Update

Update

Education news from schools, businesses, research and government agencies

Ax Falls on Misreported Disciplinary Data

It could happen to you. That’s the lesson in recent news out of Gwinnett County, Ga., where the school system was recently busted for omitting more than a few serious disciplinary infractions from a statemandated report.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which conducted the investigation with WSB-TV Channel 2, up to 24,000 infractions went unreported—from weapons, sex and drugs offenses to incidents resulting in student or employee injury.

As Gwinnett and Georgia administrators grapple with parent outrage and work to prevent future omissions—and as the state Department of Education looks into potential discrepancies in other districts—a big picture surfaces. Beginning with the new school year, No Child Left Behind requires that students be allowed to leave persistently dangerous schools. States will set their own criteria in defining these schools, explains Terri Duggan Schwartzbeck, policy analyst for the American Association of School Administrators. And the new label “may lead to more people taking a closer look at how they report [disciplinary data].”

Problem is, “schools have an incentive to underreport crimes,” says Jennifer Dounay, a policy analyst with the Education Commission of the States. While some states have accountability offices to verify data submission, most don’t have an auditing group to validate what districts report, she says.

Dounay hasn’t seen many high-profile cases of misreporting data like in Gwinnett. But if the public gets wind of reporting imperfections, she envisions more widespread efforts to eliminate those gaps.

Large districts like New York or Chicago might eventually set up internal accountability offices for auditing data, she speculates. Others are unlikely to do so. “It’s in the district’s interest not to have auditors show up on their doorsteps,” Dounay says. Of course, administrators may have no choice. —Melissa Ezarik

Fighting Over Head Start

A battle is brewing between the Bush Administration and the National Head Start Association as some Head Start supporters spoke out against proposals to cut the national pre-school program.

The administration allegedly sent a letter in May to all Head Start programs in the U.S., allegedly creating a “new and broad” interpretation of the Head Start Act to threaten local programs with legal action if they speak out against proposals to dismantle the program. And the NHSA says such action violates the First Amendment’s right to free speech. The NHSA asked the letter be rescinded or retracted by June 10, or threatened to file a claim in federal court. The White House could not be reached for comment.

In May, the NHSA warned that a bill introduced to dismantle Head Start would seriously damage the program by turning it over to the states. They say such proposals would make a “dead end” of Head Start in five years or less due in part to relying on cash-strapped states that are slashing funds for early childhood education.

“These scare tactics are designed to achieve one thing? to intimidate into silence the very people who know best about what Head Start does and what it takes to make sure that America’s most at-risk children are made ready to learn in school,” NHSA Chairman Ron Herndon said at a rally in New York City on May 28.

Fighting Back

Parents fought back when the fate of New York’s universal pre-kindergarten program looked uncertain following Gov. George Pataki’s proposed cuts to the 2003-2004 budget. And they won.

In May, Pataki vetoed the legislature’s $94.4 billion budget proposal, which included $204 million for the universal pre-kindergarten program. The next day, the state Legislature overrode the governor’s veto. The state budget restored more than $1 billion in school aid over the proposed Executive Budget.

The money “should provide school districts with the opportunity to not only reduce anticipated school tax increases, but to maintain threatened educational programs,” said state Senator Stephen Saland, Senate Education Committee chairman.

Due in part to Karen Schimke, president of the advocacy coalition Schyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, more than 200,000 people signed petitions calling for Pataki to restore all of the $368 million in education cuts to the budget.

Over 60,000 children, a quarter of the 4-year-olds eligible in the state, participate in the pre-kindergarten program. “Pre-K and early education have the most evidence-based research of any educational strategy in making an impact for kids ? It is just common sense,” Schimke says. “Parents have known that 85 percent of what a child learns happens before the age of five.”

With a $12 billion shortfall predicted for the 2003-2004, the largest in state history, sacrifices had to be made, said Ken Brown, a spokesman for the state budget division. “We need to make tough choices and these choices may include programs the governor himself has championed,” Brown says.

Under Pataki, New York increased school aid by more than 50 percent since 1995 and leads the nation in per-pupil spending at nearly $11,500 per pupil, the state budget office says. —Steve Scarpa

Computer Ergonomics: Sit up Straight

Anew commission was set up in New Jersey this May to study the state of student computing behavior and classroom equipment.

