Update

Update

Education news from schools, businesses, research and government agencies

Rocky Start for First Federal Voucher Plan

The nation's first federally funded school voucher program is off to a shaky start in Washington, D.C.

As the city's schools opened last month, 1,359 of the 1,613 vouchers that Congress funded were awarded to students. But about 20 percent of students who received scholarships up to $7,500 to help pay for private school tuition are not using them and 18 percent of students who accepted the grants already were in private schools.

Sally J. Sachar, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Scholarship Fund, says a late start is a key reason not all slots were filled by needy students in poorly performing public schools--the principal purpose of the program.

Congress approved the voucher plan--the D.C. School Choice Incentive Program--in January and WSF was selected to run it in late March. "We took applications over 17 days, which is a short time for a new program that involves financial verification and families switching children from one kind of school to another. We knew it would take two years to fill the program," Sachar says. Federal funding not used for the program this year will be carried over to next year, she adds.

"They had a tremendous amount of interest from the community. It was because of the timing that they were unable to place all the families that showed interest," agrees Mary Kayne Heinze of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports the voucher plan.

Some families that gave up scholarships kept their children in public schools or non-participating private schools, according to WSF. Others faced difficulties getting their children to private schools far from home. Some families moved from the city while WSF was unable to reach others.

WSF helped families that accepted the vouchers place their children in 53 private schools in the capital. More than half are Catholic schools and many others are religion-oriented, including Sidwell Friends, a Quaker school that Chelsea Clinton attended.

The American Federation of Teachers, which has opposed the D.C. voucher plan, says the number of scholarship students who were already in private schools underscores a program fault. "They are not using vouchers as an escape hatch from poorly performing public schools," asserts Nancy Van Meter, director of AFT's Center on Privatization.

Sachar says the voucher law allows private school students to participate but "next year, we fully expect that there will be sufficient applications from public school students so that it will be difficult for a child enrolled in a private school to be accepted."

--Alan Dessoff

Spying on a Complex Planet

Now that NASA's Cassini spacecraft has begun releasing images of Saturn, Earthly astronomy lessons have a striking new visual aid. Scientists have anticipated a closer look at the planet since Pioneer 11 did a fly-by in 1979. The current four-year mission will include 76 orbits of Saturn and a December release of a probe into the atmosphere of the planet's largest moon. Educators can access the latest images and videos from the mission online.

saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Can't Fire Amato

With the school year under way, embattled New Orleans Parish Superintendent Anthony Amato has one issue settled. A U.S. District judge permanently enjoined the school board from firing him without due cause.

In June, board members Jimmy Fahrenholtz and Una Anderson filed a lawsuit and obtained an injunction against a hastily called session in which they say other members were trying to replace Amato. State lawmakers also came to the superintendent's aid, passing a law giving Amato the power to hire, fire and execute contracts without school board approval.

Supporters say Amato is trying to lift academic achievement and restore order to the district, which has been plagued by low test scores and FBI investigations of financial malfeasance. Amato has been working with investigators, making administrative staff changes and procedural changes to clean up the district.

In August, the most senior member of the school board, Carolyn Green Ford, who had been critical of Amato, decided not to seek reelection.

Amato says he wants to move forward with the board now that the injunction has been settled, no matter who is on it after the elections.

"It's another area of dispute laid to rest,'' Amato says. "At the end of the day, the superintendent and the board want the kids to have all the resources available and highly qualified teachers and that is what we are focusing our attention on."

--Fran Silverman

Give Us Your Math and Science Whizzes

For years, school officials in the United States have racked their brains over how to improve student performance in math and science. The answer, it seems, may not be found in some new curriculum or teaching technique, but in the homes of immigrant families.

A new study has found that more than half the nation's top science and math students are children of immigrants.

The study, conducted by the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va-based group, looked at the finalists of the Intel Science Talent Search and the top scorers of the U.S. Math Olympiad. It found that 60 percent of the finalists of the science talent search and 65 percent of the math competition's top scorers were children of immigrants. The study also found 46 percent of the U.S. Physics Team members were children of foreign-born parents.

"These findings provide evidence that maintaining an open policy toward skilled professionals, international students, and legal immigration is vital to America's technological and scientific standing in the world," says Stuart Anderson, executive director of NFAP and author of the study, The Multiplier Effect.

Members of some teachers' associations say the study's findings may warrant a closer look at how immigrants are educating their children.

"In some sense it may validate our efforts to raise the bar on what we expect of our students," says Cathy Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. During his research, Anderson found many of the students had one or more parents working under H-1B visas, which allow professionals with a bachelor's degree or higher to enter the country to pursue higher education. Anderson says the pursuit of education is important to these families. "They see a great emphasis on education as a way to pursue the American dream," he adds.

