee canceled a meeting scheduled for yesterday to discuss an update to education regulations because members are uncomfortable with a provision that would prohibit corporal punishment in schools. They also have concerns about changes to regulations on students' freedom of expression.
 
Because of those concerns, expressed in a heated hearing last month, the State Board of Education withdrew the proposed changes and plans to rework them.
 
Corporal punishment is an issue that gets people on both sides riled up, even though evidence indicates that it's not used that frequently in the districts that permit it.
 
The state allows districts to set policy and does not keep data on which districts permit corporal punishment, but a Temple University study conducted several years ago found that about 400 of 501 school districts prohibited it.
 
At the Feb. 23 hearing, however, Rep. Ronald Miller, R-York, said corporal punishment was "darn effective" and he and other committee members questioned the idea of prohibiting it.
 
"Several of the legislators did not want to ban corporal punishment," said Edith Isacke, head of the State Board of Education committee that has been working since 1996 on revisions to a series of regulations on student rights and responsibilities known as Chapter 12. The revisions were formally presented in 2003 and must be approved by late December or the whole process will have to start from scratch.
 
"Not many schools have corporal punishment anymore; 28 states ban it. But we still have people that believe that you should paddle kids," Isacke said. The practice is more common in some private schools, not generally affected by state bans.
 
Cases in which it's used against parents' wishes tend to generate publicity. In Illinois, a mother withdrew her 6-year-old son from Schaumburg Christian School in a suburb of Chicago rather than comply with the school's regulation that required that she spank her son for talking too much in class, chewing gum and bringing toys to school, the Chicago Tribune reported.
 
Current Pennsylvania regulations let districts set policy on corporal punishment, but in all cases parents must be notified and can tell the district in writing that they do not want their children subjected to corporal punishment. The proposed change would prohibit corporal punishment except in self-defense, to break up a fight, to gain control of a weapon or other dangerous object, or to protect people or property.
 
Districts contacted for this article that permit corporal punishment said it is used sparingly.
 
"It is rarely used but we do permit it," said Deborah Kolonay, superintendent of Penn-Trafford schools.
 
The instrument is a paddle and the principal administers it. It is not used at all at the elementary level, and no more than 10 times a year at the middle school level and 10 times a year at the high school level, she said.
 
The district's policy is in the student handbook and in a newsletter sent out each school year. In recent years, from one to 20 families have notified the district that they wished to opt out, Kolonay said.
 
"It is used as a last resort, and this after consultation with parents and discussion between the principal and the parents," she said.
 
State Rep. Jess Stairs, R-Mount Pleasant, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he hadn't polled his members on the issue. But at the hearing Feb. 23, some were specifically in favor of retaining corporal punishment, while others said they were reluctant to infringe on the right of individual school districts to set disciplinary policy.
 
He said he shared the latter concern, seeing it as a "balance of power" issue in which the executive branch was usurping legislative branch powers.
Stairs said he would meet with education committee members as well as members of the State Board of Education.
 
"We do want to draft a letter, so they can be a little closer to what we want," he said.
 
Isacke said her committee was asked to define "corporal punishment" and to clarify the phrase "immediate or serious harm" in the section on freedom of expression that says, "Students have the right to express themselves unless such expression materially and substantially interferes with the educational process, threatens immediate or serious harm to the welfare of the school or community, encourages unlawful activity or interferes with another individual's rights."
 
"We have a meeting March 16 and we'll discuss what changes to make. We don't want to go back without making those changes, because they might vote it down."
 
That has happened a number of times to the Chapter 12 revisions.
 
"We started in 1996, then we withdrew it, then we started in earnest again in 2000. There were a lot of other issues at that time. Now it's just boiled down to these two," she said.

TOP OF PAGE

Bill would help public school students go to private schools
Kavita Kumar, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
 
A bill that would create a privately funded scholarship program backed by state tax credits could send thousands of public school students to parochial or private schools.
 
The controversial proposal has found fertile ground this year amid growing frustration with some public schools and a new political landscape in Jefferson City. It is being supported by a diverse coalition of legislators and community leaders - Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, and school voucher supporters and opponents.
 
The bill's proponents are adamant that this is not a school voucher program, but critics who are mobilizing against it, including teachers unions, call it a "back door to vouchers" that would divert money from public schools.
 
People on both sides of the issue acknowledge that the bill has significant support in the House and Senate.
 
The bill, sponsored by Reps. Ted Hoskins, D-Berkeley, Rodney Hubbard, D-St. Louis, and Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, appears to be on a fast track. A House committee is expected to vote on the bill late this afternoon.
 
James Buford, president of the St. Louis Urban League, said he opposes vouchers because they take state money away from public schools. But he favors this plan because the money would come from private sources and would give students stuck in troubled schools an option.
 
"These schools are abysmally failing our kids," Buford said.
 
He added that he supports public schools, but it's going to take many years to fix them.
 
"I don't think I could say to you right now that this is the sentiment of the African-American community, but it's a growing sentiment and it's out there," he said.
 
Under the House bill, students accepting the tuition scholarships would have to be enrolled in, or have dropped out of, an unaccredited or provisionally accredited school district. In the St. Louis area, that would include St. Louis, Normandy and Wellston school districts. The bill's sponsors say more than 10,000 children could receive scholarships.
Eligible families could earn no more than 185 percent of the eligibility level for free and reduced-price lunches. For a family of four, that would mean no more than about $64,515.
 
Children with disabilities meeting certain other criteria also would be eligible for some scholarships.
 
Here's how the program would work:
 
Businesses and people could donate money to nonprofit educational assistance organizations.
 
The state would give up to $40 million in tax credits for up to 85 percent of the private contributions. The state would come out ahead because it would pay less in aid to school districts whose students got scholarships to other schools.
 
The education groups would distribute the money to eligible students. Most of the scholarship money would go toward tuition at a private school or a better-performing public school, textbooks, transportation costs and supplies. An average scholarship would be $3,800, up to a maximum of $6,500.
 
Priority would be given to students with the greatest need, such as children of inmates, foster children, students who have been suspended at least twice for 12 days or expelled, and students with a 2.5 grade-point average or lower.
 
The rest of the scholarship money would go to defray costs such as after-school tutoring, high school equivalency programs and apprenticeship programs.
 
Spence Jackson, a spokesman for Gov. Matt Blunt, said the governor supports the bill's concept. But Blunt has said he opposes school vouchers.
 
"We will work with (Rep. Cunningham) to craft a bill that we can enact," Jackson said.
 
One of the issues Blunt would like to take another look at is the size of the tax credit, Jackson said.
 
Many public education advocates say the scholarships, while technically not vouchers, would hurt public schools.
 
"You can call it what you want to, but it is a back door to vouchers. This is strictly dismantling the public schools," said Luana Gifford, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO and the Missouri Federation of Teachers.
 
She said the bill is supposed to help disadvantaged children in the public schools, but private schools may not find students who have academic or behavior problems attractive prospects.
 
Martin Angell is a lobbyist who promotes the idea of scholarship tax credits around the country and has spent much of the past two years working on the Missouri bill. He said he expects that the bill would spawn new private schools to fill certain niches, such as serving students with discipline issues.
 
"So the bill will fill classrooms, but it will also build schools," he said.
 
Brent Ghan, spokesman for the Missouri School Boards Association, said similar programs in other states have not often benefited students in poverty.
 
"Tuition is usually far greater than any scholarship or voucher would pay for, so it still does not allow much choice for many people," he said.
 
He said his group and others are watching the bill closely. "In our view, it's still an indirect use of public money for private education. And most of the education community is solidly against it."
 
The bill also has raised the eyebrows of some legislators who asked for Cunningham to step down as chairwoman of the House Education Committee last month. They pointed out that she raised more than $380,000 for Republican candidates, with much of the money coming from All Children Matter, a political action committee that supports school vouchers. Cunningham has said that the money was given without strings and that she abided by all ethics rules on campaign contributions.

TOP OF PAGE

Ex-superintendent admits losing school's $844,478 on gambling
By MARK MORRIS, Kansas City Star, 3/9/05
 
The former superintendent of a tiny northwest Missouri school district admitted in federal court Tuesday that he gambled away $844,478 of the district's state and federal aid.

Ronnie G. DeShon, who resigned in October as superintendent of the Pattonsburg R-II school district, pleaded guilty to federal program fraud and confessed to embezzling the money from 2000 through 2004. The district's budgets during that period ran between $1.8 million and $2 million a year.

Pattonsburg is about 70 miles northeast of Kansas City. School officials said the district serves 199 students and employs 23 teachers, two principals and a half dozen other workers.

“This is public money that should have been spent on teachers and textbooks, but instead went into his own pocket,” said U.S. Attorney Todd Graves. “DeShon wasn't just stealing from some government program. He was stealing from the children in his schools and the taxpayers of the community.”

DeShon, 50, told Senior U.S. District Judge Howard Sachs that he had a gambling addiction and had lost the money “gambling throughout the U.S.”

The embezzling stopped in mid-October when he drove to Kansas City and asked to speak with Assistant U.S. Attorney Linda Parker Marshall at the federal courthouse.

“I knew the bulk of the money was federal and that it was a federal crime,” DeShon said. “I just came to Kansas City to speak with the people who would indict me.”

DeShon said he had successfully hidden the thefts from district auditors, but school board members were growing suspicious.

“I knew the current audit wouldn't show anything, as it hadn't in the previous three years, but I just wanted to give up,” DeShon said.

Details of how he misled the school board are unclear, but employees were told during his tenure that the district lacked funds to buy equipment and retain teachers.

Authorities said DeShon had school district money wired directly into his personal account while preparing bogus financial statements for the district.

From his office in Pattonsburg, interim Superintendent Bob Bruner ticked off the hard consequences of DeShon's crime. For lack of funds, teachers were laid off at the end of the 2002-2003 school year, including an art instructor, a home economics teacher and a part-time remedial math teacher. Because a librarian also was let go, guidance counselors spent less time with students and more time shelving books. Numerous requests for updated computers also were turned down.

While the art and home economics teachers have been rehired, the school still doesn't have a librarian or remedial math teacher.

