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State of Illinois - Governor Blagojevich 

News Clips

News Clips – May 20 - 27, 2005


Support fizzles for 'tax swap' / Chicago Tribune
More teachers opt to cash in on retirement; school districts could pay for it in the end
Southern Illinoisan

Teachers condemn standardized, mandated testing as overemphasized and superficial
                Champaign News-Gazette
Tax increase is wrong approach for schools / Decatur Herald & Review

Some children left behind / Chicago Tribune
Good riddance to this tax swap bill / Daily Herald
High school diploma may get tougher / Chicago Tribune
Winkel revamping school funding proposal / Champaign News-Gazette
Program for gifted could be reinstated / Chicago Tribune

We're making progress improving our schools / Chicago Sun-Times
4 teachers' resignations in drinking case accepted / Chicago Tribune

Need a tutor? Call India / Christian Science Monitor
We must repair No Child Left Behind / Pasadena Star News (CA)
Darwin's theory evolves into culture war / Chicago Tribune
House rejects school vouchers / Austin American-Statesman (TX)
Senate committee clears bills to ban junk food in school / Philadelphia Inquirer
The Apples of Their Eyes: Gifts for teachers are elementary / Houston Chronicle
Realistic about NCLB / Palm Beach Post (FL)
4 schools in state probe of dubious FCAT results / Miami Herald
Matching boys with books / Christian Science Monitor
Law sought for drivers who leave kids on buses / Detroit News
After long journey, janitor at last becoming a teacher / Arizona Republic
Charter School 8th Graders Outdo City Public School Pupils, Data Shows / New York Times
Connecticut school nutrition bill passed /
Town rejects $380,000 from parents for program / Boston Globe

Panel Urges New Testing for Teachers
States Eyeing Expense of Hand-Scored Tests in Light of NCLB Rules
Court Showdown Over Fla. Vouchers Nears
‘Talent Development’ Model Seen as Having Impact
College-Based High Schools Fill Growing Need
Schools Worry Over Military Base Closings
Effect of Unions Hard to Gauge, Scholars Agree
Va. to Provide Bonuses for Middle-Grades Math Teachers
Florida Gains Flexibility on NCLB Provisions



Support fizzles for 'tax swap'
Christi Parsons, Chicago Tribune, 5/21/05
SPRINGFIELD -- A politically risky proposal to overhaul the way the state funds public schools appeared all but dead Friday as its chief legislative sponsor said he didn't have enough votes to pass it.
After summoning thousands of school advocates to Springfield to put pressure on their lawmakers earlier in the week, Sen. James Meeks decided not to call his bill for consideration before the Senate left for the weekend.
Meeks said he might try again in the final days of the spring legislative session to get the votes for his plan, which would cut property taxes while raising income taxes. But he acknowledged it was difficult to counter the threat of a veto by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and lawmakers' concerns about voting for a "tax swap" plan that could hurt their re-election chances.
Meeks' decision was just the latest in a long line of setbacks for advocates who say the current funding formula helps create widespread inequities between rich and poor districts and leads to soaring property tax bills.
State officials have tried for more than a decade to pass such a "tax swap," shifting reliance from property taxes to income taxes, most notably when Republican Gov. Jim Edgar pushed a plan in 1996. Sponsors never have been able to put together a proposal that benefited enough districts that enough lawmakers would risk voting for what critics call a tax hike.
"People don't want to vote and see the bill fail, and then have an opponent use it negatively against them in a campaign," said Meeks, an independent from Chicago.
Although it takes only 30 votes to pass a measure in the Senate, the bar is set higher for this plan. The governor has vowed to veto any bill that contains an income tax increase, and so lawmakers had hoped to pass the proposal by the three-fifths supermajority, or 36 votes, to signal that they were ready to override a veto.
This year, many legislators say they are reluctant to cast such a politically difficult vote on a measure that stands a strong chance of a veto. In particular, Republican and suburban lawmakers say they won't rush into supporting the proposal until they can calculate how it would affect taxpayers in their districts.
Those analyses thus far have spelled political difficulties for the bill. Although the plan is designed to ease public schools' reliance on property taxes and shift it more onto the income tax, some homeowners in affluent areas still would see a combined tax hike once the math was done.
The proposal is meant to provide a more equitable funding source for schools all over the state, including those in areas without much property wealth. But it also is designed to direct additional money to schools overall, requiring that some taxpayers would pay more.
The plan would raise the individual income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and provide property tax relief at the same time.
Meeks said he thinks a majority of voters would support the idea once they know the details. He said he plans to visit key Senate districts in the months to come, talking to school superintendents and conducting "town hall rallies" to drum up support.
"The whole bill is about getting money to schools," Meeks said. "I think people will pay more money. Every poll says 60 percent or better will pay more taxes if they know the money is going to schools."
Several lawmakers have said they would vote for the bill if they were sure it would pass with the votes needed to override a Blagojevich veto, Meeks said. That veto threat alone is incentive for jittery lawmakers to vote against the measure.
"The bill we have right now has raised a lot of questions and concerns on both sides of the aisle," said Sen. Rick Winkel (R-Champaign), the bill's co-sponsor. "We're attempting to answer those questions and maybe add some provisions that would bring together a three-fifths majority."
But Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin) said he thinks any tax swap that involves the income tax is bound to run into political obstacles.
"When you give property tax relief in a swap, most of it does not go to the families who see the increased income tax," Rauschenberger said. "The bills have failed consistently for almost 15 years. We need to take a fresh look at property tax reform. Income tax as a swap just doesn't work."
For that reason, said Sen. Peter Roskam (R-Wheaton), the bill isn't going to be "rising from the dead" this session.
"I think the more people saw of that bill, the more it moved away from being a theoretical bill that sounded attractive," Roskam said. "But then when you start to say, `OK, what does this really mean for this particular community or this particular county?' it became untenable politically. I think that, with folks in the area I represent, the more they learned, the less attractive it became."
Also Friday, senators voted to eliminate what sponsors say is a major barrier to online commerce in Illinois. The measure, which goes to the governor, would allow consumers to buy and sell tickets to sporting and other entertainment events by Internet auction.


More teachers opt to cash in on retirement; school districts could pay for it in the end
Caleb Hale, The Southern
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS - A new rule of thumb is being penciled into the recipe for a successful teaching career: Know when to make an exit.
That exit used to come after an educator reached 34 years of service or felt too old to continue in the classroom. These days, however, retiring teachers are treating the event like a photo-finish horse race, thanks to a cloudy horizon in the state retirement system. No one can say whether those clouds mean an approaching storm, but an above-average number of teachers across the state have decided to get out while the getting is good.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich earlier this year proposed sweeping changes to state pensions and teacher
retirements in the interest of balancing a difficult state budget. The initiative includes proposed changes to benefits payouts once a person is retired, a cap on salaries for teachers during the last few years of work and an increase of the minimum retirement age, from 55 to 60.
News of the potential changes has sparked movement among teacher ranks.
Illinois Education Association spokesman Charlie McBarron said of the 84,000 full-time teachers the union represents, nearly 6,000 will retire this month. The usual number of retirees per year falls just under 4,000, he said.
"We certainly think there is a relationship," McBarron said about the retirement increase and proposed changes in the system. "There are probably many retiring sooner than they should, because they have a lot to give."
Carterville High School science teacher Ray Kemp, 57, has taught for 32 years. Just short of the minimum retirement age, Kemp is cashing in his unused sick days, under the state's Early Retirement Option, to make up for the remaining two years. The ERO's future subsequently is also in question under plans from state government.
Kemp said he has had a full career as an educator and is satisfied with the job he has done enough to relax. He stands to gain 75 percent of his normal salary each year in retirement, a pretty good deal, as he sees it.
Kemp said he could stay on two more years to boost his retirement earnings, but it wouldn't amount to much more than what he is already getting. Besides, he added, he was always told to retire as soon as you can.
"What teachers really need is energy, and the older you get the less energy you have," Kemp said. "You want teachers to get in, do a good job and get out."
If the state wants to extend the retirement age for the purpose of slowing down the amount of payouts the state makes each year, Kemp said they might start to tax individuals who are too old to give the same quality of teaching to students.
It also strips the teaching profession of one of its most desirable aspects, Kemp added - the ability to retire at a reasonable age.
Kemp is one of 12 teachers in the Carterville school district retiring this year, Superintendent Tim Bleyer said. That number is abnormally high, and he said the individuals represent a great deal of experience lost.
"You just don't replace that," Bleyer said, describing the wave of new younger teachers who will likely replace the veteran ones.
Bleyer agrees the discussion of state officials dipping into teacher retirement for a balanced budget is frightening a number of educators out of the system.
"Rather than run the risk and get caught up in a legislative matter, they're leaving, and I don't blame them," he said. "They can't afford to wait."
McBarron said the average teacher retirement payment is $2,800 a month. That is far from what he called a "princely sum."
He said some state officials only seem to be looking at immediate cost savings, and not the overall effect on education or the teaching profession in Illinois.
"The message we're trying to get across here is to look at the big picture," McBarron said.
Cobden sixth grade teacher Laura Lipe said she decided last year that 2005 would mark the end of her full-time career in education. And, she is leaving not a moment too soon, Lipe said, if the governor's plan for retirement goes into action.
"I am certainly getting out with the benefits I needed to go ahead," Lipe, a 34-year educator, said. "I would not have given up all my years of teaching if I wouldn't have gained the full benefits."
Lipe said it is unfortunate the state wants to balance the budget on the backs of retirees, particularly when the state is guilty of not fully funding its share of pensions for several years running.
With legislative session scheduled to draw to a close soon, it isn't clear the governor's pension cut plan will even take shape. However, the idea that changes were coming might have Illinois paying even more in retirement this year because of the mass exodus of teachers.
John Day, a spokesman for the Teachers' Retirement System of Illinois, said it is difficult to project exactly how many educators will end up leaving work at the end of the school year, hence he can't put a price tag on how much the payout will be.
"We're becoming more and more convinced it's going to be more, but the magnitude has yet to be seen," Day said.


Teachers condemn standardized, mandated testing as overemphasized and superficial
Anne Cook, The News-Gazette, 5/22/05
CHAMPAIGN – Educators say they celebrated when they first heard about George Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation and its lofty goals.

Now the law has become a reality in classrooms, and some teachers like Kathleen Smith say the federal rules, and accompanying testing policies adopted by Champaign, have stifled creativity, limited instruction time and caused a lot of soul searching.
District officials who supervise the testing say it's here to stay, a necessary exercise to prove not only that students are meeting No Child Left Behind achievement standards but also to prove the district's meeting consent decree obligations to improve education for all students, especially minority students.
In Champaign, the battery of annual tests includes not only standardized ones taken by all students in Illinois but also tests designed by district employees given every nine weeks in core subjects beginning at first grade and benchmark tests to prepare for major tests.
Smith, an award-winning mathematics teacher, resigned from her Central High School job very publicly, reading her protest about the direction the district was headed at a televised Unit 4 board meeting May 9.
"I find myself constrained by a mentality that says all students will learn the same material at the same pace and prove it by taking the same multiple-choice test within a given time frame," she told the board. "I can't do that. I know all students don't learn at the same pace. I don't believe a student's understanding of mathematical concepts can be assessed by a multiple-choice test nor do I believe such a test is fair for all learners."
"I tried," Smith said last week of her talks with district administrators about her concerns. "But I have a choice, and I'd rather move in a direction I know is best for students than in one that's not. I told the kids it had nothing to do with them.
"I said, 'I don't want to teach you to take a multiple-choice test. I want to teach you math is the language of the universe, the most powerful tool. With math, you can do anything.'"
"Some really good, solid teachers are just fed up," said Kris Hightshoe, who retired last year from Edison Middle School and estimates she lost 25 days of instruction the last year either preparing youngsters for tests or giving them.
"Testing and the consent decree are driving everything – the way principals run their buildings, the way the school board operates, the way the administration works," Hightshoe said. "It's superficial education, not real learning."
Smith has taught 18 years in Champaign, the last 11 years at Central's Academy, a creative, college-bound, school-within-a-school that focuses on technology.
"We've had to give up all integrated projects that tie together math, biology, English and reading," she said. "Now we teach those subjects in chunks so students are ready for tests. We used to pursue innovative teaching methods. Now there's no time."
Smith figures she has lost 10 to 15 instruction days a year preparing students to take standardized tests and giving the tests.
"We don't have time to cover our material because we're getting ready for assessments," said Dan Reid, a Central science teacher. "We lose at least two days every quarter getting ready for tests. That's almost two weeks of classes."

"We've lost units of material in junior English," said Pat Johnson at Central. "I figure I've lost 15 instruction days preparing for and giving tests. Accountability is fine, but it's made for a difficult situation for kids. I know teachers who are leaving Champaign to go to smaller districts with less diversity so the testing doesn't count as much."
"There's absolutely too much emphasis on testing at all levels in math and no time to focus on interesting applications, critical thinking, content, open-ended problems," said Anne Munroe, a Central math teacher. "Last year I felt like I was shoving in material to meet a deadline. We used to try to gauge what students had learned and where we should start, but now we have to assume everyone's in the same place and carry on from there."
Chris Schultz, a Central science teacher, believes the test-driven system penalizes those it's supposed to help the most. "The format doesn't help the kids with the least knowledge catch up," Schultz said. " We're leaving behind the kids we're not supposed to leave behind. We're not looking at the learner, only how it looks on paper."
But Schultz acknowledged that Champaign's aggressive testing policy is also linked to the fact that the district's under extra pressure to produce good results, especially for minority children, because the federal court monitors district results under the consent decree.
"I don't know if the administration has an alternative, but it's not listening to veteran teachers, and I hope (Smith's) resignation is a wake-up call.," he said. "The focus has gone from application of concepts and material to rote memorization with little continuing development. It makes us treat students like robots who all learn the same way at the same pace."
Debra Stapleton, who teaches fourth-grade gifted students at Dr. Howard School, sees both sides of the testing issue. She said the district-generated quarterly math assessment contains a writing portion that's an excellent challenge for her students.
"It's very good to get them analyzing and thinking about what they're doing, step by step, to solve the problem," Stapleton said. "It's more than computation; it's a word problem with several steps. They have to show a correct answer and a strategy, a picture, a table, a list."
"Personally, I think planning or teaching to get ready for assessment should be part of your weekly instruction," she said. "Quarterly assessments are aligned with our timeline so the assessment should be a reflection of what the children have learned."
Stapleton said her gifted children love taking tests, but many others don't
"We have benchmark assessments in third and fifth grade, and I've heard colleagues complain about how much time they take," she said of those purchased preparations for standardized testing. "My kids are pumped about tests because they've been taking them and doing well all their lives. The kids who struggle get dejected. They shut down."
"We're supposed to get information that will help us prepare instruction for the next quarter," said Joel Crames, a Barkstall School fifth-grade teacher. "The problem is, if students haven't learned the material, how do you go about moving them ahead and picking up what they're missing from the last quarter? How do you keep all those balls in the air?"
"We talk among ourselves about tests and there's some grumbling, but every profession has that," Crames said. "Our questions are about how much we're gaining versus how much time we're losing for new instruction."
Deputy Superintendent Dorland Norris, who's in charge of curriculum, eductional services and equity, said teachers should take a positive approach because, she said, testing's likely to become more rigorous. She said standardized tests give teachers valuable information they can use to target and improve instruction.
"This is not a lockstep system," Norris said. "I would ask teachers to look at quarterly assessments like they look at any other exams. If kids haven't mastered the material, they don't move on. I know there's flexibility in the curriculum and in assessment to give teachers an opportunity to work with students at their own pace. That's why we have tutorials. You take on a philosophy like Stratton School has, looking at itself as a professional learning community."
She acknowledged that kind of collaboration is easier at the elementary level, especially with extended days at some of the schools.
"It's a little more challenging at high schools because of their schedules, but we're looking for ways to address the need for collaboration there too," Norris said.
She said as long as testing is mandated nationally, the district must make sure students have a challenging curriculum to achieve standards.
"We've taken state standards and teachers have worked to develop instructional maps to make sure those standards are taught," Norris said. "Assessment shouldn't be looked at as something different from instruction. It's integrated, not separate. Before I can teach, I need to know how a child is doing."
Arlene Blank, a former district administrator who's now on the school board, said she's looking for answers about what level of testing is appropriate.
"I've talked with teachers who are very concerned about the amount of testing," Blank said. "I think between No Child Left Behind and the consent decree, testing's probably approaching too much, and I'm wondering how much you have to do. I will be talking more to (Dorland Norris) and listening to what teachers say."
Board member Margie Skirvin said she's seen progress in performance on standardized tests like the Illinois Standards Achievement Test and the quarterly assessments.
"I've seen a difference in our district since we focused on the idea that all kids can learn," she said. "Illinois standards are good ones.These are things children should be learning. We're mandated to do this and children need to learn how to test. There are different ways to handle the issue, and I guess one is to walk away."
On the other hand, Skirvin said, she's offended by the idea that one test casts judgment on the student, the school and the district.
"The way testing's done puts kids in a bad position," she said. "We're teaching some fifth-grade special education kids at a third-grade level. But they have to take a fifth-grade test, and the results make them feel like failures. That's not right."
Smith will teach math at the University of Illinois next year. "But my heart's forever in this building," she said. "I resigned because I realized we're facing a crisis, and I wanted to help find the best possible solution. But it was made clear that my path and the district's path are going in opposite directions."
"I understand the constraints we're under, but I think many decisions made to address them were made in haste and set in concrete. What Unit 4 is trying to do requires time, open conversation, open minds and collaboration."
Smith believes No Child Left Behind "will collapse under its own weight before Bush is gone."
Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd said it's always hard for teachers to accept loss of autonomy in the classroom. Shepperd said research shows other districts that have aggressively and successfully tackled achievement ran into common problems like resistance from teachers, objections to the amount of testing and concerns about narrowing curriculum.
"We can do it, and we can do it in creative ways, but everyone has to get used to the system first," Shepperd said.
Tests taken by students in C-U schools
Urbana school district
Iowa Test of Basic Skills – Taken in the fall by students in grades 3, 5 and 7.
Illinois Standards Achievement Test – Taken in the spring by students in grades 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8. ISATs will be given in reading and math to students in grades 3 through 8 beginning in 2006. Science testing will continue in grades 4 and 7.
Prairie State Achievement Exam – Taken in the spring by 11th-graders. The ACT exam for college entrance is part of the PSAE.
Champaign school district
ˇ         Illinois Standards Achievement Test – Taken in the spring by students in grades 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8. 2006 changes are the same as Urbana.
ˇ         Prairie State Achievement Exam – Taken in the spring by 11th-graders. The ACT exam for college entrance is part of the PSAE.
ˇ         Quarterly assessment tests – Taken at nine-week intervals in subjects like math, reading, social studies. Tests are drafted and refined by consultants, teachers and district coordinators, and subjects tested vary from grade to grade. Science, for example, is now tested in the middle schools and in four high school classes but will expand into upper elementary grades. Benchmark testing begins in first grade and continues through high school.
Sources: Champaign and Urbana school district