Another factor Anderson says he noted was that both science and math are "objective" fields of study in which children of immigrants perceive having the greatest chance to make an impact on the field. "Children of immigrant parents feel a real value in pursuing an objective field of study where you either can do the work or not."

--Margaret Tierney

Illinois Nixes Writing And Social Studies Tests

In a cost-cutting measure that some fear is becoming a national trend, Illinois will no longer require state writing and social studies tests for its students.

Legislators who approved the move as part of the state's $46 billion budget agreement during the summer defend the cuts as unfortunate but necessary. Eliminating the tests is expected to save more than $6 million a year.

State Rep. Roger Eddy says the cuts were needed to boost spending per student to close to $5,000, up from about $4,750 in the latest school year. Even with the cuts, Eddy notes, spending per student falls short of the roughly $5,800 minimum, known as the foundation level, that state educators recommend.

"When you get right down to it, we've got to teach kids to test them," Eddy says. "We're getting to the point where if we can't fund the foundation level, we can't hire teachers."

" We know full well that districts will cut back and not focus on [writing and social studies] as they had." -Robert Schiller, state superintendent of education, Illinois

But critics of the measure say state legislators took the ax to testing in essential subjects that have practical applications to students. Eliminating state testing in writing and social studies is certain to hurt the quality of teaching in those subjects, they add. "We know full well that districts will not focus on these areas as they had," says Robert Schiller, the Illinois state superintendent of education. "Once you do not have a way to monitor and measure, then these are going to be left on the sidelines."

Writing is among the weaker skills for state students, while history and geography proficiency is lacking nationwide, Schiller adds. Removing the tests "gives us no leverage" for improving state college admissions, he says.

Social studies and writing advocacy groups bemoaned the Illinois development, saying evidence is mounting that subjects are not taught as rigorously if they are not tested. Peggy Altoff, a vice president of National Council for the Social Studies, cited Maryland, for one, which eliminated social studies assessment last year. "Even in some schools where there is a strong site-based management system, they are making the decision to minimize social studies programming to increase instruction in math and reading," Altoff says.

--Allan Richter

Education $$ Rises

Despite attacks by Democrats and teacher unions who say schools are underfunded, President Bush's administration claims U.S. taxpayers spent $501.3 billion for public schools in 2003-04 school year.

State and local spending for K-12 education more than doubled since 1990, while federal taxpayers' share rose by more than a third to $41 billion or 8.2 percent of total spending in Bush's fiscal 2004 budget, according to a booklet the U.S. Department of Education is distributing. The No Child Left Behind act reauthorized the $25 billion Elementary and Secondary Education Act, whose Title I program this year provided $12.4 billion to districts to improve academic achievement in high-poverty schools.

But some officials claim national academic performance has not improved since 1965.

FCC Adopts new E-rate Rules

The Federal Communications Commission will put $420 million in unused funds to provide Internet access and other telecommunication services to libraries and schools, according to Reuters news service.

The $2.25 billion E-rate fund offers schools and libraries discounts on Internet access and physical infrastructure for those services.

The FCC has adopted new E-rate rules to address the waste, fraud and abuse that has been revealed in the agency's Office of Inspector General audits. The most significant changes in the agency's Fifth Report and Order include:

A framework for heightened scrutiny for applicants and service providers that have violated E-rate rules before

Extending the rule that bars fund recipients from getting additional program benefits if they have yet to repay the fund for past erroneous disbursements

New certifications that applicants must make as a prerequisite to funding

Clarification and tightened guidelines for technology plans that applicants must create before applying for funds.

No Mandate to Say Pledge

In the latest saga over the Pledge of Allegiance, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled this summer that requiring school officials to contact parents when their children refuse to devote their allegiance violates the students' rights.

The ruling came after Pennsylvania mandated--after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks--that students start the day by reciting the pledge or singing the national anthem.

The three-judge panel states that Act 157 violates students' free speech and violates private schools' right to "free expressive association" by restricting their ability to implement individual educational philosophies, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The state can have the court rehear the case or take it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Voting in Terrorist Times

With Election Day only a month away, school security is vital. Increased focus on potential terrorist attacks around this year's presidential election has left some questioning security in the nation's schools, where many are open to the public for voting. Some schools use the November election day as a professional development day for teachers and staff but most schools stay open for classes.

www.schoolsecurity.org/resources/election_day_security.html

Arizona's $12M Student System Going Forward

Despite some deafening complaints coming in from the local level, state education officials in Arizona are pushing forward with a $12 million computerized system designed to keep track of each of its 900,000 students.

The software, known as the Student Accountability Information System, is designed to accurately process the enrollment count and grades of the state's students. The system ran as a pilot in the 2002-03 school year.

Armed with data, state education officials say they will have a "gold mine" of educational information allowing them to fund school districts properly and conduct a plethora of evaluations, such as how student mobility affects grade performance.