“Those are big items that were a direct result of that money not being available to the schools,” Bruner said.

While an insurance policy should recover most of the loss, Bruner noted that about $100,000 in lawyers' fees and lost interest probably are gone for good.

During the four years DeShon was superintendent, the district bounced off and on the state's “financially stressed” list, a measure of the district's financial health. A district makes the list when its cash on hand drops below a certain percentage of its budget, said Jim Morris, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The district is not currently on the list, Morris said.

A graduate of Kearney High School and Northwest Missouri State University, DeShon was appointed Clay County parks director in 1977 at age 22. He left the following year after a disagreement with the county parks commission to pursue a career in education.
In the 1990s, he worked at Northwest Missouri State University, winning four Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association championships as the women's track and cross country coach. He resigned in 1997, telling a Kansas City Star reporter that he wanted to pursue other career options.

DeShon's embezzlement scheme at Pattonsburg began within months of his appointment as superintendent in July 2000, according to federal court records.

Like many school districts in Missouri, Pattonsburg put its money in a central investment program that managed about $600 million in assets. In September 2000, DeShon contacted the program, identifying an account at the Northwest Missouri Regional Credit Union as a “second account” for the district. He directed that payments to the district be made to the credit union. The investment program was not aware that the credit union account was DeShon's personal account, prosecutors said.

From Sept. 6, 2000, to Oct. 7, 2004, DeShon regularly sent instructions to the investment program, ordering it to wire money directly into his bank account, according to court records.

To cover his tracks, DeShon made false entries in the district's books, showing the correct amount of funds, even posting bogus interest payments totaling about $60,000.

When DeShon turned himself in to federal authorities the district's coffers were almost bare.

“Because of DeShon's fraud, at the time of his resignation in October 2004, the district's bank account had a balance of only $14,” Graves said.

The account should have had a balance of $740,000, court records said.

Shouldn't the district's auditors have caught the thefts?

“That's a real good question,” Bruner said. “We (now) have a different CPA firm. Good auditors tell you they should do third-party verification with the bank. That did not appear to have happened here.”

Bruner also said he has changed procedures to encourage more transparency in the district's finances, allowing board members to check financial statements with the investment program without depending solely on the word of the superintendent.

“We're going to be doing everything in Pattonsburg to make certain this does not happen again,” Bruner said.

DeShon could receive up to 10 years in prison, however, an advisory sentence calculated in his plea agreement suggests a range of two-and-a-half to three years and one month.

DeShon is expected to ask for a lower sentence, arguing that he should be given credit for voluntarily disclosing that he had stolen the money. Such allowances sometimes are made if the confession was prompted by genuine remorse. Graves, however, cautioned that by meeting with Marshall, DeShon may have been trying to make the best of a bad situation.

“There was a special school board meeting that night to look into this,” Graves said.

Also Tuesday, the state opened an investigation of DeShon that could ultimately strip him of his teaching certificate.
 
TOP OF PAGE

Schools spread their news quickly with giant phone networks
City Unified is the latest district to send notes, warnings in many languages.
By Laurel Rosenhall, Sacramento Bee Staff Writer, 3/9/05

When a sewer line breaks at Nevada Union High School in Grass Valley or students at Natomas High fail to turn in their senior projects, school officials at both campuses use the same tool to let parents know what's going on.
It's not the backpack-stuffer.

"A lot of times those communications don't get home if you give it to a student in a flier," said Natomas High School Principal Troy Johnston.

The schools use a computerized telephone service that allows them to send thousands of recorded voice messages in minutes. The messages arrive on parents' home, work and cell phones in the voice of school officials, and in the language each family speaks.
"It's an enormously powerful communication tool for our families," said Steve Farrar, superintendent of the Natomas Unified School District. The district routinely sends messages in English, Spanish and Punjabi.

That desire to communicate quickly in many languages is one reason the Sacramento City Unified School District is spending $240,000 for the system, called Connect-ED. Launched today, it will allow them to contact the families of 48,000 students - who speak at least 49 languages - in English, Spanish, Hmong, Cantonese, Mien, Vietnamese and Russian.

"A school may have 100 families that need Spanish language and another 10 that need Hmong," said Maria Lopez, school district spokeswoman.

Many districts already use an automated phone service to alert parents if their child is absent or missed a class. But the Connect-ED system, used by about 3,500 schools districts nationwide, is more flexible, allowing specific messages to be targeted to specific groups - to alert the parents of children riding a particular bus, for example, that it's running late.

And it could reap additional benefits: Sacramento City officials hope it will allow them to involve more parents in school activities and increase student attendance - and revenue.

Once in operation, principals will use the service to communicate on a range of issues: student attendance, campus emergencies, information on parent meetings or reminders about state testing dates.

Here's how it works: A principal calls a toll-free number and records a voice message. Translators can record the message in additional languages. Using a computer, the principal then selects the recipients and decides whether the message should be sent immediately or scheduled to go at a future time. The service can send about 15,000 messages in 15 minutes.

"I received one the other day on testing, telling me to make sure the kids eat right and get lots of rest during those days," said Lisa Rojas, who has four children in Natomas Unified schools.

"They gave us two weeks' notice, and told us when the test dates are so we don't plan activities."

The service costs about $5 per student per year. The Sacramento City district will eliminate its current attendance calling system - in place at some schools but deemed too slow - for a savings of $40,000.

Officials could have opted for a less expensive program - about $3.40 per student per year - that sends messages with a commercial tag line. But Lopez said they didn't want to bother parents with ads.

The phone service could boost revenue if Sacramento City can mirror the success elsewhere. Some districts that use it say they have increased attendance by 1 or 2 percent. That results in increased funding because the state pays schools based on average daily attendance.

"Not only is it worth the expense, it generates income for us," said Natomas Unified's Farrar, whose district pays about $40,000 for the service.

A 1 percent attendance increase would add about $2.2 million a year to Sacramento City's revenue, said Joan Butt, deputy superintendent.

In Natomas and Nevada County, administrators said they also use the service to involve parents in campus life.

"Most school districts start considering the Connect-ED system because of emergency situations. But 90 percent of their calls (end up being) parent outreach," said Natasha Rabe, vice president of Notification Technologies Inc., the Los Angeles company that sells the service.

Districts run the risk of annoying parents with a deluge of automated phone calls, so the company monitors responses. After a message is sent out, principals receive a report detailing how many listened to it completely and how many hung up midway through. If there are a lot of hang-ups, the company advises shorter messages or less frequent calls.

The system allows messages to be targeted to specific households, meaning principals can call all parents of third-graders, or all parents of football players, or all parents whose children have missed an assignment.

"If bus line 48 is held up because of traffic or whatever reason, they're able to go in and call all the parents of students on bus 48 and tell them that bus 48 is running 15 minutes late, so don't be worried," said Terry McAteer, Nevada County superintendent of schools.

All 10 Nevada County school districts use the system, McAteer said. Principals have used it to notify parents of snow days and to alert them that students were coming home early when a sewage leak forced the evacuation of Nevada Union High School.

"This has been one of the best things we've done in our schools in terms of public relations, but also in terms of what's best for kids," McAteer said.

In the Natomas district, principal Johnston said he's called to let parents know that their child missed school, did not turn in a major assignment or hasn't been wearing gym clothes at P.E.

In some cases, he said, parents have reported phone message overload.

"We get some parents who say 'This is the best thing you've ever done,' and other parents who say 'Would you stop calling me?'" Johnston said.

"We say, 'Would you rather not know what's going on at school or would you rather have the information?'"
 
TOP OF PAGE

Private firms, cash crunch drive out driver's ed
While the trend saves districts money, parents lose out with fewer options, higher prices.
By Gene Schabath, The Detroit News, 3/7/05

UTICA -- Driver's education, once as popular as shop class and home economics, is coming to a screeching halt in school districts across Metro Detroit.

In fact, two of the area's largest districts -- Utica and Plymouth-Canton -- just canceled their programs, and experts say most districts in the state will join them because of a loss in state subsidies and infiltration by private companies in the highly competitive business.

The trend is good for districts because they no longer have to provide the service during tough financial times.

But it forces parents and students to shop around for companies when they traditionally depended on school districts to provide low-cost instruction.

Liz Mason is upset that West Bloomfield Schools dropped driver's education last year.

"I have a daughter, Megan, who is about to go through it," Mason said. "I was disappointed. It was a great program. My other daughter, Amanda, went through it (two years ago). It was close to home and convenient to have it at the school.

"It was also the trust factor," she said. "I am sure the school did the job of making sure the instructors were accredited."

Mason said her disappointment has been offset by the fact that West Bloomfield's longtime driver's education coordinator, Dan Rabish, has formed a private company, TSA, and will instruct Megan.

"Mr. Rabish is an awesome instructor," said Amanda Mason, who was one of the last students he taught. "I don't like that they dropped it."

Some students, however, say private programs have become just as convenient -- and the price and quality of instruction is competitive.

Ryan Stadler, 16, a 10th-grader at Canton High, said students are not upset that the driver's education classes are being discontinued.

"Most of the students take it though Advanced Driving Academy (a private company in Canton Township)," Stadler said.

"It's more convenient. It's closer to my home; I think they have better instruction at ADD. I don't know of anyone who takes it at school."

The Utica and Plymouth-Canton decisions came after the state eliminated subsidies for the programs last year.

It's a bellwether for more school districts, said Rob Dilday, driver education coordinator for Utica Schools, the state's third-largest district.

"You will find that most school districts will get out of driver's training," Dilday said.

The secretary of state's office showed a 21 percent decline in the number of public schools offering driver's education, from 473 to 369, between 2000 and 2004. The biggest decline, 11 percent -- from 422 to 360 -- occurred from 2003 to 2004, after the state dropped the $90-per-student subsidy.

Private driver's training companies operating in Michigan have increased from 119 in 2000 to 183 in 2004.

Once the state cut the subsidy, Utica, Plymouth-Canton and other districts were forced to raise their rates.

The downward spiral for high school driver's education started in 1997, when the state no longer required schools to offer the training, said Brad Huspek, who operates 28 driver education outlets in Michigan for Sears Authorized Driving School.

