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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – March 11 - 18, 2005

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STATE  
State should not mandate seat belts in school buses / Peoria Journal Star
Incentives lure students to state test / Telegraph
Stop talking about school funding unless you will speak candidly / Southern Illinoisan
Southlander dumped from school panel / Daily Southtown

Too few school board candidates is a shame / Daily Southtown
Study faults state sex education / Chicago Tribune
State makes preschool a priority / Chicago Tribune
District 23 candidates rail against testing mandates / Daily Herald
Advocates for children criticize possible budget cuts, urge school funding reform
                State Journal-Register
Backpack burden: Bill aims to set weight limit on Illinois school textbooks / Quad-Cities Online
School sends green teen home on St. Patrick's Day / Beacon News
School bus driver benefits present a quandary / Decatur Herald & Review

NATIONAL
Military schools planned for Broward and Palm Beach counties / Sun-Sentinel (FL)
Study: School leaders poorly educated / Boston Globe
Spelling bees gain popularity nationwide / Boston Globe
Study Finds Poor Performance by Nation's Education Schools / New York Times
Educators Differ on Why Boys Lag in Reading /
Washington Post
Comics encourage students to learn / Baltimore Sun
U.S. education chief urges making high school courses more rigorous /
Baltimore Sun
GOP stays firm on education cuts / Sacramento Bee
Perot pushes technology for schools / Dallas Morning News
GAO Review: Weak Oversight of Internet Program for Schools, Libraries /
Washington Post
Leave NCLB confusion behind / Palm Beach Post (FL)
Bush Pushes Sexual Abstinence for Teens Despite Data /
Boston Globe
Internet Program Oversight Said Flawed /
Washington Post
Census: Nation's public schools in the red / Boston Globe
Possible Mercury, Autism Connection Found in Study /
Los Angeles Times
Lawmaker seeks to end sexy cheerleading / Boston Globe

FROM “EDUCATION WEEK”
Spellings Puts Her Stamp on Department
Study Blasts Leadership Preparation
NCLB Choice Option Going Untapped, But Tutoring Picking Up
Hefty Fees for Student Parking Help Balance Budgets
Finnish Students Are at the Top of the World Class
New Recruiting Efforts by Teach for America Yield Record Applicants
Social Studies Losing Out to Reading, Math
Board Studies Release of Individual NAEP Results

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STATE

State should not mandate seat belts in school buses
Peoria Journal Star Editorial, 3/14/05

Introducing legislation requiring every school bus in
Illinois to have seat belts is going to draw plenty of emotional responses from parents.

But emotions don't always make good laws.

If the state is not willing to foot the cost, it should not be trying to mandate seat belts as would be required in a bill before the Illinois House. That is a decision best left to local school boards. They are free to install seat belts, even shoulder restraints, in their buses if they think they're essential. They're undoubtedly hindered by cost and are backed by studies from both the National Highway Traffic Safety Association and the National Academy of Sciences.

The Illinois State Board of Education said it would cost at least $1,065 per 71-passenger bus to install lap belts, and another $7,180 per bus to have combination lap and shoulder belts. Such buses cost about $55,000, the board said. Just the seat belts would cost nearly $25.9 million for the state's 24,280 licensed buses, according to the ISBE.

There aren't many good arguments for people who say saving just one life would be worth it. How do you value a life?

But there is a more practical side that says if studies show school buses to be safer than family cars, is such an investment worthwhile when schools have so many needs. The National Academy of Sciences has said money could be better spent on other bus safety devices and programs. The NHTSA said seat belts would add "little if any protection in a crash" because most bus accidents are front or rear impact.

State Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, who has pursued the seat belt issue for years, said the side-impact crashes concern him because that is when children get thrown around. Lang's heart is in the right place, but if parents were that concerned they would be bombarding their local school boards to install belts. Parents must think buses are safe because we haven't heard of such groundswells except in the wake of the rare accidents where students are injured or killed.

If seat belts are installed, there are a couple of other issues. One is who would be responsible for getting young students unbuckled and safely out of a bus if the driver is unable to do so? The other is a question of liability for school districts if someone doesn't make sure every student is properly buckled in.

We can't endorse Lang's legislation, but there may be some merit in discussing whether school buses used to transport students long distances for such things as school trips, band engagements or sporting events should be equipped with seat belts on major highways. The higher the speed, the more risk of accidents and of serious injury. School districts, or contracted bus firms, could equip a few buses for those occasions.
 
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Incentives lure students to state test
John Krupa, The Alton Telegraph
 
EAST ALTON -- Ten-year-olds Sabrina Adams and Brittany Reynolds could barely stay seated during a raucous pep rally Friday afternoon at
Eastwood Elementary School’s gymnasium.
 
"Ba na na na Hey! Ba na na," they shouted in harmony with a well-known chant piped into sports arenas across the country. "Chakachaka, chakachaka, chaka ... Go ISAT!"
 
The celebration marked the end of a week’s worth of student assemblies, motivational stories and nearly $2,000 in "incentives" doled out to East Alton Elementary District students to maximize their performance on the all-important Illinois Standards Achievement Test.
 
Third- and fifth-graders must meet minimum standards on the reading and mathematics section of the ISAT or the school and district face severe sanctions.
 
If students fail to meet the ever-escalating standards three years in a row, mandated corrective action begins.
 
If the problems continue, staff can be dismissed, the school board can be stripped of its decision-making power, and the state of
Illinois can effectively take over the district.
 
With the stakes so high, Superintendent Mike Gray said educators will do whatever they must to get the most out of their students on test days, which were Tuesday through Friday in
East Alton.
 
At Eastwood School, in exchange for $5 in movie coupons, the students signed a contract pledging to show up to school, arrive on time, do their best on the test, display good behavior and follow all the ISAT directions.
 
Kindergarten through second-graders, who did not take the test, "adopted" an older ISAT class.
 
They brought their adopted test-takers rewards, including Skittles candies, and reminded them of ISAT tips through posted drawings in the hallway with mantras such as, "Get a lot of sleep so your brain can prepare for ISAT."
 
"I think it really motivated them," said fourth-grade teacher Sheila Darr. "This year, I noticed they were taking their time and taking it more seriously, using the strategies that we taught them."
 
That hasn’t always been the case.
 
The East Alton Elementary District, where 60 percent of the students come from low-income families, has had problems with students failing to take the test seriously.
 
Gray has received reports of as much as 10 percent of the students in a given grade finishing the 40-minute test in five minutes or turning in answer cards that they simply drew designs on.
 
"When these kids get zero scores, it really knocks the bottom out of our test scores," he said.
 
Co-Principal Kim Dilley said the root of the problem has been a lack of understanding among the student body and their parents about the significance of the test.
 
"So, we’ve explained how to take it and what is involved. We’ve even talked about the state and how that all comes into play, and we’ve told the parents, too," Dilley said.
 
Fifth-grader Austin Pate confirmed that the school’s efforts are paying off.
 
"Some kids from last year, they would be done before any of the time would be up," he said. "This year, everybody is just taking their time, because they know they really want to do good."
 
However, Gray acknowledged he has had reservations about spending district money to encourage pupils to take the test seriously, when, ideally, they should do so without any prodding.
 
"I’ve argued the other side of the fence before, that you ought to do it because it’s your job to do it," he said, "But first, we are dealing with children, and a lot of times, kids react to these kinds of rewards."
 
Keri Harmon, 11, agreed that critics should try sitting through nearly eight hours of testing before casting stones.
 
"If someone was to say that to me, I’d say, ‘How about you go into my classroom and take all those tests and not get anything for it,’" she said with a smile.

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Stop talking about school funding unless you will speak candidly
Opinion by Mike Lawrence, head of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University,
3/14/05, Southern Illinoisan

Politicians from Gov. Rod Blagojevich on down should stop talking about substantial school funding reform unless they are prepared to show some guts and level with their constituents.
 
To discuss this major issue candidly, they must concede we need higher state taxes to end our undue reliance on local property taxes and provide the additional $1.5 billion required to adequately support students in impoverished districts. They also must acknowledge that no sizable infusion should occur without overhauling a network that includes more than 900 school districts and tolerates the grossly excessive costs they generate.
 
If they are afraid to boost our taxes, they should quit portraying themselves as reform-committed. If they are unwilling to press for streamlining a system that allows 17 school districts in a county of 40,000 and six in a county of 12,000, each with its own taxing authority and well-paid administrators, they should spare us the rhetoric about making our institutions more efficient and effective.
 
It has been a half-century since the late Adlai E. Stevenson Jr., a former Illinois governor and one of our most famous sons, stumped for the presidency on the theme of talking sense to the American people, and many of our politicians since then have fallen far short of that standard. In fact, Governor Blagojevich recently served up an especially obnoxious gob of gibberish during his budget message to the General Assembly.
 
Blagojevich tried to persuade us we can significantly reduce dependence on property taxes, meet our obligations to youngsters using outdated textbooks and hold the line on income and sales taxes. Oh? He admitted in a separate section of his speech that state spending is outstripping revenues by $1 billion. Most of the powers in
Springfield, including Comptroller Dan Hynes, put the deficit at $2 billion. Yet, the governor told lawmakers, "If we stay the course and keep making the tough decisions, we can continue to help our schools without placing the burden on the people we serve.-
 
What "tough decisions- are going to move
Illinois forward on the school funding front? Has it been "tough- to borrow billions and satiate today's appetites with tomorrow's dollars? Will a continuation of government downsizing, no matter how commendable, save enough to balance the budget and bring fairness to classrooms throughout our state? Hardly.
 
He and legislators could wipe out a slew of cabinet departments and shutter five university campuses without erasing the deficit, let alone providing the billions needed to lift the have-nots among school districts and provide meaningful property tax relief.
 
So, when the governor suggests we can keep the faith with kids and rescue homeowners without paying more state taxes, he panders to us and, frankly, insults our intelligence. However, he has plenty of company, including some of his most vocal critics.
 
For years, most lawmakers have praised funding reform and prayed it would not come to a vote. Indeed, the ultimate copout came in the mid-1990s when several downstate Republicans professed their support for an overhaul and privately prevailed upon the Senate president to block a House-passed measure from reaching the floor. But the contagiousness of the duplicity does not excuse it.
 
If Blagojevich and lawmakers are unwilling to support higher taxes, they should cease trying to convince us they embrace reform. If they are afraid to engage the combustible but compelling school consolidation issue, they should cut the rhetoric about cost control.
 
Most of all, they should spike those lofty phrases about the future of
Illinois if they are perfectly willing to cheat it.

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Southlander dumped from school panel
Daily Southtown Editorial,
3/13/05
 
THE ISSUE:
South Holland businessman loses post on funding advisory board.

WE SAY: Blagojevich is telling advisers not to give advice he doesn't want to hear.
 
What does a governor do when one of his advisers gives him advice he doesn't want to hear?
 
If the governor is Rod Blagojevich, he gets rid of the adviser. That's what the governor did last week when he dumped a south suburban business leader from the state's advisory board on school funding issues.
 
South Holland businessman Bert Docter in recent years has become one of the Southland's leading advocates for school funding reform and property tax relief.
 
As the former president of the Southland Chamber of Commerce and a former four-term village trustee in his hometown, Docter is well-aware that property taxes are strangling businesses and crushing homeowners in this region; as a member of advisory boards to the last three Illinois governors, Docter became a strong supporter of proposals to increase the state's contribution to public schools and reduce the property tax burden on local businesses and homeowners in order to create a system that would provide funding that was fair and adequate.
 
But Blagojevich has taken the no-new-taxes pledge and apparently is convinced that's the way to win re-election. Members of the Education Funding Advisory Board became a nuisance with their calls for an income tax increase because Blagojevich has promised he will veto any law that raises income or sales taxes — even if it also cuts local property tax bills.
 
For months the governor left seats on the board vacant when members resigned or their terms expired. That was why the board failed to file its biennial report this year, which likely would have repeated its call for an income tax increase. Earlier this year, a pro-education group threatened to sue Blagojevich over his failure to appoint new board members. Last week the governor appointed four new members and rejected Docter's request for another term.
 
There's a clear message to the new board: Don't give the governor any advice that he doesn't agree with, or you'll be replaced, too.

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Too few school board candidates is a shame
Daily Southtown Editorial,
3/14/05
 
THE ISSUE: There are not enough candidates to fill all the ballot spots in some Southland school districts.
WE SAY: Voters need to be given a choice to help ensure a quality education for their children.
 
Property owners are all too aware that education taxes make up the heftiest chunk of their real estate tax bills. How that tax money is put to use is determined by local school boards. So it would logically follow, one would think, that what happens on a local school board would be of enormous interest within a community.
 
But that's not always the case, judging by the small number of candidates on the ballot in some Southland school districts this year. In four districts, there aren't enough candidates to fill all the available ballot spots. In many other districts, there are just enough candidates to fill the ballot spots. In both instances, the candidates in these districts thus are running unopposed and will not have to debate the issues to win the election. In the first instance, a write-in candidate could mount a campaign and get elected, but oftentimes, it's left to the school board to appoint someone to fill a vacancy created by too few candidates.
 
Some will point to apathy as the reason for a lack of candidates. In many instances, that's the case. But there are other reasons. In this day and age, many people simply do not have the time to serve on a school board. Holding such an office requires a commitment of many hours each week, a commitment that people with family and work obligations often cannot make.
 
Others simply do not want to bother with the hassle of getting on the ballot, spending time campaigning and, in some cases, having to defend objections filed against their nominating petitions. Objections have become so plentiful in this day and age of litigiousness that Cook County Clerk David Orr is promoting legislation that would help curtail frivolous challenges to a person's candidacy.
 
Another reason given for a lack of candidates is a feeling of satisfaction among residents over the way a school district is being run. As fine a job as some board members and district officials do, though, we find it hard to believe that any school district is run so well that it does not require a thorough system of checks and balances from its residents.
 
The importance of public education cannot be stressed enough. Society's future depends on how well today's youth are educated. As we've said many times, the lack of an equitable school funding system in this state only puts more pressure on local school districts.
 
That's why it's essential our districts are overseen by dedicated school board members. And giving the voters a choice at the polls increases the chances that the local boards will be filled with qualified members.
 
The Southland districts that have more ballot spots than candidates are Oak Lawn-Hometown 123, Ridgeland 122, Chicago Ridge 127½ and Homer 33C.
 
It's too late to get on the ballot this time around (though not too late to register as a write-in candidate; the deadline is March 29 in Cook and Will counties). But when the school board elections come around again in two years, we hope qualified Southland residents will strongly consider running in order to give voters a choice and help ensure a healthy educational system in our area.
 
One candidate is a 19-year-old college student at
Augustana College. There is a retired teacher, a college professor, a retired maintenance worker, the man known as Mr. Thanksgiving and people who work in leadership roles for their companies.
.
The
Moline board can expect to handle tough decisions about school finance and achievement that face most all school boards, Superintendent Cal Lee said.
.
Lee is thrilled with the number of people who chose to run. He worries when there are only enough candidates to fill the seats. “The public doesn’t have a choice then,” he said.
.
That’s exactly what happened in some Iowa Quad-City school districts last fall.
Davenport and Bettendorf had three candidates for three seats. Pleasant Valley had two candidates for two seats.
.
North
Scott was an exception. Seven people came forward as candidates for three seats.
.
About 40 percent of all school board races in
Iowa are uncontested, a spokesman for the Iowa Association of School Boards said.
.
The ultimate result is that few people come to vote in uncontested races. Approximately 2.7 percent of the 93,909 registered voters turned out in
Scott County for the school board elections in September.
.
Illinois school board candidates have done there part. Now it’s voters’ turn to go to forums, ask tough questions and then vote April 5.
.
Encourage a neighbor, friend and relative to do the same.

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Study faults state sex education
Critics say issues are glossed over, programs that only push abstinence are not enough
Tracy Dell'Angela, Chicago Tribune, 3/15/05
 
Sex education in
Illinois schools is too often glossed over in health classes and taught with materials that offer teens incomplete or inaccurate information, according to a statewide survey released Monday.
 