The Ergonomics in Education Study Commission will include teachers, school administrators, medical professionals and ergonomics researchers. The group will study ergonomics in the state’s schools over six months, according to a story in Wired news.

Members review design standards for classroom equipment and furniture, education programs for healthy computing and injuries associated with poorly equipped computer work stations and overuse. No widespread studies have been conducted yet on repetitive motion disorders and children.

FCC Revamps E-rate

New rules are in place for a federal fund designed to bring Internet connections to schools and libraries nationwide.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which oversee the fund, designed rules to shield the E-rate fund from fraud and abuse. New eligibility rules bar individuals, for three years or longer, from taking part in the program if convicted of a crime or found civilly liable for misconduct in relation to the program.

And the E-rate rules will extend to voicemail and wireless services, a step that will ease administrative costs, the agency says. www.sl.universalservice.org

Hazing Leads to Expulsions

Thirty-one seniors at Glenbrook North High School just outside of Chicago who were suspended following a May 4 hazing incident, have been expelled, but will receive their diplomas, according to wire news reports.

Police charged the seniors for allegedly beating juniors and showering them with urine, excrement and other filth during the hazing. And police charged mothers of two students for allegedly supplying alcohol. A videotape showed many students drinking beer at an annual, unofficial “powder puff” game among students at a nearby forest preserve. Five players landed in the hospital, one with a broken ankle and another who needed 10 stitches in her head.

In a twist, two former Glenbrook North High School students have alleged in court papers that a teacher provided cooking grease to a student for a 2001 hazing and that a second teacher was aware of an even earlier hazing.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the allegations mark the first time teachers have been linked to any hazings involving students at the school. The teachers are not accused of any involvement in the May 4 brawl.

Lawyers for some of the seniors expelled for the 2003 hazing have complained that school officials knew about the annual ritual for years but did not do anything until this spring, after the event drew national attention because it was videotaped.

Dave Hales, superintendent of Northfield Township High School District 225, said there is “no credibility to any rumors that teachers or staff will be disciplined in any way as a result of allegations, past and present” having to do with the hazings.

Meanwhile, five juniors received nineday suspensions after refusing to sign an agreement with school officials not to discuss the incident.

Are Smaller Schools the Answer?

Educators in Cicero, Ill., are crowing about the September opening of Unity Junior High School, an $85 million facility that will hold about 4,000 students—making it one of the country’s largest middle schools.

Yet, some experts believe the school size goes in direct opposition to sound educational practices, namely keeping the numbers of students low so that personal instruction and attention are more readily available.

Thomas Toch, formerly an education journalist with U.S. News and World Report, says in his book High Schools on a Human Scale: How Small Schools Can Transform American Education, that studies show students need the academic attention and personal advocacy that an intimate setting can provide in order to succeed.

“The best kind of school is one where the faculty can sit around a big table and make decisions about the school,” says Ann Cook, principal of Urban Academy Laboratory High School in New York City, a school of 120 students.

Cook would know, currently presiding over exactly that kind of environment with 11 teachers. She says students are invested in the school’s Socratic style of teaching. And curriculum drives scheduling, not vice versa. The system seems to work, with 97 percent of students heading to successful college careers each year. “What is it colleges want kids to be able to do? They want them to be able to write papers, use the library, analyze and think critically,” Cook says.

Mike Klonsky, director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois, believes the ideal size for a school is about 100 students per grade. It is much more difficult in a larger school to tailor instruction to an individual student’s needs, making even good teachers in larger schools no more than “delivery clerks of prepackaged curriculum,” Klonsky says. “As schools get larger, the gap between the highest and lowest achieving students gets wider and wider.”

And yet, not all educators are sold on the trend towards school downsizing. Mike Riley, superintendent of schools in Bellevue, Wash., believes smallness is often forced into situations that don’t sensibly accommodate the change. Often, the change comes without essential ingredients, like a mission focused on the arts or technology, he says. “I bet this will turn out very disappointing, that research will later show that some small schools work miracles, some produce no significant change, and some result in lower achievement or higher dropout and transfer rates,” Riley says. —Steve Scarpa

Urban Mayors Try Collaborating

Let’s face it. Some school administrators equate mayoral involvement in education with hostile takeovers. Others believe mayors are the supreme finger-pointers. But a few urban mayors are shattering these stereotypes. They’ve tapped into a new game—collaboration.