"It's been a gradual phasing out (for schools) since then," Huspek said. Sears charges about $300 for the course, which is comparable to other private companies.

After the state dropped the subsidy, Plymouth-Canton hiked its rates to $320, which included $20 for phase two of driver training last year.

That spelled doom for the program, Patrick Fitzpatrick, program coordinator for Plymouth-Canton, said.

The decline in public courses means more business for Dave Semrau, owner of perhaps one of the largest private driver's instruction companies in the state. Semrau owns Courtesy Driving School, which has more than a dozen outlets in Metro Detroit, and Birmingham Driving School. Semrau's companies instruct students from about 40 high schools.

Semrau, who has owned Courtesy for 35 years, said not only do his companies offer a cheaper rate, but they also have many other features that public schools do not have.

"The biggest thing in driver education is curriculum, curriculum, curriculum," Semrau said. "We have a curriculum for the classroom and a curriculum for the road. And we have a code of conduct. Kids will sign (a form) that they will act properly, dress properly and not swear. The parents love it.

"And we work with the schools. We know all of the principals and we give back to the schools. That's part of doing business with the schools. We rent rooms in the schools. All of this has given us an increase in business."

Semrau said some schools will always offer driver's education, but many will get out of the program because of the cost and the loss of state aid.

Huspek said he has had a 10 percent increase in student customers in the last year, up to 11,000. Another feature that private companies offer is they will go to students' homes and pick them up for class or driving instruction, said Fitzpatrick, of Plymouth-Canton.

Several school districts in western Wayne County, including Wayne-Westland and Livonia, have dropped their driver's education in the past two years, said Leonard Schemanske, a Canton police officer who owns Advanced Driving Academy.

Bloomfield Hills Schools had a steep decline in driver's education students from about 260 to 130 after the district raised the fee to $570 last year when the state eliminated the subsidy, said spokeswoman Jennifer Woliung.

"We've noticed about a 50 percent decline in enrollment since we had to raise the rate," Woliung said.
 
TOP OF PAGE

Texas school chief risks funds in feud with feds
The government may penalize state over tests in special ed
By JUSTIN GEST, Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau, 3/9/05

WASHINGTON - The Texas education commissioner plans to continue to challenge U.S. Department of Education standardized testing rules, even if it means losing federal funding for state public schools.
 
"I know we need that money," Commissioner Shirley Neeley said this week. "But we're going to fight a brave fight, and we're going to err on the side of doing what's best for our children any day of the week."

The dispute involves the No Child Left Behind law's cap on the percentage of students who take alternative tests because they have severe learning disabilities. Texas allowed 9 percent of its students to take the special test last year, well beyond the 1 percent limit in the federal guidelines.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who helped develop No Child Left Behind in Texas, maintains that the state inflated its standardized test results by excusing too many students from more rigorous examinations.

Neeley contends that the alternative test is every bit as stringent as the regular test and is simply tailored to the needs of students with disabilities.

Now the Department of Education can withhold an unspecified amount of federal education funding from Texas, whose request for a waiver from the testing rules was denied.

The Texas education system gets more than $1 billion a year from the federal government. In January, then-Secretary of Education Rod Paige of Houston threatened to impose a fine of $444,282, or 4 percent of federal funding earmarked for administration.

Neeley said Texas has been following state laws that give parents and instructors the right to decide which test meets the goals of each child's education plan.

Texas officials say the federal government has not directed the state to change its testing practices. Because the same number of alternative tests have been sent to Texas school districts this year, the state will almost inevitably exceed the federal limit once again, Texas Education Agency Associate Commissioner Criss Cloudt said.

Federal officials are taking a conciliatory line with Texas and 15 other states that may challenge various provisions of the law.

"The goal isn't to punish states," said Department of Education spokeswoman Susan Aspey. "The goal is to bring them into compliance and see that the students are learning."

Neeley says she has consulted at least 10 other state education agencies that did not comply with the special-education provisions.

"We're not trying to be rebels," Neeley said. "I want the people in Washington to realize that this is not just a Texas problem. This is a nationwide concern."

Aspey and policy adviser Kerri Briggs said they are investigating why Texas exceeded the cap on special testing before deciding whether the state should be hit with a financial penalty. State officials, however, have already explained their reasons in writing.

Cloudt said No Child Left Behind conflicts with other federal and state laws that give local districts the authority to designate how many children should be given alternative tests.

This week, Texas officials were told that representatives from the Department of Education will travel to Austin sometime this month to review the education agency's actions and evaluate Texas' special-education exam.
 
TOP OF PAGE

Despite ads, Detroit can't lure students
$2 million marketing effort doesn't stop flight from district 
By Chastity, Pratt, Detroit Free Press Education Writer, 3/10/05

Detroit Public Schools spent more than $2 million over the past two years on advertising and marketing efforts designed to increase community confidence and stop students from fleeing the district by the thousands.

Despite those efforts, enrollment fell by 9,300, fueling a $200-million budget crisis that has led to cuts, layoffs and school closings.

Critics said the financially-crippled DPS spent too much on marketing that was too broad and did little to change the poor reputation the district has had for decades. And unlike other districts that have attracted students with their marketing, DPS did not raise money to support its campaign and booked no big-name graduate or celebrity to promote itself.

However, some community leaders and communications specialists maintain that the district must spend more on ads to combat the ads fired off by charter schools and suburban districts that have recruited an estimated 40,000 Detroit students during the past decade.

The DPS ads typically tout good news about the district, such as increases in MEAP scores and the 17 new school buildings constructed with a $1.5-billion bond. School officials also paid for 15 consultants, millions of flyers, brochures, and radio, television and print ads in an effort to popularize the "I am DPS" slogan. The district was peppered with merchandise embossed with the feel-good slogan: T-shirts, sweatshirts, lapel pins, calculators and church fans.

None of it has had any measurable effect.

" 'I am DPS?' I am out of here," said Detroiter Eveonne Ibbs, whose 14-year-old daughter attends Roseville Junior High. Ibbs and her husband refuse to enroll their daughter in DPS, even though the district recently announced it will no longer grant waivers for Detroit children to attend school in districts such as Roseville that typically do not open their borders to Detroit students.

"I've gotten flyers in the mail. I read them, laughed and threw them away because I know they're not true," she said. "They're trying to doctor up an inefficient system to try to make us parents think that it is, and it's not. Look at the number of freshmen who graduate. It's Third World, deplorable."

But the more students leave DPS, the more important it is to advertise, said Ken Coleman, spokesman for the district. "We don't really apologize for the spending. In a competitive market, we've go to do that."

Some parents have called the "I am DPS" slogan cute but pointless, while others deem it a necessary tool to unify the city.

"I'm glad they made a way for the parents to identify with the system," said Shaton Berry, president of the PTA at Western International High who received an "I am DPS" T-shirt at Monday's citywide PTA meeting. She said the spending is worth it because the slogan connects people. "If we're going to help our kids, we have to have a united front," she said.

Mike Bernacchi, professor of marketing at the University of Detroit Mercy, said school officials should spend money on more teachers or supplies instead of on ads.

"You have to be real careful advertising a product when the first response is, 'Are you kidding me?' The worst thing is for people to say, 'They're spending my tax money to promote an untruth or something that is not true throughout the whole district.' "
The negative press from a $200-million budget problem and the closure of 34 schools means that the district has to fight back with ads, said Steve Brown, associate vice president for marketing and communications for Wayne State University. But it could take at least three years to see any measurable results, he said.

"It's the right thing to do," he said. "You can always look back and say, 'If only we had done this two years ago.' But you have to face the reality of what you're in now and say, 'Let's batten down the hatches and hold onto the walls.' "

Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit Branch NAACP and leader of the school district transition team, said that despite the budget crisis, more money should be spent on advertising. Positive stories must be told to build community confidence, he said.
"They don't have a choice on that."

The "I am DPS" campaign was modeled after the "I am APS" campaign started in Albuquerque, N.M. School officials there raised $30,000 and solicited media to donate broadcast time, said Rigo Chavez, spokesman for Albuquerque Public Schools.

Locally, Highland Park brought in almost 1,000 Detroit students this year -- at $7,000 in state aid per student -- after an aggressive advertising campaign that featured celebrated attorney Geoffrey Fieger. DPS has not recruited celebrities or raised money, but used consultants to get its message out.

Adolph Mongo, a former school district critic who has been a paid consultant for Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, has earned more than $75,000 since August writing and buying ads and training school officials, according to invoices.

"Why would they hire me when they have people in-house? I can't answer that. I don't write policies. Unfortunately, politics push a lot of the agenda," he said.

"They don't have a real marketing or PR plan. They're starting to put one together," he said.
 
TOP OF PAGE

Kentucky passes exercise, nutrition bill
By Bruce Schreiner, Associated Press Writer, 3/10/05

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A bill aimed at promoting exercise in elementary schools and improving eating habits in schools won final passage in the General Assembly on Tuesday night.
 
Health advocates said they were pleased with the final version, which was hashed out earlier in the evening by a House-Senate conference committee. Supporters touted the compromise measure as a way to reduce childhood obesity blamed for diabetes and other health problems.

"This is an important first step for schools, and the right thing to do for kids," said Tonya Chang with the American Heart Association.

The measure cleared the House on a 63-23 vote. Later, the Senate passed the measure 23-7, sending it to Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

The measure would require local site-based decision-making councils to develop "wellness policies" that would include "moderate to vigorous" physical activity for elementary school pupils each day. The measure set no guidelines on how long the exercise would have to last. It would allow up to 30 minutes of exercise to be counted as part of the instructional day.

"It's got a mandate in it, but at the local level," said Rep. Tom Burch, D-Louisville, a key negotiator on the final legislation.

Burch, who for years has pushed getting rid of junk food in schools, called the final measure "the beginning of a good, healthy lifestyle" for youngsters.

"We've still got work to do educating parents about fast foods," he said.

Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, led the push in the Senate for the legislation.

"I am so thankful for the children of Kentucky," Kerr said after the vote. "This is a bill that puts us as Kentuckians ahead of the curve and we will be a national model."