Tax increase is wrong approach for schools
Decatur Herald & Review Editorial Staff, 5/21/05
Those advocating a change in the way Illinois funds education are ignoring one part of the equation.
A coalition of teacher groups, school district administrators and legislators has come up with a plan that would shift some of the burden for education funding from property taxes to income taxes.
The plan is to increase the personal income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and the corporate income tax to 8 percent from 4.8 percent. These increases, and a handful of others, would raise income taxes by about $5.2 billion.
About $3 billion of that money would be used to make up for a cut in property taxes. The additional $2.2 billion in revenue would be used to fund increases in funds for public school and higher education.
The bill is already in some trouble in the General Assembly. While Senate Majority Leader Emil Jones, D-Chicago, is trying to round up votes, Gov. Rod Blagojevich has stated several times he won't consider a bill that increases income or sales taxes. House Speaker Michael Madigan has said it's useless to bring the proposal to a vote unless the governor is willing to listen to it.
Still, advocates for the change in education funding think this may be their chance to get something done.
The problem with this proposal, however, is that despite being billed as reform, it's a tax increase. Illinois residents and businesses don't need to be burdened with more taxes. Plus, the bill that's being proposed does not prevent school districts from raising the property tax in future years.
Moving the education tax burden from the property tax to the income tax is a noble idea - it would eventually equalize funding across the state. But building in a tax increase is the wrong way to approach the problem.
The side of the equation that doesn't get examined is the expense side. Illinois has 893 school districts. That's 192 more than the state of New York, which educates about 800,000 more students.
The simple fact is this - the state of Illinois could spend more money on each pupil and in every classroom if it spent less money on school administrators, buses and buildings. The state needs fewer school districts. That's a fact that rarely gets mentioned, but could have a long-term effect on the future of education in this state.
Consolidating school districts is hard work, but it's time for that work to get done. If those wanting more money for students are sincere, they should adopt a plan that would reduce the number of school districts in Illinois by at least 100 in the next five years. There are some initial costs to consolidation, but the savings can be experienced for years into the future.
We're sure there are other ways that education money could be diverted so more could be spent directly on students. We'd like to see more attention paid to those types of efforts instead of continually asking the taxpayers for more money.
Cost of a good education needs to be the first answer
Until we decide how much it costs to give a child a good public education in Illinois, all the talk about reforming the way Illinois finances schools will go nowhere.
We've said in this space many times that the way Illinois finances public education -- with an overreliance on property taxes -- is unfair. There has been a lot of discussion, and some specific legislation, to address the inequities of the system. Too often it seems that the solution is worse than the problem.
Fairness should be the goal. More money is not necessarily the answer. We think in some districts there is plenty of money to go around -- it's just not spent wisely. More money is the easy answer. The tougher answer, the fairer answer, is for schools to review spending, policies and practices to become as cost-efficient as possible.
It is unfair for some districts to spend more than $17,000 a student while other districts spend about $5,000. A fair public education system should not allow students in some areas to learn in virtual palaces while others toil in dilapidated buildings. A fair system would not allow students in some areas to enjoy all the amenities a school has to offer while other students cram into cafeterias and portable classrooms to get an education. Geography should not be the key to getting a good public education.
While we've long been advocates for reform to fix these inequities, we can't support legislation that would unduly increase the overall burden on taxpayers.
House Bill 755 would have done just that, but was rightfully killed Thursday by its sponsor, state Sen. James Meeks, an independent from Chicago.
Meeks' bill would have raised Illinois' personal income tax to 5 percent from 3 percent. The proposed 30 percent reduction in property taxes would nowhere near offset the income-tax increase. An average taxpayer in Rockford would see more than a 19 percent increase in total taxes.
That's not fair either. Also unfair is a provision in the bill that would have increased the corporate income tax from 4.8 percent to 8 percent. That tax would have added to the perception that Illinois is a bad state to do business in.
This bill was a lose-lose for Illinois lawmakers as well. Imagine campaign ads that attack an incumbent for "voting against education." Or the same incumbent could be accused of "raising your taxes more than 20 percent." It's all in how you look at this legislation.
Gov. Rod Blagojevich is more concerned about pension reform than school finance reform this budget go-around. Every session there's something more important. What could be more important than our kids?
Whatever the outcome, a new system needs to be fair to taxpayers and provide for the needs of Illinois students, no matter where they live.


Some children left behind
Chicago Tribune Editorial, 5/24/05
Illinois is trying to wiggle its way out of being accountable for how well it educates special education children.
The landmark No Child Left Behind Act has flaws, but its boldest beauty lies in forcing every school to reveal just how well it educates various groups of kids, including low-income, minority, non-English speaking and special education students.
A school lands on the dreaded "needs improvement" list in Illinois if any one of those groups fails to meet state standards in reading or math for two years in a row. A tough standard? Yes. But that's what the law promises: no child will be forgotten.
The attention to all of these groups means schools can no longer point to their overall performance while they ignore how poorly they're educating certain historically disadvantaged students. That has been a revelation for some schools, including some of the "best" schools in Illinois.
But in a letter to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, Illinois has asked for a change. Right now, a school has to track and report the performance of special education students only if there are more than 40 such students in the school. Illinois wants to change that to 60 students or 15 percent of all the students who take a performance test, whichever is greater.
That would effectively exempt as many as 99 percent of the schools around the state.
That's not just relaxing a very difficult standard for special ed kids; that's putting the standard to sleep. State and federal education officials are negotiating on this.
The disabilities of special education students can vary dramatically. Some may have only slight attention-deficit problems, while others live with severe autism or developmental disabilities. To expect all of them to advance from year to year, and to have that show up on standardized tests, may be unrealistic. Spellings has recently acknowledged some tweaking of the rules is needed. Currently, the federal law allows 1 percent of a district or school's students to take an alternative exam that is focused more on their individual learning abilities. Everyone else has to take the regular standardized test.
Spellings moved last month to allow another 2 percent of students to take a modified test. Even that may not be enough, given that an estimated 10 percent of special ed children who are severely disabled cannot reach grade-level proficiency.
That's where the negotiation should be focused. But slithering out of the responsibility entirely is unacceptable.
Seven school districts around the country and the nation's largest teachers union have filed a lawsuit claiming No Child Left Behind is onerous and underfunded. Utah has decided to ignore parts of the law, potentially sacrificing $76 million in federal education funds.
Illinois is not making noise about abandoning the law. But to say this state should have virtually no academic expectations for its special needs students merely serves as an invitation to shortchange them.


Good riddance to this tax swap bill
Daily Herald Editorial, 5/24/05
Lacking the votes they need, sponsors of a tax swap to change the way Illinois pays for its public schools have taken the bill off the table for this spring. They say, though, that the bill will be back.

With any luck, it won’t be. At least not in its current form. The more people learned about the proposal as the spring wore on, the less they liked it, and with good reason.
Proponents advertise the bill as a better and fairer way to pay for public education because it would boost income taxes in exchange for property tax relief. That would relieve a burden on older homeowners with fixed incomes and shift the responsibility to those better able to pay — working people with higher incomes.
There is an element of fairness to that general approach, but this plan would not merely trade one source of money for another. It would create a large tax increase in order to pump an additional $2.2 billion annually into the schools. Some of the state’s school districts undoubtedly need more money in order to offer higher-quality education. But the assumption that an instant infusion of some $2 billion would be used wisely and result in commensurate increases in educational quality is a breathtaking leap of faith.
Moreover, it’s a leap that generally would cost suburban residents dearly, with limited benefit for many of their own school districts.
Because the suburbs feature high concentrations of personal income, many residents would pay hundreds of dollars more in higher income tax than they would receive in property tax relief. But because many suburban school districts receive little state money to begin with, those districts would receive little in the way of additional money raised by those income taxes.
Another troubling aspect of the bill is its potential effect on business. While the legislation would boost the tax rate on personal income from its current 3 percent to 5 percent, it would increase the corporate income tax rate from 4.8 percent all the way to 8 percent. This as many businesses are working hard to maintain gains made during the past year or so. This as Illinois lags behind most other states in job creation.
Add all these elements up, and it’s no wonder that suburban state senators have been offering such negative reviews. “Hate it,” Sen. Carole Pankau, a Roselle Republican, told a reporter last week. “I hope it goes down in flames,” said Sen. Dave Sullivan, a Park Ridge Republican.
It hasn’t gone down in flames because Sen. James Meeks, a Chicago independent and the bill’s most vocal advocate, pulled the bill without a floor vote. Supporters wanted — but do not have — 36 Senate votes, enough to override a likely veto by the governor. Meeks says he and other proponents will spend the summer trying to explain the legislation’s benefits to skeptics.
But this bill won’t receive any warmer reception next fall. Not without changes. This version raises too much new money all at once without adequate assurances that the money would translate into higher-quality education. It hits business hard at a time when employers are trying to sustain a recovery. And while it’s only natural that the suburbs would take a net loss in any kind of tax swap, the cost to the suburbs of this particular swap is simply too high.


High school diploma may get tougher
Blagojevich wants to beef up standards
Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, 5/25/05
The vast majority of Illinois school districts fall short of tough, new high school graduation requirements proposed by Gov. Rod Blagojevich, according to a new state survey.
The survey of 443 districts with high schools, released this week by the Illinois State Board of Education, shows that 83 percent do not require the three years of math, two years of science and four years of language arts proposed for freshmen entering in 2008-09.
Only 77 districts, including Chicago Public Schools, already meet these standards.
Currently, the state requires 16 credits to graduate, which includes two years of math, one year of science and three years of language arts. Those are some of the lowest graduation standards nationwide, prompting Blagojevich to propose the reforms.
For example, in Harvard School District 50, high school students never have to take Algebra I--lower-level consumer math and pre-algebra classes suffice for graduation.
Even powerhouse New Trier Township High School District 203 doesn't require three years of math, though most students take that and more.
The legislation, which passed the state Senate last month and is expected to be considered by the state House this week, is a key initiative for the governor this legislative session.
The reforms also are long overdue, said Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), chief Senate sponsor of the legislation.
For decades, lawmakers and school officials resisted changing graduation requirements, he said, in part because districts said they didn't have the money to increase staff and add courses. Some educators also thought the move would force all students into a college preparatory curriculum that some wouldn't want or need.
"But those arguments have changed," del Valle said, as competition for college and workplace demands have increased. "We want to make sure that no matter what part of the state a kid comes from, they will have access to curriculum that will prepare them to compete in the higher-education arena as well as in a career."
Nationwide, only six states, including Illinois, require three rather than four years of English to graduate. Only 13 states, including Illinois, require two years of math, rather than three, to get a diploma, according to a recent study by the non-profit Achieve Inc., in Washington, D.C. In addition, Illinois requires only one year of science to graduate, the lowest of the 42 states that set graduation standards.
Overall, state education officials expect the reforms to cost local districts about $50 million, for extra teachers, training and textbooks. The governor's office is working on a plan to funnel the money to districts over a five-year period, although education funding is in limbo because of the state's financial troubles.
To appease some lawmakers and school officials, the governor's office also has moved away from a proposal that students pass both Algebra I and geometry to graduate. Instead, the legislation now requires Algebra I and a course that must "include geometry content."
That type of course would likely exclude more difficult formal "proof" problems that colleges expect students to be able to do.
The Illinois Council of Teachers of Mathematics has cautioned state educators about setting only general requirements, such as three years of math. "You just don't want to say three years, because that could be three years of garbage," said Robert Urbain, president of the mathematics council.
Under the proposed reforms, the standards would be phased in, with three years of math required for freshmen entering high school in 2005-06. Then, the reforms specify that Algebra I, and the course including geometry content, will be required for freshmen entering in 2006-07.
Also in 2006-07, two years of "writing-intensive" courses would be added as a graduation requirement. Freshmen entering in 2007-08 also would need two years of science, rather than the current one year.
A fourth year of language arts would be added for freshmen entering in 2008-09.
Other graduation requirements would not change, including two years of social studies.
While most districts do not require all those courses now, many students still take them to get into colleges because university requirements exceed the 16 credits required for Illinois graduation.
Figures released Tuesday show that of the 131,816 Illinois high school graduates in 2001-02, more than 51,000 enrolled in four-year universities, indicating they took more than the minimum to meet entrance requirements.
In New Trier District 203, "we require two years [of math] but almost everybody takes four years of math," said Assistant Supt. Linda Yonke. The lowest-level math class offered is Algebra I. The district already requires four years of English for students to graduate.
"I think that people's biggest reluctance to changing graduation requirements is that the top students are already exceeding and the kids negatively affected are kids that barely make it through high school," Yonke said.
Chicago already requires students to take four years of English, three years of math--including algebra and geometry--and three years of science.
Those requirements took effect in 1997, but on average, Chicago high school students still fare poorly on state tests and college entrance exams.
Only 32 percent of Chicago 11th graders passed the state's Prairie State Achievement Examination in 2003-04, and the class of 2004 averaged 16.9 out of a maximum of 36 on the ACT college entrance test.
"Is that where we want to be? Of course not," said Edward Klunk, a top administrator in Chicago's Office of High School Programs. However, the scores on both of those tests have been rising over the last few years, Klunk noted, which he attributes in part to higher graduation requirements.
The Illinois State Board of Education survey showed that the biggest problem in meeting the new requirements would be in math. Overall, 59 percent of school districts said they do not require three years of math to graduate, and 74 percent do not specify that Algebra I and geometry be taken.
Eighty-five percent of districts already require two years of science for graduation, but 49 percent of districts do not offer four years of English. Fifty-nine districts that have high schools did not respond to the survey.

Winkel revamping school funding proposal
Kate Clements, Champaign News-Gazette, 5/24/05
SPRINGFIELD – State Sen. Rick Winkel, R-Urbana, is working with a group of Republican senators to rewrite his school funding reform bill in an attempt to win their votes.
"Over the past week it has become clear that the consensus is that HB 755 is too costly to taxpayers," Winkel said on Monday.
That bill, which was co-sponsored by Winkel and state Sen. James Meeks, I-Chicago, would increase the personal income tax from 3 percent to 5 percent and raise the corporate income tax rate from 4.8 percent to 8 percent, raising a projected $5.8 billion a year.
Of that, $3 billion would be used to reimburse school districts for reducing the elementary and secondary education portion of every residential and non-residential property tax bill in the state by 30 percent.
Another $1.7 billion would be used to raise the per-pupil minimum spending level from $4,964 to $6,100.
The rest of the revenue would be used to contribute $120 million a year to special education and other services schools are required to provide; give $370 million a year to universities and community colleges; provide local governments with an extra $190 million a year; give renters a $30 tax credit; double the size of the tax credit for educational expenses to a maximum of $1,000 per family; and quadruple the earned income tax credit for low-income Illinoisans.
Since Gov. Rod Blagojevich has repeatedly vowed to veto any bill that included an income tax increase, Winkel and Meeks were trying to round up the three-fifths majority they would need to override the governor.
Despite a statehouse rally last week featuring thousands of supporters, the duo had still not met that goal by Friday, and Meeks opted to delay the Senate vote on the bill.
On Monday, Winkel told The News-Gazette that he would try a new approach.
"What we're doing is we're trying to revamp the bill," Winkel said. "We want to focus even more on property tax relief, and we are looking for adequate funding for education kindergarten through university."
The hope is to come up with a consensus and draft legislation this week, he said. Winkel said he would then reach out to Democrats to obtain the rest of the needed three-fifths majority.
But HB 755 was already a scaled-back version of the school funding reform bill sponsored by state Sen. Miguel del Valle, D-Chicago, and it is unclear whether enough Democrats will be willing to compromise further.
"It's always a difficult balancing act, but it's not impossible," Winkel said. "I remain cautiously optimistic."
The governor is pushing his own plan, which involves boosting high school graduation requirements and adding $440 million in new education money for the year beginning July 1.
To pay for it, Blagojevich proposed sweeping hundreds of dedicated state funds to obtain $140 million, and increasing the number of slot machines, seats at blackjack tables and other gambling opportunities on the state's riverboats to gain another $300 million.
Pension systems warn against contribution cuts
The heads of the state retirement systems on Monday warned that cutting pension contributions this year carries a significant long-term price tag.
Every dollar the state shorts the pension systems this year will cost $13 in 2045, Teachers' Retirement System Executive Director Jon Bauman told the General Assembly's Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability.
Money invested in the pension systems generally grows at a rate of 8.5 percent a year, said Bob Knox, who runs the retirement systems for state workers, judges and members of the General Assembly.
Since state law requires that the pension systems have enough money on hand by 2045 to cover 90 percent of their obligations, paying less than required now is like borrowing at an interest rate of 8.5 percent, Knox said.
"That's a very expensive form of borrowing," said James Hacking, executive director of State Universities Retirement System. "If you have to borrow, it's cheaper to go to the credit markets and borrow."
The five pension systems together have certified that in order to stay on track to meet the funding goal by 2045, the state needs to contribute $2.6 billion to the retirement systems in the year beginning July 1.
The governor has suggested making a series of benefit changes, mainly for new hires, and reducing that pension contribution by about $820 million to account for the savings he believes they will generate over time.
However, reducing the pension contribution even more, perhaps skipping it altogether, is reportedly among the many ideas that have been floated to solve the state's budget crisis.
Although no formal plan for a pension holiday has been put forward, members of the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability questioned the directors of the state pension systems on Monday about what the impact of doing so would be.
State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, chief budget negotiator for the Senate Republicans, said he believed that doing so "would be a disastrous decision," but that it had not yet been completely ruled out.
"I don't think it is off the table for budget negotiations," he said.
Current law requiring the state to pay the full contribution amount certified by the pension systems would have to be changed to enact either the governor's proposal or any degree of pension holiday.
The unions representing the state pension system participants said the current funding problems were caused by decades of skipped or reduced payments.
They suggested Illinois get the money to make its pension payments by increasing cigarette taxes, selling bonds, expanding gambling opportunities at existing riverboats and licensing a new casino.
"We are here for one reason and one reason only, because the state has failed to make its payments over the last 30 years," said Steve Preckwinkel, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers. "The appropriate thing to do is to begin paying down the debt today."
The unions do not believe benefit changes are necessary, but Gov. Rod Blagojevich has made such reforms a centerpiece of his proposed budget.
"The most important aspect of this is that we make structural reforms to the system so that future generations don't find themselves in the situation we are in today where the debt continues to grow and we can't catch up," said Becky Carroll, spokeswoman for the governor's budget office.