In New Haven, Conn., Superintendent Reginald Mayo credits the mayor for pulling off a $1.2 million school construction program. Mayor Michael Coleman of Columbus, Ohio, has everyone talking about the achievement gap.

This breed of mayors recognizes the link between quality of life and local schools. “The fate of our city depends on the education of our children,” says Mayor Tony Benavides of Lansing, Mich. Such slogans are not empty campaign rhetoric. These mayors are committing time and resources to education.

Coleman, Benavides and New Haven Mayor John DeStefano participate in the National League of Cities Municipal Leadership in Education project, which aims to improve the quality of K-12 education in urban communities via technical assistance including site visits, annual meetings and action plans. Another resource for municipal go-getters is the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which provides mayors with guidance and support on issues ranging from charter schools to No Child Left Behind legislation.

Coleman’s pet project is the Cap City Kids after-school program. The city developed standards focused on academics, nutrition and drug prevention; and Coleman established the Mayor’s Charitable Trust to help fund it. Cap City Kids has grown from four sites in 2000 to 25 sites servings over 2,000 children.

The program is one example of Coleman’s muscle. He has also welcomed the community to two annual education summits targeting the issue of the achievement gap in the city’s 14 school districts. Working committees have been charged with developing strategic ways to address teacher quality, curriculum and community engagement.

Benavides has taken on middle school reform and created panels to focus on behavior, attendance and parental involvement. The effort has helped halt a mass exodus of students to charter schools.

Despite progress in target cities, collaboration isn’t easy. It takes the right combination of people and may require a neutral third party. The end results make it worthwhile. “The mayor has a way of making people think big and it’s contagious,” Superintendent Mayo says. “It flows from him to me to the school district.” —Lisa Fratt

Buzzing Bees

A Washington teenager—whose mom is his main teacher at home—won a geography bee sponsored by National Geographic.

James Williams, 14, won the U.S. National Geographic Bee and $25,000 in May for his geographic expertise, beating out 54 other students during a two-day competition in May. About 11 percent of Americans, aged 18 to 24, cannot find their own country on a map and another 50 percent could not identify China, the United Kingdom or Japan, according to last year’s National Geographic- Roper Global Literacy Survey.

In similar news, eighth-grader Sai Gunturi, 13, of Dallas, became the 76th winner of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. As a reward for correctly spelling “pococurante,” a word that suggests nonchalance, Gunturi walked away with a trophy, $12,000, a new encyclopedia set and other gifts.

Of the 251 spellers who descended on Washington for the annual event, the ones who were still standing in the last several of this year's 15 rounds all asked about word roots and history.

This year's bee was the largest ever, and spellers tended to take more time before answering—the final rounds lasted nearly 9 hours. www.national-geographic.com, www.spellingbee.com

Educators Protest Plan to Alter ERIC

Educators are worried that a popular online database covering virtually every topic in the field of education could become much tougher to use under a Bush administration effort to restructure it.

At issue is a Department of Education proposal to consolidate the Educational Resources Information Center.

ERIC, as it is called, includes abstracts of over one million journal articles, research reports and teaching guides, among other types of literature.

An estimated 22.5 million teachers, parents and researchers consult ERIC each year, using a network that has 16 primary databases, separated into categories that range from rural education and small schools to higher education.

The databases—known as clearinghouses—are operated by independent government contractors, located at colleges around the country.

“Historically, it’s been the workhorse of our discipline,” says John Collins, the librarian at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education's Gutman Library.

Now the Education Department, concerned that ERIC is inefficient, wants to streamline the service by reducing the number of clearinghouses.

“It’s a system that is duplicative and slow. And we’re simply trying to provide better service,” says Grover Whitehurst, the Education Department official overseeing the modification.

Whitehurst notes that five ERIC Web sites posted nearly identical entries on school bullying between 1998 and 2001. Whitehurst, director of the Institute of Education Services, also says it can take months for queries to be processed.