The proposal would ban soft-drink sales to elementary school pupils during the school day. It also would let the state Board of Education set nutritional standards for food sold in vending machines and in a la carte lines in elementary and secondary schools. Also, the state school board would regulate vending machine drinks sold in middle and high schools.

The proposal also would limit schools to offering retail fast foods just once a week.

It also would require the certification of school food service directors.

Schools would have to report to parents annually on nutrition standards and the amount of physical activity for youngsters.
 
TOP OF PAGE

Md. teen protests foreign language Pledge
AP, 3/10/05  

MILLERSVILLE, Md. -- A ninth-grader is protesting his school's decision to broadcast the Pledge of Allegiance in foreign languages as part of National Foreign Language Week.
 
Patrick Linton said he and other students at Old Mill High School sat down rather than stand Wednesday when the Pledge was read over the school's public address system in Russian. Linton's teacher told him if he had a problem he should leave the room.

He did, and did not plan to return this week.

"This is America, and we got soldiers at war," the 15-year-old said. "When you're saying the Pledge in a different language which nobody understands, that's not OK."

Charles Linton, Patrick's father, said the use of other languages is disrespectful to the country. "It's like wearing a cross upside down in a church," he said.

The pledge was to be read in Spanish, French, Latin, Russian and German. School officials said the activity will continue, with the English version of the Pledge being read first for the rest of the week.

"This is just a way to connect what's going on in the classroom and this daily activity where we say the Pledge of Allegiance," said Jonathan Brice, a spokesman for Anne Arundel County Public Schools.
 
TOP OF PAGE

============================

FROM "EDUCATION WEEK"

Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools
Money, Initiatives Pledged During Two-Day Event
By Lynn Olson, 3/9/05

Washington - The nation’s governors adjourned their two-day summit on high schools armed with an expanded arsenal of political and financial commitments to prepare all students for success in college and the workplace.

But despite the enthusiastic launch of two major initiatives at the Feb. 26-27 meeting here, observers cautioned that improving American high schools is a long, arduous task that will likely fail unless policymakers can convince large sectors of the public that change is actually needed.

In one of the summit’s highlights, six philanthropies, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced a $42 million initiative to help states raise high school graduation and college-readiness rates. Thirteen states, which educate more than a third of U.S. students, also joined a new coalition committed to transforming high schools by raising standards, redesigning curricula, and tying high school tests and accountability systems to the knowledge and skills needed for life after high school.
 
“We are united in our conviction that high schools must be targeted for comprehensive reform and sustained change,” Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat and the chairman of the National Governors Association, told the gathering of governors, policymakers, educators, and business leaders from 45 states and territories. “I think we’re at that moment in time when progress can and should be made.”

That view was echoed by many people during and after the event. They said that now may be the golden opportunity to tackle an institution long impervious to change.

But educators also said that simply raising standards and demanding more of students would not produce the radical redesign of high schools called for by the summit’s keynote speaker, Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates.
 
“America’s high schools are obsolete,” Mr. Gates declared in his address, calling them “the wrong tool for the times.”

To address Mr. Gates’ concerns, educators said, governors must be willing to tackle such tough issues as teacher preparation and working conditions, student engagement, school organization and structure, and support for students to accelerate their learning. While all of those issues were discussed during the summit—and in an “action agenda” released by the meeting’s co-sponsors, the NGA and the Washington-based Achieve Inc., just before the event—observers are waiting to see whether the governors follow through on those ideas back home.

“More rigor and academic preparation is a good thing,” said Tony Monfiletto, the founder of Amy Diehl High School in Albuquerque, N.M., a 210-student charter school, who watched parts of the summit on C-SPAN. “One of the things that I found missing, at least, is that there’s a whole system of support that needs to go along with these new standards.”

“We have been through years of ever-increasing standards and testing,” said Larry Rosenstock, the chief executive officer of the San Diego-based High Tech High, who agreed with Mr. Gates that high schools must be totally rethought. Invoking a Chinese philosopher of the 6th century B.C., Mr. Rosenstock continued: “As LaoTzu said, insanity is doing the same thing in the same way and expecting different results.”

Preparing for What’s Next
One of the themes stressed during the summit was a need to connect high school curricula, standards, and tests with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and careers.

Before leaving town, governors from 13 states announced that they had joined with Achieve to form a coalition, the American Diploma Project Network, aimed at pursuing that agenda back home. The states involved are: Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Texas.

Those states, and any others that join the coalition, commit to: aligning high school standards and tests with the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education and work; requiring all students to take a college- and work-ready curriculum to earn a diploma; giving all high school students a test that measures their readiness for work and college; and holding high schools accountable for graduating students who are college-ready, and postsecondary institutions accountable for the success of the students they enroll.
 
“We’re not telling states they have to have high-stakes tests,” said Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a nonprofit group formed by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based education. States that have agreed to the policy principles “are each going to do it in their own way,” he said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all.”

Anne McKernan, the acting principal of the Metropolitan Learning Center Interdistrict Magnet School for Global and International Studies, in Bloomfield, Conn., agreed that if states could align their high school tests with college-admissions and -placement decisions, “we would have a lot of leverage with our students, in terms of the importance of those tests, and why they need to be fully prepared.”

“If the governors can get higher education to work with state departments of education on high schools, I think it would be a powerful thing,” she said, in reaction to the summit. “I don’t know who else this could even come from, except the legislature or the governors.”

But those at the summit admitted that bridging secondary and postsecondary education is easier said than done. “These are hard efforts to get started,” said Thomas Layzell, the president of Kentucky’s Council on Postsecondary Education, which oversees change and improvement in the state’s higher education system. “They’re hard to sustain. There’s a lot of inertia in the system.”

Lucille Davy, the special counsel for education to acting Gov. Richard J. Codey of New Jersey, a Democrat, said, “I think the network will give us an opportunity to learn from each other.” She also suggested that states may have more leverage to change higher education if they collaborate.

Susan Tave Zelman, the state superintendent of education in Ohio, said her state hopes to work with others in the network to develop a college- and workplace-readiness test that students could take in high school. Over the next few months, each state in the network is expected to draft a specific plan and timetable for pursuing the American Diploma Project’s policy agenda.

Within the next 45 days, the NGA’s Center for Best Practices also plans to release criteria for states to apply for $21 million in grant money to help redesign high schools. The NGA expects to announce the grant recipients, which must match the awards dollar for dollar, at the governors’ annual summer meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, in August.

Combined with the American Diploma Project Network, “the two announcements are really quite extraordinary,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education at the Seattle-based Gates Foundation.

He predicted that, as a result, more than half the states would end up working with the NGA and Achieve on high school redesign.

“The work that’s going to come out of this is technical and political,” Mr. Vander Ark said, “and we want to make sure that states have the resources to do this right and to build support for higher expectations.”

The other foundations joining the effort are the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Wallace Foundation, the Prudential Foundation, and the State Farm Foundation.

But while governors and business leaders here stressed what they see as the economic imperative to raise standards in order to compete with such countries as China and India, most acknowledged they have yet to convince the public that there is a crisis in high school education, or that all students need college-ready skills.

Public Complacency

“There are big elements of the public where we have a culture of educational complacency,” Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota, a Republican, said during one of the summit’s breakout sessions. “With the exception of communities where there is obvious or great distress, there is not a sense of crisis.”

Business leaders could be particularly helpful in carrying forth that message, suggested Art Ryan, the chairman and chief executive officer of Prudential Financial, based in Newark, N.J., and a co-chairman of Achieve. “The business community now understands that we have some work to do as well,” he said. “We need to take the message and create a sense of urgency. In many ways, the summit is just the beginning.”

Others said that simply aligning standards and assessments at the state and district levels wouldn’t make much difference without a significant investment in teachers and principals and their knowledge base.

“It doesn’t help to have great standards if a teacher doesn’t know what to do with them,” Roy Romer, the superintendent of the Los Angeles school district and a former governor of Colorado, said during a breakout session at the conference.

That view was echoed last week by educators.

“Everybody is pretty much in agreement that high schools need to be restructured,” said Deborah J. Jervis, one of the few teachers invited to attend the summit. Ms. Jervis, who is the chairwoman of the mathematics department at Coventry High School in Coventry, R.I., added that “it’s impossible to do it without support from the top down,” including the proper resources, time for teachers to plan together and collaborate, and professional development for teachers.

But educators stressed that such recommendations require that governors and legislators put some money behind their rhetoric.

“Obviously, it’s wonderful for governors to be paying attention to high schools,” Linda F. Nathan, the headmaster of the public Boston Arts Academy, said in an interview after the summit. But she added: “There’s a huge gap, I think, between paying attention and funding mandates.”

Speaking during a press conference at the summit, Virginia’s Gov. Warner said that “the initiatives that we’re talking about are not simply about money.”

“It takes not only resources,” he said, “but a will to bring a whole lot of people to the table who haven’t necessarily worked together in the past.”

That’s not to say, though, that the governors wouldn’t welcome a little help from Washington.

Speaking at the summit, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings outlined the details of President Bush’s proposed $1.5 billion High School Initiative. “I believe the president’s budget will help you achieve these goals we all share,” she said. Immediately following the summit, the governors convened for their midwinter meeting, where they adopted a resolution spelling out exactly what they hope to see from the federal government by way of support for high school improvement.

In general, the resolution urges Washington to decrease burdensome reporting requirements and mandates, and let governors take the lead when it comes to the specifics of state education policy.
 
TOP OF PAGE

‘First Things First’ Shows Promising Results
By Caroline Hendrie, 3/9/05

Kansas City, Kan. - When James P. Connell arrived here nine years ago peddling a school improvement model he called First Things First, plenty of people wished he’d head back home.

“First Things First came in and I thought, ‘More of the same,’ ” recalled Robert Bayer, an assistant principal at the city’s 1,125-student Wyandotte High School. “I didn’t want any part of it.”

Eventually, Mr. Bayer and many other educators in this 20,000-student school system changed their minds. As the district gradually restructured all five of its high schools into small learning communities using Mr. Connell’s model, feelings grew that the developmental psychologist from Philadelphia just might be on to something.

