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Virginia School Board Seeks Power to Sue Struggling Districts

A bill recently introduced in the Virginia state legislature would allow the state Board of Education to sue school districts that do not meet state performance standards.

"Our object is not to punish school districts but to create a tool for the Board of Education to assist children in school divisions that have either been unable or unwilling to make the changes that have benefited children in other divisions," says Charles Pyle, director of communications for the Virginia Department of Education.

The request is not new to Virginia. The attorney general's office has the right to use legal means to force a school to comply. However, the office has never used the tool.

Suing a poorly performing district would not be the first step, Pyle says. When, and if, the legislation is passed, standards for school performance would be set by the state board. Those guidelines would be based on the state Standards of Learning and on standardized test performance.

Pyle says the state school board would conduct academic reviews for under-performing districts. A corrective action plan formulated by district and state officials and approved by the local school board would then be implemented. If the district refuses to carry out the plan or does not improve substantially, the state would have the right to take the district to the local circuit court.

Delegate James Dillard, chairman of the House of Delegates Education Committee, is sorry the request is needed. "It is unfortunate that we have to use a stick to get some of the school divisions to do the right thing for kids," he says.

Opposition is expected. "They can establish goals and require us to meet them. They can take action if we don't. But they don't have the authority to take action if we don't meet them the way they want us to," Frank Barham, executive director of the Virginia School Boards Association told the The Washington Post in January.

--Steven Scarpa

Plan Would Offer Free Preschool for Struggling Texas Families

A coalition of educators in Texas are proposing a plan to provide free preschool for children of families with low and moderate incomes, according to the Houston Chronicle.

The $5.6 billion proposal would subsidize children attending public and private facilities meeting specific standards for curriculum and teacher-student ratios, among other criteria. The plan counts on $2.4 billion a year in new state money.

Studies show the most critical time for children to develop mentally is in their early years. Texas educators are counting on the new program to ensure the state's future competitiveness.

Houston Joins Fight Against "Robin Hood" Law

Houston recently joined 70 other districts in a year-old lawsuit asking the state to find a method to fund schools other than through the so-called "Robin Hood" law.

Debbie Radcliffe, spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency, says the current system has a "recapture" element. Under Texas law, districts that reach a certain amount of tax revenue for their schools have to distribute their wealth to less fortunate districts. She says that only 80 to 120 districts must give away funds any given year, while over 900 retain all of their revenue. "The recapture element is highly opposed by districts that lose the money," Radcliffe says.

The Texas legislature is taking the issue seriously, and plans to gather to discuss the issue in a special session this spring.

There are 1,037 school districts in Texas. Of those, more than 700 have fewer than 1,000 children.

Radcliffe says there are several options available to the state to remedy the problem, none of which will be palatable for all parties. The state school board can opt to consolidate districts as a cost-saving measure.

The other option is to tax businesses for school funding. In Texas, local property taxes are capped at $1.50 for every $100 of property value. In smaller communities, once you reach that cap, it is hard to generate additional revenue for schools. Larger communities have more resources and property to tax, therefore they can get more revenue. "[Opponents] are arguing that the current school finance system creates a state property tax, which is illegal according to the state constitution," Radcliffe says.

Texas school districts generally receive 55 percent of their revenue from local taxes, 42 percent from the state, and 3 percent from federal funds. Houston ISD spokesman Terry Abbott declined to comment for the story.

--Steven Scarpa

Pushing for Full-Day Kindergarten in Indiana

Indiana Gov. Joe Kernan has done something few others have accomplished. He's found money to fund full-day kindergarten--despite a nearly $1 billion budget deficit.

His Early Learning Trust proposal faces an uphill battle. Republicans, including the state superintendent of education, question its financial viability. And the state's General Assembly rejected full-day kindergarten in 1999, when the state had a $2 billion surplus.

The Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, teachers' unions and parents support the governor's measure, which hinges on a series of votes and would fund full-day kindergarten, pilot pre-kindergarten programs, and family learning resources. The bulk of the funds for the proposal are held in the Common School Fund, which cannot be tapped until 2007 because it requires a constitutional amendment.

