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Schools Tighten Security in Cyberspace

A perceived terrorism threat to several public school systems (the FBI dismissed them as a false alarm) nevertheless has raised concerns about school security on the Internet.

The FBI said a computer disk found in Iraq that contained information about schools in six states had no connection to terrorism. The agency said it belonged to an Iraqi man, perhaps an architectural student, who was doing legitimate research.

What was on the disk came from a U.S. Department of Education report, accessible to the public on the Internet, on crisis planning for schools and communities. It contained building diagrams and other information about a number of U.S. schools.

The San Diego City Schools responded by removing the district's emergency procedures plan from its Web site, although it remains "a public document available to anyone who asks for it," says Steven Baratte, information services specialist. "But we made it one step harder to get."

The Smithtown, N.Y., Central School District, which was not among those threatened, took the floor plan of one of its schools off the Web, where it had been since 1999. "It was just a rudimentary plan for new parents, students and teachers" that was posted when the school opened in a building that previously had been used by a police academy, says Assistant Superintendent Meryl Ain.

Floor plans and other information such as transportation plans should not be on the Internet in the first place, says Kenneth S. Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

He cites an unidentified Ohio school district that posted the names of all students taking school buses as well as bus stop locations, bus numbers, and exact times students were picked up.

"That information has no business being put up. Anybody on the Internet could find it. It imposes an unnecessary and heightened security risk to students and school staff," Trump says.

Just days before the Iraq disk was publicly revealed, Education Deputy Secretary Eugene W. Hickok advised educators nationwide to adopt security measures recommended by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. Most had to do with on-the-ground protection, like limiting school entry points and installing door and window locks.

Trump says whatever they do, schools cannot feel entirely safe. "While it is not probable that schools will be victims of a terrorist attack, we have to acknowledge that it is possible," Trump states.

"We're living in a different environment now," says Ain, noting that the Smithtown district hired its first security director last year.

--Alan Dessoff

Report: What's Next for Reading

More than eight million students in grades 4-12 (as of 2003) are struggling readers, according to U.S. Department of Education data. A research panel has teamed with Carnegie Corp. of New York and the Alliance for Excellent Education to identify 15 fundamental elements of effective literacy programs. Their report, Reading Next: A Vision for Action and Research in Middle and High School Literacy, details nine instructional elements, including text-based collaborative learning and intensive writing. Six infrastructure recommendations highlight ways to make the instructional changes effective.

The most crucial needs are ongoing:

Professional development efforts, including teachers, literacy coaches, resource room personnel, librarians and administrators

Formative assessment of students that allow adjustments in instruction

Summative assessment of students and programs that track students over the school year and, ideally, their entire academic careers.

Without these elements, the report concludes, major change is impossible--no matter what instructional innovations are introduced.

Nitty Gritty New Way of Teaching?

The U.S. Department of Education has issued a $5 million grant to create a computer tool that will track professional development and help enhance classroom teaching.

Co-Nect, a Massachusetts-based professional development company, is working with the University of Michigan and the Center for Research in Educational Policy at the University of Memphis, to implement the new program. TetraData Corp. will warehouse the data gleaned from the districts.

Seventy-four schools in eight states are participating in the program, including Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina and New York. Teachers and administrators will access a Web site containing a professional development and instructional practice support system. According to Co-Nect, the system analyzes data to make sure professional development corresponds with the needs of students as well as teachers

"While states have made great strides in the [No Child Left Behind] categories of accountability and standards and assessments, other aspects of the law such as teacher quality have not received the same level of attention and that is what we are addressing," says Bruce Goldberg, chief education officer of Co-Nect

The new system will track professional development content and its relationship to existing standards, as well as who delivered the professional development, how the information was passed along and the number of credits earned. If successful, the planners hope to take the program nationwide.

"Data warehouses and data analytic applications tend to focus only on student demographic and assessment data, but that provides only a partial picture of the factors driving school improvement. We believe that perceptual, instructional practice and professional development data along with staff and financial data are also vital components for informed decision making," Goldberg says.

Elmer McPherson, superintendent of schools in Decatur, Ill., one the test districts, likened the new program to a deft surgeon's touch and asks, "Why allow someone to use blunt tools and a vague notion of how to proceed when you can have someone with the latest equipment and knowledge to fix problems?"

By having specific data broken down by individual teachers, classroom, and professional development program, educators can see at the molecular level how these improve student achievement. "This will give us the opportunity to drill deeper and what specific professional development programs are in line with student achievement," McPherson says

--Steven Scarpa

Gap Widening Between Rich and Poor

New findings, released by The Education Trust, show that a financial gap between poor and wealthy districts is getting bigger.

In 36 states, the highest-poverty school districts receive less state money than the lowest-poverty districts when considering what school funding experts say is the extra cost of educating low-income students. Nationally, the disparity is more than $1,300 per student.

Phones Not Just For Calling Friends

The beloved cell phone is not only a friend these days but will be a school tool.

Twenty-five New Hampshire schools are encouraging students who own Web-enabled cell phones to use them to access homework, class assignments and other content., a homework-management Web site, recently began allowing students to access its contents via cell phones and personal digital assistants.

Speak Up, Teach!

More than 11,000 K-12 teachers spoke up recently about how they use technology for teaching, for administrative work and at home.

The Internet-based survey, Speak Up Day for Teachers was sponsored by Net Day, an educational technology non-profit. The group interviewed more than 200,000 students on their views about technology last fall.

The teacher survey--representing nearly 1,900 school districts--was admittedly biased because of the voluntary nature of the participation. That said, it yielded some interesting results:

87 percent said technology was important or very important to their value as teachers

89 percent said the loss of Web access today would impact their professional responsibilities

Only one-third of teachers under 29 years old felt the pre-service training they received in college prepared them well for classroom technology use.