Now, at a time when high schools have risen to the top of the nation’s education agenda, this hardscrabble city is piquing the interest of educators searching for models.

No one is calling it a miracle, but the Kansas City, Kan., district’s experience with First Things First—with backing from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation—is offering hope that the redesign of urban high schools is not a lost cause.

In his speech to the nation’s governors at last month’s summit on high schools, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates placed the district first on a short list of examples that he said provide “mounting evidence” that redesigning high schools can work to improve graduation rates and prepare students for college, work, and citizenship. 

“It appears to be the best model for improving existing high schools out there,” said Tom Vander Ark, the executive director of education for the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a major national supporter of smaller, more academically engaging high schools.

While perhaps not everyone would go that far, the district’s progress under First Things First stands out when viewed against the disappointing results often yielded by attempts to carve high schools into smaller units. The gains have come in an urban system in which nearly four of every five students are nonwhite, and three out of four qualify for federally subsidized school meals—a profile that typically correlates with subpar achievement.

Attendance is up, and as Mr. Gates pointed out in his Feb. 26 speech, the graduation rate for the district’s four nonselective high schools climbed from 48 percent in 2000 to 78 percent last year. Reading scores in high schools have risen, though they are not stellar. Test results have edged up only slightly in mathematics in the high schools, however, a trouble spot that local officials attribute partly to an initial focus on literacy.

“It’s been a struggle,” Superintendent Ray Daniels told a group of 70 educators from seven districts who visited last month for a closer look. “But we’re really beginning to see the results.”

To Andy Tompkins, the Kansas commissioner of education, the district’s story is one that educators elsewhere should hear. “They’ve made tremendous progress, and they’ve got a long way to go,” he said of the Kansas City schools. “And they’d be the first to tell you that.”

Kicking the Tires

A former tenured professor of psychology at the University of Rochester in New York, Mr. Connell came on the scene here shortly after leaving academia to focus on a nonprofit school improvement organization he had formed called the Institute for Research and Reform in Education.

The IRRE has received major grants over the years from the U.S. Department of Education; $2.8 million from the Kansas City, Mo.-based Kauffman Foundation for its work here; and a recent commitment of $3.8 million from the Gates Foundation to scale up.

The institute is now working in Houston, New Orleans, and across the river from here in Missouri’s Kansas City. Other locales using its model or planning to do so include Norristown, Pa.; Sarasota, Fla.; Riverview Gardens, Mo.; and the Mississippi school districts of Greenville and Shaw.

Kansas City, Kan., was the first and only district to put First Things First in place in all its schools. So for Mr. Connell, this district is where interested educators come to “kick the tires of First Things First.”

The model has three pillars for the high school level: small, themed learning communities that each keep a group of students together throughout grades 9-12; a “family advocate” system that pairs teachers with 15 to 17 students over four years; and a heavy emphasis on instructional improvement.

High school learning communities have no more than 325 students, and in many cases are smaller. At Wyandotte High, the first here to implement First Things First, the eight small learning communities each average around 170 students, who take all their core academic subjects within their SLCs.

Besides strengthening relationships between students and teachers, the structure is designed to broaden the roles of faculty members, heighten their collaboration, and promote a sense of collective responsibility for students’ success.

“We have asked our staff to do so much,” Superintendent Daniels remarked. “I keep wondering when they’re going to say, ‘That’s it; go to hell; we’re not doing any more.’ ”

Within each SLC, teachers typically handle all but the most grievous student-discipline matters. Faculty members also decide how to allocate money and time, and play a big role in filling staff vacancies.

Teachers have common planning periods each day and two hours of professional-development time every Wednesday, when students are sent home early. District leaders see those hours as critical.

“It is a gift from our community, a true gift that we treasure and that we are very careful not to abuse,” said Steve Gering,the district’s executive director of instruction for secondary schools.

Cassandra Kincaid, a social studies teacher at Wyandotte High, said teachers in her SLC gather in one another’s classrooms on Wednesday afternoons to test-drive teaching strategies aimed at snaring students’ interest. “We give feedback on how engaging it is,” she said of a new teaching approach. “If we start talking and we’re bored, that’s a good sign that the kids will be, too.”

Model Evolves

Initially, the tenets of First Things First were fuzzier than they are now. So the district became a testing ground for concepts that the IRRE revised over time—sometimes to the frustration of local educators.

At first, IRRE did not require small learning communities that keep students together over all four years of high school. So some schools started out with 9th grade academies, moving students to theme-based SLCs for the upper grades. But IRRE and district leaders soon concluded that the academies were not raising graduation rates.

Another feature of First Things First that evolved is its family-advocacy system, which was piloted in 2001 and fully phased in this school year. Under the system, teachers are designated as advocates for groups of 15 to 17 students, for whom they remain responsible for four years. Advocates meet for at least an hour a week with their groups, and are supposed to hold private conversations with each student for at least five minutes. And they are to get in touch with students’ families monthly and meet with them in person twice a year.

The idea was not an instant hit, and with some, it still isn’t.

“There are some SLCs that haven’t bought in,” said Traci Burks, a special education teacher at Wyandotte High.

But others say the system works well. For teachers, having designated advocates who know students well and keep in touch with their families can be a big help when concerns arise about students’ performance. And students say the system helps them feel like more than just faces in the crowd.

Armon Williams, a senior at Wyandotte High who has diabetes, said he realized that his teacher-advocate, Ms. Kincaid, really cared for him a few years ago when she walked him to the cafeteria to get a snack after his blood sugar had dropped dangerously low.

“Another teacher would have just given me a pass and had me go down on my own,” he said. “There’s no guarantee I would have made it.”

Officials here decided early on to use First Things First in all the district’s schools, a focus they say has contributed strongly to their success. Mr. Connell also stresses that leadership and support from the central office here has been critical.

Yet he insists that districts can succeed by adopting First Things First in only their high schools. Indeed, for the past five years, the IRRE has concentrated mainly on secondary schools, and most of the districts now interested in adopting the model share that focus.

“I think K-12 is the best way to go, but it’s not the only way,” Mr. Connell said. “The high schools are the heart of the community, and if you get all the high schools, you’ve got district reform.”

Local school officials say they have been greatly helped by outside support, principally the $10.6 million that the Kauffman Foundation has given the district to support First Things First since 1996. But they say that the district has shown a matching commitment by shifting people and resources around, including redeploying curriculum coordinators from the central office to work directly with teachers on instruction in schools.

Managing resistance from staff members has been challenging all along, officials here say.

“Teachers ran Connell out of the building a couple of times, literally screaming at him,” Mr. Gering said.

Getting on Board

Still, the teachers’ union, an affiliate of the National Education Association, got on board when it counted, administrators say.

“There was a lot of skepticism, quite a bit of mistrust,” said Linda Hollinshed, the president of the NEA-Kansas City, Kan. At first, she said, the union was miffed that it hadn’t been consulted before the district decided to go with First Things First. But that attitude started shifting after the district held a retreat for the union’s building-level representatives—a gathering where alarming student-performance data were laid out.

“Our students weren’t graduating from our schools at the levels we wanted, and the state test scores were low,” Ms. Hollinshed said. “The question became, ‘So if not this reform, what next?’ ”

In the years since, implementation of First Things First has been uneven across the district. Some observers caution that what role the model played in the district’s improvements is not entirely clear. Leaders of the Kauffman Foundation, for example, say they still have unanswered questions.

But on the whole, an evaluation released last month concludes that the effort has had a positive impact at the high school level on graduation rates, attendance, student engagement, and test scores.

On the attendance front, just 20 percent of students had no more than one unexcused absence per month in the year before each high school put the model in place. After three years, 40 percent met that standard, said Michelle Alberti Gambone, the lead researcher on the evaluation, conducted by the Philadelphia-based Youth Development Strategies with partial funding from the Kauffman Foundation.

On the Kansas State Assessments, the district has seen sizable math gains in elementary and middle schools. But the proportion of high school students who scored at the proficient level or better merely inched up, from 14 percent in 2000-01 to 16 percent in 2003-04.

In reading, the high school gains have been better, though still not on a par with those in the lower grades. From 2000-01 to 2003-04, students rated as proficient rose from 25 percent to 40 percent.

District leaders and Mr. Connell say they are far from satisfied with those figures. Still, they are heartened by the progress, and attribute much of it to sticking with the program over time.

“For the first couple of years, there weren’t changes in student performance, and that’s when most reforms die,” Mr. Gering said. “We were so close to having it die so many times.”

The district is now at a turning point. Funding from the Kauffman Foundation is winding down, and Superintendent Daniels will retire this summer. Jill Shackleford, a deputy to Mr. Daniels who is moving up to the top spot, said the coming transition has triggered some “shakiness” among staff members, who have wondered whether she means it when she promises to stay the course with First Things First.

Her message to them is yes. “It is working—better in some places than others—but it’s just the way we do business now,” she said. “We’ve got too much invested in it to not make it.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

Texas Stands Behind Own Testing Rule
Move Puts State at Odds With NCLB Policy
By David J. Hoff, 3/9/05

Faced with a conflict between state and federal laws, Texas officials have come down on the side of their own law and set up a possible showdown with the U.S. government over millions of dollars in education aid.

In determining which schools and districts were meeting annual goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the state last month granted a host of appeals from districts and schools that said they should get credit for following less stringent state rules for assessing special education students.

As a result, 431 districts and 1,312 schools were considered by Texas to be making adequate yearly progress, or AYP, even though they didn’t follow the federal law’s strict rules for counting the test scores of students with disabilities.

“There was simply no way that schools could have followed [federal rules] without violating state statutory requirements,” said Criss Cloudt, the associate commissioner for accountability and data quality for the Texas Education Agency.

States will be watching how the U.S. Department of Education reacts to the Texas decision and whether it withholds any of Texas’ $1 billion annual share from the No Child Left Behind Act.

“If [federal officials] do anything to grant Texas this, it could open the floodgates around the country,” said Scott Young, a senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

A U.S. Department of Education spokeswoman said last week that the federal officials haven’t decided how to respond to Texas’ action.

