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High School Rankings Raise Questions

Many organizations have suggested ways to improve the nation's high schools, but some educators are skeptical about whether it is worthwhile to rank schools' performance based on their own or other criteria.

"Ranking is not a productive way to think about our high schools. I don't think it's helpful," asserts Naomi Housman, director of the National High School Alliance.

In a report, A Call to Action, the alliance recently unveiled a framework of six core principles and recommended strategies for preparing the nation's youth for college careers and more active participation (see sidebar)

Similarly, the School Redesign Network at the Stanford University School of Education has identified 10 features of "Good Small Schools" that it says help all students succeed academically. The features include personalized learning through reduced teacher loads, in-depth learning with real-world connections, and qualified teachers.

Newsweek magazine, in its May 16 issue, ranked the top 1,000 U.S. high schools based on their participation in advanced placement and international baccalaureate tests. Newsweek says "no other standard works as well to measure a high school's success at challenging students to perform at a high level."

Others disagree. "We do not think the complexity of school improvement and quality issues can be condensed into a simple formula or index" like Newsweek used, asserts Trevor Packer, executive director of the AP program, which is run by the College Board.

While Newsweek gauged schools' participation in the AP exams, it did not measure student results. "If you're going to use AP to rank schools, we recommend that you look at both participation and performance," Packer says.

Participation in the AP and IB programs was among criteria the College Board itself used to select three high schools for its Inspiration Awards this year for "improving the academic environment." But the board's criteria also included the percentage of students accepted to two- or four-year higher education institutions and "innovative ways" schools used to inspire student success. None of the board's winning schools made Newsweek's list.

"Ranking is an American thing. We like lists and we like to compete. But I would hate to think it sends the message that as long as there are more AP courses or more kids taking these tests, we're serving kids better, because that's not the case," Housman says.

Meanwhile, a recent study by researchers at Indiana University shows that while most high school students say they aim for college, they don't study hard enough in high school to succeed in college.

--Alan Dessoff

North Carolina's 21st Century Center

The nation's first-of-its-kind Center for 21st Century Skills will be created in North Carolina to help students acquire the knowledge and ability needed for success in the global economy.

The center will be housed under the North Carolina Business Committee for Education within the governor's office. NCBCE is a nonprofit consortium of businesses focused on providing a business perspective to the state's education system. Gov. Mike Easley's newest budget includes funds to NCBCE in the coming fiscal year and $500,000 the following year to create the center.

Baltimore Initiates First Local High School Summit

Sometimes national initiatives creep to the local level at a snail's pace. This truism drove Baltimore Superintendent Joe Hairston to convene Baltimore County's High School Summit.

Modeled after the first two annual national high school leadership summits, the May summit addressed the affective and curricular components of effective high schools before 500 public and higher education leaders and business and community stakeholders.

Keynote speaker Neil Howe focused on developing a deeper understanding of the millennial generation. Presenter Willard Daggett concentrated on high school reform and the pragmatic and technical skills required in the global economy.

"Adaptability is the cornerstone of what needs to happen in the future. American students are competing with students around the globe," Hairston says. Speakers also explored high school reform elements such as smaller learning communities and high expectations.

The summit will have global implications. Baltimore Public Schools invited 15 educators from Oxford, England, to the district to spur an international conversation about high school reform. The long-range plan, says Hairston, is to begin a teacher exchange program with the Oxford group. A student exchange could follow as well.

The district is sending a cohort of administrators and superintendents to China to gain a deeper understanding of the world environment as it relates to teaching and learning.

Other outcomes are closer to home. The district will host another summit for K-12 teachers this fall. At the district's summer Principals' Academy, appropriate interactions with the current generation will be explored.

--Lisa Fratt

Super-Sized Education

The Academy Award nominated documentary, Super Size Me, that focuses on teaching people about the importance of healthy eating and exercise has a new education edition.

Super Size Me Educationally Enhanced DVD edition uses the original film but deletes certain language and scenes to create a PG version.

Screening For Alcohol

As teenagers show up to class or dances intoxicated, some schools are sobering up.

Using one of several alcohol screeners, made by Q3 Innovations, school administrators and staff can test the blood alcohol concentration of a student quickly and accurately.

In Indianapolis, Ind., North Central High School started using breathalyzers in 1995 but now uses the AlcoHawk. Principal C.E. Quandt says parents and administrators thought 10 years ago they ought to start working together concerning student behavior, particularly underage drinking.

