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Connecticut: We Will Sue Over NCLB

Connecticut is on the verge of becoming the first state in the country to challenge President Bush's No Child Left Behind law in court, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal announced in early April.

Blumenthal said a lawsuit is being prepared that would contend the law illegally and unconstitutionally requires states and communities to spend millions of dollars more than the federal government provides for test development and school reform programs.

"This law is outrageously wrong. It's bad education policy, but it's also blatantly illegal," Blumenthal said.

While other states have questioned the law and asked the federal government and Congress to make changes, they have not gone to court. Blumenthal said he believes other states will join his lawsuit.

Signed in 2002, the federal law's aim is to have all students in public schools proficient in reading and math by 2014. But it comes with a price.

" This law is outrageously wrong. It's bad education policy, but it's also
blatantly illegal."
-Richard Blumenthal,
Attorney General, Connecticut

Test development is expected to cost the state $8 million more than the $23 million the federal government has already doled out. An analysis by education officials found that the state will have to spend $41.6 million in state money for staff, program and development costs to meet the law's mandates through 2008. Hundreds of millions more in costs are expected to be picked up by local districts.

The lawsuit comes after the U.S. Department of Education recently refused a request from Connecticut to waive a requirement to expand testing to grades three, five and seven. Connecticut already tests students in grades four, six, eight and 10.

"We've exhausted all other remedies," Blumenthal said.

Connecticut's education commissioner, Betty Sternberg, opposes the way the law has been implemented. She has said more testing will not give educators more information about student performance.

"I don't think it's in the best interest to be testing them more. I think it will take away from our primary goal, which is to raise all students' achievement," Sternberg said. "I don't know of any research that shows more testing results in higher achievement."

The U.S. Department of Education criticized Connecticut's looming lawsuit, pointing to large achievement gaps between the state's minority and white students as a reason Connecticut schools should be held accountable.

"The basis for the state's lawsuit appears to rest on a flawed cost study of the No Child Left Behind act that creates inflated projections built upon questionable estimates and misallocation of costs," the federal DOE statement said.

" I don't know of any research that shows more testing results in higher achievement."
-Betty Sternberg, Education commissioner, Connecticut

The lawsuit drew a lukewarm response from Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, who wrote a letter in March asking the federal government to reconsider the state's request for flexibility. Rell said in early April she wondered if the money it would cost to pursue the lawsuit would be better spent in the classroom.

The NCLB policy changes announced in early April by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings will not change Connecticut's plans to sue, Blumenthal said.

The National Education Association announced plans in 2003 to rally states and file a national lawsuit, though it was never filed. NEA President Reg Weaver said it should be filed by the end of April.

The NEA has not said who the plaintiffs will be, though union officials met with Blumenthal last week, state officials said. The teachers' union is also speaking with officials in Texas and Vermont, but those states have not committed to joining the lawsuit, Weaver said.

--Associated Press

Studying Emotional Needs in Wake of Minnesota Tragedy

The March fatal shooting spree that killed six students and two school staff members at Red Lake High School in northern Minnesota warrants more attention to school bullying, according to the Committee for Children, an international nonprofit focused on research and programs for violence prevention among children through social skills education.

"Children who are targets of bullying are more likely to become depressed and withdrawn," says Karin Frey, a Committee for Children member and author of research studies. "Some of these children simply fade into the woodwork, while others become aggressive. ... (T)he fact is that studies do show a connection between school bullying and school shootings."

Research shows that by creating a more caring and respectful environment and involving school staff and parents will help children to be less likely to bully on the playground. Bystanders are also more willing to intervene and stick up for classmates, says Mark Crawford, executive director of Committee for Children.

Financial Scandals Call For More Training, Scrutiny

The theft of millions of dollars in school funds in a tiny Missouri school district and a wealthy suburban district outside New York City has school officials across the nation taking a second look at how to keep better tabs on district finances.

In Roslyn, N.Y., top school officials, including the superintendent, have been accused of diverting $11.2 million in funds to themselves and relatives for such things as shopping sprees and trips.

In Missouri, Ronnie DeShon, who resigned in October as superintendent of Pattonsburg, R-II school district confessed to gambling away $888,478, school officials say.

Neither district's auditing firms caught the problems.