“We’re reviewing the information we currently have and will be talking to them to get a better grasp of what they’re doing,” Susan Aspey, a department spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

Federalism in Question

As state officials nationwide have faced carrying out the 3-year-old law, they have chafed at complying with federal requirements that conflict with their state laws. A proposed measure in Utah, for instance, calls for letting state laws trump the federal law.

Two days before the Texas announcement, the Denver-based NCSL issued a report saying the law championed by President Bush unfairly usurps state policies. The group listed changes it wants from Congress and the federal Education Department. ("NCLB Law Needs Work, Legislators Assert," Feb. 24, 2005.) State officials also have been seeking waivers from Margaret Spellings, who was sworn in as the U.S. secretary of education in January.

While Secretary Spelling has said she would consider granting states leeway on the rules for compliance with the law, she has said she won’t bend on its key requirements.

Last week, for example, she denied a request from Connecticut to waive the law’s requirement that students be tested in grades 3-8 and once in high school. The state had asked to continue its practice of assessing students in grades 4, 6, 8, and 10.

“We must measure annually and in each grade to determine if these [achievement] gaps are being closed, and, if they are not, adjustments must be made,” Ms. Spellings said in a Feb. 28 letter to Connecticut’s commissioner of education, Betty J. Sternberg.
Ms. Spelling added that the Education Department is “committed to including every student in the assessment and accountability system,” citing the federal rule that Texas officials overrode in making its AYP decisions.

The federal testing rule says that 1 percent of a school’s or district’s enrollment may be tested against other than their grade-level standards and still be considered proficient for accountability purposes.

Any students above the 1 percent figure who don’t take state or alternative tests for the grade level in which they are enrolled are to be considered as not proficient for purposes of determining AYP.

State officials argue that the 1 percent rule is unfair because special education students aren’t always equally distributed across districts or among schools, Mr. Young of the NCSL said.

In Texas’ case, local school officials followed state law allowing for alternative tests for special education students when the students’ individualized education programs call for them. Under state law, the IEP team, rather than the state, gets to set a student’s passing standard for such tests.

In the spring of 2004, almost 10 percent of all students took a state-approved alternative test instead of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, or TAKS.

Shared Goals

Texas officials also point out that the federal Education Department didn’t make the so-called 1 percent rule final until December 2003, just two months before Texas began testing. “You just can’t turn the ship that quickly,” said Gene Lenz, the deputy associate commissioner for special programs, monitoring, and interventions for the Texas Education Agency.

 In deciding which districts and schools made adequate yearly progress for the 2003-04 school year, Texas Commissioner of Education Shirley Neeley granted appeals to districts and schools that said their special education populations failed to reach the districts’ achievement targets solely because of the 1 percent rule.

After the appeals, 86 districts failed to make AYP. Without the appeals, almost half the state’s 1,227 districts would have fallen short of the AYP goals. Without the waivers, 1,718 of the state’s 7,813 schools, or 22 percent, wouldn’t have made AYP. With the waivers, all but 402 did.

The Texas decision is at odds with the basic tenet of the No Child Left Behind Act, according to a supporter of the federal law.

“That’s a real step backward to say they have an alternative test and they’re not going to count [students with disabilities] for AYP,” said Delia Pompa, the director of the Achievement Alliance, a Washington-based coalition that supports the No Child Left Behind Act.

Ms. Cloudt said the agency was working with state legislators to revise state law. “Our goals are identical to No Child Left Behind,” she said. “We’re trying very hard to implement policies in concert with the federal accountability system.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

Minn. Students’ Anti-War Effort Fuels Web Rumors
By Catherine Gewertz, 3/9/05

A misunderstanding about students’ rights to express their opposition to military recruiters at their Minnesota high school sparked a flurry of accusations that spilled onto the Internet, generating a slew of angry phone calls from across the country.

The situation was resolved when the superintendent of the Bloomington, Minn., school district assured students they had the right to set up a table in the main hallway of Kennedy High School, near a table set up by military recruiters who visit periodically.

But for a few days last month, the students’ situation became a minor cause celebre, generating stories by the local news media and postings on Web sites, including that of the filmmaker Michael Moore. Those posts accused the district of silencing the student club, Youth Against War and Racism, under pressure from veterans from a local American Legion post.

That wasn’t exactly accurate. But it didn’t protect Gary Prest, the superintendent of the 11,000-student district south of Minneapolis, from being swamped with phone calls from Boston, Seattle, and points in between.

“One of [the callers] called me a blankety-blank fascist,” he said last week. “One person said he was going to take me down.”

The problem began Feb. 22, when members of Youth Against War and Racism prepared to put up a table, as they had done in December, with anti-war literature and a petition asking the school not to allow military recruiters at Kennedy High, said Brandon Madsen, a senior who helped organize the group.

The group’s faculty adviser told the students they couldn’t set up their table because members of the local chapter of the American Legion, a national veterans’ community-service group, had threatened to withdraw the support they give the school district, such as fund raising. Mr. Madsen said students decided to go ahead anyway.

They distributed fliers the next morning that urged students to call the principal and the superintendent to protest the denial of free-speech rights, Mr. Madsen said. Students in the organization used connections with other political groups to get their “urgent solidarity appeal,” saying the school was being “blackmailed” by the American Legion, posted on several Web sites.

Principal Ronald Simmons came by their table on Feb. 23 and instructed them to dismantle it and began to remove some of their materials, Mr. Madsen said. The principal, who did not return calls seeking comment, offered the students a chance to meet with the superintendent.

Assurance Given

Mr. Prest said he explained to the students that the district permits them to distribute literature expressing their political views, but that the policy hadn’t been sufficiently clear, or consistently applied. He assured them they could set up their table.

Once the students left, however, Mr. Prest spent a lot of time on the phone, trying to correct inaccuracies in the Web postings, including the statement that the American Legion had urged administrators to “shut down” the student club.

Several members of the Bloomington American Legion post were concerned that Kennedy High was distributing anti-war fliers to students, because one flier said it had received school approval. No such approval had been given, Mr. Prest said, but students do not need approval to distribute such fliers.

“The way it came to me is that my secretary said that if these materials are being distributed by the school, they were going to be considering withdrawing their support,” Mr. Prest said, referring to the American Legion post. “But that's not a factor in any decision I'd make about students’ rights.”

The post’s commander assured Mr. Prest that the veterans’ group did not intend to threaten the district, and the situation was resolved, Mr. Prest said.

Patty Gustner, the post’s general manager, said the situation “got blown out of proportion.”

“We’re all for freedom of speech,” she said. “That’s what most of the guys here fought for.”

Mr. Madsen said the incident shows how students can stand up for their rights and win. Mr. Prest saw a different lesson in it.

“It shows you how fast information travels on the Internet these days,” he said, “and that what people read on the Internet, they believe, without checking it out any further.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

Calif. School Workers Compete to Lose Weight
Goals Include Changing Lifestyles and Trimming Health-Care Costs
By Linda Jacobson, 3/9/05

In what sounds like a script for the latest reality-TV show, 200 teachers, administrators, and other school employees working in San Diego County, Calif., have accepted a challenge to achieve personal weight-loss goals over the next year.

Employees from 11 districts in the county are taking part in this first phase of the competition, which is sponsored and organized by the Southern California Schools Voluntary Employee Benefits Association, or VEBA, a labor and management purchasing pool for health-care services.

Participants, who had their first official weigh-in last week, will be organized into 40 groups of five. They will receive personal support from one another as well as from a “care coordinator.” They will also have access to an extensive variety of diet, nutrition, and exercise resources designed to help them reach their goals.

The objective goes beyond just a number on a scale, says George McGregor, the administrator of the VEBA plan. “It’s that you learn how to exercise, that you learn how to cook,” and incorporate those changes into a lifestyle, he said.

At a time when obesity among adults in the United States has become a leading but generally preventable health problem, the initiative was also launched as a way to slow down spiraling health-care costs.

And while schools across the country have instituted programs designed to prevent and curb obesity among children, the San Diego County program targets those who often serve as role models for students.

The employee-benefits association estimates that for every 10 pounds the participants lose, $500 in health-care expenses will be saved. If each person involved in the program loses at least that much weight, the savings will reach $100,000.

Setting an Example

A U.S. Surgeon General’s report from 2003 found that health expenses related to obesity reached $117 billion nationally in 2000 and were expected to continue rising. An astounding 64.5 percent of adult Americans are considered overweight or obese, a problem that began increasing in the 1960s and has not abated, according to the American Obesity Association.

The average age of the educators and other school staff members who volunteered for the contest—which VEBA hopes will serve as an example to districts throughout California—is 45, and the average weight is 235 pounds with a body-mass index of 40. Experts say that when BMI—a formula that adjusts weight for height—is greater than 30, the relative risk of death related to being overweight increases by 50 percent.

Built into the program are incentives and rewards, such as gift certificates to an online health-products store and the ultimate prize of a two-night stay at a luxury resort for the team that loses the most weight. The second-place team will get sundry gift certificates.

Those who stay in the competition will get rewards for meeting personal quarterly goals and when they complete the program.

The lion’s share of the participants, 84 percent, are women. Asthma, diabetes, and concerns about cancer were a few of the reasons the participants cited for wanting to join the endeavor.

Mary-Allegra McKinnell, a 2nd grade teacher at Central Elementary School in National City, Calif., says she joined in hopes of fitting into her “skinny” clothes again, getting in good shape to have a baby in a few years, and building stronger partnerships with her co-workers.

But the 29-year-old is also hoping that her experience will benefit her students, and that the whole class will learn about healthier eating and exercise habits. She’s encouraged by the recent addition of a new physical education program at the school that allows her to get exercise with her students.

“I let them know that I’m going to be watching what I eat better,” Ms. McKinnell said. “They need to help keep me honest with my program.”

Another participant, Jackie Osborne, sees the obesity problem from both personal and professional angles. As a human-resources manager for the San Diego Community College District in Chula Vista, Calif., Ms. Osborne and her co-workers felt that a weight-loss and -management program would be a more effective way to control costs than offering the more common smoking-cessation or diabetes-prevention programs.