Middle and high school teachers averaged 12 hours of sex-education instruction in all, and 60 percent of health teachers did not cover birth control, sexual orientation or abortion. About 15 percent did not teach the basics of conception, pregnancy and childbirth, according to the survey, commissioned by Planned Parenthood and the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health.
 
The study's backers say the findings underscore the need for alternatives to abstinence-only programs backed by the Bush administration, which gave $2.8 million to
Illinois to promote such programs this school year. Programs that get these federal dollars do not discuss alternatives to abstinence as a way of preventing pregnancy and disease.
 
Illinois schools are not required to teach sex education, and there is no state money set aside to help districts buy materials and train teachers in this subject. What is taught is often left to individual schools or teachers.
 
"We all want our young people to wait to have sex. But it's not responsible to withhold information ... or teach information that's just plain inaccurate," said Illinois Sen. Carol Ronen (D-Chicago), who introduced a bill this year that would provide state grants to schools offering comprehensive sex education. "We need to start talking about this. Kids know when they are being lied to."
 
The findings were culled from a survey of 335 teachers in 201 public schools. A group of students in
Chicago said the findings mirror what they have and haven't been taught about sex. The group from Curie High School persuaded their school leaders to adopt a more realistic sex education program.
 
Curie junior Anabel Arquello said she never learned about sex from her teachers or her parents. That's why she and other Curie students lobbied for a change that she said would have helped her friend, who became pregnant because she never learned about contraception.
 
"She's due in April, and she's already decided to drop out of school," said Arquello, 17, whose social studies class looked at some of the underlying causes of teen pregnancy in a research project. "A lot of my friends don't know how to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases."
 
Both sides agreed sex education is a controversial subject for schools.
 
Yet national studies in the last decade, including an earlier survey in
Illinois by the same two groups, have indicated that about 80 percent of residents want and expect schools to teach children about contraception and disease prevention.
 
Proponents of abstinence-only programs, however, have said their message is effective in preventing teen pregnancy and is resonating with teens. They said students want strong messages that will help them resist pressure from peers and the media to engage in sex outside marriage. In
Illinois, the percentage of babies born to teenagers has dropped over the last nine years, from 13 percent of all births in 1994 to 9.7 percent in 2003, according to state health officials.
 
"Abstinence programs like Project Reality's give students medically accurate information on sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy and specifically address the emotional risks of early sexual activity," Libby Gray, director of Project Reality, said in a statement Monday. Project Reality, based in
Illinois, is one of the nation's largest providers of abstinence-only materials, curricula and training. "Abstinence programs teach refusal and life skills as opposed to condom skills. Comprehensive sex education programs are the ones that need to be evaluated on age-appropriateness and medical accuracy."
 
Proponents of comprehensive sex education have argued that many abstinence-only programs rely on fear tactics and stereotypes about gender roles to convince students that sex outside marriage is dangerous. For example, the literature produced by Project Reality argues that condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and links the increase in disease with the increase in condom use among teens.
 
The proponents say state sex education grants--for which Ronen is seeking about $2.5 million--would give schools more choice about the programs they teach, instead of relying heavily on free abstinence-only programs.
 
In Chicago Public Schools, administrators are promoting an abstinence-based program that includes lessons about reproduction, disease prevention, contraceptive use, sexual decision-making and prenatal care.
 
Yet this program is far from universal. Only 300
Chicago teachers have been trained in this curriculum in the last four years, and only about 40 percent of middle schools and high schools surveyed have adopted this program, an official said.
 
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State makes preschool a priority
Eager parents clamor to enroll their kids
Lori Olszewski,
Chicago Tribune, 3/15/05
 
As the
3 o'clock dismissal bell rings at schools across Chicago, Yesenia Rivera and hundreds of other preschoolers are pouring into city classrooms to begin their day.
 
Fresh from a nap at home, 3-year old Yesenia joins 14 other wiggling bodies on a reading rug at the
Belmont-Cragin Early Childhood Demonstration Center, a state-funded preschool operated by the Chicago Public Schools.
 
With parents clamoring for services, the
Chicago school system recently added a "third shift" of free preschool at four sites on the Northwest Side, even turning a storefront in a shopping mall into a classroom for the 3 to 5:30 p.m. classes.
 
These slots reflect an increasing emphasis on early childhood education in
Illinois, an effort boosted by $60 million in additional state funding over the last two years. Emboldened by the additional resources, a growing group of state policymakers is lobbying for Illinois to ensure access to preschool for all families.
 
They tout educational and economic studies to make the argument that high-quality preschool and child care results in improved school performance, fewer dropouts, fewer prison inmates and increased tax revenue.
 
The stumbling block remains how to pay for it in a state where kindergarten through 12th-grade school districts are pushing for more cash and an overhaul of the tax system that supports the schools.
 
Only
Oklahoma and Georgia offer preschool to all 4-year-olds, regardless of income. Florida voters recently mandated access for all, but the program is not yet operating. Most other states, including Illinois, try to serve the neediest children first.
 
Illinois considers income when assessing need, as well as other risk factors, such as whether families speak English or if children are born with low weights, which have been linked to developmental delays or educational difficulties later. But other states have different income standards and ways of defining need.
 
In
New Jersey, all preschoolers 30 highest-poverty school districts are served as the result of a state Supreme Court ruling that found children needed services in order to be successful in elementary school.
 
Other states, such as
New York, technically have a "universal" program open to all, but, in reality, the initiatives were never funded to that level.
 
The result is a hodgepodge of programs from state to state of varying quality.
 
In his recent budget address, Gov. Rod Blagojevich proposed $30 million be added to the $244 million the state spends on early childhood education. If approved by the legislature, Blagojevich will have met his campaign promise to add $90 million to state early childhood programs.
 
After only two weeks in state-funded preschool, Yesenia and her little classmates already know to head for the letter on the colorful reading rug that corresponds to their first name. And they know that "rojo" is the color red and "azul" is blue as they listen to teacher Tania Sanchez read a story.
 
"We're working on the basics to get everyone ready for kindergarten," Sanchez explained in her classroom in a former private school at 6041 W. Diversey Ave. "Things like recognizing your name, learning to sit still, taking turns."
 
Chicago's third shift serves about 250 youngsters, but Chicago school officials expect the model will spread to other neighborhoods with more demand than space, such as schools near Midway Airport.
 
"This is the only solution available for neighborhoods where the schools are so overcrowded that we have no available classrooms," said Barbara Bowman, who heads early childhood education for the Chicago Public Schools. "These kids have had a nice lunch and a nap at home and they're ready to go."
 
Demand is soaring from parents who want their little ones to have a leg up as they enter an increasingly competitive education world where 1st graders must read and students are judged by their test scores as early as 3rd grade.
 
"A lot of states with budget problems have been cutting back so it is significant that
Illinois has been increasing its state-funded programs," said W. Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University in New Jersey.
 
To many, funding for quality programs matters more than a declaration that the state will serve all 4-year-olds.
 
"At the end of the day, the thing that matters is `show me the money,' and the governor keeps putting money in this during a time of scarce resources," said Harriet Meyer, president of the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund.
 
The Early Learning Council, a governor-appointed group co-chaired by Meyer, is expected to make a recommendation this spring that
Illinois continue expanding its program until there is access to quality preschool for all Illinois families. Blagojevich recently told the Tribune's editorial board that he did not expect Illinois would offer preschool to all before the end of his term in January 2007.
 
While budget shortfalls caused the
Chicago school system to cut back its tuition-based preschool program for middle-income families to about 400 students, the free, state-funded program for children at risk has expanded to serve about 20,325 youngsters in the city. That's almost a third of the some 67,000 children served with the same program across Illinois.
 
Even if
Illinois commits to making sure every family has access to preschool, that won't mean every Illinois child would be in a cookie-cutter classroom, or even that the state would foot the entire bill, early childhood experts said. A web of federal, state and private funding sources and services would continue to provide early education in private and public settings. And the price tag for the voluntary program could vary widely, depending on eligibility details and how fancy a program legislators would be willing to endorse.
 
One reason state pre-kindergarten is popular is because it is free, which is why Chicago's third shift filled up so quickly even though its late start time is far from ideal for many families. Yesenia's mother, Heber Rivera, like many parents, would prefer something earlier in the day to cut down on the amount of time she spends ferrying her three children, all on different schedules in different buildings, back and forth between home and school.
 
"But it is important to prepare her for kindergarten, so she can progress with the other children," said Mrs. Rivera in Spanish. She hurries home with Yesenia at the end of class so all her family can eat a home-cooked dinner together before her husband goes to his evening job at Federal Express.
 
The emphasis on early childhood education reflects a growing body of research that shows learning begins at birth.
 
It also reflects a marked change in attitude about how little children should spend their time, especially as more mothers have joined the workforce. By the 1980s, about half of the 4-year-olds and a third of 3-year-olds were in school, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. By 2002, those numbers had jumped to where the majority of 4-year-olds--70 percent--went to school, along with 40 percent of 3-year-olds.
 
"The research is so overwhelming that society has to invest more in early childhood education," said Jerry Stermer, president of Voices for Illinois Children. "That doesn't change that parents still have the most important role in their child's development."
 
Indeed, quality preschool programs are built around parent involvement and the late afternoon shift in
Chicago has a strong base of parental support. Chicago school officials only added the slots at Belmont-Cragin, in the Hall Mall and at Hanson Park and Lloyd Elementary Schools after lobbying from Latino parents in the Northwest Neighborhood Federation working with state Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago).
 
"The parents identified the need," del Valle said. "Gentrification is driving up the prices in
Wicker Park and Logan Square so families are moving to Belmont-Cragin for lower housing prices and rents."
 
Marta Moya Leang, head teacher at Belmont-Cragin, said the center taps parent interest by having workshops that show them how to turn routine tasks into learning experiences.
 
"When you're folding laundry, you can turn it into a lesson on sorting by colors, by size. Have the children count the towels, name the pieces of clothing," Moya Leang said.
 
Parents at Belmont-Cragin also are required to work on a weekend book report with their preschoolers, in which they read a story to their child and then record their little one's verbal answers to questions about the story.
 
"We have to explain to parents that learning at this age is playing," Moya Leang said. "Most important, we have to get parents to turn off the TV."
 
"Some parents are innate teachers," she said. "Others need a little direction."

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District 23 candidates rail against testing mandates
Kwame Patterson, Daily Herald
 
Candidates in the Prospect Heights Elementary District 23 board of education race agreed Wednesday that federal mandated test requirements and community input are some of the biggest challenges facing the district.
 
The district's parent/teacher organizations sponsored a candidate forum Wednesday night, where the candidates who will be on the April 5 ballot, answered questions on why they are qualified to lead the district.
 
The candidates, Judith McCurdy, who is running for the first time, and incumbents Judy Zimmerman, Martha Olsen and William Caputo had varying opinions on different issues. However, they all agreed that the federal No Child Left Behind law restricts teachers' abilities and that learning is more complex than just reading, writing and arithmetic tests.
 
"The law is not realistic with a segment of our population," Zimmerman said. "It's teaching to the tests."
 
No Child Left Behind requires public schools to have students test at a standard level in order to receive certain federal and state support.
 
"I'm no fan of No Child Left Behind," Caputo said. "It's an issue of whether we train kids or educate them."
 
McCurdy agreed. She said that schools should be preparing children for life and "No Child ... is losing the perspective for preparing children for the work force."
 
Olsen said that the state and federal government place these types of requirements on schools but they don't provide funding to achieve the goals.
 
Another issue the candidates addressed within the district was an increase in public communication on board decisions.
 
"As a citizen and taxpayer, I don't know what's going on in the school district," McCurdy said.
 
McCurdy, who didn't send her children to district schools, suggests the district begin mailing out newsletters to every resident within district boundaries, instead of just the parents.
 
Olsen proposed the board implement a State of the Schools address every year to let the community know the conditions of the district.
 
But people from the community also need to step up and ask questions and provide input into the direction of the district, according to Zimmerman and Caputo.
 
Christine Shiel, a resident of the district who doesn't have a child attending district schools, said she was interested in hearing about services being cut because of the district's failing budget.
 
"I would have liked to see them talk about the kids that live in the district, but don't go to district schools," she said.
 
Shiel, who sends her child to St. Alphonsus Catholic School in
Prospect Heights, said the district cut bus services it provided to St. Alphonsus students last year.
 
Another district resident, Jeff Bowes, who has two children in district schools, said overall the candidates did a good job showing who they are and the problems of the district.
 
He also said as a parent, he should begin going to more board meeting in order to find out what's going on in the schools his children attend.

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Advocates for children criticize possible budget cuts, urge school funding reform
By CHRIS WETTERICH, State Journal-Register Staff Writer,
3/18/05

Advocates for children in
Illinois on Thursday denounced possible federal budget cuts and urged the General Assembly to reform the way education is funded in the state as they released an annual status report by Voices for Illinois Children.

The 13th "Illinois Kids Count" report found that 15.3 percent of children statewide and 14.4 percent of those in
Sangamon County lived in poverty in 2002 - a 9 percent increase from 2000. The report said children who live in poverty are more likely to have learning disabilities and drop out of school.

Faith Sanderson, liaison for the homeless for the Sangamon County Regional Office of Education, said a number that's even more grim is the 22 percent increase in students across the county who qualify to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

"The schools I work with report a swell in this number," Sanderson said at a news conference at the Springfield YMCA. "These are the families who are living in a crisis mode. They are one crisis away from homelessness - a medical emergency, a loss of job."

Sanderson estimated there are at least 250 homeless children in
Sangamon County.

Voices for Illinois Children estimates that Illinois faces potential federal cuts of up to $505 million to programs offering "stability to our most vulnerable families," such as Medicaid, the earned-income tax credit, foster care and temporary assistance for needy families.

Congress this week is debating a federal budget resolution for next year.

"The basis of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing and poverty," Sanderson said. "They want to be self-sufficient and raise children who do well in school. These tasks were easier in the 1990s when there was increasing employment and decreasing poverty."

Sanderson said she's also concerned that possible cuts in the state's emergency food and shelter program could make things more difficult for local homeless shelters.

The Kids Count report goes on to criticize
Illinois' school funding system, which Voices for Illinois Children says relies too much on property taxes. The result is inequity in how children are educated across the state, due to property values that vary widely.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, has ruled out the group's proposed solution - raising income taxes and reducing property taxes to fund education - saying it would violate his 2002 campaign pledge of not raising the state sales or income taxes.

Blagojevich believes a better solution is to gradually increase the state's per-pupil spending by diverting money from other areas of state government.

The report praised the Blagojevich administration's efforts to expand eligibility for the KidCare and Medicaid health insurance programs, but noted that 11 percent of children in the state are still without coverage.

Laura Cellini, co-chair of the Springfield Voices Leadership Committee, said despite decades of trying, the group still hopes to change the school funding system.

"
Illinois has wide disparities in school funding," she said. "Recent increases in school funding have barely outpaced inflation. (Lawmakers) need to hear from their constituents in order to develop the political will to make these changes."
 
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Backpack burden: Bill aims to set weight limit on
Illinois school textbooks  
By Todd Welvaert, Quad-Cities Online, 3/18/05
 
A proposal for a state limit on the weight of student textbooks is being met with confusion by school administrators and the students who have to carry the load.

Senate Bill 1465's sponsor, Sen. Donne Trotter, D-Chicago, had the Senate Education Committee hear his bill Thursday. The committee placed the bill on the calendar for a second reading April 6. The amendment to the school code would put a weight limit on textbooks used in
Illinois' elementary and secondary schools.

Sen. Trotter is concerned over the weight students carry and what heavy books and backpacks are doing to them physically.

In a study completed in 2002, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission noted that between 1994 and 2000 an estimated 23,036 children ages 6 to 18 visited the emergency room with injuries associated with book bags and backpacks. Of those injuries, 5,919 were to the neck, shoulder and back.