Program for gifted could be reinstated
Legislators vote to restore funding
Diane Rado, Chicago Tribune, 5/26/05
State lawmakers have moved to restore a popular gifted education program that served thousands of Illinois' most talented youngsters.
The General Assembly gave final approval Wednesday to legislation that reinstates gifted education as a statewide program offered in public schools. The program had been erased from the state's school code in 2003, when lawmakers eliminated $19 million in funding because of budget troubles.
If a district chose to offer gifted education, it had to take money from other programs.
The bill now goes to Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has not taken a position it, and there is no guarantee of any immediate funding given the state's continuing fiscal woes. The legislation does not include a designated amount for the program.
Nonetheless, advocates praised lawmakers' action Wednesday as an important step in restoring the program to its full strength and recognizing that top-performing children need special help too. Federal No Child Left Behind reforms focus on improving test scores of disadvantaged students, leaving parents of gifted students worried that their children are being shortchanged.
In 2003, about 165,000 children across the state were receiving services under the gifted education program, according to the Illinois State Board of Education.
The state has no figures on how many districts eliminated or reduced their gifted programs after the budget cut two years ago, but advocates know of cutbacks in several districts, said Sally Walker, executive director of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children.
Walker said she would like to see a separate pot of money devoted to gifted programs, as was the practice in the past.
"If he (the governor) gets his millions from all the casinos or slot machines, we'd like a piece of it," said Walker, referring to Blagojevich's push to expand gambling to raise cash for schools.
Advocates say gifted programs are important because they challenge bright children with more complex material and move at a faster pace. Without those challenges, such students can lose interest.
"We have kids who end up going from being smart kids to being discipline problems because they're bored in the classroom," said Sen. Miguel del Valle (D-Chicago), chief Senate sponsor of the legislation.
The bill also addresses concerns that gifted education has largely helped white students--74.3 percent of gifted students served in 2003 were white, compared with 11.7 percent who were black and 7.8 percent Hispanic.
The legislation sets up new procedures for identifying gifted students, including using at least three different types of assessments to judge students' talents.
In addition, students would be compared to peers locally, rather than held to a statewide standard for gifted children.
For example, a child would be considered gifted in math if he scores in the top 5 percent of students at his school in that subject.
"We do address the need to make sure minority kids are participating in the program," said del Valle. "There is an effort here to make sure kids are being identified and being given an opportunity."


We're making progress improving our schools
Letter by Jesse Ruiz, Chairman, Illinois State Board of Education, Chicago Sun-Times, 5/26/05

There's an old proverb that says the wise man awakens to meet the needs of the day while he plans for the future.
That lesson is being applied to Illinois public education. While Gov. Blagojevich is working to move his school funding budget through the General Assembly, he is supporting my formation of the Illinois Education Excellence Task Force. This group of seasoned education leaders and problem solvers is being given the exciting task of helping us to work smarter and harder to put our public schools on a fast track to success. It will serve as an education think tank and clearinghouse for innovative suggestions and ideas from across the educational, economic and geographic spectrum of Illinois. It will complement the Illinois State Board of Education as the board carries out its important day-to-day constitutional responsibilities.
One of the task force's initial priorities is to help pass Senate Bill 575 to make Illinois schools more accountable and to improve the college and work force success rates of Illinois students. The measure calls for improving graduation standards by requiring more science and math courses and more intensive writing classes. The Higher Standards, Better Schools Plan will help lift Illinois school children to a higher level of success.
In the meantime, we are making real progress in better addressing the needs of our schools. More than a billion dollars of new money has flowed into our schools in the last two years. Education spending increased by more than $400 million in the governor's first year -- and an additional $389 million in his second year. Those back-to-back annual increases of more than 6 percent are the strongest two-year sustained commitment to education in our state's recent history. All of this has been achieved without raising the property or state income tax.
Thousands more at-risk Illinois schoolchildren are now receiving the benefit of high quality preschool, bringing Illinois national acclaim from the National Institute for Early Education Research. More than 40,000 children are receiving healthy meals and snacks from 19,000 home child care providers.
The Illinois State Board of Education is making life better for teachers, students and parents alike. I'm happy to say we have eliminated the teacher certification backlog, trimmed unnecessary rules that burden districts with the cost of com- pliance, and streamlined agency operations. Data-reporting errors have been aggressively addressed, and parents may also notice that report cards are now much easier to read.
Our ultimate goal is what education is really all about. It's about preparing our children for the future. It's about raising the number of students who will benefit from a college education. It's also about improving the quality of life for all Illinoisans through a vibrant economy fueled by a bright and skilled work force.
I am grateful for Gov. Blagojevich's leadership, and we welcome the support of our new Illinois Education Excellence Task Force. The future begins today.


4 teachers' resignations in drinking case accepted
Many kids, parents upset by outcome
By Mary Ann Fergus, Tribune staff reporter, 5/27/05

An Arlington Heights school board, facing a booing crowd of parents, teachers and pupils from South Middle School, accepted the resignations Thursday night of four teachers accused of drinking during an overnight field trip last month.

An internal investigation found that the four teachers, and a fifth one whose resignation was accepted last week, violated District 25 policies that require field trips to be drug- and alcohol-free for students, staff and chaperons, said board President Dan Petro.

Speaking at Windsor Elementary School to an angry standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 people, many of whom had protested the teachers' suspensions, Petro said he recently learned the drinking was a longstanding tradition, but that no current administrator had known about it.

The board also disciplined an unspecified number of teachers connected to the incident with strong written warnings.

The teachers had helped chaperon the 7th grade's annual trip to the Lorado Taft Outdoor Education Center in Oregon, Ill., about 90 miles west of Chicago.

In late April, South Middle School pupils traveled to Northern Illinois University's outdoor center and spent two days learning teamwork skills while studying natural ecosystems.

During these trips, teachers union officials said, teachers would take turns being "on duty" at night to supervise the sleeping children. Some went "off duty" to socialize at a bar in Oregon, a tradition for at least 15 years, they said.

But Petro said the teachers returned to the campus after midnight, then some went to a nearby park and continued to drink until 2:30 a.m. Between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m., "a teacher fell asleep in an area occupied by students," Petro said.

One teacher resigned almost immediately, parents said. Four others submitted their resignations Wednesday, parents said.

District officials would not confirm what the five taught. According to parents, the five were two physical education teachers, two special-education teachers and a social studies teacher.

District Supt. Alan Simon choked up as he talked about the need for staff members to be reliable and to refrain from shifting blame to others. He apologized to pupils, parents and the community.

"Teachers are not the victims in this case," he said. "The use of the [words] `victims' and `scapegoats' gives me great cause for concern."

The board's acceptance of the resignations angered parents and teachers who said they hadn't known of the policy.

An 8th grader chastised the board.

"I am just a few weeks away from graduation. I lose my joy and pride when I think that the teacher who helped me the most to graduate might not be there to see me," Brandon Schroeder said. "I hope you will not make any more decisions which will hurt my school. You have already hurt many kids. We all feel betrayed and want our teachers to come back now."

In an interview before the meeting, Brian Metzger, a parent whose three sons have participated in the trip, said the district's suspensions amounted to an "overreaction" and said the teachers were being used as "sacrificial lambs."

"If nothing else, this is a gray area and an opportunity to tighten the policy and spell it out," Metzger said. "The fact that there was precedent for years and years and years--let's not make these teachers the fall guys."

In a prepared statement, Arlington Teachers' Association President Ann Buch said the union was disappointed with the decision, saying the district has lost five excellent teachers.

Buch said the union is calling for the district to develop new guidelines for staff behavior during the field trip.

The policies that district officials said had been violated were adopted in 2001 but were unknown, Buch said. The night out, she said, has been a long tradition for off-duty teachers, "a way to build staff spirit with participation encouraged in past years by other staff and even on-site administrators."

No child was ever in danger, she said. Students were sleeping in dormitories, supervised by other teachers. Those who went to the bar "all drank responsibly," Buch said, "and we believe that none of them returned to campus under the influence of alcohol.

"We feel staff with excellent records and contributions to their students and the school should not be put at risk for losing their jobs just because of one mistake."

Before the meeting, as board members entered the school, about 80 pupils faced the entrance and chanted, "Hey, hey, ho, ho, resignation has to go," and "We want our teachers back."

Alyce Johnson, a South School 8th grader, said she particularly misses her homeroom teacher.

"I want them to come back to school and be my teacher again," she said. "I think that they always tell us to tell the truth and to forgive, and [district officials] should just listen to their own words."

Brian Hefferan, whose daughter is an 8th grader, said the incident could have been handled better.

"She has three weeks left of school, and her final year at that school is consumed with what happened to her teacher," he said. "She should be thinking of graduating and all the fond memories, not this."



Need a tutor? Call India
By Anupreeta Das and Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, 5/23/05

NEW DELHI AND CHICAGO – Somit Basak's tutoring style is hardly unusual. The engineering graduate spices up lessons with games, offers rewards for excellent performance, and tries to keep his students' interest by linking the math formulas they struggle with to real-life examples they can relate to.

Unlike most tutors, however, Mr. Basak lives thousands of miles away from his students - he is a New Delhi resident who goes to work at 6 a.m. so that he can chat with American students doing their homework around dinnertime.
Americans have slowly grown accustomed to the idea that the people who answer their customer-service and computer-help calls may be on the other side of the globe. Now, some students may find their tutor works there, too.

While the industry is still relatively tiny, India's abundance of math and engineering graduates - willing to teach from a distance for far less money than their American counterparts - has made the country an attractive resource for some US tutoring firms.

It's a phenomenon that some hail as a triumph of technology, a boon for science-starved American students and the latest demonstration that globalization is leveling the playing field, particularly when it comes to intellectual capital. But critics worry about a lack of tutoring standards and question how well anyone can teach over a physical and cultural gulf. The fact that some of the outsourced tutors may be used to fulfill the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) supplemental education requirements - and get federal funds to do so - has been even more controversial.

"We don't know who's tutoring the students, we don't know what their qualifications are, and we're concerned about their familiarity with the curriculum in the districts of the students they're tutoring," says Nancy Van Meter, director of the Center on Accountability and Privatization at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Ms. Van Meter says she's concerned about the lack of quality control for all tutors hired under NCLB, but "the offshore tutoring raises that issue even more dramatically than we've seen here in the States."

Still, while the AFT and others, including US Rep. George Miller (D) of California, have been quick to pounce on the practice, its proponents wonder why qualified teachers should be kept from helping kids, just because they're in a foreign country.

"With this, there's an added wrinkle in the outsourcing debate, because the beneficiaries are not just the teachers," says Francesco Lecciso, a spokesman for BrainFuse, an online tutoring firm in New York City. "The beneficiaries are the students who are getting the tutoring." Still, BrainFuse has been "cautious" about outsourcing - about 50 of its 850 tutors are located overseas - because of the political questions as well as technical challenges and concerns about culture gaps, he says.

"We would be reluctant right now to put a tutor from India with a fourth grade student from North Carolina, for instance," says Mr. Lecciso. On the other hand, he says, a high-schooler with specialized science needs might benefit from such tutors, many of whom have superb math and science backgrounds.

"In spite of all the criticism of learning by rote, the Indian teaching system has produced some of the greatest professionals in the new world economy," says Anirudh Phadke, an official at Career Launcher, where Basak, the math tutor, works.

Career Launcher is one of just five Indian firms currently tutoring US students. Some contract with American e-tutoring providers, and some work directly with schools and students. Mr. Phadke estimates that Indian tutors are now working with some 20,000 American students, but he hopes the market will increase as technology improves and demand from NCLB rises.

One big reason for the outsourcing is, of course, cost. Take Growing Stars, a small company headquartered in Fremont, Calif., and a center with 20 tutors in Kochi, India (all of whom start their workday at 4:30 a.m.). Lower labor costs allow the company to offer one-on-one services for $20 an hour, significantly less than the $45 to $80 an hour charged by big-name tutoring companies like Sylvan and Kaplan.

"My teachers are all highly educated, come from math and science backgrounds, and have prior teaching experience. American teachers of comparable quality would be doubly expensive," says Biju Mathew, who started the company last year.

When San Antonio resident Johan Verzijl decided to hire an online chemistry and math tutor for his 11th-grade son, Nick, he had no clue at first he'd be working with someone from India. The cost of Growing Stars attracted him - so much so that he wondered at first if it was for real.

"When I found out it was based in India, my initial concern was - whoa!" he says, citing worries about technical problems and language barriers.

But he decided to give it a try, and now says his son and his two tutors developed a good relationship after a week or so of getting used to the tutors' accents.

Twice a week Nick sits down with a headset and a whiteboard tablet to write upon, working through problems with the tutors over the Internet. The tutors received copies of his textbooks so they could see the assignments, and got information ahead of time about Nick's interests and activities to help build a rapport. "They've bent over backwards with us to make this work," says Mr. Verzijl.

Still, while Growing Stars works directly with families, other US companies provide most of their services to children at failing schools. After the school spends three years on the "needs improvement" list, NCLB requires tutoring to be offered. The fact that tutoring providers are allowed to hire overseas just underscores an overall lack of oversight of the industry, say critics. They point to what they say is a gross double standard: allowing such loose hiring practices while prohibiting some failing districts, including Boston and Chicago, from offering their own tutoring, even though that may mean fewer children receive the services.

"Our members who are working with kids every day in the classrooms are, in some cases, being told by the Department of Education, 'Your school has been labeled in need of improvement, therefore your district can no longer be providers,' but at the same time they're turning around and saying we can send tax dollars overseas without knowing the qualifications or materials that tutor is working with," says Van Meter of the AFT.

As technology develops and the barriers to communication erode, most agree that tutoring is likely to join the list of other jobs facing global competition. Some hurdles remain, of course. Indian tutors undergo training to learn an American accent and US teaching methods, but still face some cultural gaps. And just dealing with students online - rather than face to face - can be tough.

"Empathizing with students, motivating them, and promoting higher-level thinking are all challenging when the student can't see the tutor but only listens to her voice," says Swati Chopra, a finance graduate who joined Career Launcher as a math tutor a year ago.

Her colleague Basak had to get used to another challenge of working with US students. "I find that we tutors also need to shower a lot of praise for the students' good work," he says, "which is very uncommon in India."

We must repair No Child Left Behind
Letter By J.C. 'Mac' McFarland, school board member for the Whittier City School District, Pasadena Star News, 5/22/05

Although I currently serve as a school board member for the Whittier City School District, I am writing as a private citizen (as well as a staunch Bush supporter) to voice my utter dismay about portions of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law.

Specifically, those which have now designated our entire district "Program Improvement' because a small fraction of our students those with learning disabilities were unable to qualify as "proficient' on one part of the standardized tests.

For the record, I wholeheartedly support the philosophy which underpins NCLB. As both a parent and businessman, I understand the critical importance of clear standards and strict accountability. I have personally witnessed positive improvements in the education of Whittier's children, some of which I believe are directly attributable to the NCLB legislation.

However, portions of the law, or perhaps its interpretation, appear to be downright nonsensical. Specifically, the requirement that every "subgroup' at every school meet the same arbitrary proficiency standard, lest the entire district be branded a failure, and be put on "P.I. Status.'

P.I. Status comes with unfunded mitigation mandates and notification requirements, which not only cost us precious funds but also unfairly hurt the reputation of our district and undermine the morale of our teachers and staff.

Whittier City School District's student achievement has improved impressively during the last several years. Districtwide scores on the California "STAR' tests in Language Arts and Mathematics increased 13 percent and 11 percent, respectively, in the last year alone. This improvement was recorded across the board at our 12 schools and among all of our various "subgroups.'

Approximately one-third of our students are English learners, and their scores rose a collective 24 percent over a year. Our administrators, teachers and support staff have worked hard to improve our educational program and they deserve to feel proud of these results.

Instead, because one small "subgroup,' i.e. Students with Disabilities, in one subject area, Language Arts, could not attain the arbitrary proficiency standard, our entire district is deemed to have failed. Never mind that these students' scores increased 26 percent over the prior year.

How ironic that families with special-needs students are known to move into our district because of the fine reputation of our program!

This is a classic case of government bureaucracy run amok. The philosophy and goals of NCLB are noble, but the execution is seriously flawed. That the inability of one small subgroup of our students (who by definition are burdened with learning and language disabilities) to attain an arbitrary proficiency standard can cause an entire school district to be shamed and punished is simply absurd.

Needless to say, such a nonsensical result calls into question the credibility of the entire program and those who created and administer it.

NCLB must have credibility in order to be respected by the overall community (including conservative guys like me), or it will ultimately fail and have been for naught. That would be a shame.

Therefore, I appeal to President Bush's reason and leadership. He should retain and strengthen all that is good about NCLB, and immediately repair that which is fatally flawed. Our public-education system and our children demand and deserve no less.

I am deeply passionate about this issue and its importance to our district, our state and our country. I would gladly travel to Washington, D.C. (on my own nickel) in order to help make these changes happen.