The state can begin the program next year if the General Assembly agrees to redirect $30 million from lottery and gaming funds and $11.5 million from abandoned property by March 15. This reallocation would occur annually to pay for full-day kindergarten for 26,000 students for three years beginning in 2004-05 school year.

The proposal also provides $20 million for pilot pre-kindergarten programs and pays for early literacy resources to support parents. It will target parents with infants through school-aged children, supplying information on healthy brain development and practices to promote reading at home.

Kernan based his proposal on brain research that shows early learning is vital to children's success, illustrating the importance of solid early foundations. He also sees full-day kindergarten as a vital component of economic development because it provides the future workforce with long-term academic benefits.

Kristie Kauerz, program director with the Education Commission of the States, notes, "This is a major trend. Policymakers are paying more attention to full-day kindergarten, but we're seeing even more attention at the district level." These forward-thinking districts aren't waiting for politicians to fund full-day kindergarten. Instead, they are charging parents, tapping into Title 1 funds and raising taxes, she says. See related information below.

--Lisa Fratt

Philadelphia Schools Get More Parental Help

Truant officers aren't enough. Now, Philadelphia school district parents are sitting at "help desks" in schools to greet other parents.

The two-parent desks, which will be set up near school entrances, started in January at 50 elementary and middle schools. Another 50 schools will be added this month.

Parent volunteers will create a more user-friendly environment with written information on district programs, inside knowledge of the schools, and a friendly ear.

The volunteers will be eligible for stipends, free general equivalency diploma credits, and a free computer if they take 10 hours of district-offered computer training.

Girls Leveling Numbers Field With Boys

In what some educators see as a cultural shift as much as an academic advance, girls are catching up to boys and even passing them in mathematics achievement in some grades in some cities.

"Girls are doing better at closing the gap than at any time in the past," says Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. He cites the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress report that shows girls scoring higher than boys on math tests in the fourth and eighth grades in Atlanta and Washington, DC. Eighth-grade girls also scored higher than boys in Boston, and boys and girls are scoring about equally in Florida.

"I'm not surprised," declares Hui Fang Huang "Angie" Su, founder of Project M.I.N.D. (Math is Not Difficult), a Florida-based program that helps teachers use innovative strategies.

Su says girls traditionally have not been exposed to math as much as boys and, therefore, fear it because they are unfamiliar with it. "It used to be that teachers looked to boys for more advanced answers or deeper thinking. Now, we treat girls the same way we treat boys," Su explains. "The more we expose them, the more likely we will remove their fear."

It helps that some states require greater achievement in math to qualify for high school graduation, says Lott. Cultural changes also have an effect, he suggests, as "more families are concerned about keeping options open" for their daughters. He points to a recently released survey by the Conference Board of Teachers of Mathematics that shows more women pursuing bachelors and advanced degrees in math at colleges and universities. "That translates down to more women taking math when they are younger in order to get to that level," Lott concludes.

"There was a time when girls would not select advanced math courses when they had a choice, but that is changing," agrees Clementine Sherman, a math supervisor in the Miami-Dade County (Fla.) school district. One reason, Sherman says, is that "there are more opportunities for women that stress preparation in mathematics."

Also, Sherman maintains, girls are not stereotyped today as they once were. "In the old textbooks, there were pictures of girls wearing aprons while the boys were shown at work in jobs. Now publishers refrain from that. [Eliminating] gender bias is one of the qualities we look for in textbooks," Sherman says.

It used to be, she concludes, that it "wasn't cool" for girls even to appear to be smarter than boys in math. But Sherman and others agree, it's cool now.

--Alan Dessoff

Bard's Battle: Know Your Subject or Know How to Teach?

The long running dispute whether prospective teachers should learn how to teach or be trained in what they will teach is being revived by a new program at Bard College.

In June, the upstate New York school is launching a master's degree program aimed at shoring up the expertise of prospective teachers in the subjects they will eventually teach. The program, in which students will learn as much English, history, physics or math as they will pedagogy, is the brainchild of Bard's president, Leon Botstein.