So the school started giving breathalyzer tests to every student before school dances. Students are not as rowdy or inconsiderate as some were in the past, Quandt says. "No one has ever failed the test," he says. "It's been a wonderful addition to our safety and security program."

But a handful of students have come to school intoxicated, he says. The first offense requires students get drug or alcohol awareness counseling. The second offense means expulsion.

Brian Eddy, CEO of Q3 Innovations, the makers of several alcohol screeners, says more schools are using breathalyzers to deter students from drinking. "It's really becoming a big problem," Eddy says.

About 12 percent of eighth graders have had five or more drinks on a single occasion within the past two weeks, according to a 2004 National Institutes of Health report. The product is also helpful as lawsuits increase. Schools are legally responsible to provide a safe environment for all students, Eddy says.

--Angela Pascopella

Achievement Gap Stays Same

Since 1990, the achievement gap between blacks and whites hasn't changed and could continue unchanged into the 21st century, according to new research by a University of Chicago economist.

On a national test, black 9- to 13-year-olds improved faster than whites on reading and math from the late 1970s through the 1980s, but then the gap stopped closing. Economist Derek Neal, who conducted the research, says the widening racial gaps appear in graduation rates between 1991 and 2001 and reading and math scores from 1997 to 2004 possibly due to dropping employment rates for low-skilled workers, the crack epidemic and growing prison rates for black males.

Indiana's Moment of Silence

Students in every Indiana public school will get the chance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and observe a moment of silence every day due to a new law, effective July 1.

The law does not require students to recite the pledge, but it does require that each student participate in the moment of silence. The hope is that students will learn what the pledge means, increase respect for the country and/or at the very least, to prepare for the day, according to The Journal Gazette.

Giant Burrito Causes Ruckus

A junior high school student in New Mexico caused a ruckus recently when he brought what looked like a large weapon into school, resulting in a lock down and armed snipers on rooftops.

The eighth-grader at Marshall Junior High School in Clovis was simply carrying a super large burrito as part of a commercial advertising project in late April. Someone had called authorities after seeing the boy carrying something long into the school.

Despite Controversy, Texas District Adding Bible Class

Controversy swirls around the Ector County (Texas) Independent School District's unanimous decision recently to approve an elective course in biblical literacy for its high school students beginning in the fall of 2006.

"I know that there are people with concerns about it," says Schools Superintendent Wendell Sollis. "We [need to] make them understand that it is an elective. We're not making anyone take it. And it's going to be academic, not devotional."

Some fear the town of Odessa's move is part of a growing religious conservative movement sweeping the nation and chipping away at the wall of separation between church and state, but Elizabeth Ridenour, president of the National Council on Biblical Curriculum in Public Schools which creates the curriculum, says the popularity comes from word of mouth. "I think school districts have always wanted this--they just needed to know it's legal," she says.

While Ector County has yet to choose a curriculum, the board heard from a representative of Ridenour's North Carolina-based council in March that the organization's coursework is not about preaching and that it meets constitutional requirements.

"We do not say this is the truth," explains Ridenour. "The teachers are instructed to say, 'This is what the Bible says', and students are asked to draw their own conclusions."

Sollis says administators will get input from parents, teachers other administrators. "We want students to get a historical understanding of the content of the Bible," Sollis adds.

The class will be taught as a history or literature course and students will take written exams.

The curriculum includes literature and the Bible, archeology and the Bible, and biblical art. It also includes how the Bible influenced the country's founding fathers' oral views and how it influenced our educational and legal system, Ridenour says.

Since the council began offering the curriculum a decade ago, more than 170,000 students in 301 school districts in 35 states have taken the course. Texas is the most active state with 49 school districts offering a Bible class.

Groups like the People for the American Way Foundation plan to monitor the case to make sure the curriculum in Odessa is constitutional and does not violate the principles of religious freedom.

Ridenour said her organization's curriculum has never been legally challenged, although she acknowledges it stirs up controversy. "Some people don't want even the mention of God in a public arena and they see even a Bible as offensive," she adds.

In January, a school board in Frankenmuth, Mich., ended a yearlong debate by deciding not to use the council's curriculum.

--Nicole Rivard

Kansas Science Standards Likely to Challenge Evolution

State education officials in Kansas are considering changes to its science standards that would allow students to hear challenges to Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, a move that opponents say could set a precedent about the actual definition of science itself.