Darwin's theory evolves into culture war
Kansas curriculum is focal point of wider struggle across nation
By Lisa Anderson, Tribune national correspondent, 5/22/05

TOPEKA, Kan. -- Eighty years after the Scopes "Monkey Trial," the battle between those who support the validity of biological evolution and those who oppose it rages on in Kansas--and in more than a dozen other states around the country.

The controversy may appear to be simply about the teaching of science in the classroom. But it represents a far more complex, widespread clash of politics, religion, science and culture that transcends the borders of conservative, so-called red states and their more liberal blue counterparts.

"This controversy is going to happen everywhere. It's going to happen in all 50 states. This controversy is not going away," said Jeff Tamblyn, 52, an owner of Merriam, Kan.-based Origin Films, which is making a feature film about the current fight over whether to introduce a more critical approach to evolution in Kansas' school science standards.

So far in 2005, the issue of evolution has sparked at least 21 instances of controversy on the local and/or state level in at least 18 states, according to the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based non-profit organization that defends the teaching of evolution in public schools. Although such controversies have occurred regularly over the years, some attribute the recent wave to the success of conservatives in 2004 elections.

At the national level, one attempt to diminish the prominence of evolution in public school curricula and introduce alternative views came in the form of a proposed amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act. Sponsored by Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), the amendment suggested that evolution is in question among scientists and recommended that a "full range of scientific views" be taught. But it was cut from the bill.

Seeking to explain the passion that the issue often ignites, Tamblyn said: "Partly, it's the mixture of religion and politics. If that doesn't get you going, what does?"

Indeed, the theory of evolution, which some opponents say is consonant with atheism because it provides no role for the divine, has been provoking controversy since 1859, when Charles Darwin published "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection."

And if the contentious nature of the Kansas State Board of Education's recent public hearings here on evolution is any indication, the issue remains as explosive today as it was in Tennessee 80 years ago.

Root of the controversy

In the summer of 1925, Clarence Darrow entered a Dayton, Tenn., courtroom to defend biology teacher John Scopes against charges of teaching Darwin's theory of evolution after it had been banned by the state. The highly publicized trial was the basis of the 1955 Broadway play "Inherit the Wind" and the 1960 film of the same title.

Then as now, the controversy over evolution revolved around two Darwinian theories that contradict the biblical version of creation: Darwin's assertion that all life, including humans and monkeys, descended from common ancestors and that it is all the result of natural selection and random mutation. While fundamentalists may recoil from those concepts, many religious authorities, including those in the Roman Catholic Church, hold that belief in God and evolution do not conflict.

As there was in 1999, when Kansas de-emphasized evolution in its school science standards--a move reversed by a more moderate board in 2001-- there has been snickering by critics over the state's "backwardness" and head-shaking over the idea that the validity of evolution, one of the foundations of modern science, is in question.

That has prompted many references to the famous question posed in an 1896 editorial by William Allen White, editor of Kansas' Emporia Gazette. Listing examples of what he deplored as the backwardness of the state, he wrote: "What's the matter with Kansas?"

But if Kansas is "backward," it's not alone.

Year to date, at least 13 states have entertained legislation requiring a more critical approach to evolution in the classroom and/or allowing discussion of alternative explanations of the origins of humans, including the supernatural.

The most recent addition is New York, a true "blue" state, where an Assembly bill was introduced May 3 requiring schools to teach both evolution and intelligent design.

Intelligent design, which some critics consider an attempt to get around the Supreme Court's ban on teaching overtly religious creationism, credits an unnamed intelligence or designer for aspects of nature's complexity still unexplained by science.

Whether any of this proposed legislation concerning evolution passes, it is evident that many Americans share the thinking behind it, according to poll after poll, including a recent Tribune/WGN-TV poll.

Partly in response to concerns expressed by such conservative Christian groups as the Illinois Family Institute, the Illinois State Board of Education eliminated the term "evolution" from its science standards in 1997 and substituted the phrase "change over time." However, the word "evolution" does appear in the board's Science Performance Descriptors, a list of grade-specific material over which students must demonstrate mastery.

The Tribune/WGN-TV poll of 1,200 Illinois registered voters, conducted May 5-10, found that 58 percent favor teaching Darwin's theory but 57 percent also are open to teaching views opposed to it. In fact, 57 percent said they believe that both evolution and creationism should be included in school curricula. The poll by Mt. Prospect, Ill.-based Market Shares Corp. has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

And 58 percent of Illinois voters polled said they believe teaching creationism does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

Supreme Court prohibition

But in 1987 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to the contrary in Edwards vs. Aguillard. The court held that to teach creationism, or so-called creation science, in public schools implies a state endorsement of a religious view and thus violates the 1st Amendment's prohibition on government establishment of religion.

Nonetheless, the views on evolution expressed by Illinois voters mirror those of Americans overall, according to earlier polls by Gallup and others.

According to a November national Gallup poll, "only about a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well supported by the evidence, while just as many say that it is just one of many theories and has not been supported by the evidence." The rest said they didn't know.

A CBS News poll taken the same month found that two-thirds of Americans want creationism taught with evolution. It also indicated that 55 percent of Americans believe God created humans in their present form and only 13 percent think that humans evolved without divine guidance.

Kansans will learn this summer whether schoolchildren will study evolution alone or in conjunction with criticism of Darwin's theory. Schools are not bound to teach by standards set by the state board. However, teachers, already sometimes nervous about teaching evolution, know that board-recommended material may appear on state science assessment tests, said Steven Case, assistant director of the Center for Science Education at the University of Kansas and chairman of the state's Science Standards Writing Committee.

The majority of the 26-member committee recommended retaining current standards regarding evolution, while eight members disagreed and presented their own minority report, advocating not only a curriculum more critical of evolution but a redefinition of science that goes beyond explanations rooted in nature.

Should the board approve the more critical approach, as is considered likely given its conservative majority, it would open the door to alternative explanations for life on Earth that go beyond natural causes, including intelligent design.

That infuriates many scientists, the majority of whom solidly support Darwin's theory and deny there is any scientific controversy surrounding it. They point out that in science, a "theory" is not merely a guess but a tested concept based on long-term observation and evidence. The National Academy of Sciences, along with the rest of the national scientific community, refused to send witnesses to the Kansas hearings, claiming that the event was rigged against mainstream science and that its participation would confer the kind of scientific credibility that intelligent design seeks.

However, the reasoning behind its position may have seemed confusing, and even condescending, to some Kansans. Past arguments over evolution often have been cast as a culture clash between the Darwinist scientific elite and ordinary, less-educated citizens.

This conflict was neatly summed up by the headline at the top of a news release issued by the Discovery Institute at the close of the hearings: "Darwinists Snub Kansas, Refuse to Answer Questions about Scientific Problems with Evolutionary Theory." The Seattle-based Discovery Institute advocates criticism of Darwin's theory and supports scholarship on intelligent design.

To represent mainstream science at the hearings, the state recruited Topeka attorney Pedro Irigonegaray, a supporter of Darwin's theory, who cross-examined the nearly two dozen witnesses appearing on behalf of those advocating the revisions. His counterpart was John Calvert, an attorney and managing director of the Kansas-based Intelligent Design Network, a non-profit organization promoting intelligent design.

In September, what promises to be a test case on intelligent design will come to trial in Pennsylvania, where Dover-area schools last fall decided to require that students be made aware of intelligent design and of criticism of Darwin's theory. Parents have filed suit against the school board, arguing that intelligent design is not science but creationism in disguise.

Evolution critics cite science

Proponents of intelligent design assert that there is a scientific rationale to their criticism of evolution. One who testified at the Kansas hearings is Jonathan Wells. A molecular biologist, Wells also is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture.

"We can infer from evidence that some features of the natural world are best explained by an intelligent cause rather than unguided natural processes," Wells said in a phone interview. "Among the latter would be random mutation and natural selection. They're factors, but not sufficient to give a full account.

"I think Darwinism is pseudoscience," he said.

Supporters of the theory of evolution say the same thing about intelligent design.

"Despite how they want to redefine it, science itself appeals only to natural explanations. It doesn't say there are no other explanations," said Harry McDonald, a retired biology teacher and president of Kansas Citizens for Science, a pro-evolution group formed during the fight over standards in 1999.

The Kansas Board of Education will take a preliminary vote in June and a final vote later this summer on revisions to the science standards. But given the 6-4 advantage of conservatives on the board, few believe the outcome is in doubt--although any revisions can be reversed if the composition of the board changes, as happened in 2001.

"I fear that there will be a lack of logic, that emotion is going to rule and, as a result, our science standards will be severely compromised," said Irigonegaray, slumping into a seat in Topeka's Memorial Hall after delivering a 108-minute argument on behalf of mainstream science on May 12, the last day of public hearings.

He paused, then added, "I warn America to be on the lookout for this problem because it's a national phenomenon, not just a Kansas problem."

- - -

Alternative theories to evolution

Since Charles Darwin published the theory of biological evolution in 1859, his assertions that humans share common ancestry with all life on the planet and that they evolved to their present form through natural selection and mutation have clashed with the beliefs of those who adhere to the Bible's story that God created the world and created Adam and Eve in his image.

Opponents of evolution have their own vocabulary list. Among the key terms are:

CREATIONISM--Advanced by religious conservatives in response to Darwin's theory, creationism holds that God alone created the world and all life in it as it is today. "Young Earth" creationists take the Bible's Book of Genesis literally and believe the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. "Old Earth" creationists do not take Genesis literally but dispute evolution. "Creation science" claims scientific evidence for the biblical version of creation.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN--Considered a successor to creationism, intelligent design became popular in the early 1990s after the U.S. Supreme Court banned the teaching of creationism in public schools in 1987. Framed in scientific language but devoid of biblical or theistic references, intelligent design posits that there are weaknesses in Darwin's theory and suggests that an unnamed intelligence must have designed complex aspects of nature still unexplained by science.

House rejects school vouchers
Proposal to use public money for private schooling of at-risk students collapses after five-hour debate.
By Michelle M. Martinez, American-Statesman Staff, 5/24/05

After five hours of passionate debate, the House killed a proposal late Monday night to give disadvantaged children in urban school districts the chance for a private education using public money.

A measure introduced by Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth, gutted the proposal for a voucher pilot program by allowing students to transfer to other public schools but not private schools. The House passed the measure 74-70.

The amendment was attached to Senate Bill 422, which would have extended the life of the Texas Education Agency into the next decade.

Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, triggered SB 422's death when she snatched a podium microphone from Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, to point out a technical error in SB 422. House Speaker Tom Craddick then ruled on technicalities that had been filed earlier in the evening, one of them sufficient to kill the entire piece of legislation.

Despite the excitement, the votes were largely symbolic, because the sponsor of the Senate version had said he would work to kill any measure that included vouchers when it went back to his chamber.

"We have a House that's very, very narrowly divided on the issue of school choice," Grusendorf, chairman of the House Public Education Committee, said after the voucher proposal died. "We knew that it was going to be close, and we felt that it could have gone either way by two or three votes."

As the debate stretched late into Monday night, some lawmakers brought up concerns about the proposed voucher project having lax accountability and hurting public schools by taking away their students — and their state money. Some lawmakers also said the measure was unfair because it would provide choice only for urban students, not all Texas students.

"We have a Texas Constitution that says it's up to us to educate all children and not take money away from the public school system," said Rep. Carter Casteel, R-New Braunfels, who introduced but was unable to pass a measure to remove the voucher program from SB 422.

The pilot program would have allowed at-risk students in the state's largest school districts to transfer to another public school or attend a private school and use public money to pay at least some of the cost.

Under the legislation, no more than 5 percent of a district's students could have gotten a voucher. Those who would have qualified for the program included dropouts, special-education students, students who speak limited English or those who are victims of assault at the hands of another student, among others.

"I believe . . . we had to do something to throw a lifeline to help those kids who are trapped in large, urban, inner-city schools," Grusendorf told the House in introducing the proposal. "Without question, virtually everyone in Texas agrees that that's where we're doing the poorest job of educating our children."

SB 422 would have extended the life of the Texas Education Agency through 2017, among a long list of other proposals. Though the measure died, the agency's life can be extended through backup legislation.

The measure's original sponsor, Sen. Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, had said Monday before the House debate that he wouldn't approve legislation that included vouchers.

"I'll move to go to conference," he said. "I won't accept it."

Conservative lawmakers and advocates have long tried to create a voucher program in Texas but have met steady resistance from school and parent groups, Democrats and rural legislators.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, breathed a sigh of relief Monday night after the vote.

"This was very emotional because the speaker and wealthy campaign contributors had been working to promote a voucher system, despite the fact that a majority of Texans don't want vouchers," she said. "Today, Texas won."

The voucher proposal already had escaped death twice on the House floor Monday.

Early in the debate, Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, offered a measure that would have stripped the voucher proposal from SB 422. Grusendorf asked House members to kill Hochberg's measure; it died 72-71. House Speaker Tom Craddick, in a rare vote, cast the tie-breaker.

Central Texas lawmakers who voted to table Hochberg's measure were Reps. Todd Baxter, R-Austin; Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County; and Dan Gattis, R-Georgetown. Those same lawmakers voted against the amendment by Casteel to strip vouchers from SB 422. Her proposal went nowhere because the House deadlocked.

Before that vote, lawmakers including Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston, and Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, criticized the proposal for targeting urban districts.

"Why do you not sub out the urban school districts and just have your home district, Arlington, as the test case?" Anchia asked Grusendorf. "If it's such a great idea, and you've vetted this with your community, why do you want to put it on communities that don't want this?"

"I think virtually everyone in this state will agree that that's where we have the largest problem," Grusendorf said of the urban districts.

But Jim Jackson, R-Carrollton, supported the voucher program.

"It's all about children. Not about schools, not about private schools, not about brick and mortar," he said. "Public institutions should exist to serve people, not people to prop up public institutions."

Senate committee clears bills to ban junk food in school
They would restrict vending, especially in lower grades. The Assembly has already passed a version.
By Angela Delli Santi, Associated Press, 5/24/05

TRENTON - Public elementary and middle schools would be prohibited from selling soda and junk food under measures a Senate committee approved yesterday.

The bills, taking aim at the problem of childhood obesity, seek to restrict the sugar, fat and salt that children consume during the school day.

The Education Committee sent the package to the full Senate.

"The most effective way to prevent obesity in our children is to teach them the right way to eat," said Assemblyman Herb Conaway (D., Burlington), a doctor who cosponsored a similar measure passed by the Assembly.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported a rapid rise in childhood obesity, which puts children at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and some cancers later in life.

Similar proposals have been introduced in at least 17 states this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Senate legislation would prohibit public school vending machines from stocking any item that lists sugar as its first ingredient, or anything that has more than 8 grams of total fat, except nuts and seeds. The ban would be in effect until 30 minutes after schools close for the day.

The measures also would require that vending machines in high schools be stocked with at least one healthy snack. Home-baked goods sold at fund-raisers would be exempt.

Robert Earl, senior director for nutrition policy at the Food Products Association, a trade group, said such restrictions would not improve children's health.

"We certainly believe school is the right environment for teaching students about developing lifelong eating habits," he said. "We believe it is incorrect to apply guidance about diet to individual foods, because that often eliminates very wholesome food products."

The New Jersey Education Association, the largest teachers' union in the state, has lobbied for the legislation.

"There is a growing concern among educators that poor nutrition has a negative impact on the physical and mental health of our students and on their ability to learn," union spokeswoman Kathy Coulibaly said.

She said educators felt that the legislation would give parents and students "a good model" for making healthy food choices.

The Apples of Their Eyes: Gifts for teachers are elementary
But as some are getting too elaborate, districts are starting to set boundaries
By ROSANNA RUIZ, Houston Chronicle, 5/24/05
Longtime first-grade teacher Rebecca Guess has received her share of trinkets, affectionate notes and other gifts from students to mark the end of the school year.

But even Emily Post would have been challenged by the Turner Elementary School teacher's most memorable gift: a training bra.

In the hands of a lesser teacher, the gift might evoke ridicule. But for Guess, the undergarment was an innocent gesture from a student of modest means.

"I made a real big deal about it," Guess said. "She just wanted to give me something, and that's one of the most precious things to me."

Apples no longer cut it.

Along with books and pencils, teachers pack up dozens of gifts from their students as the school year closes.

Some students make cards or write notes. The parents of others buy teachers candles, gift certificates and even jewelry. With the quest for the perfect gift sometimes becoming competitive among parents, some districts have set guidelines to minimize the impression that favored treatment exists between parent and teacher.

While there are no rules governing gift-giving in the Houston Independent School District, other districts have set maximum dollar values.

In Alief, teachers can accept gifts worth up to $300 in rules set by the University Interscholastic League.

Last year in New York City, the schools' chancellor limited gifts to no more than $5 per student after some parents complained.

North Forest teachers can accept gifts that do not compromise their "professional judgment" as stated in the State Board for Educator Certifications' code of ethics, which the district adopted as its own.

Smaller gifts preferred

Parents should not go overboard and instead should opt for personal tokens of appreciation or small gifts as appropriate gestures, the National Education Association advises.

"The fact is that some parents can afford more financially than others, and it creates a situation where parents want to thank and recognize the dedication of their child's teacher while not feeling pressured to give more than they can comfortably afford," said Melinda Anderson, an NEA spokeswoman.

"There can also be the misperception that a parent buying an expensive gift is trying to curry favor with the teacher. To avoid miscommunication, some districts are adopting guidelines for gift-giving."

Helen Wheatley of the Houston Federation of Teachers laments the constraints on a tradition once considered a minor perk in an often underpaid profession.

"Everything is scrutinized so badly. ... We advise people not to take anything or stay within the limits. This way nobody gets into any trouble," said Wheatley, a former teacher and the union's chief of staff.

Emily Sincler, a first-grade teacher at Tomball Elementary, said most gift-giving occurs at Christmas time.

She received a Ralph Lauren robe and slippers in December — her priciest gifts yet.

"I went down the hall and said, 'Look at this, you guys,' to the other teachers," Sincler said.

"We kind of look at each other's stash."

Tina Salem, who has two children enrolled at Tomball Elementary, said she typically spends about $15 on her children's teachers. Her end-of-year gift to Sincler was a handmade pair of flip-flops.

"They spend eight hours a day with my precious children, and we've been so blessed because the teachers at Tomball are just extraordinary," Salem said.