Educators say that while such thefts are rare, districts can be devastated when they occur. Both Roslyn and Pattonsburg school officials now face trying to recoup the losses, regain the public trust, and put controls in place to prevent future thefts.

Roslyn officials could not be reached for comment. But the New York State legislature and the state comptroller are proposing changes to school financial regulations to prevent future problems. The proposals include additional financial training for school board members, making all school audits public, establishing internal auditors within districts and mandating the switching of auditing firms every five years in part to avoid a too cozy relationship with school officials or to have fresh eyes to possibly spot problems.

Finance officials say districts may not prevent educators from stealing money, but with proper controls, they should be able to catch the thefts earlier.

--Fran Silverman

TV and Music are so Last Year

A national survey found that children and teenagers are spending less time with "old media" such as TV, print and music, and more time using "new media" like computers, the Internet and media games.

The Kaiser Family Foundation survey, Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18-year-olds, also found that children are spending six-and-a-half-hours per day watching TV, playing video games, and using other media.

Starting Early to Reach High Goals

High school administrators may sometimes wonder what planet their teenagers are from. So after the Philadelphia's School Reform Commission approved a Small Schools Transition Project, intended to offer small-school, college prep environments, magnet schools, and increased Advanced Placement courses, they knew they had to push their reform down the line.

"We have undergone a very major transformation of our high schools, but the reality is kids don't just appear in high school," says Gregory Thornton, chief academic officer for the district of Philadelphia. "If we're going to have strong high school transformation that work has to happen before ninth grade."

Philly is addressing the issue of preparedness with a three-part plan (see sidebar).

These initiatives, funded through the reallocation of $9 million in existing funds, aren't focused on gifted students. "This is a very dramatic crusade to mitigate the achievement gap by allowing our kids to participate in high-level learning opportunities," Thornton says.

Experts who focus on high achieving programs applaud the plan. "To me anything that can challenge kids in the areas of creative thinking, critical thinking, analytical thinking--the more higher-level standards as opposed to drilling on basic skills--is valuable," says Joseph Renzulli, director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut.

Michael Block, who established two successful AP-focused charter schools in Arizona, BASIS Tucson and BASIS Scottsdale, says, "If you accept the traditional middle school model, very few students can take a rigorous high school model." For related information, see "Philly's 3-part Plan" below.

--Rebecca Sausner

Kentucky Prohibits Junk Food in Schools

New nutrition and exercise standards in schools are supposed to reduce growing child-obesity statistics in Kentucky, thanks to a new law, according to the Herald-Leader newspaper.

The junk-food measure, passed in March, follows three years of failure and could make Kentucky a model for the nation.

The law:

Bans selling sugar-filled soft drinks in elementary school vending machines and school stores during class time;

Permits schools to sell commercial fast-food lunches just once a week;

And requires each district to have a credentialed nutrition specialist plan lunches.

The New SAT: Students Show Off Skills

Believe it or not, after extensive media coverage of the new SAT and its new essay, which was expected to instill great fear in all students, there has been lot of positive discussion about the test, which was administered the first time on March 12.

"Students appreciate the different ways to showcase their skills through writing," says Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the organization that administers the test.

People in the test-prep business are also appreciative of the new test. "The fear and anxiety associated with changes in the SAT are good for our business," Andy Lutz, vice president for program development at the Princeton Review, told the Washington Post.

Some educators are troubled though that the new test, which features more teachable skills, will continue to widen the gap between those who can afford to take a test prep course and those who can't, rendering it unfair.

While the College Board is not requiring juniors to take the new SAT test if they already took the old test, their fate still lies in the college of their choice, which might require them to retake the test.

"For the most part though, colleges are not requiring that they retake the test," Scoropanos says. "They are being flexible and the College Board is encouraging that flexibility."

Of course there is nothing stopping students from taking the new test to improve their scores on the old test. A perfect score on the new test would be a 2400. While the old test had two sections, each scored on a 200-800 point scale, the new one has three sections: writing, critical reading and math. Vocabulary analogies and quantitative comparisons have been eliminated, while grammar and reading questions are new, along with an essay.

While there has been extensive criticism of the SAT saying it points out a discrepancy in skill levels, Chris Black says that this does nothing to address the inequity in education.

"It just pretends that it doesn't exist," says Chris Black, author of McGraw Hill's SAT I. "Or worse, it pretends the skills assessed by the SAT aren't important. Of course, the ability to read well, to write well and to reason well should be the center of any good education."