Although they agree that the system needs to be updated, educators fear that a wholesale consolidation will take away fundamental components of the network.

Breaking ERIC into 16 different sectors, educators say, eases the process of locating and accessing data.

Prompted by the expiration of the clearinghouse contracts at the end of 2003, plans for the overhaul began during the Clinton administration, Whitehurst says. The revised ERIC will continue to operate on a $10.5 million budget. —Associated Press, www.eric.ed.gov, www.saveeric.org

Virginia Students Share Experiences of Everest Climber

“I did it. I really, really did it! Wow!”

It was the last dispatch from Sean Burch, shortly after he hiked to the top of the world, the summit of Mount Everest on May 22. And when he was safely back at Camp II two days later, his wife’s students back in Virginia literally cheered.

Burch, whose wife is teacher Gabrielle Burch at Greenbriar West Elementary School in Fairfax, had been sending e-mail messages to the students to keep them abreast of his awe-inspiring hike up the ice-covered mountain. “The kids cheered,” says Cathy McDonald, technology specialist at Greenbriar West school. The substitute teacher for Gabrielle Burch and McDonald “wiped away tears of relief. We forgot to ask if he made the summit with or without oxygen. We were just relieved to know he was all right.”

The students followed him via the Blackboard Learning System. Teachers can create their own Web pages to use for homework assignments or communicating with parents, for example. In Burch’s climb up Everest, he sent e-mail to the site and could have uploaded pictures using a videocamera.

Burch, who suffered severe frostbite to his toes, hoped to take a video at the peak and send it to the school, but it was too windy and cloudy. The students learned about the successful climb and on May 27 saw a video phone interview with him via CNN.

“I have to believe this is [a] first—something like a climber going up Mount Everest and literally reporting real-time events back to class,” says Matthew Pittinsky, Blackboard chairman.

“We live at a time when state standards and testing are the dominant focus for education,” he adds. “So many special things can happen outside ... of school. Seeing their teacher’s husband climbing Mount Everest is giving a window of what that is like, which is likely not on any test in Virginia.”

In January, Gabrielle Burch approached McDonald, saying she wanted her students to follow her husband’s expedition. She wanted to send pictures but technical difficulties got in the way. The children kept track reading routine dispatches from Burch and saw pictures from other sources, such as National Geographic.

Burch initially visited the students in March before the expedition to explain his equipment and the process of his climb. While Gabrielle Burch’s first- and secondgraders lacked the skills to comprehend everything in the dispatches, they understood the immensity of the climb. And the entire school was involved and kept track. Students studied wind conditions on Mount Everest and correlated it with the number of climbers who made summit attempts. —Angela Pascopella, www.seanburch.com

SURVEY: Teachers Feel Vulnerable

Most teachers (76 percent) say they sense little support from administrators and parents. A majority (59 percent) feel they are unfairly held accountable for student achievement. And 53 percent of teachers say standardized tests are “seriously flawed” with almost 1 in 5 wanting to abandon standardized testing completely. On the positive side, most agree that schools need some kind of standardized assessment.

These are only a few results from a the Public Agenda survey, Stand By Me, of 1,345 K-12 public school teachers. “There is a sense [among many teachers] of quality not being rewarded,” says Jean Johnson, senior vice president and co-author of the study. “I was struck and somewhat surprised by that level of vulnerability.”

The teachers feel vulnerable to lawsuits from the public and cost-cutting that might ax their jobs. They also feel they are held accountable for raising student achievement when so much is beyond their control, Johnson adds.

As for merit pay, 70 percent support financial incentives for teachers in tough neighborhoods with low-performing schools. And 81 percent believe working conditions and salaries would be much worse without collective bargaining.

“We recognize our members are frustrated,” says Michael Pons, policy analyst for National Education Association. Improving communication between teachers and parents would greatly help teachers, he says.

But Pons says the survey masks the essence of teachers—their love of their work and seeing the “glass as half full.” Pons says the key point of the survey is revealed on page 31, where teachers list effective ways to improve teacher quality: 86 percent say to reduce class size; 59 percent say high school teachers should major in their subject; 57 percent say professional development should be increased; and 52 percent say salaries should increase. —Angela Pascopella, www.publicagenda.org


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