Taking guesswork out

At another Tomball school, Willow Creek Elementary, the parent-teacher group asked teachers to provide their favorite colors, favorite candle scents and other preferences in a "teacher's favorites" list to eliminate some guesswork.

"Not all our teachers filled out the list — they felt weird about it," said Cathy Pool, whose two children attend the school.

Issacs Elementary teacher Brandy Williams once kept all the notes and drawings — until she had too many to keep.

"They usually wrote notes telling me how much they will miss me," said Williams, a third-grade teacher.

"I just think children like to express their appreciation."

Thomas Middle School teacher Earl Chaney said he looks for one gift in particular.

"The most rewarding thing is seeing the sense of accomplishment on students' faces," he said.

"That's the greatest gift."

Realistic about NCLB
Palm Beach Post Editorial, 5/25/05

Washington's flexibility on the federal No Child Left Behind law is a small improvement. But as mounting expenses to Palm Beach County show, the law risks hurting the students it is supposed to help.
The district has set aside $11 million to cope with NCLB sanctions on schools that fail the "adequate yearly progress" standard two years in a row. The money had been set aside for teachers and materials for poor schools. Much will be spent instead to bus students to "better" schools. The wasteful loophole is that even students making good grades have the right to transfer.

As demonstrated by the waivers granted this month by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings at Gov. Bush's request, the standards that failed many schools were not realistic. Bad FCAT scores from a few students could fail an entire school. NCLB divides students into subgroups, such as by ethnicity, and requires that all subgroups pass.

Before, any subgroup with at least 30 students affected the entire school's grade. The new rules incorporate grades only for subgroups that make up at least 15 percent of the student body. The new standard helps bring the federal grade more in line with the state grade. Last year, 68 percent of Florida schools got an A or B from the state, but only 23 percent passed the NCLB. But many schools that get good state grades still will fail under NCLB.

The waiver, though, turns No Child Left Behind into an irony. Grades of many more students won't be counted. Those newly left out will tend to be minorities thatNCLB was supposed to focus on.

Another waiver reduces the percentage of students in each subgroup who must pass the FCAT. Florida's education secretary, John Winn, unconvincingly says that's not a lower standard because all students still have to be on grade level by 2014 — when most of today's political players conveniently won't have to worry.

Since Mr. Winn brings it up, it never will be realistic or honest to claim that NCLB can live up to its name. The waivers for Florida will be the first of many as the system admits that some children never will make adequate yearly progress. The unanswered question is whether NCLB actually helps more students make better progress.

4 schools in state probe of dubious FCAT results
Four Miami-Dade schools are being investigated for cheating on Florida's high-stakes standardized test, including one flagged last year by a Herald analysis.
A Miami-Dade County elementary school that has produced more statistically improbable test scores than any other Florida school will be scrutinized by the state for possible cheating on this year's test, the Department of Education told The Herald on Monday.

Scores at Skyway Elementary near the Broward County line have been wildly erratic over the last three years, though administrators deny any wrongdoing. It is one of four Miami-Dade schools under investigation for the spring administration of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

The other three -- Westview Middle near North Miami, Key Biscayne K-8 Center and Marjory Stoneman Douglas Elementary near Sweetwater -- were flagged based on whistle-blower reports from the schools rather than the actual results. Only a single classroom is being investigated at both Key Biscayne and Douglas; Westview is being probed as a whole, and then-principal Nicholas Emmanuel has denied any improprieties. He has been temporarily reassigned pending the investigation.

Unlike those cases, which were initiated by district authorities, the Skyway investigation was started by state officials.

Last year, The Herald analyzed stellar-yet-questionable scores at several schools, including Skyway. The schools showed dramatic improvements on the FCAT test that determines graduation and school grades, while scores remained poor on the Norm-Referenced Test that does not count.

After the article, state proctors closely monitored Skyway during the 2004 test and its scores plummeted. Its grade also dropped from an A to a D -- something that has happened only one other time in the six-year history of school grades statewide.

This year, there were no state observers and the school posted scores similar to those that generated A grades from 2001 to 2003. In the fourth grade, for instance, no other Florida school had a bigger test score jump than Skyway, according to a Herald analysis.

The Department of Education said it plans to examine the school's 2005 performance.

''We're looking into it,'' said Cornelia Orr, the state's top testing official. ``Unfortunately, this kind of thing is for the benefits of teachers rather than students.''


Skyway principal Linda Harrison said there was no wrongdoing at Skyway, 4555 NW 206th Ter.

''Absolutely not,'' said Harrison, the former assistant principal who was promoted last year when predecessor Janice Cobb retired. ``I would love for the state to come to Skyway.''

Harrison said the school's dramatic decline in 2004 was due to the school engaging in too many extracurricular activities. Too many top students were pulled out of the classroom, Harrison said, something that wasn't done this year.

The dramatic increase this year was due to ''changes in curriculum and instruction,'' Harrison said, including increased after-school tutoring and Saturday sessions.

Skyway is one of 28 schools in Superintendent Rudy Crew's STELLAR program -- Schools Targeting Excellence in Literacy, Learning and Reading -- which provides extra resources for schools on the cusp of failure.

Harrison also said the state proctors in 2004 were a distraction for students.

Skyway's improvement was unmatched by any school in Florida.

The school's fourth-graders were in the bottom 10 percent of Florida elementaries in both reading and math in 2004. This year, they jumped to the top, besting 95 percent of Florida schools. This year's fourth-graders improved more compared with their third-grade year than any school in Florida.

Similar increases were seen in grades 3 and 5.

State officials often launch investigations when they find similarities in many students' answer patterns or an unusual number of erasures. At Skyway, however, Orr said the school's erratic performance was enough to warrant a further look.

The district is cooperating with the investigations, spokesman Joseph Garcia said, and will ''be forceful in responding'' to confirmed cheating.

''We want these results to be indicative of actual achievement, both so we can praise students and schools when they deserve and give them extra help when they need it,'' he said.

The FCAT has two parts:

• The Sunshine State Standards test, which tests students on Florida's curriculum in reading, math and writing and which is used to determine a school's grade. The SSS also determines whether third-graders can progress to fourth grade and whether high school students earn a standard diploma.

• The Norm-Referenced Test, which compares Florida students with others across the country and does not count toward school grades or student advancement.

Studies have shown that the two tests produce nearly identical results -- the huge gaps between them at Skyway are nearly impossible to dismiss as coincidence.

The school's SSS scores have fluctuated wildly over the past three years while its NRT scores have remained relatively stable, placing the school in the bottom third or quarter of all Florida schools.


The differences between the two tests produced results that were, at times, statistically impossible, with a 1-in-50-million chance of occurring randomly, according to a regression analysis performed by The Herald and The Manhattan Institute, an educational think tank in Davie.

Numerous Florida schools have produced such divergent results in the past three years, including a dozen Broward and Miami-Dade schools whose results were so improbable there was a one-in-a-million probability of them occurring by chance.

Some schools such as Park Ridge Elementary in Pompano Beach had been investigated by the state and failed in following years, while others saw their FCAT scores drop after students had improbably high scores in previous years.

Matching boys with books
By Mary Beth McCauley, Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, 5/24/05

PHILADELPHIA - If you want to get boys to read, assign F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." So say students at the all-boys Haverford School in suburban Philadelphia.

The reasons the boys give the novel high marks? It's short. Its characters and scenes move fast. The prose is terse, the style vivid and lively. Several male characters are "at sea," so to speak, despite lives which at first glance appear glamorous and successful. What's more, it's a tale that sparks questions about values and meaning at an age when boys themselves are searching.

"Everybody loves 'The Great Gatsby,' " says Robert Peck, who since 1973 has taught English at the 1,000-student K-12 private school.

But the vast majority of assigned-reading novels are not such a slam-dunk with boy readers. Getting boys to read is an exercise that stumps many an educator.

Not only do boys consistently test lower than girls on reading, but they are well known to be reluctant readers. Some teachers suggest that the problem is only getting worse - that boys today have more distractions, particularly electronic ones - and are even less likely to come to class ready to get excited about a book.

Researchers and educators blame the gap between books and boys on everything from a built-in fidgetiness to low expectations to a lifelong association of reading with their mothers, teachers, librarians - all female role models.

But now more are suggesting that the problem may not lie entirely within the boys themselves. Some educators believe that the way schools teach reading tends to favor girls, both in terms of teaching style and reading materials chosen. It's a concern that has pushed teachers to work harder to both find materials that boys like to read, and to find more "boy-friendly" ways to present that material.

"Boys have a more tactile, 'hands-on' learning style," and they favor subject matter which reflects that, says Linda Milliken, reading specialist at Chester County Intermediate Unit near Philadelphia. "They like lots of nature topics - bugs, dinosaurs, how things work," she explains. "They like to identify with a character who has his life in control."

What they may not like is the problem-focused reading popular with many teachers today - stories about divorce, abuse, single-parenthood, addiction, and such.

Girl readers are generally drawn to narratives that focus on relationships between people, while boys tend to prefer adventure, science fiction, war stories, history, and, of course, sports. Research also suggests that, given the choice, boys will often prefer non-fiction, magazines and newspapers, how-to reading, and biographies - reading material that some teachers say is not serious enough for class assignments.

Differing sensibilities

The question of innate learning differences between boys and girls is a sensitive one, as Harvard University President Lawrence Summers learned when he touched off a firestorm by speculating that girls may have less natural affinity for math and science than do boys.

But differing sensibilities are evident even in art class, says Christopher Wadsworth, executive director of the International Boys' Schools Coalition. When left to their own devices, he says, girls tend to draw "nouns" (people and faces), while boys are drawn to "verbs" (action shots and bombs going off).

Boys may actually read more than people think they do, says Mr. Wadsworth - but it's not material assigned in school. For boys, he recommends topics like "baseball, butterflies, collecting stamps."

To jump-start boy readers he suggests nonfiction. "Biographies of people whose lives would excite boys - adventures, anyone who's done something with a sense of challenge - would be a good start."

But it's not just the books, some insist. The classroom experience needs to be far more interactive, says Ray Johnson, a consultant who previously worked as a teacher and principal in the Detroit public schools. Boys are naturally drawn to action and movement, he points out, and teachers need to find ways of integrating their energy into the reading process.

When he works with early readers, Mr. Johnson shortens the material and sets up give-and-take question-and-answer sessions both before and after the kids do their reading. He also encourages them to move around the classroom physically, taking a break at the end of the chapter.

"We found that boys were more interested in the text" with such an approach, Johnson reports. Minus the "baby stuff," he recommends the same techniques in the upper grades.

At Haverford, Mr. Peck tells parents who ask what their sons should read, "Any kind of reading is good."

But he also notes that boys today may not be able to tackle the harder material their fathers picked up at the same age.

Today's student tends to be a less sophisticated reader, he says.

"We just can't assign as much reading as we could 25 years ago. There aren't many boys who do much reading," says Peck. "There will always be that one-third who can handle long and complex titles." But the rest of the class falters. So he tends to opt for shorter books, short stories, poetry, and plays.

Typically, ninth- and tenth-grade reading succeeds when it hooks the students in on a personal level. In "The Catcher in the Rye," J.D. Salinger's phony adults, messed-up teachers, and cynical, emotionally chaotic Holden Caulfield continue to engage students. "What's not to like for a teenager?" Peck asks. They also see themselves in the rivalries in John Knowles's classic "A Separate Peace," and, often, in the father-son conflict in Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman."

For older students, he says, he chooses from a variety of "the powerless fight back" titles, aiming to provoke a more sophisticated response.

"What always matters most is - is this a book that touches me?" he says. "How do [the characters] respond when they are under great emotional pressure by the demands life places on them?"

What college men like to read

Such is the case even for male college students, says Robert Wilkinson, professor of English at Villanova University. "Red Badge of Courage," Stephen Crane's classic story of testing, failure, and opportunity for redemption in battle, is a favorite of the men in his American literature classes, prompting the classic response, "What would I do under the same circumstances?" he explains.

Faculty at Haverford School have cut back on some classic authors whose ideas are important but whose style is difficult, according to Peck. "We do less Emerson, less Thoreau - these are very demanding texts," he says, adding that a semester's reading now moves more quickly through shorter books. Sometimes a title once assigned in an earlier grade is now taught in a later grade, when today's students are more ready for it.

Boys do well when they choose what they read, says Ms. Milliken. "I'd suggest the teachers not say 'Read these three books,' but 'Here are five books, choose three." And a so-so reader should start with simple, interesting material, saving the complex until he has gained confidence, she adds.

What elements will make for a sure-fire boys' beach book this summer?

"Is there an exciting physical challenge?" Peck asks. "Is the character responding with courage? With male competence?"

In other words, he says, think Robert Ludlum - not Danielle Steel.


Summer books for boys

High school boys looking for a good summer read might consider the following titles, recommended by seniors at the all-boys Haverford School.

For an overall enjoyable read:
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey
Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies
Lord of the Flies, by William Gerald Golding
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff
Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling
Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissinger
I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe
This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain

Feeling lazy?
Try John Grisham's Rainmaker, Dan Brown's DaVinci Code, novels by Stephen King and Agatha Christie, and autobiographies of athletes.

Feeling ambitious?
Haverford literary favorites include some of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Other individual favorites:
Travel books by Paul Theroux
The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence, by Ray Kurzweil
E=MC2: a Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation, by David Bodanis,
The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by Thomas Friedman, on globalization
Darwin's Radio, by Greg Bear, a popular summer reading assignment from the science department

Law sought for drivers who leave kids on buses
Associated Press, 5/26/05
GRAND RAPIDS -- A Michigan legislator is proposing a new state law that would allow criminal charges to be filed against drivers who leave children alone on school buses.

At least twice this school year, school bus drivers in southwestern Michigan completed their routes and left their buses without realizing young passengers remained on board.

"Nobody does that on purpose," said Bert Bleke, superintendent of Grand Rapids Public Schools. "Bus drivers are hardworking, well-meaning people who sometimes make a mistake. They may be fired or punished, but I do not think they should face criminal charges."

State Rep. Michael Sak, D-Grand Rapids, disagrees. He not only proposes state-mandated procedures to make sure drivers don't leave their passengers on school buses, he also wants to allow criminal charges to be filed when it happens.

Sak's proposal comes a week after a Zeeland Public Schools driver left a 3-year-old preschooler alone on a bus for more than three hours. In October, a Grand Rapids driver left an autistic 5-year-old kindergartner on a bus for eight hours.

The Zeeland driver was fired and the Grand Rapids driver was transferred to a different department. Both districts have pre- and post-trip procedures that administrators said would had prevented the children from being left had they been followed.

Sak said there should be a uniform procedure for drivers across the state. He's looking for ideas from educators and drivers before submitting legislation.

After long journey, janitor at last becoming a teacher
Betty Reid, The Arizona Republic, 5/26/05

PHOENIX - Charles Fredes-Williams is putting his life in order.

Over the years, the 40-year-old former janitor manicured hedges at Valley golf courses, sorted mail at a state office and repaired aging refrigerators from the back of a recreational vehicle.

He also swept and polished floors as a custodian until 2003 at Phoenix Elementary's Garfield School, a school he attended as a child. advertisement 
Williams, now a student teacher at Garfield and an instructional aide at Dunbar School, graduated from Arizona State University this month and carried a framed photo of his late father during the Hispanic Convocation on May 14 at Wells Fargo Arena.

Why he clung to the photo is a tiny piece of a story about Williams' journey, whose most recent leg - the one to becoming a teacher - started in 1997. The way Williams tells it, getting a degree doesn't mean the hard work is over.

"It's easier to be a janitor, hands down. There is one way to clean the bathroom, one way to vacuum a carpet, one way to sweep concrete," Williams said. "Being a teacher, you have to accommodate 18 kids with different personalities, you must be a cheerleader, you must make sure kids are connected to parents, lift the self-esteem of kids, motivate them. . . . It's a 24-hour hat you wear, and nobody ever got rich being a teacher."

Maybe that's why Williams stayed away for so long.

Yet his elderly father, a bartender, had a dream. He wanted one of his 12 children to receive a college degree during his lifetime. Williams didn't seem like the right candidate. He messed around after high school, took some college classes and worked until he found a steady job as a custodian in 1988 and was focused on earning an income and raising two kids.

He kept busy cleaning a school in the middle of drug-infested neighborhoods where kids joined gangs because it was the cool thing to do. Williams did his part to distract Garfield students from joining the wrong crowd by coaching basketball.

Colleagues noticed he influenced young minds and wondered how that would carry over if he became a teacher. Loretta Garcia, an instructor at Garfield in 1997 and now at Ann Ott Elementary, saw his potential.

"He had respect for the students . . . and I saw that he had compassion for students," Garcia said.

Still, his father's dream seemed beyond reach, and Williams searched for a sign to guide him.

One late night in 1997, Williams rode his bike home from work. He slowed at a stop sign, and a car rolled up to the curb. He heard the passenger-side window slide down.

A gun emerged. Williams' heart leaped into his throat. One foot froze to the pedal and the other to concrete.

Williams heard someone from inside the car say, "No, no, no, él es mi maestro," or "No, no, no, he is my teacher."

The gun vanished, and the car slowly rolled away. A shaken Williams concluded it was the sign.

"I knew I was destined to be a teacher," he said.

Through a Phoenix Elementary District program, he started school at Phoenix College in 1997, keeping the Garfield campus clean by day and attending classes at night.

It took six years to receive an associate's degree from Phoenix College. That was enough for his father, who attended his son's 2003 graduation after undergoing bypass surgery. Williams remembered his 75-year-old father leaping a fence, running onto the field and giving him a hug. He was tickled when he found his son holding his photo.

That fall, Williams quit his job as janitor because the ASU College of Education had a spot for him. His father passed away that winter. He had doubts about whether to continue his studies. His wife, Jessica, also a teacher, encouraged him to keep on.

"When I felt like quitting, I looked at my dad's picture for inspiration," he said. "He told me, 'Son, you can do it.' "

Charter School 8th Graders Outdo City Public School Pupils, Data Shows
By ALAN FINDER, New York Times, 5/27/05

Eighth graders in charter schools in New York City are more likely to be reading and writing at grade level than their counterparts in traditional public schools, according to an analysis of test results performed for The New York Times.