His book focuses on solid academic critical reading skills, persuasive writing skills and mathematical reasoning skills at the heart of the new SAT, not the test-taking tricks for which big test-prep companies are known.

"Those who are concerned about the 'teachability' of the SAT should simply consider the alternative: testing only innate skills. In fact, this is what the original SAT was criticized for," says Black. "I guess you can't please everyone."

--Nicole Rivard

Report: Principals Need More Guidance for Success

Creating good educational leaders is key and a leading educational think tank recently released a policy brief calling just for that.

"The problem related to attracting and retaining qualified administrators are problems related to difficult working conditions, a lack of incentives, and an unmanageable range of responsibilities," says Kirsten Miller, a writer for Colorado-based Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning.

Michael Carr, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, agrees with the report's recommendations. With principals being pulled in many directions, additional training is imperative for principals to be successful. "The landscape for public education today is much different than it was 20 years ago," Carr says.

Carr, citing a recent study by Teacher's College President Arthur Levine, says many universities are way behind in preparing principals for today's multifaceted educational environment. Levine says in his report that most graduate education programs have pervasive problems, including weak faculty, low standards and little clinical instruction. Many programs are preparing principals for what was the norm in 1980, Carr adds.

Between after-school activities, dealing with discipline and the ever-increasing political pressure from superintendents to increase test scores, a principal must be a better communicator than was necessary in the past. "They get pulled in a lot of different directions that don't necessarily have to do with improving educational standards," Carr says.

The ultimate question is, can one person in today's climate do the job of the principal? "That is a good question," Carr says. "The person in the job will tell you 'yes' because they want to do a good job. But everyday more responsibilities are heaped on the shoulders of the principal." For related information, see "4 Leadership Strategies" below.

--Steven Scarpa

Largest Downsizing In One Year

Few school districts want such a claim to fame. Detroit Public Schools is closing 34 schools in June, marking the largest downsizing in one year. But when facing a $200 million budget deficit, you can't dismiss a plan that saves $10 million annually. In fact, DPS officials say they could close as many as 110 schools over the next five years.

"This is the worst case scenario," says Henry Duvall, spokesman for the Council of Great City Schools. "Detroit is an anomaly."

Yet even amid plans to relocate 10,600 students to existing facilities for the fall semester, Kenneth Burnley, DPS's chief executive officer, treats the news as a boon rather than a bust. He dubbed the closings, "The New Vision for the New Reality."

Burnley, who already closed 21 schools since joining the district in 2000, intends to move school populations into the same building because, "it's important to keep teachers and students together," he says.

However, the district can't seem to control enrollment, which has dropped by 40,000 in the past decade, rivaling the famous flight

to the suburbs in the 1960s and '70s. Local talk radio hosts field callers who blame charter school and privatization dreams for the decline--and city officials point to the fact Detroit lags behind the nation in economic recovery. Virtually no one holds the school system solely to blame for its quandary.

"Unfortunately, 30 years of a need to consolidate has fallen into the lap of one administration," says Greg Handel, senior director for workforce development at the Detroit Regional Chamber. "We understand the difficulty but ultimately think it's just something you have to do to get the district back into financial shape." For related information, see "Detriot Gets Bail Out" below.

--Julie Sturgeon

New Report Shows Distance Education is Rare

A new study shows that only a third of schools have students that take distance education courses while it's scarce at elementary, middle and junior high school levels, according to the National Center on Education Statistics.

"To equip students for higher levels of education and their future careers, making online learning widely available to middle and high school students must be addressed immediately," says Liz Pape, president and CEO of non-profit Virtual High School. VHS has hundreds of member schools enrolled worldwide.,

Forecasting Graduation Via Sixth Grade Traits

A new study found that 4 out of 10 Philadelphia students who will not graduate from high school could be identified by their sixth-grade traits, leading to new overhauls in education in the middle grades, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Researchers from the Philadelphia Education Fund and Johns Hopkins University analyzed records in Philadelphia public schools in 1996-97.

They found that one in 10 sixth graders who either failed English or math, had bad behavior, or attended school less than 80 percent of the time graduated from high school on time while 10 percent of sixth graders graduated a year late. The rest never graduated.

Over the last few years, however, curricula have changed in early grades to promote literacy and there is a major high school restructuring program underway.

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