"If I had a nickel for every textbook or exercise whose purpose and foundation are not understood by both teacher and student, I'd be a billionaire," says Botstein, a vocal critic of cookie-cutter approaches such as standardized testing and generic textbooks. "The primacy of the subject matter has gotten lost and teachers simply don't know the subject matter well enough."

Botstein says thoroughly educating teachers about the subjects they will teach will equip them with new ways to help students solve problems and jump hurdles. That, he says, will help inspire students and keep teachers on the job longer by easing their frustration.

"Many people who spend a lot of time studying a subject develop a love of that subject and a deep sense of its importance," he says. "They're usually motivated by their own curiosity. It's that intuition and knowledge of why it's important to know how to do something that makes you an infectious teacher."

Ample student teaching is a key component of the Bard program. Bard experimented with adding more than field experience two years ago, when it began operating the Bard High School Early College in Manhattan with the blessing of New York City. The school gives high school students two years of college courses in a high school setting. As part of the master's program, Bard plans to work with public schools around its upstate New York campus.

The American Federation of Teachers advocated revamping teacher training as well in a report in 2000. This year, says Jamie Horwitz, an AFT spokesman, the union plans to "aggressively promote" models that better educate teachers in their subject areas and link their education to real experience in school districts.

Mary Dilworth, vice president for research at the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education in Washington, D.C., says the subject-immersion trend has been gaining ground for a decade. She cautions, however, that any programs that dismiss pedagogy too much "wouldn't fit into the scheme of what we understand to be good teacher preparation."

--Allan Richter

Supreme Court to Hear Pledge Case

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear on March 24 oral arguments about whether public school students can be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with the words "under God".

The case started in the Elk Grove Unified School District in California. Parent Michael Newdow of Sacramento says the phrase "under God" violates the First Amendment's ban on government-established religion. Elk Grove defends the pledge, saying it is patriotic, not religious. The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with Newdow last year.

Newdow himself will argue the case before the court this month.

Stricter Standards Could Mean Third-grade Repeats

New York City plans to require third-graders to perform at an acceptable level before they move on to higher grades. This could result in one in five children being forced to repeat third grade, raising the current retention rate four times.

The plans are among many that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has started to overhaul the city's public schools. Students who score in Level I, the lowest level of four rankings, on standardized reading and math tests, taken for the first time in third grade, would be automatically held back starting this June.

Superintendent Slot Still Lacks Females

The number of women superintendents has doubled in the last decade, but the amount is still well below the number of women in the education field.

About 13 percent of superintendents are women, up from 6.6 percent in 1992, according to the American Association of School Administrators. But more than 80 percent of teaching and central office staff positions are held by women.

Women educators say they are not surprised by the statistics. There are still a number of hurdles women face, many of which are personal, they say.

"One of the barriers may be that the job is so demanding,'' says Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall. "If you are a younger woman with responsibilities for raising children or responsibilities associated with being a wife, you really have to think whether you have to risk neglecting your family to devote the hours to the job."

Women also must be willing to move to gain a superintendent's spot and their spouses may not be able to switch jobs, they say. More than half of women who obtained a superintendent spot had to leave their district to get it, according to the National Study of Women Superintendents and Central Office Administrators Early Findings by AASA.

Twenty percent of the women surveyed by AASA say they have delayed pursuing a superintendent spot while raising their children and about one-fifth put up with commuter marriages to become superintendents.

Educators say while there are still barriers--including outright discrimination--women are having an easier time than in the past obtaining the top spot. As schools face more pressure to perform well on standardized tests and meet the challenges of the No Child Left Behind act, school boards are increasingly looking to candidates with strong backgrounds in curriculum and instruction. Women hold most curriculum specialist positions on central office staffs.

Also, more women have moved up the ranks to principals, another traditional stepping stone to the superintendency. About half the women seeking superintendent spots were able to obtain it in less than a year from when they were certified and started looking, according to the AASA report.

"If you are a younger woman with responsibilities for raising children or [those] associated with being a wife, you really have to think whether you have to risk neglecting your family to devote the hours to the job."
-Beverly Hall, superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools

Shirley Carraway, superintendent for the 6,500-student Orange County Public Schools in North Carolina, says her previous experience as a curriculum specialist helped her application. "Different boards look for different things. I think this board was looking for someone with a strong curriculum background. And I wanted to go to a position where the emphasis was on teaching and learning," says Carraway, 50, who became superintendent in June.