Locally, several administrators question whether a weight limit to textbooks is the answer.

Ron Vail, assistant superintendent for the Rock Island County Regional Office of Education, said the book load might be a problem for some students, but he said the answer isn't in mandating a standard weight for textbooks.

"I think we need to do a whole lot of research before making something that's going to cause a lot of headaches like that," Mr. Vail said. "I think there are other solutions and options out there that we can look at."

Mr. Vail said there also may be a danger in what trade-offs are made to cut the weight.

Assistant superintendent Doug Whisker, who oversees the
East Moline's elementary school district's curriculum, said he wasn't aware of parents’ complaints about the weight of textbooks.

"In an elementary district, our books are not going to be as thick or heavy as those in high school," Mr. Whisker said. "I have been a curriculum director at a unit district, and at the high school level, books can go beyond 1,000 pages, and I understand that might be a problem if you are talking about multiple books in a book bag."

Illinois school districts individually pick which textbooks best fits their needs.

"I can't imagine any textbook company feeling any mandate by the state would dictate what kind of book they would develop," Mr. Whisker said.

Mr. Vail said publishers would make special texts for the state but at a huge cost. He said the answer may be in improving technologies -- CDs or online texts.

"But not every student at home has a computer available to them, and it may be many years before that happens."

Moline High School freshman Assame Diop said he only carries what his homework load dictates, and the books can get heavy but he's never had a back problem. Classmate Adam Dobereiner takes all his books home in case he needs them.

"It doesn't matter to me," Mr. Dobereiner said. "I think if they made smaller books there would just be more of them."

Mr. Dobereiner guessed his pack weighed about seven pounds, but a digital scale showed it weighed twice that.

The American Physical Therapy Association recommends a child should carry no more than 15 to 20 percent of their body weight and should be sure to wear both straps of the backpack. Slinging a strap over one shoulder causes the child to lean against the uneven weight, curving the spine. Wider shoulder straps also are better at distributing the load evenly and can help prevent nerve compression.

Jamie Dunlap, a sophomore at
Moline High School, said she often carries books in a backpack and in her arms because her backpack is too heavy. She said her mom asks why she has to take so many books home.

"If teachers gave us more worksheets (instead of homework out of a book) it would help," Ms. Dunlap said. "I have a few teachers who do that. I don't know that lighter books will mean a lighter back pack. It's how many books you take home, and it's important to learn a lot."
 
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School sends green teen home on St. Patrick's Day
By Allecia Vermillion, Beacon News Staff Writer,
3/18/05

AURORA — The luck of the Irish was not with Josh Clark on St. Patrick's Day.

The eighth grader was sent home from
Still Middle School Thursday morning because administrators said his green hair, face and arms were a distraction.

Josh's stepdad, Brian, sprayed and painted 14-year-old Josh, his younger sister and three of Josh's friends green in honor of the holiday.

"I didn't even make it to first period," Josh said.

The principal told him he could wash his face, serve in-school suspension or go home. Josh's friends chose to wash up and stay at school, but Josh's mother, Debbie, said her green son was no more troubling than some of the current teen fashions.

She wanted to know, "What's the difference from kids having their nose pierced, their tongue pierced, their eyebrow pierced?"

Josh's younger sister, Tricialynn, spent all day in her fourth grade class at
Gombert Elementary School, "and her teacher told her she looked so cute," their mother said.

Debbie Clark said the incident was a lesson for Josh in standing up for what he believed in.

She said Kathy Birkett, assistant superintendent with the
Indian Prairie School District, would look into the matter.

School officials did not respond to several calls for comment Thursday.

Clark said she was told by administrators at Still that the incident was confused with other students who brought green paint to school. Josh will not be counted as absent for the day, his mother said.

The teen is no stranger to spray-on hair color. Josh said he is actually "about two percent" Irish, but dresses up for the Super Bowl, Christmas and every holiday in between. His said his unnatural hair colors never have caused a problem before.

"I've just got to figure out what to do for Easter," he said.
 
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School bus driver benefits present a quandary
Editorial by
Decatur Herald & Review Editorial Staff, 3/18/05

School bus drivers in
Decatur, and around the state, are worried about receiving unemployment compensation this summer after it was denied to some bus drivers during the winter break.

While it's understandable drivers are concerned about receiving the compensation they've received for the past 15 years and the awarding of the compensation needs to be consistent, one has to wonder about the wisdom of paying unemployment to folks in a job with a built-in break in the work schedule.

It should be noted that in
Decatur, and many other school districts, bus drivers are hired by a private bus company, who then contracts with the school. Durham Services, which operates the buses in Decatur, has not opposed bus drivers receiving unemployment compensation.

The concern about the summer occurred when some bus drivers were denied unemployment compensation during the winter break from school. It appears the law is unclear, and different courts have ruled differently on whether privately employed bus drivers should be granted unemployment compensation. A spokesman for the state unemployment office, the Illinois Department of Employment Security, said the drivers would receive unemployment during the summer.

Another issue to be considered is whether school bus drivers are unemployed during the summer because of a lack of work or because there's a natural break in their employment.

Other seasonal employees, for example, are granted unemployment when there is no work to be performed.

But the break for school bus drivers isn't determined by weather or lack of materials. It's determined by the school calendar, and drivers know when they sign on that they probably won't work during the summer and school holidays. In fact, some bus companies recruit new drivers by advertising the fact that drivers will have "weekends and summers free."

Another factor to consider is retaining school bus drivers. According to the union that represents the drivers, many of them will have to find other jobs if they cannot receive unemployment compensation during the summer break. Many drivers say they can't make it three months without a paycheck.

Ultimately, the cost of unemployment is paid by the taxpayer. Unemployment benefits are paid through taxes on businesses, and in the case of the private school bus company, those costs are passed on to the school district through the contract between the company and the district.

But it's not clear that by not paying unemployment benefits, the taxpayers will gain. If the lack of unemployment depletes the number of drivers, it could end up costing more than the unemployment compensation. It also could cost more if unemployed drivers are forced to seek help from other tax-supported services.

The drivers deserve clear and consistent answers about whether unemployment will be paid. Still, it seems odd that a group of employees would receive unemployment compensation for a scheduled break in employment.
 
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===========================================================================

NATIONAL

Military schools planned for Broward and
Palm Beach counties
By
Karla D. Shores, Sun-Sentinel Education Writer, 3/13/05
 
Sarasota -- High school freshman Megan McDonald lumbered through six laps around an athletic field, squeezed out dozens of sit-ups, groaned through 20 push-ups and flutter kicks, sucked in a ragged breath and collapsed from fatigue.

McDonald, who missed Saturday detention three times, reluctantly swallowed a dose of school punishment military style.

"It's all about discipline Megan, and you know that. I'll see you the next two days?" bellows teacher and retired Army Command Sgt. Major Charles Thomas dressed in Army greens, arms crossed, his intimidating frame casting a shadow across a stretch of grass at Sarasota Military Academy High School.

Both Broward and
Palm Beach counties plan to open free, public military charter schools in the fall.

As charter schools, the campuses would operate with public money, but would be run by private enterprise. The schools would be loosely modeled after the 3-year-old
Sarasota program, the state's only military-style charter school.

The proposed coed
Palm Beach Military Academy and Broward Military Academy Charter School represent an emerging trend: the growth of free, public military high schools.

"Discipline today is not what it was when I was growing up," said Jim Utterback, 52, a
Palm Beach assistant principal who plans to open the Palm Beach Military Academy charter school in the central area of the county. A site has not yet been chosen.

Tired of violence, the hierarchy of social status and academic indifference in schools, Broward parents clamored last year to enroll their children in the proposed school, but code problems delayed plans for the military academy. Broward still plans to open its school, but
Palm Beach County educators say they think a recent visit Utterback led to observe the daily regimen of the Sarasota academy puts them ahead, marking a crucial step toward starting this fall.

Utterback, an assistant principal at
Conniston Community Middle School in West Palm Beach, took a half-dozen members of the academy's founding board to Sarasota to research and glean information on how a South Florida campus might operate.

Instead of hanging out on the playground and milling about in the hallways before school, they saw the
Sarasota students spit-shine their brogans and fall into formation just after sunup. Students are under orders to call teachers "sir," "ma'am," or by their military titles. All must enlist in the civil air patrol or Junior ROTC, and can be promoted in rank based on grade point average.

Like
Sarasota, Palm Beach would offer an assortment of non-team sports and classes like fencing, self-defense, horseback riding, sailing, bagpipes playing and military law.

The proposed
Palm Beach school would serve students in grades six through 12, and all students would be dressed in Class B cadet blues. Broward's school would be similar, but would serve grades nine through 12.

During the visit, Utterback and his entourage assembled in the office of the headmaster, Col. Daniel Kennedy, to get a crash course in how to run a military school. Kennedy, who co-founded the academy with military charter school consultant Burt Bershon, has no military experience, but carries a military title at the school. "Pick your teachers carefully. ..... We pay more than the district," Kennedy said. "And give your parents biographies of each teacher. You'll never view public education the same way again. You'll be totally changed."

The
Sarasota school day began at 7:20 a.m. with silence as the Palm Beach representatives looked on during daily formation.

Students, dressed in light-green hirts and army-green pants, saluted, their backs rigid and shoulders at attention, not daring to glance away from billowing
U.S. and POW MIA flags. Student drummers rolled out stately rhythms as the school band played The Star Spangled Banner.

One after another, nine companies of students barked commands, sending puffs of air into the 40-degree silence. After a student regimental commander shouted out the day's announcements, students relaxed, milled around for a few minutes then filed out, heading to class.

Placed on 6 acres in the center of historical downtown, Sarasota Military Academy is housed in a 1950s Catholic elementary school building, said headmaster Kennedy, a former principal of 3,000-student Sarasota High School.

There's no commitment for military service, but students must abide by military-style rules of behavior that kids in everyday schools don't experience.

The level of interest in military education can be seen in other programs, such as the Junior ROTC, a program backed by the Department of Defense that focuses on student-run leadership on high school campuses.

The number of Junior ROTC programs in Broward has doubled during the past nine years, said Col. James Armstrong, curriculum supervisor for the county's Junior ROTC programs.

"I get about half-a-dozen calls a week from parents looking for a military school," Armstrong said. "A majority of them are looking for a disciplinary atmosphere."

Heeding parents' interest in discipline, Douglas Brown tried to open the
Broward Military Academy Charter School last year, but the effort fizzled when county inspectors ruled out using a Plantation church annex because it lacked fire sprinklers. He is looking for a new location.

The school originally intended to have 200 students; Brown said last year he had parents on a waiting list.

"We're still very enthusiastic about it and we know parents are still very interested," said Brown, who carried a list of advisory board members, including local philanthropist and political power broker Hamilton Forman.

Beside the obvious hurdles for new charter school operators -- finding the right building for a school, keeping a balanced budget and academic accountability -- Utterback and Brown have an additional challenge.

Both men have said they don't want parents to think "boot camp" when deciding to send their children to a military charter school.

But that's exactly what will happen, regardless, Kennedy said.

Kennedy says military school operators always have a hard time overcoming the public's perception they are opening a school for students with behavioral problems. The image of a hard-core tough-love school is one setback any military school will have to endure,
Sarasota commandant Col. Stephen Cork, a retired Army colonel, said during a meeting with the Palm Beach charter school contingent.

"It took us a long time to make that turn and get that message out," said
Cork.

Shannon Cole said she hopes
Palm Beach comes through with the proposed school because she fears she cannot discipline her daughter without being considered a child abuser.

"In reality, you can no longer discipline your kids," said Cole, of Lantana. "If they mouth off and you smack them it's corporal punishment. The kids will call the cops and the cops will back them up. At least with a military school, I'll feel like they are backing me up."

Despite the stoic image, military schools are not all about stern looks and salutes.

Sarasota junior Tonee Arbagy said the military school is a lot like traditional school.

Some teachers at the
Sarasota school are strict and some are laid back.

Arbagy said some teachers don't require the students to call them by their formal titles as required in the student handbook.

"It's good because it's small and you know people so you feel welcome," said Arbagy, eating lunch with his friends at the end of a long table in the school's mess hall. "It kind of sucks because I had body piercings and I had to take out my tongue ring."

Student Quixote Minasian, 17, said he enjoys the strict nature of the school.

Minasian, a former
Riviera Beach student, said he understands why Palm Beach wants a military school.

"My mom moved a lot when we lived in
Palm Beach," said Minasian, who now lives in Sarasota with his mother. "There weren't a lot of schools that were stable where I'm from. But here, the kids that want to succeed can be away from the crazy attitudes of other students."
  
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Study: School leaders poorly educated
By Ben Feller, AP Education Writer,
3/15/05 

WASHINGTON -- The principals and superintendents who run the nation's schools are unprepared for their jobs by education colleges, where training ranges from inadequate to appalling, according to research by a leader in higher education.
 
Because they are responsible for hiring teachers, building community trust and overseeing academics, administrators have a huge influence over students, said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at
Columbia University and the author of the report released Monday.

Yet most graduate education programs that train these school administrators are deeply flawed, suffering from irrelevant curriculum, low standards, weak faculty and little clinical instruction, he said. Many programs are doing little more than dishing out higher degrees to teachers who are trying to qualify for salary increases, Levine said.

"The best chance we have is to scare the hell out of them and tell them the truth," Levine said about the colleges Monday. Even at elite universities, education colleges must improve significantly or their enrollment will slide with their credibility, he said.

The review is notable not just for what it says but also for who said it. As the head of one of the nation's most prominent education colleges, Levine is taking aim at his own field, and his views are likely to elicit more attention than many other reports have.

Groups of principals, superintendents and education colleges agreed with some findings, mainly that many graduate programs are disconnected to real-life school challenges.

"Many classes are taught by scholars who have never -- or have not recently -- been in a classroom or a superintendent's office," said a statement by the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which represent 76,000 school leaders.

But the groups said the report goes too far in lumping all leadership programs, given that some universities have sought and gained accreditation under tough, voluntary standards.

David Imig, the president of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said schools have taken steps to raise their standards in recent years. Bigger steps, he said, would require more public and private spending on training. As one example, he said emerging principals should have a chance to do a full-time internship and learn from mentors.

"If you really want to change education leadership, you're going to have to change the incentives for people to pursue work in leadership," he said. "Until we get to that mark, you're going to have part-time people in part-time programs, coming out partially prepared."

The report is the first of a series known as the Education Schools Project, paid for by the Annenberg Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and the Wallace Foundation.

The four-year study is based on surveys of deans, faculty, alumni and school principals, along with 28 case studies of schools and departments of education. Levine led the project with help from Alvin Sanoff, a journalist and former editor at U.S. News & World Report.

Levine found curriculum that amounted to a grab bag of survey classes, faculty with little experience in what they taught, and students with few opportunities for clinical instruction.

His own school, Teachers College, was not included. He said he omitted it largely to avoid the appearance of any bias.

The country has more than 1,200 schools, colleges and departments of education, covering a spectrum of nonprofit and for-profit programs, undergraduate and graduate.

If growing outside competition and self-policing don't prompt education schools to improve, Levine said, states must intervene to improve or shut down weak programs.

His other recommendations include having states and districts give salary increases based on the new skills employees can show -- not just new credentials they've earned.
 
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Spelling bees gain popularity nationwide
By Brooke Donald, Associated Press Writer,
3/15/05 

LINCOLN, R.I. -- When school district officials canceled their annual spelling bee, what emerged was an eight letter word for controversy -- b-r-o-u-h-a-h-a.
 
Suddenly, local newspapers started receiving letters urging a reversal of the decision. Talk radio picked up the story, and school and community leaders received phone calls and e-mails.

"I was surprised by all the attention," said new schools superintendent John Tindall Gibson, who soon reinstated the bee.

But national educators and spelling bee coordinators weren't. They said the mini-outcry was another example of the popularity of bees, which have expanded substantially over the past decade and have been celebrated in film, television, books and theater.