The problem is that there are nearly 30 school systems that have used different software vendors to design computer programs to implement the SAIS and there are problems making the data connect properly.

"It's just like that old saying: too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the soup," says Kirk Brown, chief information officer with Phoenix Elementary School District 1. In addition, local school officials have been struggling with ways to "clean up" their data so that log jams don't occur with student counts.

Some school officials have complained that office staff have to be re-trained or new staff must be hired just to deal with the heavy data input demands the new system requires.

But state officials say they are optimistic that this school year districts will be more familiar with the system and once staff members have "gone through the pain" of learning how to clean up their data, local education officials will begin to see the benefits of the system. State officials say that once the data has been accurately gathered and assessed, not only will schools be funded properly, but there won't be a need for local districts to gather information for other annual reports to the state, such as local reports on dropout rates.

Brown says he, too, is confident that with the coming year he will get the tools he needs to deal with concurrent enrollment problems that plagued the districts last year.

"We've come too far to turn back now," Brown says. But he adds that if another state were to embark on an ambitious computerized tracking program, officials there should have one vendor to design and implement a program that would allow a "seamless integration" with the existing system.

--Margaret Tierney

Kids Too Scared For School

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that school violence has decreased overall, but the number of students not going to school due to feeling unsafe has increased significantly in the past decade.

In 2003, 5.4 percent of students had not gone to school at least one day in the previous month due to safety concerns. That is up from 4.4 percent in 1993. And over the last school year, more school-related deaths occurred than any other year.

The report also shows physical fighting and weapons possession on school grounds declined between 1991 and 2003.

Houston Served Its Time

Texas lifted the probation on Houston's public schools and restored the district's ranking this summer, citing the district's progress toward more accurate reporting of students who quit high school.

About a year ago, Texas education authorities put the district on probation when 15 out of 16 schools were found to have severely underreported high school dropouts. Houston schools reported a 1.5 percent dropout rate in 2000-01 school year, compared with many inner city schools having more than a 50 percent dropout rate. Houston failed to account for 3,000 students that should have been counted as dropouts, but were not.

Scary Tests Make For Scary Novel

Novelist Edward Bloor has the perfect story to scare the dickens out of teenagers: A murderous poltergeist lives in a magnet school where the students just take standardized tests all day long.

Story Time, Bloor's third novel, is not just a traditional thriller but also a satire, targeting the recent test score-mania among politicians, educators and parents, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. "I just thought it would be humorous to take things to the nth degree, but then, I have an extreme sense of humor," Bloor was quoted as saying.

Parents Targeted to Take Brunt of Truants

San Francisco Unified School District's Stay in School Coalition will kick it up a notch this year to reduce the number of unexcused absences. Parents may face rather harsh penalties if their child is a repeat ditcher including a $100 fine and a reduction in welfare. These penalties are used as a last resort, says Keith Choy, the Stay In School Coalition coordinator, who hopes to reduce the number of unexcused absences by 25 percent.

Last year, about 3,500 students had three or more unexcused absences, or didn't have a doctor's note or a note from a parent explaining the absence.

District officials are trying to get parents into schools for mediation first. A penalty is not given out based on the number of times a child is absent. Rather, it's used when all legal processes have been exhausted. Similarly in Philadelphia, the head judge of Family Court had vowed last fall to imprison parents to ensure students go to class.

When students don't show up to school, the district loses funding. So far the San Francisco Unified School District has invested about $500,000 to the Stay in School Coalition with another $400,000 coming.

Choy says they are hoping the effort will pay for itself.

While the coalition is a year-and-a-half old, this is the first school year that community and non-profit organizations are getting involved to make the public more aware. The mayor's office is working with the coalition to inform the community that truancy is everyone's issue, says Cedric Yap, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom's education advisor. It will help link families to services that can help get kids to school, such as child care and substance abuse services. The housing authority has been helping the effort by providing computer rooms in public housing developments for homework and intervention specialists for families with social service needs.

Students ditch school for various reasons including caring for younger siblings or working to make money for the family. Other students come from families with a history of crime, drugs or mental health problems or they worry about community violence on the way to or from school, such as from gangs.

--Michelle Lawler

Focus for Learning Disabled

A new device that taps into brain waves is helping children with autism and other learning disabilities stay focused in school, according to published reports.

Play Attention, offered by Unique Logic and Technology in North Carolina, taps into brain waves through a bike helmet lined with sensors. The sensors send information to a computer that in turn controls the scenarios on the computer screen. It has a student swimming with a whale in the ocean, for example. The more the student focuses on the whale, the deeper she swims and gets more points. But if she stops concentrating, the whale swims to the surface, creating cause-and-effect thinking. The company started testing the system in 1994 in the Asheville, N.C., school system.


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