In the six charter middle schools in the city, 49.8 percent of eighth graders met the state standard on the English Language Arts exam, which was given in February, the analysis by Andrew A. Beveridge, a demographer at Queens College, showed. In contrast, only 32.8 percent of eighth graders in the public schools were reading and writing at grade level, according to test results released last week by the state Education Department.

And while the number of eighth graders in city schools reading at grade level declined this year by 2.8 percentage points compared with last year, eighth grade students in charter schools improved by 1.4 percentage points, Mr. Beveridge's analysis showed.

"This is a highly encouraging outcome, and we are looking for it and believe it will continue," said James D. Merriman, executive director of the Charter Schools Institute of the State University of New York.

Charter schools, whose creation was authorized by the State Legislature in 1998, are subject to considerably less regulation than are public schools. Charter schools are taxpayer financed, but privately operated.

The issue of how well students in charter schools perform on standardized tests compared with their counterparts in public schools has been the subject of heated debates. In December, an analysis by the federal Department of Education found that nationally, fourth grade charter school students scored lower than comparable public school pupils in 2003 on standardized math exams and on reading tests when the performance of public school special education students was excluded.

The performance by fourth graders in New York City charter schools in 2004 on the reading test mirrored more closely the reading levels of comparable students in city schools. Fourth graders in public schools made major gains in the test results, with 59.5 percent reading at grade level this year, an increase of 9.9 percentage points over last year.

Fourth graders in New York's charter schools also made significant gains, the analysis indicated. The number reading and writing at grade level improved this year by 13.8 percentage points.

Over all, however, fourth graders in the city's 16 charter elementary schools performed only slightly better than those in city schools, with 62.4 percent of them meeting the state reading standard.

Around the state, the performance of public school students on standardized reading tests tends to decline from fourth to eighth grade, Mr. Merriman said. Charter middle schools have tried to counteract this decline by giving more instructional time, extending the school day or the school year and concentrating on rigorous instruction, he said.

"What you see in the charter schools is continued strong performance, if not stronger performance," Mr. Merriman said, referring to the test results for eighth graders. "Almost every middle school that's succeeded has felt the need to provide that additional instructional time."

The analysis performed for The Times on test results for charter school students produced results that were similar to those released this week by the New York City Center for Charter School Excellence, a nonprofit group that advocates for charter schools. A higher proportion of fourth graders scored at grade level in 11 of the 16 charter elementary schools than did fourth grade students in the surrounding public school district, the group's analysis determined, as did eighth graders in 5 of the 6 charter middle schools.

Among the reasons for the strong performance of charter school students are the schools' flexibility on scheduling and instruction, their ability to hire and fire staff based on performance "and a relentless focus on student outcomes," said Kristen Kane, chief executive of the office of new schools in the city's Education Department.

The reading tests' results for both the fourth and eighth grades indicate "that having charter schools as an additional option for children and families is really valuable," Ms. Kane said.

"The results we're seeing so far are indicating that this option is a very powerful one," she said.

Connecticut school nutrition bill passed
AP, 5/26/05
HARTFORD, Connecticut  -- State lawmakers Wednesday passed a far-reaching school nutrition bill that would outlaw soda and junk food, but Gov. M. Jodi Rell said she has her doubts.

"I think it should be left to local school boards to make that decision," Rell said at a news conference before final passage.

Lawmakers have not said if they would attempt to override a veto. The bill passed by a veto-proof margin in the Senate, but not the House.

The law would ban most sodas and many snacks in school cafeterias, school stores and vending machines. Schools could not sell snacks deemed unhealthy by the state Education Department.

Experts have said the legislation would be the strictest school nutrition bill in the country.

Schools have expressed concerns about losing profits, though the bill would allow soda and junk food snacks to be sold after school at events such as football games. Soft drink companies lobbied fiercely against the bill.

End Hunger Connecticut! executive director Lucy Nolan said the proposal has widespread support among parents. "I really would be shocked if she vetoed this," Nolan said of the governor. "Is she listening to the parents?"

Town rejects $380,000 from parents for program
By Lisa Keen and Tracy Jan, Globe Correspondent and Globe Staff, 5/27/05  

WELLESLEY -- Upset that voters' defeat of a tax override eliminated their young children's Spanish immersion program, Wellesley parents opened their checkbooks and delivered $380,000 to the school board to restore it.
It would seem like a gift any school system facing cuts would embrace. But members of the School Committee refused the offer this week, saying they didn't want to create a school system where affluent parents can raise enough money to save a particular program.

In cash-strapped school systems around the state, it is common for parents to raise money for extracurricular activities, equipment, and supplies when needs arise. But the amount of money raised in Wellesley and the fact that it was for an academic, rather than extracurricular, program are unusual, said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
He defended the Wellesley School Committee's decision, saying accepting money for an academic program could set a dangerous precedent.

''We frequently see school committees thinking very carefully before they take money, especially when it's targeted," Koocher said. ''Otherwise, advocates for particular disciplines can then go out and raise money; other disciplines which are no less worthy don't get supported because they don't have wealthy benefactors."

On May 10, Wellesley voters considered two overrides for education-related tax increases, with about 60 teachers' jobs at stake. The first option, a $3.6 million increase overall, would have kept the 60 teachers, the Spanish program with seven more teachers, and a high school librarian; voters rejected it by 17 votes. Under that plan, property taxes would have been raised on average $329 a year, a 5 percent increase for a taxpayer whose annual bill is now $6,031.

The second override was to raise taxes by $2.6 million a year and preserve the 60 teachers' jobs but not the Spanish program and its seven teaching positions. That proposal passed.

Under the smaller override, the average tax bill will increase $240 a year, or about 4 percent. Along with a $198 tax increase that would have occurred even if both overrides had failed, next year's average tax bill will climb $438, to $6,469.

Suzanne Littlefield, the School Committee chairwoman, said Wellesley schools have accepted private contributions in the past, primarily for computers and playground equipment.

''I had a very difficult time accepting private funding for public school teacher salary," Littlefield said. ''It was crossing a line."

She and other board members said they liked the popular Spanish program, but could no longer afford what is considered a luxury in many school systems. The school system recruited native speakers of Spanish who spoke only Spanish in the classroom, so the children could learn through an immersion approach. The classes were offered in grades 2-5 in the district's elementary schools and in sixth grade at the middle school.

Bowing to parents' wishes would have sent a bad message to voters, said Gerald Murphy, a School Committee member.

In the future, voters might have been willing to vote against any tax increase because they thought parents or others would step forward and pay for programs slated to be cut, Murphy said.

''The voters have spoken," he said. ''I don't agree with their decision. . . . But they spoke."

Parents who packed the School Committee meeting on Tuesday said they saw the program as a necessity, not an extra.

''Kids need foreign language to compete in today's economy," said parent Susan Ryan.

Dorene Higgons, a fund-raiser for the American Cancer Society, and Debbi Young, a consultant and former manager at IBM, co-led the fund-raising effort. Higgons said they were baffled by some residents' objections to the Spanish program.

''One person said, 'I didn't have Spanish when I was in school,' " Higgons said. ''Well, we didn't have computers when I was in school either, but would anyone really suggest we not have computers in our schools today?"

The two mothers enlisted a parent at every elementary school to serve as fund-raising coordinator. Some people gave as little as $5; a private foundation gave $7,000, the largest donation, they said.

Young said her daughter's desire to continue Spanish in the sixth grade motivated her involvement in the fund-raising.

''Parents recognize there is a need in the world for kids to be able to speak other languages," she said.

She and Higgons said they were starting to return the checks they had collected because they didn't believe they had any alternatives.

The state Department of Education has no opinion on the board's decision to refuse the parents' help, said Heidi Perlman, a department spokeswoman.

''It's entirely a local decision," she said. ''We can't step in."


Panel Urges New Testing for Teachers
National Academy Defines Professional Knowledge
By Bess Keller, Education Week, 5/25/05

Congress should pay for the development of a national teacher test, using performance to judge accomplishment, and the test results should be incorporated into state licensing requirements, a report set for release May 24 argues.

Prepared by a panel of the National Academy of Education, the 112-page guide calls on federal and state policymakers to embrace regulations aimed at raising teacher education standards while finding money to help expand the number of people training for and succeeding in teaching as a career.

“In every occupation that has become a profession, there’s been a moment in history that professional associations and others have said, ‘We have to develop a common core of knowledge for professional preparation to ensure that people who come into the profession have what they need,’ ” said Linda Darling-Hammond, one of the report’s two editors and an education professor at Stanford University.

“It’s time,” she added, “to get serious about the teaching side of the teaching-learning equation.”

The report, “A Good Teacher in Every Classroom,” follows a book published earlier this year by the academy’s panel that lays out the research basis for the group’s conclusions. A third volume in the series, which addresses what research says about teaching reading, is due out in the fall.

The panel stresses that teacher education must combine understanding of subject matter and teaching practices with knowledge of learners, so that teachers can tailor lessons to the needs of students of different backgrounds and strengths. It also insists that lengthy clinical practice and relevant coursework should be intertwined in the preparation of teachers.

The picture it paints outlines such broad goals for what teachers should know and have experienced before stepping into a classroom that many existing teacher-preparation programs are bound to fall short of its standard.

The academy, an invitation-only group made up of many of the most distinguished researchers in education, is not the only high-profile organization that has turned its attention to teacher preparation in the past few years.

The American Educational Research Association is expected to release the final report of its own panel on research and teacher education later this year, while the National Research Council could soon undertake an assessment of the quality of teacher-preparation programs mandated last year by Congress.

In addition, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is studying preparation for a wide variety of professions, including education, the clergy, nursing, and law.

With schools striving to meet student-achievement standards set under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, recognition that teachers are at the center of learning gains has probably never been higher. Yet traditional teacher-preparation programs have long been criticized as fragmented, shallow, and ineffective.

And some observers have doubted that teaching has a solid body of professional knowledge on which to base training.

The National Academy of Education report highlights differences in programs—both those within universities, geared largely to people at the beginning of a work life, and those, often run by districts and states, that aim to prepare career-switchers.

While some variation makes sense, given the differences among the prospective teachers being served, too many programs fail in rigor and breadth, according to the report. Every program should make sure students know their specific subject matter as well as the basics of learning, child development, and curriculum and teaching, it says.

The course of study in teacher education should be rich in opportunities to apply classroom learning to real-life situations and reflect on the outcomes, with time for students to outgrow the notion that good teaching is primarily a matter of personality and enthusiasm, the report says.

Students should spend no fewer than 30 weeks engaged in clinical practice—ideally in a school set up to foster professional development—under the eyes of skilled veterans, it recommends.

By the end of their course of study, the report says, prospective teachers should have basic knowledge of how to design learning activities that make subjects accessible to all students, including those with disabilities and limited knowledge of English; assess what students know and be able to revise plans given the findings; create “a respectful, purposeful learning environment”; and work with parents and colleagues to make schools better places for learning.

The panel acknowledges that the sweep of change required to meet its goals for the professional education of teachers depends not only on the will of the institutions and programs involved, but also on new funding and government policies.

Specifically, the report says:

- Accreditation of programs should be required and tightened, with states ready to close down programs that don’t meet standards.

- States and institutions should provide funding for teacher education “comparable to other clinically based professional programs, such as nursing and engineering.”

- The federal government should ante up money to bring high-quality teacher education to urban and poor communities, as well as expand scholarships and loans to students who commit to teaching where they are needed most.

- Congress should pay for the development of a national teacher test using performance to judge accomplishment, and the test results should be incorporated into state licensing requirements.

‘A New Bar for Us’

Without a doubt, the report depicts a program that bears at best partial resemblance to existing ones.

“Some folks might say it’s wildly ambitious, romantically so,” said Sharon Porter Robinson, the president of the Washington-based American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, which represents more than half the teacher education programs in U.S. colleges and universities. “And it does represent a new bar for us.”

Still, she said last week, given the convincing evidence for what is needed, “I think the right questions are: What steps can we make in the direction of that vision, and how can we gain support from members of the policy community who can create the programs to help?”

A representative of Teach for America, a prominent “alternative route” into teaching that does not involve graduation from a teacher education program, praised the effort to define what teachers need to know, while cautioning that the realities of the teacher market should be taken into account.

Teach for America puts rigorously screened graduates of selective colleges in hard-to-staff public schools after a summer of coursework and supervised teaching.

“There are a lot of indicators that we would be losing excellent people if the only route we allow involves significant time and cost,” said Abigail Smith, the New York City-based group’s vice president for research and public policy.

To demand, for instance, 30 weeks of apprentice teaching, “would limit our ability to bring in some people who could be significant assets to school districts,” she said.

States Eyeing Expense of Hand-Scored Tests in Light of NCLB Rules
By Jeff Archer, Education Week, 5/25/05

When students put down their pencils at the end of Connecticut’s testing each year, another intensive process begins. Hundreds of trained evaluators work day and night for about a month to score the written responses.

Although expensive, the use of open-ended questions drives the kind of instruction that state leaders say they want in their schools. So they balked when federal officials recently suggested using multiple-choice tests to meet the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“From our point of view, it would have us dumbing down our tests,” said Betty J. Sternberg, Connecticut’s commissioner of education.

Many states have weighed the cost of hand-scored tests in light of the federal legislation, but the issue is especially pertinent for Connecticut, where Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has pledged to sue over the federal education law. Calling it an unfunded mandate, he cites estimates that the state must spend a total of $8 million of its own money by 2008 to fulfill the law’s testing provisions.

The state tests students in grades 4, 6, and 8, but the federal law requires that students be assessed annually in reading and math in grades 3-8. Those tests are to be used in judging whether schools meet state-set performance targets known as adequate yearly progress.

Federal officials dispute Connecticut’s estimate of what it would cost to comply with No Child Left Behind. In a May 3 letter to Ms. Sternberg, U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wrote that the kinds of assessments included in the state’s calculations are more extensive than spelled out in the NCLB law.

“[S]ome of the costs of the system are attributable to state decisions in these areas,” she wrote. “While these decisions are instructionally sound, they do go beyond what was contemplated by NCLB.”

The debate shows how politically charged questions about adequate funding for the 3-year-old No Child Left Behind law revolve around ideas of what makes for appropriate testing, said Robert M. Palaich, a partner with Augenblick & Myers, a Denver-based consulting firm that helped Connecticut come up with its cost estimates.

“The secretary is correct that it is possible to do this in a way that costs less money,” he said. “But if you believe that states have the right to decide their standards and how to assess those standards—and now you are going to incorporate their assessment systems in your AYP calculations—then it does seem that the state has some good ground to stand on.”

Bottom Lines

Connecticut includes open-ended and multiple-choice items on all of its student assessments. In math, students are asked to explain how to solve problems. In reading, they’re asked to write about passages of text.

Scoring such answers means training evaluators on what makes for an adequate response. The challenge of doing so was evident last year, when Connecticut changed testing companies. The test results came back so far off from previous years that the state had the vendor rescore them.

“It’s a very intensive, very complicated process to assure reliable scoring,” Commissioner Sternberg said in a recent interview.

To find out how much it would cost to scale up its testing system under the No Child Left Behind Act, Connecticut used a process devised by Augenblick & Myers for the Council of Chief State School Officers. Eleven other states are using the same process to do their own cost studies, but Connecticut was the first to release its findings.

The analysis concludes that to expand the state’s testing system to the full set of grades required by the federal law would cost $41.6 million by 2008, when all of those tests must be in place. At current funding levels, the state by then will have received a total of $33.6 million in federal money for test implementation, according to the study.

GAO Findings

Connecticut’s cost study wasn’t the first to suggest such a gap. Two years ago, the congressional investigative agency called the Government Accountability Office reported that, based on projected spending levels, many states would not get enough federal funding for test implementation to expand the type of tests they were then using to include all of the assessments that the law calls for.

The GAO found that the key to assessment costs was the type of test items that states used. Many states that used open-ended items would not have enough money if they kept the same number of such items in any new tests that they added, the study found.

Some states are indeed cutting back on the number of open-ended items on each assessment. Illinois, which until now has tested in math and reading only in grades 3, 5, and 8, used to include two items on each test that required students to write. Next year, when the state begins testing in grade 3-8, each assessment will have one question involving writing.

Open-ended items have traditionally made up half of Maine’s assessments. To meet federal requirements, the state plans to use tests in additional grades next year in which such questions make up about 20 percent of the exam. Maine is completing a cost study akin to Connecticut’s, and the state legislature’s joint education committee recently approved a bill authorizing the state to sue over the No Child Left Behind Act.

“Our preliminary findings indicate that we have a multiple-million-dollar gap between what the feds are providing and what our costs are going to be,” said Patrick Phillips, Maine’s deputy commissioner of education.

The U.S. Department of Education counters that states are getting ample federal money to meet the letter of the law. No Child Left Behind, they say, doesn’t call for expanding the same testing programs that states have been using.

In her letter this month to Ms. Sternberg, Secretary Spellings noted that Connecticut’s cost estimate includes scaling up the state’s largely hand-scored writing assessment. But the federal law’s requirement to test in grades 3-8 only specifies reading and mathematics.

It also requires testing in reading and math in one grade in high school—as Connecticut already does—plus science testing in one grade each in elementary, middle, and high school.

Raymond J. Simon, the acting deputy secretary of education, made a similar point last month when he said, at a meeting with Ms. Sternberg in Washington, that Connecticut could fulfill the law’s requirements by using multiple-choice assessments in the grade levels that it must add.

“What’s most important is that for every year a kid is in school, that a parent can know at the end of the year how well their students have learned what they’ve been taught,” Kerri L. Briggs, a senior policy adviser to Mr. Simon, said in an interview.

Theodor Rebarber, a testing expert who is the chief executive officer of the Washington-based Education Leaders Council, agreed that Connecticut isn’t obligated under the law to use tests that require students to write. The council has commissioned its own studies showing that federal allocations are enough for states to implement the law’s testing provisions.

“If that’s what Connecticut thinks it needs to spend, then it should,” Mr. Rebarber said. “And it should view it as a relatively small investment in terms of their overall public expenditure to ensure quality public schools.”