"They're like apple pie in
America," said Paige Kimble, director of the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the nation's largest and most prestigious bee. "Bees are just part of the school experience."

The
Lincoln School District dropped the bee initially because of concerns that it was damaging to children who lost and it did not meet the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Parents argued that the bee taught good study habits and provided students who might not excel in sports or theater a place to shine in front of their peers.

Many people in education agree, which may be contributing to the bee's sustained growth despite budget woes that have landed many extracurricular activities on the chopping block.

"Spelling bees can boost self-esteem and help students reach high standards," said Ed Walsh, deputy press secretary at the U.S. Department of Education. "We want schools to incorporate creative ways to teach students."

The 78th annual National Spelling Bee, which will take place in
Washington from May 31 to June 2, will have more participants than ever. At least 271 children from all 50 states and several other countries are expected to attend.

Kimble said that since the 1980s, participation has more than doubled in the national bee. She credits the popularity to its competitiveness, human drama and unpredictability.

"It makes me feel proud," said Adelaine Arias, 13, of
Providence. Arias, who speaks Spanish at home, represented Springfield Middle School in the Rhode Island statewide spelling bee this month. "Even if you don't win, you've learned a lot."

The English language, with its complex word construction and bendable rules, makes spelling particularly difficult, Kimble said. "All it takes is one letter and you're out," she said. "There's nothing like it in sport."

That drama was a big reason why ESPN began to air the national competition live in 1994. Kimble credits the sports network's decision to boosting the bee's popularity.

"It got the ball rolling," Kimble said.

Since then, spelling bees have been the focus of the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Spellbound" and the current off-Broadway musical hit "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."

Bees are also the subject of two movies expected to be released later this year. One, based on the best-selling novel "Bee Season," stars Richard Gere. The other, titled "Akeelah and the Bee," stars Angela Bassett and Laurence Fishburne and tells the story of an inner-city girl's journey to the national bee.

ESPN spokesman Mac Nwulu said the appeal of bees is obvious: competition.

"It was reality television before you really saw reality television," he said. "These kids come from all walks of life, and they have great spirit."

For example, Nwulu asked, who can forget 13-year-old Rebecca Sealfon of
New York City exuberantly spelling the word that earned her a National Spelling Bee victory in 1997? The home-schooled girl screeched each vowel and consonant in the word "euonym," then pumped her fists in the air and screeched again.

"It's your best, unscripted moments," Nwulu said.
 
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Study Finds Poor Performance by Nation's Education Schools
By Greg Winter,
New York Times, 3/15/05

American colleges and universities do such a poor job of training the nation's future teachers and school administrators that 9 of every 10 principals consider the graduates unprepared for what awaits them in the classroom, a new survey has found.

Nearly half the elementary- and secondary-school principals surveyed said the curriculums at schools of education, whether graduate or undergraduate, lacked academic rigor and were outdated, at times using materials decades older than the children whom teachers are now instructing. Beyond that, more than 80 percent of principals said the education schools were too detached from what went on at local elementary and high schools, a factor that made for a rift between educational theory and practice.
 
"I thought there were problems in the field," said Arthur E. Levine, president of Teachers College at
Columbia University, who is to release the findings in a report today. "But I didn't realize the depth of the problems."

In the report, Dr. Levine - who when interviewed described the program at his own school as strong but "absolutely not" ideal - said he and other experts who worked on the study had focused their efforts on finding education schools capable of producing excellent principals, superintendents and other administrators. They found none in the entire country.

Much of the problem, the report said, stems from what Dr. Levine called "the consumer mentality" dominating the nation's education schools. All states, and nearly all public school districts within them, award higher salaries to teachers who take additional courses and earn advanced degrees. One result of this has been an "army of unmotivated" educators looking for extra credits "in the easiest ways possible" during their off hours, the report said.

The universities, in turn, capitalize on this demand by viewing their education schools as "cash cows," setting low admissions standards and offering "quickie degrees" instead of investing in a quality curriculum, the report said. In fact, while criticism has often focused on the questionable academic qualifications of many teachers, the report found that school administrators typically had substantially lower scores on the Graduate Record Examination than the teachers they supervise.

Principals and superintendents need to be better trained than ever, the report contends, a necessity that puts added pressure on already faltering education schools: federal law is demanding that students make measurable academic progress; where local districts once set the bar, more states have adopted uniform exit exams that students must pass in order to graduate; and the population itself is changing, with more immigrants whose English is limited.

But others contend that these same conditions are precisely why education schools cannot be held wholly responsible for the failures of their graduates. In the era of federal demands for quick and consistent test-based results from even the most troubled districts, some defenders argue that education schools have little power to set the tone of what goes on in the nation's classrooms, and therefore are often inappropriately blamed for it.

"We've got to blame someone, so we blame the education schools - easy target," said Theodore R. Sizer, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Though these schools are far from exemplary, "we're asked to prepare people to go out into a field where their chances of survival are limited; it's like training kamikaze pilots."
 
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Educators Differ on Why Boys Lag in Reading
Gap Stokes Debate Over Teaching Approaches, Curricula
By Valerie
Strauss, Washington Post Staff Writer, 3/15/05

Jerilynn Hoffman couldn't get her young son to read much until she found a book that wasn't her cup of tea but definitely was his: "The Day My Butt Went Psycho."

Sharon Grover had a different problem: Her son loved books early in elementary school but mysteriously lost interest at about third grade, declaring: "My mother is a librarian, but I hate to read." He did, however, start reading again for pleasure -- in his twenties.

James Berlin, 7, of
Arlington reads the Nathaniel Benchley book "George the Drummer Boy" in the children's section of the Arlington Public Library. (Preston Keres -- The Washington Post) 
 
Enticing boys to read -- and to keep reading -- is the flip side of the sometimes fierce debate about girls and their math and science abilities, and both issues are receiving new attention as educators focus on how boys and girls learn differently.

The controversy about gender and learning was stoked anew when Harvard University President Larry Summers recently questioned girls' intrinsic abilities in math and science. Then first lady Laura Bush spoke about her new effort to help boys, who she said are falling dangerously behind girls in such areas as literacy.

Some educators have said that the concern over boys is exaggerated and that boys end up doing just fine, holding top jobs and being paid higher average salaries than women. Others, however, have said boys face an unprecedented literary crisis that limits their opportunities, citing studies showing that the gap between the sexes -- dating back to the 19th century -- has increased markedly.

"Part of it is biological and part of it is sociological, but boys are definitely drifting down," said Jon Scieszka, author of the "The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales," and founder of the Web site www.guysread.com, which is aimed at helping interest boys in reading. "We've been testing kids in
America for the last 25 years and finding out that boys are doing worse than girls," he said. "But we don't do enough to change that."

Exactly what should be done, however, is unclear, because there is no consensus on how much genetics, environment and culture are responsible for the gap. And it is not strictly a
U.S. phenomenon: Stephen Gorard, education professor at the University of York in England, reviewed scores for 22 countries and discovered gaps in every one, despite differences in school setups and curricula.

What is known is that boys generally take longer to learn to read than girls; they read less and are less enthusiastic about it; and they have more trouble understanding narrative texts yet are better at absorbing informational texts. Those findings are from a literacy study done in 2002, "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys," by Michael W. Smith, a
Temple University professor, and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Boise State University English education professor.

Scientists have said that boys are born with smaller language centers in their brains -- and larger spatial centers -- than girls and that boys develop language abilities at a slower rate, though eventually they catch up.

Girls generally learn to read and understand language sooner than boys, which helps to explain why early remedial reading classes are most often heavily populated with boys, teachers say.

The new push to have children learn key skills earlier -- reading in kindergarten and first grade, for instance -- works against boys, some educators say.

"It goes totally against the brain research showing how young boys and girls develop," said JoAnn Deak, a school psychologist and co-author of "Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters."

Most teachers are not schooled in dealing with children's biological differences, experts say, and many teachers beyond the third-grade level do not understand that they can do a lot to build up students' reading skills and confidence.

"If we don't teach reading and writing to boys in a boy-friendly way, they will continue to fall behind," said Michael Gurian, author and co-founder of the Spokane, Wash.-based Gurian Institute, which trains educators in gender differences in learning.

The notion of confidence in reading is central to the issue, said Smith, the
Temple professor. He said that people like to do what they are good at and that when boys stumble early in learning to read, it is often a skill they never warm to.

Another factor, said Hoffman, a reading specialist at
Pattie Elementary School in Prince William County, is that it is more difficult for many boys to sit still for classes, much less to "cuddle up with a book."

"They are just more active," she said.

Many schools have made an effort to incorporate into their curricula more books thought to appeal to boys, but Smith said he doubts that book choice will make the difference without changing the context in which boys are taught.

Meanwhile, a growing number of experts have said that what constitutes "good reading" might need redefining -- much of what boys often like to read is not highly respected by the English teachers trying to get their students to love "King Lear." Perhaps, Hoffman and other educators said, the very definition of literacy needs to be rewritten.

"A lot of teachers think of reading as reading stories," said Lee Galda, professor of children's literature at the
University of Minnesota. "And in fact, a lot of boys, and not just boys, like nonfiction. But we keep concentrating on novels or short stories and sometimes don't think of reading nonfiction as reading. But in fact it is, and it is extremely important."

Teachers and parents have said boys generally prefer stories with adventure, suspense and fantasy and tend toward reading nonfiction stories and non-narrative informational books, as well as magazines and newspapers.

Young boys revel in what Hoffman calls "potty humor," material many parents don't think is appropriate but that helped get her son interested in books. Boys like graphic novels, too, but not stories about relationships.

In a middle-school reading group that Grover runs at the Arlington Public Library, where she is youth services selections specialist, boys and girls challenged each other to read outside their preferred genres. "One of the boys read 'The Princess Diaries,' and he just couldn't understand what anybody would see to like in that."

Aaron Katz, 12, a sixth-grader in
Montgomery County, said he "never liked reading books -- and I still don't." But he does devour car magazines and likes the sports pages of newspapers. Somehow, though, he doesn't consider that reading.

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Comics encourage students to learn
Athima Chansancha, The Baltimore Sun
 
Chalk it up to Spidey-sense, but after the recent box-office success of superhero
Spider-Man, Maryland's superintendent of schools has adopted a novel approach to motivate reluctant readers: using comic books and graphic novels to enhance reading lessons.

Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick created the nation's first state-sanctioned template of lesson plans featuring word balloons and bubbles and action-packed animated panels that teachers can use for a variety of optional lessons.
 
"I just think that it's an opportunity to do something that will supplement our more traditional reading and be highly motivating to students and will engage them in reading in a much more enthusiastic manner," Grasmick said.

She said the template would be consistent with curriculum standards.
 
Individual school districts can use it on a voluntary basis and then can select comics to apply to the lessons for students in 3rd through 12th grades.
 
Comics are an American invention that in recent years have had a resurgence with such movie money-makers as the "Spider-Man" and "X-Men" series. But comics aren't limited to just superheroes and villains.
 
Illustrated adaptations of classical literature such as "The Iliad," "Beowulf" and a collection of Mark Twain's stories sit on shelves next to graphic novels such as the Victorian-era detective stories in the "Ruse" series, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus" and "Dignifying Science: Stories About Women Scientists."
 
The world's largest distributor of English language comics, Timonium Md.-based Diamond Comic Distributors, and the Walt Disney Co. are joining with
Maryland schools for the project.
 
Schools in Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties have begun pilot programs that incorporate comics into their reading, art and science curricula.
 
Teens have created their own comics in art history classes at Carroll's
Century High School, while 3rd grade pupils have pored over Mickey Mouse adventures and learned narrative basics at Summit Park Elementary in Pikesville.
 
Grasmick said studies that showed a 10 percent gap in reading between girls and boys in 3rd, 5th, 7th and 8th grades prompted this initiative to reel students into reading.
 
Since the State Department of Education is also responsible for educating adult prison inmates, Grasmick is hoping that the initiative can be applied to prisoners to help them improve their reading.

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U.S. education chief urges making high school courses more rigorous
But secretary praises
Md. for requiring regular tests
By Liz Bowie,
Baltimore Sun Staff, 3/15/05

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings told a state education panel yesterday that the nation should overhaul its high schools by making courses more rigorous and requiring routine testing of all students.

With only 68 percent of students graduating from high school in four years and only 18 percent completing college, Spellings said the country will no longer be able to compete globally unless something is done.

"We need to extend the accountability into high schools," she said, speaking to the Governor's Commission on Quality Education in
Maryland in Annapolis.

Although the idea has gotten a lukewarm reception in other states,
Maryland has put in place graduation standards for high schools. Today's eighth-graders will be the first class to have to pass a series of exams to get a high school diploma.

Spellings praised
Maryland for being ahead of other states in requiring regular testing. "The eyes of the nation are on Maryland," Spellings said. "Over 70 percent of third-graders in the state scored above the proficient level," she said noting that it was more than a 10 percent gain over the previous year. In addition, she noted the rise in scores last year for African-American children.

"Whenever you get results like this, it is not an accident," Spellings said.

She praised
Maryland's state schools superintendent, Nancy S. Grasmick, who as one of the longest-serving state education secretaries began annual testing of students in certain grades in the early 1990s in an attempt to make schools more accountable for their performance. Those measures are what many states are now struggling to comply with under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The recently confirmed education secretary said she hoped
Maryland would encourage the proliferation of charter schools as well as offer students more choices in the schools they attend.

Spellings was in the state to help garner more support for President Bush's proposal to extend the No Child Left Behind Act. The $1.7 billion proposal calls for more money for programs for students who are at risk of dropping out, have poor math skills or don't read well.

She indicated that as secretary, she would have a more flexible approach to interpreting the law while maintaining its integrity. Last month, the National Conference of State Legislatures issued a report calling for major changes in the law, including how student progress is measured, how schools are punished if they fall short and who decides when the rules are waived for struggling districts.

In a private meeting later yesterday at
Annapolis High School, Spellings talked to about 25 students, teachers, principals and education advocates about implementation of the law.

Grasmick said Spellings was told by a number of people that they have concerns about aspects of the law, including requirements for special education and "the importance of not just looking at the compliance but the quality of instruction."

Some also expressed concern that the law's requirement that teachers be "highly qualified" by a certain date is difficult during a time of teacher shortages.
 
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GOP stays firm on education cuts / Sacramento Bee
A Democratic move to boost spending by $4.7 billion is beaten 49-44 in the Senate.
By
Lawrence M. O'Rourke, Sacramento Bee Washington Bureau, 3/15/05

WASHINGTON - The Republican majority approved cuts in federal spending on education Monday as the Senate opened a weeklong debate on a $2.6 trillion spending and tax blueprint for next year.

The first vote - a test of the GOP control of the budget - was on an amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., to increase spending on education by $4.7 billion and to boost tax collections by $9.5 billion by scrubbing some tax cuts proposed by President Bush.

The Bingaman amendment was rejected 49-44. All 49 votes against the amendment were cast by Republicans, while three Republicans, 40 Democrats and one independent voted for it.

Republican leaders also worked to put down a small GOP rebellion against the president's request to scale back federal spending on Medicaid, the state-run health program for poor and disabled people.

A few Republican senators, mostly from the Northeast, said they were thinking about joining Democrats in blocking approval of a budget because it would restrict health care for the poor.

The budget measure is a blueprint for spending in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. It does not require the president's signature, but it serves to force congressional panels to work within allocated sums when they put forth appropriation bills.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said spending cuts in education, health care and other social services are needed to fulfill Bush's plan to cut the federal budget deficit in half - to about $200 billion - in five years.

Frist said that even with the cuts, the federal government is likely to spend $7.7 trillion over the next five years. Democrats contended that the total is likely to be higher as Bush adds spending for the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan and additional costs of homeland security.

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., the Budget Committee chairman, said the country cannot afford to repeat last year's record $412 billion budget deficit. The Congressional Budget Office projects a deficit this year of $427 billion.