Paula Harlan, superintendent of the 257-student Selmaville Grade School District 10 in Illinois, says smaller school systems offer great opportunities for women who want leadership roles. "When I was starting to interview, I had a law professor who said I'd have to interview many more times to get one because I was female and the boards wouldn't take a gamble on a woman. But this was my first interview, and I got the job," she says.

More than half of women who are superintendents oversee schools districts with fewer than 3,000 students, and one quarter oversee districts with less than 900 students.

--Fran Silverman

Federal Money Funds Private Schools

For the first time in history, a federal program will finance private school vouchers.

Washington, D.C., is the recipient of the five-year, pilot program, where low-income children will be eligible for tuition aid of up to $7,500 to attend religious or secular private schools in the city. Congress passed the program in late January.

The history of voucher challenges in other states and the decade-long debate of sending much-needed public money to private schools has come to a head.

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige said it is time that all parents who question the ability of schools to serve their children well have this choice. "The future of our children is at stake, and it would be unconscionable to work against their best interests ... and to actively labor to bring sabotage to this great program," Paige was quoted as saying in a speech at the Heritage Foundation.

D.C. Parents for School Choice, which represents thousands, adds that school choice is the only hope for a good education for poor black students in D.C. "On the march to educational freedom, D.C. parents are now one step closer to liberation from failing schools," Virginia Walden-Ford, executive director of D.C. Parents for School Choice, said in a statement.

Those who oppose the plan say that given public schools and education are in dire need of funds to begin with, sending federal dollars to pay for private schooling is ridiculous.

"Voucher advocates were able to find $14 million for vouchers for 1,700 students, yet could only scrape together an additional $13 million for the 65,000 students who attend D.C. public schools," stated Sandra Feldman, president of American Federal of Teachers.

Celia Lose, spokeswoman for AFT, adds that voucher programs that exist already in various states have not proven successful in raising student achievement, according to various studies. "What's worse, the voucher funding throws good money after bad," Feldman added.

--Angela Pascopella

Extra Cash to Avoid Layoffs

The Washington, D.C., Council gave the school district $14.6 million in January to avoid laying off school-based staff mid-year.

The decision ended months of protests from people who opposed dismissing teachers and other employees to avert a deficit, according to The Washington Post.

Even with the extra money, 78 jobs in central administration needed to be cut and staff needed to be reorganized to avoid a deficit.

Plea to Ban Soft Drinks

American teenagers have higher rates of obesity than those in 14 other industrialized countries. Because of that, the American Academy of Pediatrics is urging districts to chuck soft drinks from schools. Pediatricians are encouraged to work with local schools to ensure children are offered healthy alternatives.

Soft drinks have excess calories that can lead to weight gain.

Some schools already limit contracts with soft drink vendors and fast foods. But some districts rely on money from vending machines to pay for student activities. The academy's new policy urges schools to avoid such contracts.

More Mentoring for New Teachers

In an effort to reverse the rate of new teachers who drop out of the field within their first few years, a major West Coast university is starting a mentor program for its graduates.

The University of Washington in Seattle, with the aid of a $5 million Carnegie Corp. grant, is creating a guidance and tracking program for its education master's degree graduates to help them through their first two years in the classroom.

"There is an enormous difference between being a student teacher and being responsible for 30 students yourself," says Patricia Wasley, dean of the University of Washington's College of Education.

Teachers often leave the field--half of them in the first five years--because they feel they don't have enough support and aren't successful educators, Wasley says.

Two main components of the mentor program include online assistance and onsite mentoring. The program will connect new teachers with more experienced alumni and with university faculty. The mentors will help teachers develop a curriculum, visit classrooms to show how to teach more effectively, and answer questions from teachers through the Internet.

This year, the university is providing help to 30 new teachers. Next year, Wasley says she hopes the university can assist almost 200 new teachers. Karin Egan, program officer for the Carnegie Corp. of New York, says university education programs have proved effective in reducing fleeing teachers.

--Fran Silverman

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