But at 215 pounds, and overweight her whole life, Ms. Osborne is also looking forward to how this venture can change her life. At 53, she has had two knee surgeries and was growing more concerned about the hazards caused by being overweight.

“I am participating in this program because I am really concerned about the health risks of my weight, and I know I need to take drastic action and make some changes before I get any older,” she wrote in a testimonial for the program. “I know this program will work for me because they are really forcing us to stop living in isolation and put ourselves out there. My slogan for the year is ‘moving forward’ so I can’t slack off this year.”

At the end of the one-year program, Ms. Osborne hopes to have lost 10 percent of her weight, and eventually bring it down to 145.

Judith Stern, a professor of nutrition at the University of California, Davis, and the vice president of the Washington-based American Obesity Association, said the initiative has the potential to benefit both the school workers and students if the adults set realistic weight-loss goals. Other measures of overall health, such as lowering blood pressure, should also be emphasized, she said.

‘Keeping It Off’

“What I would like to see is an understanding that obesity is very complex,” Ms. Stern said. “You also need continued support. The challenge is keeping it off.”

Mr. McGregor agreed, and said the true test of the effort won’t be seen next March 1, when the participants see what they’ve achieved with the help of their teams and their counselors. Instead, he said, it will be in two years, when the employee-benefits association checks back to see whether the original group is maintaining a healthier lifestyle.

Many more people were interested in joining the program than VEBA was able to accommodate in the pilot phase, Mr. McGregor added. But he hopes to be able to expand it even before the pilot ends.

“If we can demonstrate that this works, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t,” he said, “then we’ll roll out a different group of 200 each month.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

Education Department Tracks Growth in Distance Learning
By Vaishali Honawar, 3/9/05

Students in one-third of the nation’s public school districts took distance education courses in the 2002-03 school year, illustrating such classes’ growing popularity, says a report released last week by the National Center for Education Statistics.
 
The report—which the NCES says is the federal government’s first-ever survey of distance learning in K-12 schools—found thousands of students enrolled in courses that are conducted via the Internet or through video- or audio-conferencing, with the teacher and student in separate places. Nearly one of every 10 public schools in the country had students enrolled in such courses, the survey found.

Susan Patrick, the director of the U.S. Department of Education’s office of educational technology, said the survey points to a “huge growth” in the availability of online learning.

“We expect the growth to continue, consistent with the growth in higher education distance education,” she added.

Responses to surveys that the NCES, an arm of the Education Department, mailed to more than 2,300 school districts around the country indicated that in 2002-03, there were an estimated 328,000 enrollments in distance education courses among students regularly attending public schools.

Schools surveyed reported that they usually choose to offer courses online because they are otherwise not available to students at school, citing such examples as Advanced Placement courses. The report also notes that the availability of distance education courses allows students to reduce scheduling conflicts they might have with other courses or school activities.

According to the report, some school officials said they plan to expand distance education offerings in the future, but expressed concerns about the high costs of purchasing equipment and course development. School district administrators were also concerned that they could lose per-pupil funding from their states if students taking online courses offered by other districts were not counted as part of the home district’s regular enrollment.

Regional Differences

While distance education has flourished in higher education—a past report from the NCES found enrollment in distance education courses at postsecondary institutions nearly doubled between the 1997-98 and 2000-01 school years—K-12 schools have been slow to catch up. But the NCES report suggests the pace of expansion of distance education may be picking up in K-12.

Among other findings, the survey shows that distance-learning courses were more popular in the Southeast and central regions of the country than they were in the Northeast and the West.

In addition, rural districts had a higher proportion of students taking online courses than urban and suburban districts—46 percent, compared with 28 percent in suburban areas and 23 percent in urban areas.

Ms. Patrick, of the Education Department’s technology office, said distance education courses have been particularly useful to schools in rural areas. Such courses, she said, help provide rural areas with “highly qualified” teachers, as is required under the No Child Left Behind Act. They also give students more opportunities to take Advanced Placement and college-level courses.

Ruth Adams, the dean of the nonprofit Virtual High School, a Maynard, Mass.-based collaborative of more than 300 schools worldwide that share courses and teachers online, said smaller districts have a limited number of teachers, and historically do not have access to those who can teach specialized subjects, such as Advanced Placement economics or some computational sciences.

Distance learning, she said, opens up such courses to students around the country and even around the world.

“A student shouldn’t be limited to the type of course they can take because of the ZIP code they live in,” said Ms. Adams, whose collaborative now offers courses to more than 6,000 students in 26 states and 13 countries. During the 1997-98 school year, it offered just 30 courses to 710 students.

Jump in Middle Grades?

Among schools with students who took distance-learning courses during the 2002-03 school year, 76 percent were high schools, the report says.

Only 7 percent were middle or junior high schools, and 2 percent were elementary schools.

The remaining 15 percent were combined K-12 or ungraded schools, making it difficult to discern their grade levels.

Ms. Adams pointed out that elementary school pupils usually cannot take distance-learning courses because of limited reading and writing skills.

But she predicted a “phenomenal” growth of the courses for middle schools.

For instance, she said, her collaborative has designed classes that will give middle school students an introduction to Advanced Placement courses, preparing them to handle the more complicated subjects they will face in high school.

“Our exploring classes,” she said, “are an introduction to subjects that students would pursue in high school in greater depth.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

Utah Legislators Delay Action on NCLB Bill
Meetings Between State, Federal Officials Precede Postponement
By Michelle R. Davis, 3/9/05

A nationally watched showdown between the U.S. Department of Education and Utah state officials over the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act turned into a political soap opera last week.

The serial came down to a cliffhanger in the last days of the legislative session when a final vote on a bill that calls for state education laws to take priority over the federal law was postponed. Tune in to an April 20 special session for the outcome.
Meanwhile, observers should not mistake the delay for a truce between Utah officials, who say the federal law is too invasive, and federal officials, who say its requirements are essential to improving schools. In fact, as the Utah legislative session ended March 2, some state leaders seemed more dead set against the federal law than ever.

“There’s beginning to be this broad realization that this is not just about how kids succeed … but about the federal takeover of schools,” said Utah state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington. “The way you stop it is right now.”

‘No New Concessions’
The feud between Utah and the federal Department of Education began last year, when state Rep. Margaret Dayton, a Republican, introduced a bill to let Utah opt out of the law entirely, though it could have cost the state $106 million in federal aid.

Under pressure from Washington, she ultimately shelved her proposal, which she sees as an issue of states’ rights.

But the tireless lawmaker returned this year with a scaled-down version that calls for the federal education law to take a back seat to state measures. The bill says that schools should follow the federal law in some instances, but only if there is federal money to pay for its requirements. The measure had passed the House and was expected to be approved unanimously by the Senate. 

But that’s not what happened last week, as federal pressure apparently again played a role in the latest turn of events.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a Republican, and Ms. Harrington had just returned from a National Governors Association meeting in Washington when Mr. Huntsman, on March 1, requested a delay on the vote and a special session.

It turns out that while he was in the nation’s capital, Gov. Huntsman met with President Bush and Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Separately, Ms. Harrington also met with other Education Department officials.

Those meetings convinced the governor that he should ask state lawmakers for more time to consider the Utah education bill, said Tim Bridgewater, Mr. Huntsman’s education deputy, who also attended the NGA meeting.

“We can’t force the Department of Education to change, but if they’re moving in that direction to reach some common ground, then we want to work in good faith to that end,” Mr. Bridgewater said. He also cited as a sign of federal officials’ willingness to allow Utah more flexibility a decision last month in which the Education Department backed away from a determination that Utah’s veteran elementary and early-childhood teachers were not highly qualified.

Mr. Bridgewater cautioned, however, that “we’re giving them more time, … but we’re not going to stop the process.”

Superintendent Harrington said that during discussions in Washington, it appeared that federal officials were willing to be more flexible. But on March 2, Utah education officials received a letter recapping the Washington discussions. Ms. Harrington said it contained no new accommodations.

“They sent a fax to us yesterday saying, ‘Here’s the flexibility we now confirm,’ ” said Ms. Harrington who was appointed to the nonpartisan post by the state school board. “But there’s nothing in it, no new concessions.”

Ms. Harrington said Utah officials would insist on enough flexibility to use their state system, the Utah Performance Assessment System for Students, or U-PASS, in place of the No Child Left Behind Act. For example, the state system insists on a year’s worth of progress for each student instead of the federal requirement that all students reach a certain level regardless of their starting level of knowledge.

“Our state will determine how much involvement there will be in No Child Left Behind, not the other way around,” she said.

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the federal department, said progress was being made. “The state leaders and the administration both share the same goal—kids learning,” she wrote in a March 2 e-mail to Education Week. “And NCLB is about eliminating the persistent achievement gap.”

But, she added: “Change can be difficult.”

The issue is causing turmoil within the ranks of the Utah’s GOP leadership, which normally is inclined to support President Bush.

After being irked by the federal Department of Education’s letter and some concerns about Gov. Huntsman’s press release calling for the special session, some state senators were ready to join a coup.

“I no longer felt obligated to my commitment [to delay the vote] and was going to push forward,” Republican Sen. Tom Hatch, the sponsor of the bill in the Senate, said in an interview.

But after a GOP caucus March 2, Mr. Hatch said legislators agreed to wait out of respect for a fellow Republican, Senate President John Valentine, who had struck the deal with the governor on the special session.

Mr. Hatch said Washington should take note that the bill is not going away. “If substantial progress has not been made by April 20, we will have a special session and we will pass House Bill 135 in its entirety,” he said.

State’s Stance Hit

Amid last week’s political intrigue, the Washington-based Education Trust, which promotes raising student achievement and supports the No Child Left Behind law, released a statement blasting Utah’s efforts to buck the law.

The Education Trust cited lagging test scores for Utah’s minority groups, particularly Latino and Native American students, and was critical of the state’s teacher-qualifications system.

Utah has been “sort of celebrated for standing up to the big bad feds, … but some of that has gotten untethered from reality,” Ross Weiner, the organization’s policy director, said. He pointed out that the state accountability plan, U-PASS, is not currently operating. Though the U-PASS law is on the books, Utah officials are still setting up the program.