Opponents say the move is an effort by conservatives interested in pushing a religious agenda. Proponents say students should be aware of other explanations about how life began, including a supernatural creator's intelligent design.

" The problem we have in public schools is
there is a signifi cant scientifi c controversy
over the origins of life and ... the side
that is taught supports the non-theistic
belief system.''
-John Calvert, attorney and managing director
of the Kansas Intelligent Design Network

The standards came under scrutiny in May by a subcommittee of the Kansas State Board of Education, which held several courtroom style hearings, which were boycotted by many scientific organizations. Subcommittee members are expected to recommend the proposed changes to the full board this summer. The hearings, critics say, were reminiscent of the 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Ohio, where a high school science teacher was convicted of violating state law forbidding teaching evolution.

It is the latest in an ongoing battle in Kansas between conservative and moderate members of the state Board of Education. Conservative members, who regained a majority in November, are also calling for a new definition of science, which would expand it from only natural explanations to what occurs to the unseen. This opens science to the possibility that some form of intelligence plays a role in what happens on Earth, they say.

"The problem we have in public schools is there is a significant scientific controversy over the origins of life and it is being improperly denied so that the side that is taught supports the non-theistic belief system,'' says John Calvert, managing director of the Kansas Intelligent Design Network.

But others say there is no legitimate controversy about evolution and introducing theories that can't be proven is simply bad science.

" To teach that this is a valid scientifi c
controversy would be misleading students."
-Jack Krebs, teacher and vice president
of Kansas Citizens for Science

"To teach that this is a valid scientific controversy would be misleading students,'' says Jack Krebs, a teacher and vice president of Kansas Citizens for Science.

--Fran Silverman

"Common Sense" Says American Schools Suffer From Low Expectations

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, challenges the accepted structure of the U.S. education system and "status quo reformers" in his newest book, Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan). Hess argues that the problem with American schools is not a lack of spending but the continued use of a school system designed for the 1900s when expectations of the education system were considerably lower.

DA: You mention flexibility and accountability as the essential starting points for "common sense" reform. Can you explain?

Hess: A lot of what we call "standards-based accountability" embodies a setting of expectations, but then flexibility calls for untying hands of principals and teachers to accomplish those goals.

Flexibility is really about giving principals, superintendents, teachers the tools to approach their jobs differently, to reward excellence, to eliminate ineffective personnel, to shift time and money to support the kind of development or focus that builds a culture of excellence.

For instance, this might mean giving raises only to highly effective teachers, and taking the rest of the money that would have gone to across-the-board raises and focus it on professional development intensely targeted on teachers who are not performing up to par.

DA: You believe competition is key. Does this mean more public money should be thrown into charter schools and voucher programs?

Hess: Vouchers and charters are an essential part of a high quality accountability system. I absolutely think it's useful to have more money flow in a way that encourages the formation of a variety of accountable schools.

DA: Do you know anyone saying, "This is a great idea! We should do this?"

Hess: This common sense framework ... is not offered so much as a strategy that I expect a governor is going to adopt, or that a school board can implement on its own. It's offered as a way to ensure that we don't lose the forest of school improvement for the trees.

--Rebecca Sausner

Schools Need More Math and Science

Congress got an earful of facts and statistics recently when educators and business leaders told members that teachers need to hook kids on math and science in elementary school to keep them interested later on.

It would help the U.S. close the gap with other countries where students have become more proficient in the two subjects, witnesses recently testified to the House subcommittee on 21st century competitiveness, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Got Mail? Check for Lewdness

Four Florida education employees were fired in April for sending lewd e-mails that started with invitations for three-way sex.

The state Department of Education has a "zero tolerance policy" for inappropriate e-mail. Investigations are ongoing after 25 DOE employees received e-mails between January and February. Others could be disciplined.

The issue started with an administrative secretary asking a data processing specialist if she would participate in a threesome, which she did not want. E-mails turned up nude videos and pictures, profanity and suggestive remarks, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

Edison Gets Two More

Edison Schools will operate two more schools in Philadelphia due to positive academic gains in their other 20 schools in the city.

Huey Elementary School, a K-6 school, and Hartranft Elementary School, a K-8 school, will be added to the list. In past years before Edison came into the city, student achievement was increasing less than 1 percentage point a year in those 20 schools. Last year, achievement was up 10 percentage points, or nearly a 20-fold gain.

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