"If you wish to restore the value of the dollar, we need to pass a budget that has fiscal restraint in it," Gregg said.

Democrats countered that Republicans were supporting cuts in education, health care and other domestic social programs to pay for the tax cuts pushed by Bush in 2001 and 2003, and to continue several of those cuts beyond their scheduled expiration at the end of the decade.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., said the debates in the Senate and House on the budgets will be the most important matters taken up this year by Congress because they affect every area of American life and government.

His comment reflected a growing belief on Capitol Hill that Bush's proposal to allow voluntary private retirement savings accounts carved out of Social Security taxes may be shelved by GOP leaders until at least 2006.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a former federal education secretary, defended the proposed cuts in expected federal spending on education. He said the federal government provides only 7 percent of total public education spending in the
United States and that states, school systems, colleges and individuals could absorb the reduction.
 
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Perot pushes technology for schools
By KAREN BROOKS, The
Dallas Morning News, 3/15/05

AUSTIN – The last time Dallas billionaire Ross Perot set his sights on changing education in Texas, the state's public schools were never the same.
 
Now, 20 years later, the two-time presidential contender is back in the Capitol pushing for what he says will make the biggest difference in education: modern technology.

He envisions a day when every student can use the Internet at age 3 and take assignments home on a laptop containing textbooks that are updated daily.

"We are limited only by our creativity," Mr. Perot told the House Public Education Committee on Tuesday. "I think you're going to be amazed by how many technology people are going to show up wanting to get this done. For all the right reasons."

Mr. Perot testified in support of a bill that would require the Texas Education Agency to ensure that high-tech teaching materials are available for all subjects in primary and secondary schools.

The bill by Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chairman of the committee, would also change references to textbooks in the Texas Education Code to "instructional materials," which would include high-tech learning tools. The bill is considered one of the House leadership's priorities.

Two decades ago, Mr. Perot was appointed by Gov. Mark White to head a select committee to overhaul education. The law eventually enacted created the no-pass-no-play rule, limited class sizes, required standardized tests, increased funding for poor districts and raised teacher pay.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, praised Mr. Perot as "the original reformer."

He replied: "It's time for more change."
 
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GAO Review: Weak Oversight of Internet Program for Schools, Libraries
By Ben Feller, Associated Press,
3/16/05

Federal oversight of the popular "E-rate" program that helps link schools and libraries to the Internet is flawed on several levels, congressional auditors have found.

The $2.25 billion-a-year program provides discounted Internet access and connection gear to help expand Internet availability, particularly for people in poor and remote areas. Yet cases of fraud and abuse, both by schools and libraries that get the money and by companies that provide the services, have surfaced nationwide and drawn the ire of Congress.

In a report being presented Wednesday to a congressional panel, the Government Accountability Office takes the Federal Communications Commission to task for weak oversight. The GAO, which is Congress' investigative arm, identified problems that appear fundamental.

The FCC, for example, does not have useful performance goals to measure the program's success, the report found. As one consequence, it is not possible to tell how much of the increasing connectivity to the Internet can be accurately credited to E-rate, the GAO said.

The FCC delegates day-to-day management of E-rate to the nonprofit Universal Service Administrative Company. But the FCC has never done a comprehensive evaluation to figure out which federal requirements or policies apply to this arrangement, the GAO says.

The review also says that the FCC has been slow to respond to audits of E-rate participants, and that there is a substantial backlog of appeals involving erroneous funding.

Overall, the GAO found, the FCC's problems "create barriers to enforcement, uncertainty about what the program's requirements really are, and questions about the soundness of the program's structure and accountability amid recent cases of fraud, waste and abuse."

In a written response, the FCC acknowledged that the E-rate program "continues to experience operational and management challenges." But the agency said it has taken a series of steps during the past year to improve oversight and that it has other measures planned.

The GAO report was being presented Wednesday to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Last year, the inspector general of the FCC told the same subcommittee that E-rate has an unacceptably high risk of abuse and waste.

Financed through phone charges, the E-Rate program has committed more than $13 billion to schools and libraries since 1998. The program considers about 40,000 requests for money each year, and many of the applicants depend on the funding for their telecommunications.
 
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Leave NCLB confusion behind
Palm Beach Post Editorial,
3/17/05  

It has been obvious since the first No Child Left Behind results in 2003 that
Florida's NCLB rules were ridiculous. Gov. Bush seems ready to admit it.

The state has wasted two years trying to explain why schools that earned an A from
Florida earned an F under NCLB. Last year, nearly 70 percent of Florida's schools scored either an A or B. Yet 77 percent flunked NCLB. How could that happen when both grades were based on the same FCAT results?
 
As The Post reported Wednesday, with school superintendents predicting that
Florida's NCLB failure rate could hit 90 percent this year, Gov. Bush and Education Secretary John Winn have decided to make the rules more rational. They can do so because, even though NCLB is a federal law, it allows states to decide how to measure "Adequate Yearly Progress," which is what counts under NCLB.

Some of the possible rules changes are esoteric in the way that only education bureaucrats can manage. One reason so many schools fail NCLB is the requirement that every "subgroup" at a school make adequate progress each year. In
Florida, subgroups — such as disabled students — can be as small as 30. Without a change, an entire middle school with 1,200 students could fail NCLB if just 15 students in such a subgroup didn't make adequate progress. Fixes might include increasing the subgroup size or decreasing the percentage that must pass.

Many other states have NCLB problems. In fact, the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures just released a report calling for NCLB to be less intrusive, more flexible and adequately financed.
Florida has been docile because Gov. Bush did not want to criticize NCLB while his brother ran for reelection. His concern now may be a fear that if 90 percent or more of Florida's schools are failing under NCLB, voters would be less likely to repeal the class-size amendment he hopes to kill in 2006. With NCLB pushed into the background, Gov. Bush could wrongly blame all school hardships, such as the lack of electives, on the class-size law.

In fact, the root problem is the continuing refusal by Gov. Bush and the Legislature to honestly pay for smaller classes. A change of heart on the NCLB is OK. A change of heart on the education budget would be better.
 
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Bush Pushes Sexual Abstinence for Teens Despite Data
By Alan Elsner, Reuters,
3/17/05  

NEW MARKET, Md. - Half a dozen 13-year-old boys munch pizza and slurp soda as they watch a video on how to resist peer pressure.
 
Afterwards, a counselor asks them how they might be able to counteract social pressure to engage in sexual activity. But most of the boys aren't listening. Even after one of them is ejected from the
Maryland classroom, they push and shove, make rude noises and insult the counselor and each other. Eventually, the session wraps up without any real discussion.

Welcome to sexual abstinence-only education in 2005.

In the past five years, President Bush has more than doubled funding for such programs, which teach that abstinence from sexual activity until marriage is the only sure way to avoid out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and other health problems.

In his fiscal year 2006 budget unveiled last month which drastically slashed spending on hundreds of other social programs, Bush proposed increasing funding for abstinence by $39 million to $206 million, rising to $270 million by 2008.

Yet critics say there is no evidence these programs have any effect on reducing teen-age sexual activity and often offer misleading or outrightly false information about reproductive health that increases the risks of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

"Bush may be sincere but he is also pandering to his political base and paying more attention to the ideology than the facts," said Michael McGee, vice president for education for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, which calls abstinence-only education "one of the religious right's greatest challenges to the nation's sexual health."

McGee said the abstinence-only movement had had a chilling effect on
U.S. classrooms, forcing teachers to stop mentioning contraception in health classes even when the curriculum requires them to do so.

"It only takes one parent complaining to ruin it for the entire school. We've seen it in community after community. Schools want at all costs to avoid controversy," he said.

Teen pregnancy rates in the
United States have been falling in recent years, dropping 28 percent between 1990 and 2000, but remain more than twice as high as in most European nations.

Favorable Trends

"Look at the trends if you want to see whether abstinence education works," said Jimmy Hester, coordinator of True Love Waits, sponsored by Lifeway Christian Resources, a Nashville-based publishing group.

"Our program started 11 years ago out of grassroots concern that students were only hearing safe sex messages and didn't even realize that abstinence was an option," he said.

Including information about contraception and safe sex just "waters down the message," he said.

Critics say a substantial increase in contraceptive use by sexually active teens as well as a decline in sexual activity among adolescents lie behind the statistics.

And they say that numerous studies of abstinence programs have failed to find any measurable impact. In one of the latest, conducted by researchers in Bush's home state of Texas and released last month, teen-agers in 29 high schools became increasingly sexually active after taking such courses, mirroring overall state trends.

"The jury is still out, but most of what we've discovered shows there's no evidence the large amount of money we're spending is having an effect," said Buzz Pruitt of Texas A&M University, who directed the study.

Another study of the teaching materials used by abstinence programs prepared for California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman in December found that 80 percent of the curricula examined contained false, misleading or distorted information.

Commonly, they taught that condoms were ineffective in preventing sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy and contained false information about the risks of abortion as well as blatantly sexist messages, the report said.

In
Pennsylvania, the state stopped funding abstinence programs after seeing a study that showed they were not working, but the federal government increased its funding to fill the void, said state health department spokesman Richard McGarvey.

In
Maryland, the programs are administered exclusively as voluntary after-school activities. In Frederick County, north of Washington, officials have concentrated on recruiting 13- and 14-year-old boys for twice-weekly sessions.

"We take them bowling and swimming but they also do community service projects as well as classroom sessions," said Beth Mowrey who directs the "Guys Only" program for the Frederick County Health Department.

"We want kids to delay the initiation of sexual intercourse and to increase parent-child communication on sexuality, drugs, alcohol and responsible decision-making," she said.

When boys in the class at New Market were asked why they signed up, most said it was to have fun and get free food.
 
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Internet Program Oversight Said Flawed
By Ben Feller, Associated Press,
3/16/05

Federal oversight of the popular "E-rate" program that helps link schools and libraries to the Internet is flawed on several levels, congressional auditors have found.

The $2.25 billion-a-year program provides discounted Internet access and connection gear to help expand Internet availability, particularly for people in poor and remote areas. Yet cases of fraud and abuse, both by schools and libraries that get the money and by companies that provide the services, have surfaced nationwide and drawn the ire of Congress.

In a report being presented Wednesday to a congressional panel, the Government Accountability Office takes the Federal Communications Commission to task for weak oversight. The GAO, which is Congress' investigative arm, identified problems that appear fundamental.

The FCC, for example, does not have useful performance goals to measure the program's success, the report found. As one consequence, it is not possible to tell how much of the increasing connectivity to the Internet can be accurately credited to E-rate, the GAO said.

The FCC delegates day-to-day management of E-rate to the nonprofit Universal Service Administrative Company. But the FCC has never done a comprehensive evaluation to figure out which federal requirements or policies apply to this arrangement, the GAO says.

The review also says that the FCC has been slow to respond to audits of E-rate participants, and that there is a substantial backlog of appeals involving erroneous funding.

Overall, the GAO found, the FCC's problems "create barriers to enforcement, uncertainty about what the program's requirements really are, and questions about the soundness of the program's structure and accountability amid recent cases of fraud, waste and abuse."

In a written response, the FCC acknowledged that the E-rate program "continues to experience operational and management challenges." But the agency said it has taken a series of steps during the past year to improve oversight and that it has other measures planned.

The GAO report was being presented Wednesday to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. Last year, the inspector general of the FCC told the same subcommittee that E-rate has an unacceptably high risk of abuse and waste.

Financed through phone charges, the E-Rate program has committed more than $13 billion to schools and libraries since 1998. The program considers about 40,000 requests for money each year, and many of the applicants depend on the funding for their telecommunications.
 
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Census: Nation's public schools in the red
AP,
3/17/05 

WASHINGTON -- The nation's public school systems are sinking further into debt, the Census Bureau reported Thursday. They were saddled with over $250 billion in red ink in the 2002-03 school year, up 11 percent from the previous year.
 
Many districts are stuck with huge debts to pay for new buildings to accommodate a surging student population. Nationally, enrollment grew slightly to 47.6 million, up 1 percent.

Other districts have struggled to find money to fix older buildings or hire more teachers.

The data, the latest available, also reflect the first full school year after the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law in January 2002. The sweeping reforms aimed at upgrading school performance are a cornerstone of President Bush's education policy.

Collectively, spending for public elementary and secondary school systems increased roughly 4 percent to $453 billion in 2003. That included over $38 billion in that school year alone for construction costs.

Overall, the nation's public school districts spent $8,019 per student, up about $400 per student from the previous year. The per-pupil costs do not account for construction or other capital needs.

Spending varied widely, with Northeastern states again atop the list. The
District of Columbia, New Jersey and New York each spent over $12,000 per pupil.

Utah ranked last in per-pupil spending at nearly $4,900, while Arizona and Mississippi each spent less than $6,000 per student.

The No Child Left Behind law requires schools to show yearly progress among all major groups of students, with the goal of getting all children up to grade level in reading and math.

Democratic leaders angry with the first go-round of the education law say schools have not received enough money and that Bush's latest budget proposal would make it worse by cutting overall spending.
 
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Possible Mercury, Autism Connection Found in Study
Texas school districts with the highest level of the toxic metal had the highest rate of the disorder, researchers say.
By Thomas H. Maugh II, Los Angels Times Staff Writer, 3/18/05

Texas researchers have found a possible link between autism and mercury in the air and water.

Studying individual school districts in
Texas, the epidemiologists found that those districts with the highest levels of mercury in the environment also had the highest rates of special education students and autism diagnoses.

The study does not prove that mercury causes autism, cautioned the lead author, Raymond F. Palmer of the University of Texas Health Science Center in
San Antonio, but it provides a "provocative" clue that should be further investigated.

"Mercury is a known neurotoxin," said Dr. Isaac Pessah of UC Davis' MIND Institute, who was not involved in the study. "It's rather intriguing that the correlation is so positive," meaning that there was a strong, direct relationship between mercury and autism levels. "It makes one worry."

California has the highest environmental burden of mercury of any state in the country, and it also has what appears to be the highest rate of autism as well — although some critics attribute this perceived high rate to enhanced surveillance associated with the state's special education program.

Autism is a severe developmental disorder in which children seem isolated from the world around them. There is a broad spectrum of symptoms, but the disorder is marked by poor language skills and an inability to handle social relations.

The incidence of autism has grown dramatically over the last two decades, from about one in every 2,000 children to as high as one in every 166. Researchers have been hard-pressed to explain the increase, but many believe mercury to be the culprit.

The purported link between autism and mercury has been a subject of intense debate. In the past it has centered primarily on the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which was once widely used in vaccines.

Many parents have argued that thimerosal causes autism because their children seemed to develop the neurological disorder shortly after they received childhood vaccinations.

That link has been largely discredited, and researchers are beginning to look at the potential effects of the metal from other sources.

Mercury is routinely released from power plants burning fossil fuels, and it spreads widely in air and water. Much of the fish consumed in some regions is contaminated with mercury. In
California, gold mining was a big mercury source, and there are many mercury hot spots near mines and downstream, such as in Clear Lake.

In the new study, Palmer and his colleagues used Environmental Protection Agency data about the release of mercury in 2001 in
Texas' 254 counties and correlated that with the number of special education cases and autism diagnoses in the 1,200 school districts. Texas is fourth in the amount of mercury released into the environment annually, trailing California, Oregon and West Virginia.

The study, which will appear in the journal Health & Place, found that for every 1,000 pounds of mercury released into the environment, there was a 43% increase in special education services and a 61% increase in the autism rate.

The exception to the rule was
Brewster County, which had a high autism rate but did not report significant mercury levels to the EPA. When Palmer investigated, however, he found that the county had been home to one of the largest mercury mines in the nation.

"Perhaps [the mercury] just stays in the environment forever. We don't know," Palmer said.

More work will be required to determine whether mercury is the agent that causes the disorder. Palmer is expanding his studies to look for historical correlations — attempting to determine, for example, if increases in the rate of autism over time can be associated with increases in mercury release.

Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciatto and her colleagues at the MIND Institute, meanwhile, have begun a potentially more definitive study in which they are measuring the levels of mercury and other toxic metals, such as cadmium and lead, in children with autism to see if they are higher than in healthy children. Results will be available in a couple of years.
 
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Lawmaker seeks to end sexy cheerleading
By April Castro, Associated Press Writer,
3/18/05  

AUSTIN, Texas -- The Friday night lights in Texas could soon be without bumpin' and grindin' cheerleaders. Legislation filed by Rep. Al Edwards would put an end to "sexually suggestive" performances at athletic events and other extracurricular competitions.
 
"It's just too sexually oriented, you know, the way they're shaking their behinds and going on, breaking it down," said Edwards, a 26-year veteran of the Texas House. "And then we say to them, 'don't get involved in sex unless it's marriage or love, it's dangerous out there' and yet the teachers and directors are helping them go through those kind of gyrations."

Under Edwards' bill, if a school district knowingly permits such a performance, funds from the state would be reduced in an amount to be determined by the education commissioner.

Edwards said he filed the bill as a result of several instances of seeing such ribald performances in his district.

J.M. Farias, owner of Austin Cheer Factory, said cheerleading aficionados would welcome the law. Cheering competitions, he said, penalize for suggestive movements or any vulgarity.

"Any coaches that are good won't put that in their routines," he said. And, most girls cheering on Friday nights were trained by professionals who know better, he said.

"I don't think this law would really shake the industry at all. In fact, it would give parents a better feeling, mostly dads and boyfriends, too," Farias said.

Although cheerleaders must meet the same no-pass, no-play academic requirements of athletes, cheerleading is not a competition sanctioned by the University Interscholastic League, the governing body of
Texas high school sports.

The UIL also does not have performance regulations for squads who cheer for their teams at state championships, said Athletic Coordinator Peter Contreras.

"I think it should have been cut out a long time ago," Edwards said. "It surely needs to be toned down."
 
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===========================================================================

FROM “EDUCATION WEEK”

Spellings Puts Her Stamp on Department
Reorganization Shifts Some Lines of Authority, Adds Two New Offices
By Michelle R. Davis, 3/15/05

The Department of Education is revamping its structure in a move that some say reflects a more logical division of duties and the new management style of its leader.

The reorganization will create two new offices headed by assistant secretaries, including one for communications, and gathers most K-12 programs under the deputy secretary while putting postsecondary and vocational programs in the undersecretary’s hands.

The changes, announced in a March 4 memo and slated to unfold over the next several weeks, mean that the heads of eight major departmental offices, plus the deputy secretary and the undersecretary, will report directly to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was confirmed in January. Previously, only five major offices had a direct line to the secretary.

“I believe this proposed structure will add great value in the way we do business and how we serve our customers,” Ms. Spellings wrote in a March 4 memo regarding the changes.

Under the reorganization, the new assistant secretaries will lead, respectively, an Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, which will manage policy development throughout the Education Department, and an Office of Communications and Outreach. The latter office will coordinate all the department’s external relations, including dealings with the press, education groups, and other government agencies. The assistant secretaries, who had not been named as of press time last week, will require Senate confirmation.

Another significant change is the division of responsibilities between the department’s deputy secretary and undersecretary, the No. 2 and No. 3 posts, respectively. The deputy secretary will be responsible mainly for K-12 education, including the No Child Left Behind Act, while the undersecretary will be responsible mainly for higher education and adult programs.

Hands-On Manager?

“The effect of this reorganization remains to be determined,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute, a
Washington think tank aligned with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. “What’s obvious to me is that Secretary Spellings is tightening her grip on key functions.”

It’s typical for a new leader to put his or her stamp on a federal agency, said Krista Kafer, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative
Washington think tank.

“Whenever somebody comes in that’s new, they’re going to want to set up the organization to suit their management style,” she said.

Having come from the White House, where she was Mr. Bush’s domestic policy adviser and had a small staff to manage, Ms. Spellings may be accustomed to being hands-on. And considering her central role in helping to craft the No Child Left Behind Act “it would make sense that she’d want to be more involved in the implementation,” Ms. Kafer said.

Under Ms. Spellings’ plan, the deputy secretary will focus on K-12 education, including such areas as the No Child Left Behind Act, President Bush’s High School Initiative, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, school choice issues, and English-language acquisition. Other department programs involving Hispanic education, American Indian education, and a math and science initiative will also be under the deputy secretary’s supervision. Eugene W. Hickok, who as deputy secretary was a leading player in carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act, left the department in January.

The undersecretary will take charge of higher education and adult education policy and federal student aid, in addition to initiatives on historically black colleges and universities and tribal colleges and universities. Edward R. McPherson, the current undersecretary, will become a senior adviser to the secretary.

Vocational education, despite being primarily a precollegiate program, will also fall under the purview of the undersecretary. That move, coupled with a proposal from President Bush to eliminate funding for vocational education programs, has some education advocates worried.

“We’re concerned about any moves by the department regarding career and technical education, and what it really means for the … high school portion, which is so important,” said Christin M. Driscoll, the senior director of public policy for the Association for Career and Technical Education, based in Alexandria, Va. “We hope that a focus on the high school portion can be maintained.”

Some major offices in the department, such as the general counsel, the inspector general, and the office for civil rights, will continue to report directly to the secretary.

The concept of splitting many departmental responsibilities along K-12 and higher education lines makes sense, said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

“The overall idea has a lot to be said for it,” said Mr. Jennings, a former top education aide to House Democrats. “But every organization is human and has a history. I don’t know whether the right people will be in place.”

As of last week, the department had not indicated who would end up in the deputy secretary’s and undersecretary’s posts. However, the name of Raymond J. Simon, now the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, has often been floated as a possibility for deputy secretary, and the new lineup of responsibilities would seem to fit his background.

Secretary Spellings took office in January after serving as President Bush’s chief domestic-policy aide. Because she is new to her job, a reorganization allows her to shuffle and add personnel in a way that can play to the strengths of those she has in mind, said Maris A. Vinovskis, an education historian at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Improving Efficiency

But reorganizations of federal departments can be risky too, Mr. Vinovskis said. “The reorganization takes a lot of time and energy, and that energy might well be spent on other initiatives and other tasks,” he said. “The question is: ‘What do you gain?’ ”

One central change is the formation of the new communications office, which will lump together media-relations functions, internal communications, and the current office of intergovernmental and interagency affairs, which acts as a liaison to states and non-governmental organizations.

The new office will end the “decentralized and fragmented” communications efforts of the department that Secretary Spellings believes is in place now, said David Dunn, her chief of staff, in a telephone press conference on March 4.

The new communications office comes on the heels of several embarrassing episodes stemming from the Education Department’s public relations efforts.

Last year, the department sent out several video news releases—video packages made to look like independent news reports—promoting Bush administration programs.

Earlier this year, the department acknowledged that under a contract with a public relations firm, it had paid a conservative pundit more than $200,000, in part to help promote the No Child Left Behind Act. Armstrong Williams, a newspaper columnist who has his own syndicated television show, did not reveal the arrangement in columns that he wrote or while opining about the federal education law on cable-TV shows. Federal lawmakers were outraged, and Ms. Spellings vowed to make sure nothing similar happened on her watch. ("Department’s PR Activities Scrutinized,"
Jan. 19, 2005)

“Secretary Spellings made it very clear from the start that she’s going to improve the efficiency of this organization, and that includes getting to the bottom of the issues surrounding the PR contracts,” Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said in an e-mail last week.

While the controversies were no doubt a consideration in creating the new communications office, they were likely not the only factor. The department realizes it has an uphill public relations battle ahead, said Mr. Jennings. It must try to sell the public on the president’s high school plan, which includes increased testing at that level, and continue efforts to inform people about the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The administration is very attuned to getting their story out,” Mr. Jennings said. “Everything comes back to No Child Left Behind. That’s their biggest challenge.”

Mr. Hickok, the former deputy secretary, said the department faces significant hurdles in educating the public about the federal school accountability law.

“The greatest challenges with No Child Left Behind have always been explaining it at the grassroots level and getting around the filters of the organizations and groups,” he said. “They’re trying to be proactive in public affairs as opposed to reactive.”

The new policy-development office will coordinate the crafting of policy across offices as proposals work their way through the department for final decisions, Mr. Dunn said. The office will also supervise the departmental unit that oversees and drafts the budget, the strategic-accountability service, which monitors performance programs and results-based data initiatives, and coordinate educational technology. The policy office will ensure that “all of the various program offices impacted or with a stake in these policies are going to have a seat at the table from the beginning to ensure both that the decisions are well informed on the front end, but then that everybody is moving forward, once the decision is final,” Mr. Dunn said.

Other changes in the restructuring plan include the addition of a new senior adviser to Ms. Spellings to oversee grants, loans, contracts, and related services. That is the job that Mr. McPherson, the current undersecretary, will fill.

Despite the numerous changes in the organization chart, work is expected to continue as usual for most of the Education Department’s more than 4,400 employees. In the March 4 memo to department staff members, Ms. Spellings said most employees’ duties would not change.

“We do not anticipate that the actual work of many of the program areas will change substantially,” she wrote.
 
TOP OF PAGE

Study Blasts Leadership Preparation
Teachers College Head Calls for New Degrees
By Jeff Archer, 3/16/05

A far-reaching study set for release this week offers a damning assessment of the programs that prepare most of the nation’s principals and superintendents.

Led by Arthur E. Levine, the president of Teachers College,
Columbia University, the report says most university-based preparation programs for administrators range in quality from “inadequate to appalling.”

“Our country needs skilled education leaders more than it has ever before, and our schools of education aren’t preparing those people,” Mr. Levine said last week. “And there are ways that they could change that would prepare those people.”

The critique is part of a larger study of education schools spearheaded by Mr. Levine, a nationally known expert on improving higher education who became the college’s president in 1994. The Education Schools Project claims to be the most extensive study ever of such institutions.

Based on four years of research, the report on administrators’ preparation involved teams of investigators who

visited 28 schools of education to evaluate their program content, policies, students, and funding, among other characteristics. Twenty-five of the institutions offered degrees in educational administration. Researchers also carried out national polls of education school faculty members, deans, students, and alumni.

The study charges that administrator programs have been dumbed down by low admissions criteria, irrelevant coursework, unskilled faculty members, and incoherent curricula. In particular, the report derides the rigor of the growing number of off-campus programs created by education schools.

So low, in fact, is the report’s appraisal of administrator preparation that the lone exemplar it holds up is in
Britain.

Among Mr. Levine’s recommendations are the creation of a professional-track graduate program, akin to the Master of Business Administration; the elimination of the Doctor of Education, or Ed.D., degree now held by many superintendents and other administrators; and an end to the financial incentives built into salary schedules that encourage teachers to earn master’s degrees in educational administration simply to earn more money.

Insider’s View

The report, “Educating School Leaders,” comes at a time when a few states are threatening to close programs that aren’t up to snuff. An increasing number of states also have gone around education schools by allowing district training initiatives to license administrator candidates.

Despite such moves, Mr. Levine’s study found that more than 80 percent of education school deans believed that their administrator-preparation programs were good or excellent.

Given that the forthcoming report was written by the head of one of the nation’s best-regarded colleges of education, some observers said such complacency could be short-lived.

“When the president of Teachers College makes these criticisms, it can’t be dismissed as the mischief of outsiders,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in
Washington. “It will inevitably force people to engage these criticisms differently than they’ve engaged them in the last 10 or 15 years.”

Other reports expected from the Education Schools Project will examine the quality of teacher preparation and the work of education scholars in academia. The project is supported by about $2 million from the Annenberg, Ford, Ewing Marion Kaufmann, and Wallace foundations. (The Wallace Foundation also underwrites coverage of leadership issues in Education Week.)

While education schools in general get low marks in the report, their courses of study for aspiring administrators were found especially lacking.

Poor to Fair Reports

Among the administrators polled, half said their graduate training did a poor to fair job preparing them to deal with in-school politics. A little more than a third gave the same rating to their preparation for working with parents and other constituents. And 31 percent gave similar marks to their preparation for handling test-based accountability.

A key problem is lack of focus, the report argues. Instead of a coherent curriculum designed to teach people to lead efforts to improve instruction, it describes most programs as “little more than a grab-bag of survey courses” with little connection to the realities of running a school or district. Many students enrolled in such programs don’t complain, Mr. Levine said, because they’re earning a master’s only for the bump in salary.

Even the parts of the training programs meant to offer practical skills were found woefully inadequate. All but one of the 25 institutions in the study that offered degrees in educational administration included a clinical experience, such as an internship. But only two required that such experiences take place outside the school or district where the student worked.

“Almost all allowed them to occur in their current job,” Mr. Levine said in the interview, “regardless of the quality of the school they were in or of the person they were allegedly mentoring under.”

Critics have long accused universities of using education schools as cash cows, generating more in tuition from a steady stream of students than the institutions actually spend to educate them. With the expansion of off-campus programs in educational administration taught mostly by part-time professors, the report warns, the problem is getting worse.

Fifteen of the 25 schools visited for the study had started satellite programs. One unnamed university had just five full-time faculty members serving 500 students in educational administration around its region. The bulk of the instruction was provided by 22 part-time, adjunct professors, many current school administrators.

Some experts in educational administration agreed last week with the report’s assertion that the proliferation of off-campus programs is troubling. Too often, programs focus more on convenience than quality, said Kent D. Peterson, a professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who mentioned one program that touts “convenient parking” in its advertisements.

“There’s nothing wrong with having satellite campuses or adjunct professors,” he said, “so long as those satellites are taught by adjuncts who are integrated into the program and have the opportunity to improve their instruction.”

But aside from agreeing with the worry about off-campus programs, others noted last week that most of the report’s criticisms aren’t new, and in fact echo a national panel’s report in the late 1980s calling on states to shutter poorly performing educational administration programs.

“It’s become rather a tiresome story to say that leadership-preparation programs are in dire straits, and that there’s been little movement,” said Michelle D. Young, the executive director of the University Council for Educational Administration, a group that includes 75 institutions and is based at the University of Missouri-Columbia. “That’s not the case for the programs I’m working with.”

Education schools, she said, have devoted increasing energy to evaluating their programs and using that information to improve. They also have built stronger connections with school districts to ensure that they’re giving candidates the skills they will need on the job.

A handful of states have raised the bar for the training of administrators. In
Louisiana, all of the education schools have been given until this summer to update their administrator-preparation programs or face having them “decommissioned,” so their degrees would no longer qualify candidates for a state license.

And in many states, education schools seeking state approval are judged against the standards of the Interstate School Leaders Licensure Consortium, drafted in 1996 under the auspices of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

But Mr. Levine said his research left him largely unimpressed by such efforts. “I spoke with a lot of people who told me they had redesigned their curriculum and aligned their programs to ISLLC standards,” he said. “And I saw no difference.”

Examples do exist of strong programs, he said, citing those at the
University of Wisconsin and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. But his report reserves its highest praise for the National College for School Leadership, launched in 2000 in Nottingham, England, by the Labor government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The national college was conceived as a state-of-the-art training center for school leaders throughout
England. Aimed at serving administrators throughout their careers, it offers professional development based on research into the link between leadership and student learning. The college does not, however, grant degrees.

Alternatives Loom

To achieve fundamental change, Mr. Levine calls for overhauling the degrees offered within the field of educational administration. Education schools should stop giving Ed.Ds, he said, because superintendents don’t need doctorates and forcing district leaders to earn them often waters down the programs for those who want to go into academia.

Instead, he said, prospective administrators should be able to earn a Master of Educational Administration, which would be the field’s equivalent of an M.B.A.—a professional degree based on a widely agreed-upon course of study in management and education.

Mr. Levine said he holds out hope that education schools can make the needed improvements, although alternatives are gaining in popularity. Last month, for instance,
Maryland agreed to give administrator licenses to graduates of a program in Baltimore to be run by New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit organization that trains aspiring principals through yearlong residencies. ("New Leaders Group to Train Principals in Baltimore," March 2, 2005.)