Utah’s schools chief, Ms. Harrington, said the criticism was an example of Washington-style attacks. “The Department [of Education] has circled their dogs and sent them after us,” she said.
 
TOP OF PAGE

The Virtual Stage
Arts teachers are integrating computer software with traditional instruction in dance, music, theater, and visual arts to spark students' creativity.
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, 3/9/05

Raleigh, N.C. - Jacob Besigel shows off some impressive dance moves—extreme twists, rapid spins, and skybound leaps—all by simply tapping his right index finger. With the click of a computer mouse, the 8th grader straightens the animated dancer he has created on-screen, adjusts his timing, adds a deep lunge to the routine and begins the simulation again. As music echoes through Jacob’s dance class at Moore Square Museums Magnet Middle School here, the teenager continues to choreograph a “virtual” routine that he’ll have to synchronize with a live performance on the dance floor later in the school year.

At Moore Square—where educators are blending technology more heavily into the teaching of arts and music than most other schools—even the most inhibited students can “bust” a virtual move with grace and prowess using a software program that allows them to build, pose, and animate a figure—or group of figures—in time.

“You’re almost dancing with the computer,” says teacher Cindy Hoban, a former professional dancer who introduced the students to the computerized dance program, called Poser. Hoban, 52, uses the technology as a supplement in her elective dance classes to familiarize her students with dance concepts and genres, and to help them visualize moves, from basic to extreme.

The computer exercise draws giggles and gasps from students, many of whom have only a casual interest in learning about dance. But even those slouched in their seats begin to limber up and move closer to their screens once they breathe life into the virtual dancer.

Hoban’s technical lesson comes after several weeks of traditional dance instruction, in which students learn the art of movement in a mirrored studio with slick wood floors and a ballet barre. Her 7th graders have already begun to prepare customary dances for the school’s Chinese festival, while 8th graders have been sampling the dance trends for the decades of the 20th century.

The computer-based lesson—which takes place in the school’s technology lab, where each student has a computer and Hoban can demonstrate the application on a large screen at the front of class—is a precursor to the projects the students will undertake this spring. In preparation for a culminating recital, they will learn to integrate a live performance with those of their virtual partners, which will flash on a screen on the stage. Over the next several weeks, they will choreograph for themselves a dance sequence that both complements and contrasts with the one they’ve created for their virtual partners.

“I wanted to find out: Can dancers share the stage with technology?” the petite, sprightly teacher says, explaining why she started using the software in her classes several years ago.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Hoban is among a growing cadre of arts teachers far and wide tapping into technology to bring innovation to their instruction and to spark the interest and imagination of a generation of students drawn to technology. But with budgetary and time constraints that threaten the arts’ place in the school curriculum, experts say, most teachers of dance, music, theater, and visual arts are struggling just to keep their existing programs alive.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find many innovative programs and schools [using art and technology in meaningful ways],” says Craig Roland, a professor of art education at the University of Florida and an expert on the use of digital and information technology in visual-arts instruction. “They’re there, but they’re isolated . . . they are islands of excitement.”

Like their peers in other disciplines, teachers of the arts have generally been slow to adopt new technologies, mostly because of a lack of training and adequate equipment, says Roland.

But given technology’s long history in transforming the arts—the pottery wheel, the printing press, and the camera were all new technologies that met with reluctance and only slowly became standard tools for artists—Roland predicts that more teachers will eventually embrace the new methods.

There are, however, a number of challenges for doing so effectively, says Roland, whose book, The Art Teachers Guide to the Internet, is set to be published this spring. Art teachers must first have adequate equipment and access to it; they need time to teach students to use the programs; technical support should be available to ensure teachers and students can make the most of their time with the technology; and teachers need professional development to find the best ways to use computers and other equipment in their lessons.

But Roland cautions educators not to become so enamored of the bells and whistles of the technology that the creation of real art or music gets overshadowed.

“For technology to really make a difference requires challenging curriculum goals and really sound practices,” he says.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Arts teachers at Moore Square, which draws some 550 students from downtown Raleigh and around North Carolina’s 108,000-student Wake County school system, have been gradually trying to do just that. The 6th, 7th, and 8th graders cycle through the four areas of dance, music, theater, and visual arts, getting traditional arts instruction supplemented by technology-based lessons.

In drama, for example, teacher Corrie Davis uses a Smart Board, a computerized whiteboard that pulls images and information from the Internet, as well as live video and the school curriculum, to present interactive lessons for her students. Boys and girls in visual-arts classes can use computer-based paint programs to create their own masterpieces or draft three-dimensional drawings or multimedia pieces.

Meanwhile, in Bob Knight’s music classroom, students practice on electric guitars, drums, and keyboards while classmates across the room arrange their own music on desktop computers.

A software program called ACID Pro allows students to select sound clips from libraries of music that are in the public domain, which can be used without paying royalties. They can arrange sounds from a variety of instruments or human vocals, add elements such as clapping hands or animal noises, stretch the sounds, change the pitch or loudness, and then arrange all the sounds together.

“The students learn a lot about how music is put together,” says Knight. “They are making all the same decisions that an arranger would … and at the same time, they are loving it.”

Advanced students in Knight’s classes can compose music on a keyboard while a computer records the notations on-screen. That work can then be printed as real sheet music.

Through technology, Knight says, students learn how to apply music theory, and even a novice can make music before he or she learns how to play an instrument.

“With the traditional way of learning an instrument, students study for years and years to master the instrument, and then they are reproducing someone else’s music,” Knight says. “With this approach…the creative side of music is something they don’t have to wait for.”

But while similar technology has become commonplace in the arts industry, its growing use has sparked controversy among professional musicians, many of whom have lost their jobs as theaters phase out big orchestral productions in favor of electronic presentations. And Knight agrees that the ease and accessibility of computerized music can also be cause for caution in using technology with students who have not learned the basics of playing an instrument.

“I’m a big proponent for not losing the artistry of playing the traditional instrument,” he says. Most of his students at Moore Square, which does not have a band or orchestra program, have had limited exposure to music until now. “But I do see where the technology will extend out to more people the opportunity to create music on their own.”

For 6th grader Josh Ray, piecing together his own musical composition has changed the way he hears music, whether he’s learning the piano or listening to the radio.

“You can add different layers of sound, adjust the volume, remix the elements,” Josh says as he works with classmate Alex Dancer. The two search the ACID Pro libraries for music from different cultures, then add an Indian beat that appears as a blue strip on the computer screen. Next, they find the high-pitched croak of a tree frog. That sound, represented by a green strip, is added to the next sequence. When finished, the pair has arranged an eclectic array of rhythms and beats over a series of musical selections.
 
“It really adds texture to the music and makes you aware of the different sounds,” Alex says.

Technology has drawn more students into music education, suggests Tom Rudolph, the president of the Technology Institute for Music Educators, a Wyncote, Pa.-based organization that provides professional development for teachers. In Pennsylvania’s Haverford Township School District, where Rudolph is the director of music and a middle school teacher, the addition of secondary school music-technology courses over the past few years has boosted enrollment in music courses from 300 students to over 1,400.

“When technology comes in, kids get more involved in the music program, especially kids who elected not to play a band instrument,” says Rudolph, who leads workshops on music technology for teachers around the country. “The key to using technology is offering yet another experience to the majority of kids who don’t take band, orchestra, or chorus.”

For the upcoming dance recital, Knight is planning to have his students arrange music timed precisely to the animated dances created by their peers in Hoban’s class. At least one show will be presented in the school lobby, where four large screens hang in a recess in the ceiling. The Poser animation will be projected on the screens, the music aired over the school sound system, with the dancers performing underneath.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

In Hoban’s class, students are experimenting with the editing tools that allow them to shift and swivel body parts one at a time and record them on an animation program to play back later in smooth motions. They can change the standard male figure into a woman or a child, various animals, skeletons, or box or wire shapes. Assorted features can be added to give the figure personality, including facial expressions, hair, clothing, shadows, and shading. Students can manipulate each body part, string several moves together, and run the sequence as a video clip.

In one of Hoban’s classes here in late January, 8th grader Christina Boddie strikes a graceful pose, with toe pointed and outstretched arms, while a classmate, Taylor Temple, maneuvers the Poser figure to mimic the stance. Students around the room continue with similar exercises, which help Hoban demonstrate the source of various dance movements.
 
“Do you see how when you extend your arm up like this,” Hoban instructs Christina and Taylor, as the teacher raises a straight arm toward the ceiling, “the movement comes from the shoulder?”

Students practice moving their computerized dancer into a plié, a basic ballet move in which the knees are bent while the back is held up straight. A click on the hips of the virtual dancer and a downward drag of the mouse turns his legs in perfect ballet form. The savvy students quickly progress to an arabesque, a pirouette, and eventually a floor-sliding break dance.

Later in the day, one group of 8th graders is already working on its spring project, which features several clips they’ve made on Poser and half a dozen live dancers in the foreground. Blaire Zachary and Hannah Bowen remind their partners, Samantha Pernell and Clayton Ortiz, of the sequence of moves they’ve designed to complement the figure on screen. Trey Motley stands at the laptop computer, carefully timing the Poser animation and changing the sequence for best effect for the group’s piece, which the students have called Zero Gravity.

After experimenting with some contortions of the virtual dancer’s torso and abnormal turns of his legs,the students eventually settle on more natural moves—a shuffle of the feet, a deep bend of the knee, and a modest angled jump. But the “dude,” as they call the computerized dancer, morphs throughout the animation program, growing out of proportion, his coat swallowing his upper body, before being transformed into an animated skeleton.

“With Poser, you can see the comparison between when we do a dance and what you see on the screen,” says Trey.

He has been rushing through his lunch some afternoons to spend time working with the group. His initial passing interest in dance has become a growing passion. “With Poser, it’s more than a dance,” Trey says. “It’s a major creation.”

TOP OF PAGE

 

 

 

Illinois State Board of Education
100 North First Street
Springfield, IL 62777