In fact, Ms. Sternberg sees little value in conducting additional statewide annual testing. She has sought a waiver from the federal Education Department to allow her instead to have districts give periodic assessments throughout the year in the additional grades. Such a strategy would do more to improve achievement, and cost less, she argues.

But the federal agency nixed the idea, leading Mr. Blumenthal, the state attorney general, to announce plans to sue the department, claiming that the law represents an illegal unfunded mandate.

“This might be decided in court,” said Commissioner Sternberg, whose state, as of press time last week, had not yet filed suit. “It also might be decided in the court of public opinion, because if this pushes us to lower our rigorous standards, then what has this done?”

Court Showdown Over Fla. Vouchers Nears
By Alan Richard, Education Week, 5/25/05

Miami - In a case being watched nationally and by educators and families here, the Florida Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments June 7 on whether the state’s original school voucher program violates the state constitution.

The court is to decide whether Opportunity Scholarships, available to students enrolled in Florida’s persistently lowest-rated public schools, run afoul of a prohibition on using public money in religious institutions. A decision could come before public schools open in August for a new year.
But it isn’t just the 720 students statewide who now opt to use Opportunity Scholarships to attend religious or secular private schools whose plans could be determined by how the court rules. Lawyers on both sides agree that if the court strikes down those vouchers, other state K-12 scholarships now being used by some 25,000 Florida students could be in jeopardy.

And the tremors would likely be felt in the school choice movement nationwide. Though the U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 upheld the inclusion of religious schools in the Cleveland voucher program under the U.S. Constitution, other states have constitutional restrictions similar to Florida’s.

Along with scrapping the Opportunity Scholarships, a decision against vouchers could lead to the demise of Florida’s McKay Scholarships, which provide state-financed tuition aid to about 14,300 special education students.

Lawyers for the state contend, though, that higher education scholarships and other types of state aid for religious colleges and hospitals could also be at stake.

A court ruling against the scholarships would allow voucher opponents “to pick up a club and attack any program” that offers public aid to religious institutions, said Clark M. Neily, a lawyer for the Washington-based Institute for Justice who will defend the state at next month’s hearing in Tallahassee.

Others cast doubt on how far such a ruling might reach. Ronald G. Meyer, a Tallahassee-based lawyer who is leading the case against the state, disputed the “parade of horribles” that Mr. Neily claims would happen if the state supreme court outlaws the Opportunity Scholarships.

The state can easily distinguish between such vouchers and other forms of state aid to religious colleges and hospitals, Mr. Meyer said. “What the constitution seeks to address is the use of public monies to support the inculcation of religious values,” he said.

Florida is one of 38states with so-called “Blaine amendments” or with similar language in their constitutions prohibiting state aid for religious purposes. The name comes from the prominent late-19th-century Republican politician James G. Blaine.

Such language was the basis for the lower courts’ rulings in Florida. Mr. Neily argues that the Blaine amendment has a “bigoted history” aimed at keeping money from non-Protestant institutions long ago. If the Florida Supreme Court upholds the lower-court rulings, the state will consider an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, Mr. Neily said.

Futures in Doubt

Since the Opportunity Scholarships began in 1999, students have been able to use them to transfer out of public schools that receive F ratings on state report cards two times within four years. Currently, 21 public schools across the state are in that category.

One of the most common destinations for Miami students using Opportunity Scholarships is Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame High School in the city’s Little Haiti section, near downtown.

About 72 students used the scholarships to attend the Roman Catholic school in the 2004-05 school year. The modest but bucolic campus run by the Christian Brothers order has become a welcome new home for students on the scholarships.

The school was Florida’s first to integrate black and white students in 1960, said Brother Patrick Sean Moffett, the first-year principal of Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame.

Students say it’s a calm, well-run school that’s small enough for teachers to know all their students. “What we have is parents and youngsters who want something better,” Brother Moffett said.

Because the $4,355 Opportunity Scholarships do not cover the school’s $7,000 annual tuition, the 475-student school serving grades 9-12 must raise additional money to help the voucher students attend. “Financially, it’s costing us a small fortune,” Brother Moffett said of enrolling the voucher students.

The courts should not bar the scholarships, he argued, because parents—not the private schools—decide how to use the money. He added that his school does not force its Catholic beliefs on students. The student body president is Jewish, he said, and other student officers are Muslim and Baptist.

“It’s not supporting religion,” Brother Moffett said of the voucher program. “It’s being used to support parents.”

The school allowed interviews with students who receive Opportunity Scholarships only if Education Week would not use their names. The school keeps their identities confidential to guarantee that other students and teachers will not treat them differently, Brother Moffett said.

Many of the students receiving the scholarships at Archbishop Curley-Notre Dame are from Haitian or other immigrant families. Six students spoke of how the vouchers had helped them escape public middle or high schools that they described as being overcrowded and having serious problems with teacher quality and student discipline.

“If the voucher program can change one person’s life, I think it’s done enough,” said a young man from the Bahamas, an 11th grader. “But it’s not just one person [who benefits],” he said.

“I think they should keep the Opportunity Scholarships. I have two little brothers, and I want them to have the same opportunities to come here,” said another young man, an 11th grader born in Haiti.

“I know my mom wouldn’t be able to afford” the tuition bill if not for the vouchers, said a young woman in the 12th grade.

New Lawsuit Targets?

If the state supreme court ruling goes their way, opponents of Florida’s school choice programs say they will expand their legal battle to target the other state programs that allow students to leave public schools and attend religious schools.

“Obviously, if they decide in our favor, … we’re going to probably take a look at trying to expand it to the other voucher programs,” said Mark Pudlow, the spokesman for the Florida Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The FEA is a major supporter of the case against the vouchers.

But if the scholarships stand, the Florida ruling could help pave the way for programs in other states where Blaine amendments stand in the way of voucher programs, said Mr. Neily, a lawyer defending Florida’s vouchers.

Florida really has become ground zero for the future of the Blaine amendments,” Mr. Neily said.

Already, school choice advocates in Florida and elsewhere have begun to pursue other programs that do not involve the use of state vouchers at religious institutions, as a way to get around Blaine amendments and other state constitutional provisions that could lead to cases like Florida’s.

For example, Florida’s corporate-tax-credit scholarships for low-income families now help about 10,400 students tap state-sponsored tuition aid using money that flows through nonprofit organizations collecting donations for the scholarships from businesses in exchange for tax breaks. But Mr. Pudlow said even those scholarships could be targeted.

Florida Commissioner of Education John L. Winn, who helped create the Opportunity Scholarships as a policy adviser to Gov. Bush, said he believes the vouchers are the most effective incentive the state can provide for its lowest-performing schools to improve.

“I have absolutely no doubt that public schools hate the scholarship more than they hate the F [rating],” he said.

If the supreme court rules against vouchers, Mr. Winn would not support legislation to offer vouchers only to secular private schools. “If they strike it down, then the whole program will be struck down,” he said.

McKay Users Watching

Although the thousands of special education students and their families using Florida’s McKay Scholarships are not directly covered by the Opportunity Scholarships case, they worry about losing their vouchers nonetheless.

Those concerned include parents like Deborah Kidwell and her 13-year-old son, Daniel, a quiet boy and gifted sketch artist who has been diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. Like all McKay recipients, the family chose to leave a regular public school and apply for state aid that Daniel can use in a public or private school—secular or religious—of his family’s choice.

The amount of each scholarship varies based on a student’s disability.

“He was getting nowhere” in public school, Ms. Kidwell said during a visit to Spring Gate School, a private school that serves Daniel and 19 other students in grades 1-10 in Plantation, Fla., a western suburb of Fort Lauderdale. “Other kids [at his old school] would not accept the way he was,” she said.

Ms. Kidwell removed Daniel from the Broward County public schools last summer after constant frustrations and failing grades. Now, he’s making straight A’s.

The new school has brought Daniel out of his shell, Ms. Kidwell said. She added that other students at Spring Gate accept Daniel warmly, and he benefits from the extra-small classes that his $9,000 full-tuition voucher pays for. He also receives after-school tutoring.

Tom Ehren, who manages the McKay Scholarships for the 272,000-student Broward County schools, said that the program may work for some families, but it presents problems for others. About 1,900 Broward County students use McKay Scholarships to attend private schools, he said.

Parents cannot easily determine the quality of the private schools in the program, he said.

Others say that many families that have children with disabilities would be in trouble without the McKay program. “I think there would be plenty of parents up in arms if they did away with the McKay Scholarships,” said Debra Kern, the director and founder of Spring Gate School.

‘Talent Development’ Model Seen as Having Impact
By Debra Viadero, Education Week, 5/25/05

A five-year study of some of Philadelphia’s lowest-achieving high schools suggests that an improvement program known as the Talent Development model may be leading students to come to school more often, take more algebra, pass more academic courses, and stay in school.

“We think what we have is some compelling evidence that Talent Development was able to make a difference, particularly in 9th grade, and able to sustain it throughout the first three years of high school,” said James J. Kemple, the lead author of the study. Produced by MDRC, a nonpartisan research group based in New York City, the report was slated for release this week.

Despite the positive results, the researchers warned that the schools they studied still had far to go if their aim is to turn out students ready for college or the workplace. Other researchers also noted that it’s too soon to tell whether the improvements the program seems to be producing in Philadelphia can be replicated elsewhere.

“I think cautious optimism is the take I would have on the results,” said Richard J. Murnane, a Harvard University economics professor who reviewed the study as a member of the MDRC’s board. But, he added, “the notion that some intervention at the high school level makes a difference for poor kids is something to rejoice in.”

Spotlight on Philadelphia

The MDRC study comes at a time when national attention is focused on making high schools more academically rigorous. Yet experts agree that educators have few proven strategies for accomplishing that task.

The Talent Development model was pioneered at Baltimore’s Patterson High School in 1994 by researchers from that city’s Johns Hopkins University. Though Patterson has since abandoned the program, it has spread to 80 other schools across the country, including a new high school in Baltimore that Hopkins is running jointly with the school district.

A hallmark of the program is its laserlike focus on the 9th grade, which is often seen as a make-or-break year for students.

“If you don’t get promoted out of 9th grade the first time, your chances of dropping out of high school increase exponentially,” said Corinne M. Herlihy, a co-author of the report.

The school improvement model clusters 9th graders into a separate “Success Academy,” usually located on its own floor or wing. Within the academy, students take classes in small learning communities of up to 125 students that share the same teachers.

Students also take extended, 80- to 90-minute block classes and “double doses” of courses in mathematics and language arts and reading. Students spend their remaining high school years in small career academies, where they take courses integrating academic content with their career interests.

The largest rollout for the program so far has been in the 190,000-student Philadelphia district, where seven of the city’s 58 high schools are using it. With federal and foundation funding, the MDRC researchers set out to gauge progress at the first five schools there to adopt the program, all of which enroll disadvantaged, low-achieving student populations.

They gathered baseline data on classes of students passing through the schools three years before the Talent Development model was implemented and then compared the averages with those for the first three to four classes of 9th graders to enter the schools after the program started up.

They also tracked the changes against those for six other high schools in the district that had similar demographic compositions and test scores, but were not implementing a Talent Development program.

The researchers found that the percentage of 9th graders passing algebra increased from an average of 33.1 percent to 61 percent in the Talent Development schools. In comparison, that number grew from 45.2 percent to 48.7 percent in the other district schools.

Likewise, 9th grade attendance rates rose 4.6 percentage points in the Talent Development schools, but declined by half a percentage point in the non-Talent Development schools. On the downside, the researchers noted, even in Talent Development schools, the typical 9th grader still misses about 40 days of school a year.

Larger Improvements

The researchers found comparatively larger improvements for Talent Development schools in terms of the percentages of students being promoted to the next grade or completing a basic academic curriculum, which is described as five credits, including three in math, science, and language arts.

In a typical 500-student school, the researchers calculated, such improvements would translate to students attending school for nine extra days a year, 125 more students earning a credit in algebra, and 40 more 9th graders being promoted to 10th grade than would otherwise have been the case.

In the two schools where researchers were able to track 9th graders over four years of high school, the data also pointed to improved graduation rates.

But the researchers found fewer gains across the board on the standardized math tests that students take in 11th grade.

“A reform model can take 3, 4, 5 years to take hold,” said Liza Herzog, a senior research associate for the Philadelphia Education Fund, the private intermediary group that brought the model to Philadelphia and oversaw its implementation. “Going forward, I really think test scores will move more than they have.”

College-Based High Schools Fill Growing Need
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, Education Week, 5/25/05

Greensboro, N.C. - A year ago, Paul McNabb was on the verge of flunking high school. He felt lost in the crowd of 1,300 students on the urban campus he was attending here. With no plans for going to college, he didn’t see the point in trying too hard.

This spring, though, his latest report card is hanging on the refrigerator at his home, showing near-perfect grades in his honors classes. The senior has also completed several community college courses and, after his scheduled graduation this week, he plans to enroll in more college classes and a firefighter-training program.

Mr. McNabb, 18, may always have been capable of such academic feats. But the turnaround began when he switched from a traditional high school to one of the small, college-based programs offered by the Guilford County, N.C., school system.
The results are ones that researchers and policymakers across the country are trying to foster through high school improvement efforts that have focused on smaller schools and more rigorous and relevant course content.

At the Early/Middle College at Guilford Technical Community College, Mr. McNabb has benefited, he says, from more personalized attention from teachers, more opportunities to learn by doing, and a chance to pursue his own interests through community college classes. He says it didn’t hurt, either, that classes at the school start at noon.

“I feel like they actually care about you here and work with you more on a one-to-one basis,” Mr. McNabb said recently. “The content is taught to you—you’re not forced to learn it on your own.”

Over the past five years, officials of the 67,000-student district here have opened a half-dozen similar programs on the campuses of local two- and four-year colleges—and will open two more in the fall—in a push to motivate underachieving teenagers to graduate and pursue further education.

Reducing Dropouts

The strategy is part of a menu of initiatives Guilford County has introduced to meet the academic, social, and emotional needs of students in its middle and high schools, where racial and ethnic diversity and poverty have been on the rise. As a result of such efforts, officials here say, the high school dropout rate has fallen from nearly 6 percent of students in grades 9-12 during the 1999-2000 school year to just over 3 percent for 2003-04. Last school year, 639 district students in grades 9-12 were identified as dropouts, more than 400 fewer than four years earlier.

“We had given up on them,” said Superintendent Terry B. Grier, who began the aggressive push to prevent dropouts when he arrived as schools chief five years ago. “But if you approach these kids with the right kind of help and the right environment, you can turn their lives around.”

That is just what has happened for hundreds of students who had already left school or were at risk of dropping out. With numerous absences, disciplinary infractions, family issues, emotional problems, or a simple lack of interest in school, the students had failed classes and fallen behind in course requirements.

At first glance, such students may be unlikely candidates for college-based programs. But officials here are convinced that a college campus holds an appeal for teenagers and pushes them to improve both their personal behavior and their academic performance.

“The mere fact of being on a college campus allows them to view themselves differently,” said Tony Wallington, the principal of the Early/Middle College, whose school, like ones with similar labels around the country, gives students a chance to earn postsecondary credits in a college setting while completing high school. “These kids in their heart of hearts don’t believe college is for them, … but we’re out to change that perception.”

Of course, educators here point out that such students generally would not succeed without a lot of help getting back on the academic track.

At the Early/Middle College, for example, teachers conduct home visits, meet regularly with students, and keep close watch on their progress. Students can take advantage of daily tutorials, make up school time on selected Saturdays and over the summer, or opt to attend a fifth year of high school.

As a result, nearly all the high-risk students graduate with a college-prep or technical diploma, a majority earn grade-level marks on the state’s end-of-course exams, and some leave with credit toward a college degree.

A good number of the students targeted by the district’s high school programs, while perhaps capable of succeeding academically, had already “dropped out emotionally,” said Lora Hodges, the principal of Greensboro Middle College, a high school for 110 juniors and seniors housed on the campus of Greensboro College, a private, four-year school enrolling some 1,300 students.

“Many students don’t fit in and don’t connect” to their regular high schools, Ms. Hodges said, and they express that “in painful terms.”

“The traditional high school is a great place for a majority of students,” she said, “but there is a population of students that needs to be engaged in other ways.”

As researchers and policymakers work toward making high school more productive and meaningful for American teenagers, the challenge of engaging students in rigorous coursework has emerged as a critical issue.

‘Academic Press’

Helping to prevent students from dropping out requires a comprehensive approach, said Russell W. Rumberger, a professor of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“Many of these kids have problems beyond just the academics: They have family issues to deal with, peer issues—there’s a social dimension to their situation,” said Mr. Rumberger, who served on the Committee on Increasing High School Students’ Engagement and Motivation to Learn, sponsored by the National Research Council, an independent agency that advises the federal government. “If they are paying attention to kids and trying to help them with an array of services, they are probably going to engage them and keep them in school.”

The NRC committee concluded in its 2003 report that “student engagement and learning are fostered by a school climate characterized by an ethic of caring and supportive relationships; respect, fairness, and trust.

It also pointed out, however, that a caring climate is not enough. “Equally important,” the report said, “is the focus on learning and high expectations for student achievement, or ‘academic press.’ ”

The Guilford County strategy embraces that “academic press,” while also incorporating flexibility and additional support services, and working to develop strong relationships between students and teachers.

The high school initiatives allow students who have fallen behind in their coursework to catch up and, in some cases, meet state graduation requirements, which are somewhat less rigorous than the district’s standards. While most of the students are placed in honors classes and encouraged to strive for a college-prep diploma, they can instead skip some of the more stringent coursework and earn a technical diploma.

In one of the programs, offered at Bennett College, many of the 100 high school students are juggling their academic duties with motherhood, or have moved out of their parents’ homes and are living on their own. Many of the students are several grades behind their peers and had dropped out of high school at least once already.

But with access to medical services, a social worker, and transportation for themselves and their children, many of the girls are headed toward graduation. On the campus of the private, historically black women-only college, the girls have role models in college students who persisted despite disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Everybody here wants to graduate, and I’m more determined to [do that] here,” said Alloren Davis-Adams, 17, a Middle College at Bennett senior who is expecting her first child in July. While the school has had more difficulty stemming dropouts than the other programs—48 girls out of about 100 dropped out during the first year of the program—it has helped dozens earn diplomas that had been nearly out of reach, according to Principal Elizabeth G. Bridges.