Similar programs have cropped up in
Boston, Memphis, New York City, and Philadelphia. Some are run by New Leaders, and others are being organized by the school districts themselves.

“No longer are states willing to accept weak programs in the same fashion,” said the Teachers College president. “To ignore this warning is to allow leadership education programs in
America to fade away. They will be replaced.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

NCLB Choice Option Going Untapped, But Tutoring Picking Up
By Lynn Olson, 3/16/05

Districts are paying scant attention to the provision of federal education law that allows students in low-performing schools to transfer elsewhere, though more are providing children with the supplemental services to which they are entitled.

New data submitted to the federal government show that eligible students who transferred to a higher-performing public school under the No Child Left Behind Act averaged 1 percent nationwide last school year. On the tutoring front, 11 states reported that 20 percent or more of eligible children received supplemental educational services that school year.

States had to submit those and other performance data to the U.S. Department of Education by Dec. 31, as part of their applications for federal aid under the law. Education Week obtained the state-by-state data under a Freedom of Information Act request to the department.

The 3-year-old NCLB law contains two provisions designed to provide immediate help for children in Title I schools identified for improvement: Students in a school that fails to meet its performance targets for two years in a row can choose to attend another public school in the district. If their school fails to meet its targets for a third year, children from low-income families in such schools can receive free tutoring from a public or private provider selected from a state-approved list.

But critics have long complained that the school choice provision is not viable—a complaint that seems to be borne out by the data.

Only a handful of states—
Alabama, Kansas, New York, Oklahoma, and Oregon—reported that more than 10 percent of eligible students took advantage of the school choice option in 2003-04. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, that figure was 1 percent, the national average, or less.

In contrast, more than half the states that furnished comparable data over two years saw sizable jumps in the number of students who received tutoring in 2003-04 compared with the previous school year.

“Educators and folks in the state education systems are more comfortable with supplemental services than they are with the public school choice requirements,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in
Washington. “The fact that folks in the districts and in the states see supplemental services as helpful and as consistent with seeking to make adequate yearly progress has made it an easier sell.”

On the other hand, he contended, “there’s very little incentive for principals or superintendents to pursue choice seriously. If you open your school, or you make real efforts to provide public school choice and accept these kids, there’s nothing in the way of reputational awards or motivational awards or resources, whereas dragging your feet is pretty much a no-cost option at this point.”

Even on the supplemental-services front, there is room for improvement.

Of those states that had students eligible for supplemental services and reported data, 18 had fewer than 10 percent of eligible students receive such services last school year. Only
Utah came close to serving half of all eligible children.

Many groups have proposed reversing the order now specified in the law, so that districts would have to offer students tutoring the first year a school is identified for improvement and the transfer option if a school is identified for a second year.

“We do agree that there will be some tweaks when we get to the reauthorization process,” Melanie Looney, a majority staff member with the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said this month during a meeting in Washington sponsored by the Education Industry Association. She specifically mentioned reversing the order of choice and supplemental services as one option when the law comes up for renewal in 2007.

Is Picture Accurate?

As was true last year, states continued to report that the vast majority of their core academic classes are taught by teachers who meet the law’s definition of “highly qualified.”

Only a few states—California, Delaware, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Utah—reported that more than 25 percent of their courses were taught by teachers not meeting the law’s definition.

To satisfy the standard, each teacher of a core subject must hold a bachelor’s degree and a standard teaching license from the state, as well as demonstrate knowledge of the subject taught. New teachers must do so by taking and passing tests in the subjects they teach or completing the equivalent of a college major. Veteran teachers may choose to meet the requirement under alternative standards devised by each state within broad federal guidelines.

Ross Wiener, the policy director for the Washington-based Education Trust, an advocacy group that works to improve achievement for poor and minority students, contends that the numbers “are not an accurate representation of shortages in qualified teachers.”

Most states, for example, reported few differences in the percent of classes taught by highly qualified teachers in high-poverty vs. low-poverty schools, despite research suggesting that students in high-poverty schools are more likely to have classes taught by teachers who are not licensed in their subjects or who lack even minors in those subjects.

“The U.S. Department of Education has sent clear signals that compliance with these provisions of the law is optional,” Mr. Wiener maintained, adding that most states “have taken up the feds on their offer to paper over this problem.”

“What’s so distressing,” he said, “is that it’s impossible to get people to focus on a problem if we continue to deny that a problem exists.”

Paraprofessionals

States are conceding more trouble meeting the law’s requirement that all paraprofessionals working in Title I schools be highly qualified by next January.

In 2003-04, the proportion of qualified aides ranged from a low of 27 percent in
Massachusetts to a high of 99 percent in Iowa.

To be deemed qualified, aides must complete a minimum of two years’ worth of college courses or show through a formal state or local assessment that they have the skills to help with the teaching of reading, writing, and math.

Tish Olshefski, the director of the paraprofessional and school-related personnel department at the American Federation of Teachers, cited two reasons for the wide variation across states. Some 15 states already had some kind of certification standards in place for paraprofessionals before the law was enacted, she said, while others had done very little in that area. And second, “as far as implementation of NCLB,” she said, “it’s been all over the board, in terms of what states have been doing to help paraprofessionals, which is probably reflected in those numbers.”
 
TOP OF PAGE

Hefty Fees for Student Parking Help Balance Budgets
By Courtney K. Wade, 3/16/05

Over the past year, the student parking fee at Stafford High School in Stafford Springs, Conn., went from a mere $2 to $100. In
Lake Oswego, Ore., the local school board lowered such fees to $175 per year from $250, after parents complained. And the Andover, Mass., district is considering more than tripling student parking fees, from $100 to $325, to raise an estimated $114,000 for the next school year.

As districts around the country deal with persistent budget struggles, some school boards are introducing or increasing user fees, particularly student parking fees, as their next move in the tug of war between budget constraints and rising expenses.

Officials argue that parking fees are more equitable than many other student charges, such as those for participation in sports or other activities, because students have the option of riding the bus for free if they feel the parking costs are too high.

But this school year, parking fees in some communities have angered parents and students, setting off boycotts in which students chose to park off school grounds. In a few places, the boycotts led districts to lower the fees.

Still, school finance experts do not see districts backing away from this source of extra money.

Rick Ring, the transportation committee chairman for the Reston, Va.-based Association of School Business Officials, which tracks the various methods that schools are now using to generate revenue, said although many parents and students are not fans of the increases, he sees higher student parking fees as an option more and more districts will continue to consider.

“I think it’s a means of generating alternative funds for schools with tight budgets,” said Mr. Ring, who is also the director of custodial and transportation services for the St. Vrain Valley school district in
Colorado. “There has to be somewhat of a user fee, if the district is getting financially strapped. They have no other alternative.”

In his 22,000-student district, he said, the financial situation is so tight that school board members are considering charging students fees for transportation in addition to parking fees, which already exist.

“If it were between cutting a curriculum program and generating alternative funds, I’d introduce parking fees,” Mr. Ring said. “The choice is pretty clear.”

Boycott in
West Hartford

Thérèse G. Fishman, the superintendent of the 2,000-student
Stafford public schools in Stafford Springs, Conn., agrees with Mr. Ring.

“I think we all feel bad that it has come to this,” she said. “This is a very tough financial situation.”

Last May, to balance its $19.8 million budget, the district was forced to cut five teacher positions, five paraprofessionals, and a number of guidance interns and professional-development positions. In addition, letters were sent to parents and students in the summer informing them that the parking fee at the 575-student Stafford High would be raised to $100 a year. The increase yielded $7,100 for the district.

“It has worked out far better than we ever expected,” the superintendent said. “It is a credit to the students because they know how much we need any type of funds we can get.”

But fee increases in other places have met with significant resistance.

Lauren Clarke, a 17 year-old senior at Conard High School in West Hartford, Conn., said she and her classmates, led by the student body president, decided to boycott the institution of a $100 annual parking fee last fall.

Student leaders and others conducted research, sent a letter to the student body, and even spoke with local law-enforcement officers to guarantee that orderly and maximum participation in the boycott would be achieved, Ms. Clarke said.

Ms. Clarke, whose parents usually drive her and her 15-year-old sister, Briana, to the 1,400-student school, parked on the street during the boycott whenever her parents allowed her to drive to school. The boycott lasted about four weeks, she said.

Ellen Clarke, Lauren’s mother and a co-president of the Conard High School Parent-Teacher Organization, said the boycott impressed her and the school board, which is on a “very tight budget.”

Though the board of the 10,000-student
West Hartford school district argued that revenue from the fee would help pay for parking lot maintenance, which requires at least $40,000 for snow removal each winter, the students found unexpected allies in elderly residents of the neighborhood. Those residents quickly grew annoyed when so many cars lined the curbs in front of their homes, according to Ellen Clarke.

In response to the boycott and residents’ complaints, the board agreed to lower the parking fee to $40 a year.

‘Usury’ in
Oregon?

Kevin Costello, a co-vice president of the Pacer Club at the 1,100-student
Lakeridge High School in Lake Oswego, Ore., said he does not mind supporting his son’s school financially. But he’d rather be given a choice in the matter than forced. He called the fee at his son’s school “usury.”

For several years, students paid $10 annually to park at the high school. But during the 2002-03 school year, the fee was hiked to $250. This school year, after opposition from parents like Mr. Costello and from the
Lakeridge High School student body president, Athan Papailiou, the board lowered the parking fee to $175.

“I do not like being charged at a public school to park on the campus at any price,” said Mr. Costello. “But at the same time, I am aware of the crisis that we have a lack of funding.” Still, he said, “I’d like to be asked to help with the crisis, not told.”

As a result, his son Brady, 16, a high school junior, regularly parks on the streets outside school property.

Mr. Papailiou, who now reluctantly pays the fee because he needs to park on campus for after-school activities, said the issue comes down to one question that school officials have to address: “Is it appropriate to target student drivers to fill budget holes?”

Claudia Bach, the superintendent of the
Andover, Mass., public schools, said her district’s budget depends on parents’ support. The proposed budget for the next school year calls for an estimated $835,250 from increased user fees for transportation, athletic programs, food services, and all-day kindergarten. She noted that the proposed budget represents the fourth year the district has charged fees in those areas, partly because residents have rejected tax increases.

Ms. Bach said she tried to introduce the higher parking fees gradually, moving from $100 to $325 per school year.

“Either communities step up to the plate and pay their taxes or do without the services,” she said. The issue, she said, raises the more pressing question: “What should be the definition of a free and public education?”
 
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Finnish Students Are at the Top of the World Class
Country's Commitment to Equity Narrows the Gap in Achievement
By Sean Cavanagh, 3/16/05

In
Finland, a long-standing legal tradition known as the “everyman’s right” guarantees the public broad access to the country’s vast, picturesque forests, in most cases regardless of who owns the land. As a result, a prized national asset is shared throughout society, rather than hoarded by a few.

For years, a similar principle has applied to education.

The Scandinavian nation of 5.2 million people—perhaps best known for long summer days and equally long winter nights, peace conferences in Helsinki, and more recently, a thriving cellphone industry—is drawing worldwide attention for the strength of its schools. On the most recent results of the widely scrutinized Program for International Student Assessment, or
PISA, Finland’s students ranked first among those in 29 industrialized nations in mathematical literacy and second in problem-solving. It has fared similarly well on international gauges of science and reading and literacy skill.

Nor is that prowess limited to
Finland’s top-performing students. The country’s percentage of low-performing youths is consistently smaller than in other nations, and the gap between its highest and lowest test scorers is considerably smaller than in many countries, including the United States.

National Goals, Local Control

Those familiar with
Finland’s school system say it shares many of the traits of other top-performing nations—while maintaining its own distinctive approach.

Like many high-scoring countries,
Finland has a national curriculum, overseen by the Ministry of Education. Yet that arrangement affords municipalities and schools broad latitude in all matters, including setting course content and selecting textbooks, which the nation’s highly trained teachers also influence.

“The Finnish approach has been to make teachers and schools take over responsibility for their school systems,” said Andreas Schleicher, the director of the indicators and analysis division in education for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers
PISA. “It’s a strong set of national goals, internalized at the school level.”

In recent years,
Finland has implemented more standardized testing at various grade levels in its comprehensive schools. But unlike in the United States, for example, it does not impose penalties for poor student or school performance, Mr. Schleicher notes. Exams are instead meant to provide schools with an assessment of their performance, and to encourage them to do better.

In the 1990s, the Finnish education system underwent a series of changes that gave schools considerably more control. Today’s guidelines for the country’s comprehensive schools, which serve children from the elementary level through age 15, are “far from strict,” and give local schools broad latitude, according to a 2000 OECD analysis of the Finnish system.

Nearly all children attend comprehensive schools (very few private schools exist in
Finland), which operate under an approach known as “heterogeneous grouping”—generally speaking, placing stronger and weaker students in the same classes. That approach is often credited for the lack of disparity between Finland’s highest- and lowest-performing students. On the 2000 PISA, Finland had a smaller percentage of poor-scoring students in reading literacy than any participating nation except South Korea, a level of equity it also showed on the results for mathematics literacy unveiled this winter.

To be effective, heterogeneous grouping requires small classes, so that teachers aren’t overwhelmed by trying to work with students of varying abilities, said Jouni Valijarvi, a professor of educational research at
Finland’s University of Jyvaskyla. Nowadays, the ratio of students to teachers in most Finnish schools hovers at about 20-to-1, he noted.

Societal Factors

Over the years, criticism of the grouping has focused mostly on its effect on the most talented students, rather than those who lag behind. “The teacher has to spend more time with the weaker ones,” said Anneli Rautiainen, the principal of
Kapyla Elementary School in central Helsinki. “The gifted students learn by giving knowledge to [other students].”

Interest in bringing more equity to
Finland’s school system increased during the 1960s and 1970s, with the passage of laws promoting the integration of students of different social classes. That momentum was driven partly by working-class parents who sought a demanding education for their children, Mr. Valijarvi said.

Finland’s commitment to not “track” students of different abilities into more difficult or easier classes is common among nations with strong test scores across a broad swath of the student population, said William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, who has studied international test performance. “That’s a good example of how you promote equity.”

Others see societal factors behind
Finland’s success, particularly in literacy skills. Finland’s students displayed the highest level of interest in reading of any OECD country in 2000. They also borrowed books from the nation’s broad network of libraries at a much higher rate than the OECD average.
 
At the same time,
Finland’s student population today remains overwhelmingly homogeneous, compared with countries such as the United States, a characteristic that almost certainly helps its scores on international tests, most observers say. While schools like Ms. Rautiainen’s have seen a recent influx of immigrants from Russia, Estonia, Somalia, and Southeast Asia, 98 percent of Finland’s PISA test-takers were born in Finland, 7 percentage points above the OECD average.

Interest in promoting broad access to high-caliber education has also grown as
Finland’s economy has changed. Long dependent upon its timber industry and other rural businesses, the nation has seen a rise in high-tech companies, which are demanding more skilled workers.

After comprehensive school, Finnish students choose between an academic or vocational model for secondary education, lasting roughly through ages 16 to 19. Getting more students to take their studies seriously after comprehensive school, and continue on to postsecondary education, is expected to pose a major challenge in the coming years.

“We have problems with that after they leave comprehensive school,” Professor Valijarvi said. “How do we keep young people motivated?”

Top Professionals
               
Grouping students with different academic skills requires a capable teaching force, observers say—and by most accounts
Finland has that. The nation requires teachers in comprehensive school to have a master’s degree. What’s more, entry into rigorous graduate teacher-training programs is extremely competitive. Mr. Schleicher estimates that for every nine applicants, one is admitted.

Teachers have long enjoyed prestige in Finnish society. “You’re a professional, and it’s very respected,” said Ms. Rautiainen, who oversees a group of about 40 instructors and teaching assistants. “It attracts a certain kind of young [person]. It gives [those people] the possibility to be creative.”