"[Teachers] felt pre-service technology training had not prepared them, but they felt far more positively about the in-service training they were getting," says Irene Spero, a Net Day spokeswoman.

When asked to design a new school, the top requests were: wireless Internet access throughout the school; a computer for every teacher; access to the school network from home; and adequate maintenance and tech support.

But while some teachers might be educational technology cheerleaders, another group of educators and researchers are asking to rethink kids' excessive "screen time." In Tech Tonic, a study, the Alliance for Childhood argues that expensive and extensive technology use in schools "ignores evidence that high-tech classrooms have done little, if anything, to improve student achievement."

--Rebecca Sausner,

California to Revamp School Spending Options

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is making waves and most recently has approved legislation that will revolutionize the way schools spend their money.

The hope is that the new law, signed by Schwarzenegger in late September, will shift school funding control from state officials to local educators. The new bill will consolidate 26 existing categorical programs--budgetary dispersements used for specific items --worth $1.8 billion into six block grants. Schwarzenegger had initially intended for wider reaching reform, but the bill was watered down when it reached the state legislature.

"We must give local schools the power to meet the specific needs of their own communities. By consolidating these categoricals, we are reducing the bureaucratic red tape in Sacramento and empowering local communities to meet the specific needs of their students," Schwarzenegger states in a press release.

Rick Miller, a spokesman for the California Department of Education, says many of the categoricals were created up to 20 years ago to combat problems that don't have the same relevancy today.

"It will reduce state and local bureaucracy and provide meaningful flexibility for our local school leaders to target education spending to best meet the needs of our students," says Education Secretary Richard Riordan in a release.

This reform is not expected to be the only major change in the way California's schools are funded. The major topic for debate, Miller says, is equitable funding versus adequate funding. Right now, schools are funded more or less equally. However, some students have distinctive needs that require more funding to remedy. "We are teaching 25 percent of our kids English. It takes more money to do that," for example, Miller says.

State education officials have met to discuss these and other issues. "The governor has spoken of a desire to see more changes," Miller says.

--Steven Scarpa

Online Classes At Standstill with E-rate Mess

Schools have stopped receiving new grants from the E-rate program as the Federal Communications Commission put a moratorium on the program. The commission is conjuring up new rules on how it spends $2.25 billion yearly to provide high-speed Internet and telephone service.

Up to $1 billion in grants that the states are expected to receive by the end of this month will be affected, according to The New York Times. This delay has led state administrators to take money from other programs or postpone paying their phone and Internet companies.

New Teacher-to-Teacher Lessons

The U.S. Department of Education has a new e-Learning tool to offer teachers on-demand professional development to meet a plethora of student needs and improve student achievement.

Designed for elementary and secondary school teachers and offered online or via satellite TV, workshops are taught by successful teachers and cover a variety of subject areas from reading instruction to science and mathematics.

It's part of President Bush's Teacher-to-Teacher Initiative to help educators share best practices for putting research to work in classrooms to promote higher standards.

Minnesota Launches New Teacher Initiative

Minnesota is launching a new education initiative that will change the way teachers are recruited, trained, rewarded and retained. Based on sweeping recommendations by the Teaching Commission, a nationwide bipartisan consortium, the state is looking into programs that will link teacher pay to performance and teacher education at universities to real classroom needs.

The initiative, announced in October by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, is designed to address issues educators face in an era of heightened accountability.

Last January, the Teaching Commission, which is comprised of teachers, business leaders and government officials, released a report calling for fundamental changes in the teaching field. The report, Teaching at Risk: A Call to Action, makes four major recommendations:

Pay hikes for all teachers and compensation linked to student performance

Higher standards for teacher training programs and federal funding linked to the success of training program graduates

Streamlining cumbersome bureaucracy surrounding teaching licenses

Giving school principals more control over personnel decisions.

"The current system is rigid and arcane, and it will not attract the best and the brightest," says Josh Greenman, director of strategy for the Teaching Commission. "We are trying to upgrade and modernize the profession."

Minnesota DOE Commissioner Alice Seagren says the state has been working with some districts on alternative compensation programs for teachers. "We were interested in working with the commission because we had already taken baby steps toward some of its ideas,'' says Seagren.

She says the state would expand its pilot program already underway in five districts in three cities that reward teachers by basing salaries on academic performance instead of the step grid that bases pay on years of experience.

She says the state would also pursue legislation that will streamline alternative certification programs to make it easier for mid-career professionals to switch to teaching, though standards within the teaching programs will be higher. And, she says, the state wants to work with colleges and universities to make sure they are training teachers properly for what faces them in today's classrooms.

"Higher education needs to refocus their teaching and make it more relevant to what is happening in inner-city schools. There is a disconnect'' among some inner-city children who may lag behind on basics like reading and writing and lack support at home, she says.

Pawlenty hasn't determined the amount of any additional funding for the initiatives, officials say. "Funding is dependent on economic forecasts,'' Seagren says.

--Fran Silverman

$7 Billion For Cyberspace Lessons and Laptops

The hottest high-tech sellers in schools this year will be wireless laptop carts and online courses, and schools will spend more than $7 billion on these and other new technologies in the next year, according to predictions in a report released by market research firm, Quality Education Data.

Although administrators are still struggling with tight budgets, they're looking for corners to cut while still exploring customizable, individualized instruction, research shows in the 10th installment of the company's annual Technology Purchasing Forecast.

No More Naps in School

In yet another clue that school is getting more serious, the once-demanded nap time in kindergarten is becoming a dinosaur--of sorts.

Particularly in a few counties in Maryland, axing naptime is part of an increased push on curriculum and instruction, according to The Baltimore Sun. Instead, quiet activities, such as coloring or playing with small toys, will take its place.

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