Nearby, the county has a boys-only program on the campus of the 10,000-student North Carolina A&T University, also a historically black institution.

When Principal Russell Harper opened the Middle College at NC A&T in 2003, it “had a reputation as a school for troublemakers or deviant kids,” he said. Mr. Harper quickly instituted strict rules for dress, behavior, and attendance.

“That whole first year, we dispelled that perception,” he said. While many of the students had been persistently absent at their former schools, Mr. Harper reports a 95 percent attendance rate among his 100 students.

Options for High Achievers

Guilford County’s high school options aren’t limited to struggling students.
Students across the district—which includes Greensboro and the surrounding suburbs—can earn a special Advanced Placement diploma for completing five AP courses and passing the exams. They can also choose from a handful of magnet schools, take courses at selected colleges, often with the district paying the tuition, or apply for the early- and middle-college programs.

For students just trying to meet the minimum graduation requirements, the district provides a vast support system, with counseling, mentoring, and regular checks on struggling students.

But instead of lowering expectations for those students, district officials have demanded more from them academically. Eighth graders, for example, must take pre-algebra or algebra classes. Once in high school, the students are required to take the Preliminary SAT, or PSAT. The results from that test are used to direct more students into tougher courses.

Guilford County still has strides to make, Mr. Grier said, in further closing the achievement gap between minority students and their white peers, and in tackling the needs of the hundreds of students who drop out despite the options. And failure and suspension rates at several of the county’s traditional high schools increased last fall, the first time students were able to select the schools they wished to attend.

But for many students, the programs have been life-altering.

“This school gave me a second chance,” said T-Jay Foultz, a junior at the Middle College at North Carolina A&T who was expelled from a traditional high school in the district. “I don’t know where I’d be without this school, probably locked up somewhere. … But now I have more chances to learn than I knew [existed].”

Schools Worry Over Military Base Closings
Pentagon Proposal Isn’t Final, but Some Districts Face Big Loss of Students
By Christina A. Samuels and Andrew Trotter, Education Week, 5/25/05
The Pentagon’s proposal to close or downsize dozens of military facilities nationwide has school districts facing the loss of federal impact aid and the military populations they have embraced over the years.

“This would be a tremendous loss,” Ann E. Shortt, the superintendent of the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Alaska, school district, said of the proposal to radically downsize Eielson Air Force Base, where the district has three schools.
The district’s enrollment of about 14,500 students would decline by about 3,000 if the base some 23 miles south of the city of Fairbanks closes. The district stands to lose up to $10 million in federal impact aid and reduced enrollment-based state funding from its overall $135 million annual budget.

The base students “bring so much, and it’s wonderful,” Ms. Shortt said last week. “These students have lived all over the world.”

U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld said in announcing the base-realignment and -closure proposal on May 13 that it would result in a savings of up to $48.8 billion over 20 years. Under the Pentagon’s proposal, 33 major bases or facilities would close and 29 would realign, shifting their resources to other military facilities around the country.

Federal Payments

The Base Realignment and Closure Commission, a nine-member independent panel appointed by President Bush and Congress, will study the Pentagon’s recommendations and make a final proposal this coming fall to the president, who then forwards the report to Congress for a yes or no vote. This is the fifth round of base closures and realignments since 1988, and historically, the commission has adopted 85 percent of the Department of Defense’s recommendations.

School districts that enroll students whose parents live or work on a military base receive a federal payment instead of, or in addition to, the money they would receive from local property taxes. The payment for fiscal 2005 is up to $3,920 for a child who lives on a military base, and up to $784 for a child who does not live on a base, said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, in Washington.

School officials in military communities say they have worked hard to absorb military life into their schools’ culture, such as by accommodating children who arrive mid-school year and seeking out military parents to serve as volunteers.

James E. Mitchell, the superintendent of the 5,700-student Groton, Conn., school district, said the district would lose almost 2,000 children if, as the Pentagon proposes, the Naval Submarine Base New London were closed and its military families relocated. Reductions in federal impact aid and state funding would result in a loss of $6 million to $7 million out of the district’s $65 million annual budget.

“That would be a significant impact in our district,” Mr. Mitchell said. “Kids, who don’t vote, is where this impact will be felt.”

The Douglas district in southwestern South Dakota, which serves Ellsworth Air Force Base, also faces a drastic change. Closure of the B-1 Bomber base, as the Pentagon proposes, would cut the 2,550-student district’s enrollment in half, removing some 1,200 students of military families, said Superintendent Joseph Schmitz. That doesn’t count nonmilitary families who would likely move because of a decline in the community’s military-fueled economy.

‘People Capital’

The district’s $17.3 million annual budget includes the receipt of $7 million in federal impact aid. But the district would also lose more than $5 million in state formula-funding for those students.

But the Pentagon’s proposal to close Ellsworth, while hard to swallow, was not a shock, Mr. Schmitz said.

“In 1995 we were very close to being closed, and from that date on, I had a cautious eye toward BRAC 2005—and have planned for it,” he said.

Not every district with a military connection would lose large numbers of students under the proposal. But school officials say the closures and realignments would be felt in other ways.

Michael H. Graner, the superintendent of the Ledyard, Conn., public schools, said his district would also be affected by the closure of the New London submarine base, but not to the extent of nearby Groton.

About 370 children from military families are part of the 3,100-student district. The district receives federal impact aid of about $300,000 in an overall $25.5 million annual budget.

“That’s enough to make a difference,” Mr. Graner said.

But, he added, “When I think about the loss of the sub base, I think about the people capital. That is very unfortunate.” For example, the base commander was the chairman of a school district building committee that supervised a $6 million addition to Ledyard’s high school, Mr. Graner said.

In Pascagoula, Miss., only 50 or 60 students would be lost directly from the departure of military families at Pascagoula Naval Base, which is proposed for closure. But Debbie Anglin, the 7,400-student Pascagoula district’s communications director, said the schools there reap benefits from the high level of volunteerism the district receives from base employees.

“We have ships that adopt a particular school; whatever that school’s needs are, they volunteer,” she said, noting that Navy volunteers have built decks for outdoor classrooms, helped run field day activities, and proctored the administration of the state academic test.

“What we’re going to lose in volunteer hours—that’s priceless,” she said.

Getting Ready

John F. Deegan, the executive director of the Military Impacted Schools Association suggested that superintendents start working on contingency plans now, even though the closure list is not final. His organization is lobbying Congress to approve language that would get federal impact aid more quickly to schools that see more than a 250-student enrollment swing in a school year because of military base closures and realignments. Currently, it takes at least one school year for the funding to get to the schools.

“If you’re going to have a big loss or a big gain, you can’t wait for a year,” said Mr. Deegan, who is also the superintendent of the 9,200-student Bellevue, Neb., school district, which serves Offutt Air Force Base. The Pentagon proposal would have a minor impact on Offutt, which would lose about 100 civilian employees.

Mr. Deegan also suggested that superintendents start having conversations with base leaders now about likely enrollment gains or losses.

“I would make sure I would be out there at the base, saying, ‘How many kids, and when?’ ” he said.

G.C. Ross, the interim superintendent of the Clovis, N.M., school district, has already developed tentative plans in case nearby Cannon Air Force Base, which is on the proposed closure list, does indeed shut down. About 1,200 of the district’s 8,000 students come from base families.

Mr. Ross said he believes the district can withstand the loss of students without having to shutter facilities. An elementary school a few miles from the base that enrolls almost all military children could be the site of an alternative high school program, he said.

“We’re going to work hard and try and get off that list,” Mr. Ross said. But, he added, “We’ll make the best of it, whichever way it goes.”

Effect of Unions Hard to Gauge, Scholars Agree
By Bess Keller, Education Week, 5/25/05

Washington - Alan D. Bersin, the outgoing superintendent in San Diego, agreed to cut short his tenure after an election there gave allies of the teachers’ union majority sway over the school board.

In running afoul of the union, he was in the company of the schools chiefs in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Cleveland, and San Francisco, Mr. Bersin said at a conference here last week on research into teacher collective bargaining.

“How does it happen that Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, Roy Romer, Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Arlene Ackerman, all Democrats like me,” he asked, “are virtually at war with their unions?”

Mr. Bersin, who has been appointed to serve as California’s education secretary effective in July, said his conflict with the San Diego Education Association over such matters as whether principals had broad rights to be in classrooms shows the need for reshaping the unions’ role.

But others at the May 16-17 conference sponsored by two Washington think tanks often identified as centrist—the Urban Institute and the Progressive Policy Institute—argued that the unions have used their power at the bargaining table and ballot box to ensure basic and necessary changes such as higher salaries and smaller classes.

Some researchers stressed the potential of teachers’ unions to strengthen school improvement, if only they were partners in making policy.

Speakers strongly agreed, though, that with little previous research to go on, it was almost impossible to give more than tentative answers to any of the big questions tackled by the meeting’s 10 research papers.

Some scholars said researchers were wary of delving into such a politically charged subject as the unions’ role in education. Others said it was hard to begin when primary data sources are in thousands of school districts following labor laws set by 50 states.

Introducing his paper “Are Unions Good for Students?,” Daniel D. Goldhaber, a labor expert affiliated with the University of Washington, in Seattle, and the Urban Institute, answered only half-jokingly, “Beats me.”

Not only do previous studies of unionization and student achievement yield mixed results, he said, but he also found only five quantitative ones to examine.

Other papers at the conference looked at, for example, the sources and extent of the unions’ power, the nature of negotiated contracts, and the unions’ impact on the quality of teaching. The authors ranged from those who have been generally receptive to collective bargaining, such as Susan Moore Johnson of Harvard University’s graduate school of education, to those who have seen it as an unmitigated disaster, such as Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe.

In his lunchtime talk, Mr. Bersin put blame on both district and union leaders for what he portrayed as the San Diego teacher contract’s stranglehold on change. Riffling the pages of the inch-thick document, the superintendent observed that “we agreed to every one of these rules.”

Mr. Bersin’s aggressive strategy for improving teaching and learning was viewed as too top-down by union leaders.

‘Insensitive Treatment’

He reminded the audience, too, that the unions “grew out of the insensitive treatment of teachers,” who did not embrace collective bargaining in substantial numbers until the 1970s. The contracts won at the bargaining table in turn spurred membership. Today more than 80 percent of the nation’s more than 4 million teachers are union members.

But in recent years in five of California’s big cities, Mr. Bersin contended, membership clout has translated into school boards “dominated by employee interest groups,” with students the losers. That same pattern has upped the popularity of mayoral control of districts such as Boston, Cleveland, and New York, he said.

Mr. Bersin, a lawyer by profession who campaigned for President Bill Clinton before being appointed by him as the U.S. attorney in San Diego, suggested that the two national teachers’ unions are helping neither themselves nor the Democratic Party, with which they have long been allied, by riling mayors of both parties.

“The [National Education Association] and the [American Federation of Teachers] pulled out all the stops in the last presidential election,” he said, “and that did not have a union-friendly or a Democratic-friendly result.”

Declaring that increasing public disenchantment with the performance of inner-city schools threatens the survival of public education, the outgoing superintendent proposed negotiating contracts free of many existing rules just for the schools in the most academic trouble.

In an invited response to Mr. Bersin’s talk, a teachers’ union expert at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif., offered a broader solution for those in both camps who are determined to address low student achievement.

“How about legislation that requires all contracts to specify the union’s and the district’s [joint] goals for student achievement?” said education professor Charles Kerchner.

If unions and districts could not agree on the goals and the steps to get there, he said, they would cede their bargaining rights to an independent panel that would write the entire contract for them.

The papers presented at the conference, which was supported by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation and the Westport, Conn.-based Smith Richardson Foundation, are expected to appear in a book in the fall.

Va. to Provide Bonuses for Middle-Grades Math Teachers
By Bess Keller, Education Week, 5/25/05

Virginia wants a few good math teachers for middle schools in academic trouble—and will pay annual bonuses of $10,000 to snag them.

The program, announced last week, aims to help some 70 of the state’s middle schools climb out from under designations that their students have not met federal or state standards in mathematics.

Schools accepted into the program, known as the Virginia Middle School Teacher Corps, can use a list of expert teachers compiled by the Virginia Department of Education to find a match for their math job openings.

Teachers accepted into the program who transfer to designated schools may be paid as much as $10,000 extra for each year of their three-year commitment.

“We wanted it to be an amount that grabbed your attention,” said Linda M. Wallinger, the department’s assistant superintendent for instruction.

Teachers already working at one of the low-performing schools who meet the criteria for the corps may earn as much as $5,000 extra a year.

While many states and districts are beginning to turn toward bonuses to attract teachers into low-performing schools and to specialties where the candidate pool is shallow, such as middle school math, the Virginia program is notable not only for the hefty bonus amounts, but also for helping schools find the kind of teachers they need.

Virginia also has launched a pilot program, in effect this year, that pays experienced and skilled teachers transferring into one of four hard-to-staff schools a hiring bonus of $15,000. Incentive money is also available for principals going to struggling schools.

‘In the Vanguard’

The programs have drawn praise from the Teaching Commission, a nonpartisan New York City-based group pushing for higher teacher quality that is calling for other states to emulate Virginia’s approach.

“Under Gov. Mark Warner’s leadership, Virginia is in the vanguard of helping at-risk schools attract and retain top talent,” Gaynor McCown, the executive director of the commission, said in a statement.

While their main job is to be classroom teaching, the corps members might also work with new or struggling teachers in the schools. Plans call for the teachers to receive training this summer in reaching students who have not performed well in math.

Officials stressed that specific choices among candidates are left to the districts and schools. A district may hire a teacher who is subsequently accepted into the corps and thus eligible for the bonus.

To be eligible for the corps, teachers must have at least three years of experience teaching math, a college major or minor in the subject, and a state teaching license with a specialty in middle-level math. They must also submit two letters of recommendation attesting to their “success in teaching mathematics in challenging environments.”

Districts and schools are required to apply for the bonus money by drawing up a plan showing how they would use the corps member based on a school’s math-achievement deficiencies.

Inquiries about the program are brisk, according to its coordinator, Connie Fisher, but so far only three districts representing four schools and only about 15 teachers have applied.

Ideally, officials said, each of the low-performing schools would have a teacher of corps caliber by the start of the coming school year.

“The premise of the program,” Ms. Wallinger said, “is to make sure there is at a minimum one well-qualified math teacher in every school.”

Florida Gains Flexibility on NCLB Provisions
Fewer Schools Likely to Miss Annual Progress Goals Under Changes
By Lynn Olson, Education Week, 5/25/05

Federal officials last week gave Florida more leeway in calculating the progress of students under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. But the state is still negotiating over a proposal to track the learning gains of individual students to help determine whether schools have met the law’s achievement targets.

Florida Commissioner of Education John L. Winn said in an interview last week that U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings had granted two of the state’s requested changes to its accountability plan under the federal law.

Had the changes been in place last year, the state estimates 457 more schools would have made adequate yearly progress under the law. Only 23 percent of Florida’s schools—or 331—met the federal standards last year, based on test data from the 2003-04 school year.

One of the changes permits Florida to increase the number of students required for a subgroup’s test scores to count for determining AYP from 30 youngsters to 15 percent of the total school population. The state will continue to report all data for subgroups with more than 30 students on school report cards. But it successfully argued that the size and diversity of Florida’s schools made them more likely to miss at least one AYP target than was true in other states, if the state was forced to keep such a low minimum threshold.

The state also got permission to revise its annual targets for the percent of students who must score at the proficient level or higher on state reading and mathematics tests. Originally, those figures were to jump from 31 percent to 48 percent in reading this school year, and from 38 percent to 53 percent in math.

Under a revised timetable, the state will raise those targets in smaller, annual increments, rather than every three years. The new targets require at least 37 percent of students to score at the proficient level in reading in 2004-05, and 44 percent in math. The law requires all students—in every state—to perform at the proficient level by 2014.

Growth Model

Ms. Spellings announced the changes at a news conference in Tallahassee on May 16, alongside Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and Mr. Winn. To gain approval for the changes, the state provided data demonstrating how it is meeting the principles of the federal law, by raising achievement and narrowing achievement gaps, under its A+ accountability plan.

In an April 7 speech, Ms. Spellings challenged states to demonstrate that they met the law’s core principles in exchange for added flexibility.

“They [Florida] just took the ball and ran with it,” said Kerri L. Briggs, a senior policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Education. “They packaged a lot of data; it’s a pretty impressive document.”

The state is still negotiating with federal officials over three additional proposals.

Like many states, Florida hopes to change how it calculates the proficiency of students with disabilities, by taking advantage of new flexibility offered by federal officials this month.

In addition, the state wants to improve the alignment between its own accountability system and the NCLB law to avoid the situation it faced last year, when many schools earned A’s and B’s under the state system but failed to meet federal targets.

The Sunshine State grades schools based in part on the improvement of individual students who score in the bottom 25 percent on state tests. And it would like to incorporate such an approach under the federal law.

The state has proposed using a measure of individual student improvement under the law’s “safe harbor” provision that would permit schools to make adequate progress as long as there were more students who maintained or moved up to proficiency in the current school year than in the prior school year.

“This calculation,” wrote Mr. Winn in a letter to Secretary Spellings, “takes advantage of Florida’s ability to track the learning gains of individual students, providing an improved measure of each student’s progress. We believe that learning gains will become the national norm within five years, and Florida should lead the way.”

But Ms. Briggs said before making any decisions about such “growth” models, Secretary Spellings wants to convene a task force of experts in the field. Last week, the secretary asked Mr. Winn to join that group. Their work is not expected to be finished in time to alter states’ AYP calculations for this year.

Seeking Changes

So far, 37 states have asked for changes to their state accountability plans that would affect how they rate schools this year, based on 2004-05 test data. The deadline to request such changes is June 1.

As of May 18, federal officials had approved some changes to those plans for eight states: Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

Most changes took advantage of previous flexibility offered by the federal government, such as the use of a statistical technique, known as a confidence interval, in making AYP decisions; making changes to subgroup sizes; and providing more leeway in identifying districts needing improvement.

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