That level of public esteem for teachers is hardly surprising, said Mr. Schmidt of
Michigan State. The public’s respect for classroom instructors tends to be highest in countries where professional training is the toughest, he said.

The appeal of teaching, though, is apparently not financial. While
Finland’s average starting salary in U.S. dollars is above the OECD average, that pay remains relatively stagnant over time. The average teacher’s salary after 15 years is $31,687 U.S., well below the United States’ average of $42,801 at that level.

Steven J. Leinwand, a principal research analyst at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, doesn’t expect the
United States to rush to adopt a foreign blueprint for schools, but he says he hopes that Finland’s strength in training teachers and promoting equity will lead American policymakers to consider more uniform student expectations.

“It is no longer acceptable to have one set of standards in one state and another set of standards in another,” Mr. Leinwand said, “when we’re all feeding into the same set of economic realities.”
 
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New Recruiting Efforts by Teach for
America Yield Record Applicants
By Jennifer Fu, 3/16/05

Teach for
America, the private program that recruits graduates of prestigious colleges for two-year teaching stints, said last week that a record 17,000 candidates have applied to teach at rural and urban public schools next year.

Candidates for 2005-06 had to apply by Feb. 18. Teach for
America said it expects to place about 2,000 of the applicants in teaching positions in 22 locations across the country in the fall. About 1,600 people were hired last year.

“For the last few years, we’ve been gunning for that number,” Elissa K. Clapp, the New York City-based organization’s vice president of recruitment and selection, said of the goal of placing 2,000 teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

As a result of Teach for
America’s stepped-up recruiting campaigns on more than 500 college campuses, applications by college seniors for the teaching apprenticeships increased by 39 percent over last year.

At both
Yale University and Spelman College, 12 percent of the senior class applied to work with Teach for America, the group reported. At Dartmouth and Amherst colleges, 11 percent of the graduating seniors applied, as did 8 percent of the seniors at Princeton and Harvard universities.

Recruitment at 12 of the top 15 schools, as defined by Newsweek magazine’s list of the best colleges in the nation, increased by 47 percent and produced more than 1,600 of the total applications, according to Ms. Clapp.

Teach for
America also recruited at 21 historically black colleges and universities to increase the racial diversity among its corps of teachers.

Teach for
America spent part of its $38.5 million annual budget to hire 13 more recruitment directors, adding to its staff of 17, and doubled the number of campuses where it recruits. The recruitment directors keep track of student attendance at Teach for America’s campus events and other data to adjust their recruiting strategies and attract as many students as possible, Ms. Clapp said.

All 30 recruitment directors have been through Teach for
America’s training program and have taught at public schools. They are able to give college students firsthand accounts of what the job entails, Ms. Clapp said.

“Part of our effort is to bring corps members back to go back to their own schools,” said Ms. Clapp, a graduate of
Northwestern University who taught at Marion Abramson High School in New Orleans before working in recruitment for the past six years.

Despite the program’s popularity on the Spelman College campus, Marshalita S. Peterson, the chairwoman of the education department at the historically black Atlanta college, expressed concern about whether Teach for America corps members will have enough teaching skills to improve student performance.

“One can be very, very grounded in the content, but the pedagogy can be very, very different,” Ms. Peterson said.

Short-Term Help

Roughly 12,000 people have participated in the program since it began in 1990, according to Ms. Clapp, and about 60 percent continue to work in education as teachers, administrators, or policymakers.

Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and
America’s Future, a Washington advocacy group concerned with teacher quality, said school districts need to hire strong principals and well-prepared teachers, give pay incentives to teachers, and provide supportive teaching conditions to improve schools in the long run.

“I have the highest regard for the commitment of these young people,” he said of Teach for
America applicants, “but I have serious concerns about the conditions of the school districts that continue to treat them like cannon fodder.”

Ms. Clapp said she realizes each corps member’s two-year stint is short, but said “that’s why we need to recruit the best college graduates to make that impact on the first day [of school].”
 
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Social Studies Losing Out to
Reading, Math
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, 3/16/05

Johnny may be learning more about reading and mathematics, but he may have little time to study the discoveries of
Columbus, the tenets of the U.S. Constitution, or the social and political causes of the Civil War.
 
Those time-honored topics—as well as lesser-known events and figures throughout history—are fighting to maintain their place in the curriculum, many experts say, as schools allocate more time and attention to reading and math instruction to meet state and federal goals for student achievement.

“The unintended consequence of No Child Left Behind has been to put history into an even more marginal position,” maintained Theodore K. Rabb, a professor of history at
Princeton University and a founder and board member of the National Council for History Education. “It is clear that, with some notable exceptions nationwide, the amount of class time given to history, especially in the first eight grades, has been shrinking almost by the month.”

The 3-year-old No Child Left Behind Act requires annual testing in reading and math in grades 3-8 as a key measure of schools’ progress under the federal law.

In response to what they see as a rapidly growing trend, the Westlake, Ohio-based council and other groups representing teachers of history, government, economics, geography, and other social studies are mobilizing to alert policymakers and the public to their plight and build their case for a renewed focus on those subjects.

Last week alone, a national study and a state task force in
Maryland highlighted the urgent challenges facing the field.

Meanwhile, the council, which represents history teachers and scholars, is circulating a statement on what it sees as “A Crisis in History.” Signed by dozens of prominent historians and educators, it calls for the infusion of more history into reading programs and instruction at large. The document is a precursor to the group’s plan for a broader campaign to raise awareness of the problem, Mr. Rabb said.

The National Council for the Social Studies, which represents 26,000 educators, has convened a group of representatives of national organizations for reading, mathematics, and science professionals to debate the use of instructional time. The NCSS’ agenda for that group also includes discussing ways to incorporate more content-area reading, the importance of a well-rounded curriculum, and strategies for getting the message to lawmakers and school administrators.

A social studies task force appointed by the
Maryland state schools superintendent is studying the “state of social studies” education statewide, as well as nationally, in order to craft recom- mendations for strengthening the teaching of the subjects there.

And a report on the decline in civic education, released last week, offers an action plan for “restoring the balance” in the curriculum between academics and civic knowledge and engagement.

There is “a disturbing imbalance in the mission of public education,” says the report by the American Youth Policy Forum and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “The recent preoccupation of the nation with reshaping academics and raising academic performance,” it says, “has all but overpowered a task of equally vital importance—educating our young people to become engaged members of their communities as citizens.”

Beginning that process at an early age, scholars say, will give students a greater appreciation of the roots of American democracy and better equip them to take a more critical look at the nation’s history and policies later on in their schooling.

Knowledge in a Democracy

Although evidence is mostly anecdotal, history educators say there is a groundswell of concern from teachers and parents around the country. There are also widespread reports of schools pinching valuable minutes from the school day—some from social studies, others from the arts, physical education, foreign language, and other subjects—to make room for more reading activities and math lessons.

“I think the concern is very real,” said Nancy A. McFarland, a St. Louis-based education consultant and author of social studies textbooks. “No one can dispute the importance of literacy and math, but literacy is something that all societies promote, even totalitarian societies. There are just more things that are important [educational mandates] in a democratic society.”

Ms. McFarland is conducting a national survey for the
Maryland task force to determine the extent of the erosion in social studies education. Among the respondents so far, a significant number of states reported that the time allocated to social studies instruction in elementary and middle schools has declined since 2002. The full report, as well as another the task force has commissioned to gauge the status of social studies instruction in Maryland school districts, is expected later this year.

History is considered a core subject under the No Child Left Behind law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and is part of the “well rounded” education intended under the law, according to Michael J. Petrilli, the acting assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s office of innovation and improvement.

“It is deeply distressing to hear that some schools and school districts out there are not focusing on history,” Mr. Petrilli said. “There’s nothing in the law encouraging schools to cut back on core academic subjects like history.”

The pressure on school districts to show progress under the law, however, has forced schools and teachers to make tough decisions on what to teach and how much time to devote to each subject, some scholars say.

“The desperate response of the schools to test pressure has been to excise history, science, and the arts, and replace them with still more such exercises in reading,” E.D. Hirsch Jr., the founder of the Core Knowledge Foundation, wrote in a paper criticizing the heightened focus many schools have placed on reading in order to raise achievement. “This is a futile strategy, since reading achievement depends on broad knowledge of [these subjects].”

Florida’s K-12 schools chancellor, Jim Warford, issued a memo to school districts last fall, in response to complaints from teachers, reminding them that state law requires the teaching of social studies at all school levels.

Victim of High Stakes?

The situation has been aggravated, in some cases, by state policies that attach high stakes to student achievement in some subjects and not others, observers say. Research shows that teachers tend to spend more time on subjects that are tested—and for which scores are used to rate schools’ and students’ progress—than on those that are not included in state testing programs.

Maryland officials say that since the state eliminated its social studies tests in 2003, primarily because the assessment program did not fulfill federal requirements, a noticeable change in the attention given to the subjects has occurred.

Schools in Illinois had already begun paring time allocated to social studies to make way for as much as 160 minutes daily of reading, when the legislature scrapped the state test in social studies. The move set off a wave of criticism from state education officials and teachers who argued it would lead to further erosion of time spent on that subject area.

In
California, social studies instruction has been dwindling for several years in response to state accountability measures that have not required schools to report achievement in social studies for the elementary and middle grades. That trend has been exacerbated somewhat since the passage of the federal education law, said Nancy McTygue, the interim executive director of the California Social Studies Project, a state-financed agency that provides professional development and curriculum support for the state’s low-performing districts and schools.

The problem is particularly evident in low-performing schools or those with large proportions of disadvantaged students, Ms. McTygue said.

“Low-performing schools have dropped history,” she said, “choosing instead to have a three-hour block to teach a scripted reading program, in addition to two hours of math and required [physical education] classes. If a student goes to a low-performing elementary school and then a low-performing middle school, they won’t have history until they’re 15 or 16, and all they’ll have is 20th-century history.”

Some districts in
California have also been coaxing struggling high school students to take additional reading and math courses, forcing many to postpone required history courses until sophomore or junior year. ("Troubled High School Narrows Courses," June 16, 2004.)

‘Start From Scratch’

Squeezing social studies in the elementary grades is likely to leave many students unprepared for the history courses they will encounter in middle and high school, and to meet graduation requirements in the subject, according to Jesus Garcia, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, which is based in
Silver Spring, Md.

“We’re quite concerned that if students do not get the basic skills in social studies in grades K-6, the result will be students entering high school with very little background information in any of the social studies subjects,” said Mr. Garcia, a professor of social studies education at the
University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

“That makes the job of the middle school teacher and high school teacher extremely difficult,” he said, “because they will have to start from scratch.”
 
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Board Studies Release of Individual NAEP Results
By Sean Cavanagh,
Austin, Texas, 3/16/05

Faced with persistent apathy among high school seniors toward the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the board that oversees the federal test is considering potentially significant changes aimed at making NAEP more understandable and relevant to the public.

Those steps would involve revamping the test’s structure and the way it is promoted to students. Also under consideration is releasing certain test results for individual schools and students—feedback that NAEP, which is focused primarily on national, state, and demographic trends, does not now offer.

Worries about lackluster student participation on the assessment known as “the nation’s report card” go back for years. But such concerns have gained new urgency as the rate of schools and students at the 12th grade level agreeing to take the test has dwindled to its lowest point ever.

That indifference lingers at a time when President Bush is calling for an expansion of NAEP by proposing that states be required to administer its tests in reading and mathematics to a sample of their 12th graders. Currently, states are only required to participate in NAEP at the 4th and 8th grade levels, while the 12th grade test is voluntary. ("Bush Backs Requiring NAEP In 12th Grade,"
April 14, 2004.)

Mr. Bush has proposed boosting NAEP’s $95 million annual budget by $22.5 million in fiscal 2006 to pay for the expanded 12th grade testing. That step would provide state-by-state data on student performance for high school seniors. Only a national sample exists for that grade now.

With those objectives in mind, members of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP, on March 4 heard recommendations from an advisory committee that has studied ways to increase 12th grade participation on the test. The recommendations were presented at the governing board’s quarterly meeting, held here in the
Texas capital.

 “Principals, teachers, and students know little to nothing about NAEP, its mission and purpose,” said board member David W. Gordon, the superintendent of
California’s Sacramento County Office of Education, who served on the advisory committee. “A lot of what we put out to people by way of encouragement [to take the test] is really apologetic. … That has to change.”

The recommendations will be studied by separate governing board committees over the coming months, and then could be considered by the entire 26-member board.

One potentially sharp departure from current NAEP policy is a recommendation to give individual students and schools some form of feedback on their performance on the exam. NAEP now produces test results only at the state and national levels, and on a few occasions for some school districts, but not for individual students and schools.

Out of Obscurity

Not allowing students and schools to see their NAEP scores creates a disincentive to take the assessment, or to take it seriously, the committee suggested. That was also a finding of StandardsWork Inc., a Washington consulting firm hired to study ways to improve seniors’ participation.

One option offered by the committee would be to give students passwords to a secure Internet site, from which they could learn their test scores.

Mark D. Musick, the president of the Atlanta-based Southern Regional Education Board, praised the governing board for considering changes to NAEP, though he added that implementing many of them would be tricky. “This is worth trying,” Mr. Musick, a former governing board chairman, said in an interview. “I hope technology makes it possible to do it.”

There could be consequences for doing nothing, he said. The participation rate for high school seniors and their schools on the 2002 NAEP dipped to 55 percent, its lowest point ever. From 1988 to 2000, that proportion hovered around 65 percent. Such poor participation puts “the credibility of NAEP at risk,” the committee warned.

But other questions remain about the legality of releasing school and student information. The law that governs NAEP says the federal government may not use the assessment to “rank, compare, or otherwise evaluate individual students or teachers.” Another provision says that “all personally identifiable information” about students and schools must remain confidential.

Peggy G. Carr, an associate commissioner of the
National Center for Education Statistics, the arm of the Department of Education that administers NAEP, said one legal option would be to have students and schools seeking access to test results complete public-records requests, which would obligate the NCES to release that information. Because NAEP gives different sets of questions to different students, the NCES would most likely have to provide those students with feedback on their success on individual questions, relative to that of other students quizzed on the same items, rather than an overall test score.

As a carrot for high school seniors, the committee suggested giving them material rewards for taking part, such as food, educational materials, or a chance for a scholarship. But students’ tastes can be hard to predict. Committee members said they had heard stories of test-takers “littering the hallways” with the current certificates of appreciation awarded for NAEP participation.

The StandardWorks study said NAEP would have more appeal to students and schools if it were promoted as a public service to the nation, or as a matter of school or student pride.

“We need to make a much more compelling case to students,” said Mr. Musick, who described the message as “ ‘Do your best for your country’—and look, ‘Here’s how you did.’ ”

Gauging Preparation

The board is also considering a fundamental overhaul of the 12th grade exam by having it focus on evaluating the preparedness of high school seniors for college, the workforce, and the military. That new emphasis would mesh with the goals of an increasing number of policymakers and organizations across the country, most recently the National Governors Association, that are showing a keen interest in high school improvement. ("
Summit Fuels Push to Improve High Schools," March 9, 2005.)

The advisory committee also suggested giving students the 12th grade NAEP in the fall, rather than in the spring, as is now the case, so that students would be more likely to participate and take it seriously before they’re overcome by “senioritis.”

Moving the test to the fall of 12th grade, however, would raise questions about whether NAEP was truly testing students’ knowledge through graduation, as opposed to 11th grade, said Gerald E. Sroufe, a senior adviser for the American Educational Research Association in Washington.

While he commended the governing board for exploring ways to make NAEP more relevant, Mr. Sroufe noted that part of the test’s appeal is its independence from assessments administered by states, which are the focus of hours of preparation by students and schools.

“NAEP is not a high-stakes test. It is an indication of national progress in education,” Mr. Sroufe said. “That’s its value, and that’s what we should hold on to.”
 
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