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Mid-Level Managers Being Left Behind

Unless the central office staff starts communicating better with school building principals and teachers, major reform initiatives may never come to fruition, reports a new study released by the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

The study, Leading from the Middle, investigates the relationship between mid-level managers and school building staff in several major cities, including Milwaukee and Chicago. Major barriers prevent administrators from achieving goals set by school boards and superintendents. Mid-level managers in the central office are besieged by directives from higher levels that leave them out of the loop on how to execute the plans.

They are also inundated with mounds of paperwork and meetings that prevent them from actually forming working relationships with teachers and school principals, the report says.

"The central office staff do not interact with teachers and principals in productive ways because relationships within schools are seen as low priorities,'' says Diane Nelson, executive director of the Cross City Campaign.

Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, says the recommendations make sense, but may be hard to implement --especially in an environment of increased accountability. He says the central office grew out of the need for schools to comply with certain state and federal regulations, such as hiring procedures and budgets. This set up a "command and control" atmosphere. Now, with the No Child Left Behind act, districts even have more pressure to oversee and regulate schools. Also, with greater accountability has come an increase in the number of revolving superintendents, and mid-level managers may see even more of a need for rigid central control, he says.

"There is a real counter force at work in these systems for what these recommendations promote,'' Houston says. "The bottom line is that for things to change, you have to change the culture."

Nelson says she hopes the report shows that school districts can better implement goals and strategies with some reasonable changes in the operations of central staff.

--Fran Silverman

Leading From the Middle

The Cross City Campaign for Urban School reform's report suggests these ways to help central administrators work better with school-level staff:

Make school issues and needs drive the district's policy agenda. Draw on the expertise of principals and teachers in the design of new reform policies.

Redefine the role of mid-level central office staff so primary responsibilities are to support and facilitate instructional leadership.

Reorganize the work of mid-level staff so more time can be spent in schools.

Invest in on-going professional development for mid-level managers so staff learns to more effectively support schools and deepen knowledge about teaching and learning.

Evaluate mid-level staff members' performances based on ability to facilitate instructional improvements.

Philly to Become Biggest Wireless "Hot Zone" in Nation

The days of quarterly parent-teacher meetings and paper correspondence in Philadelphia may become a thing of the past.

The city has taken steps to build the largest wireless network in the United States, rivaling only that of Sydney, Australia, the largest wireless "hot zone" in the world.

"We must prepare our business and citizens to face the challenges of the future. Just like roads and transportation were keys to our past, a digital infrastructure and wireless technology are keys to our future," said Mayor John Street in a statement made in early September.

Under the new initiative, wireless transmitters would be placed on top of light poles, covering the city's 135 square miles. Residents would have basic access to the Internet for free.

A slight cost, which has yet to be determined, would be charged for more advanced service.

Philadelphia school officials see the new network, which would cost approximately $10 million, as a new tool to increase student productivity and parent interaction. "One of our biggest challenges is getting parents engaged in education. The communication piece is essential for us," says Vincent DeTolla, the district's executive director of educational technology.

The new system would allow parents to have access to test scores, report cards and homework assignments via the district's secure network. Parents would also have constant access to teachers through e-mail to ask questions or express concerns or suggestions. In addition, educational materials would be provided, via the Internet, to parents who want to help reinforce the concepts being taught in school. "We want to make sure we keep the parents and the entire community involved," says Cameron Klein, Philadelphia's deputy communications director.

The district is planning to start a program where low-income families will get refurbished systems in exchange for school volunteer work, DaTolla says. The parents would have to volunteer between 10 and 20 hours and undergo computer training to be eligible for the program. "These are the same computers we buy for our schools," DaTolla says.

DaTolla anticipates that it would take about a year and half to complete the project from the date of implementation, which has yet to be set. "We still have a lot of figuring out to do. The technology is moving much faster than we thought," he says. "It will be a whole paradigm shift for us."

--Steven Scarpa

Texas Funding Found Unfair to Schools

A state judge ruled recently that Texas' "share-the-wealth" education funding system is unconstitutional under the Texas Constitution and doesn't put enough money into schools.

The decision is under appeal. The judge ruled in September that the $30 billion annual education funding system is falling apart because districts are not meeting increasing state and federal requirements. He noted the significant achievement gap between the haves and the have-nots, given that half of Texas students are in the disadvantaged category. The system must be reshaped in the next year to put more money into schools, the judge ruled. Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst says more resources must be tied to student accountability.

Arizona School Dumps Books

Textbooks are so last year. That's what a new school in Arizona, the Vail School District's Empire High School, to open next year says. Every one of the 600 students will receive Apple iBook laptop computers with a wireless card that allows for anytime, anywhere Web surfing and Internet-based instruction on school grounds. They won't even see a textbook.

The school will have a library with books and novels on hand, but teachers will not have textbooks for each class. Most of what students will need will be available online using their laptops.

It's one of the first schools in the U.S. to ditch textbooks in favor of the Internet.

A New York Minute Comes to School

Reform remains the mantra in the second full year of New York City School Chancellor Joel I. Klein's "Children First" agenda.

Klein, who acts at the direction of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has announced another year's worth of several ambitious undertakings in the country's largest school district. Among them:

A new $36 million teacher mentoring program that trained 300 experienced teachers to assist the estimated 5,000 first-year teachers.

The city opened 91 new schools in September, including 53 small high schools and nine charter schools. Rather than relieving overcrowding, though, this may exacerbate the problem as existing schools must make room for the new entities in their buildings.

A new accountability system for teachers and administrators will look more at individual student progress instead of overall test results, says DOE deputy press secretary Kelly Devers.

These changes follow last year's plan to reorganize the system from 32 locally operated districts into 10 city-run regions; install a parent coordinator in every school; establish a Leadership Academy that produced 66 new principals. Students were directly affected by the end of social promotion for third graders; the reorganization of special education intended to reduce bureaucracy and increase classroom resources; and the standardization of curriculum in English and math across the city.

"Instead of picking a cornucopia of issues, they've chosen two, leadership and literacy," says Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teacher's College. "If I could pick any two, those are the two I'd pick. If I were to offer any criticism it's that they're moving too quickly; but they have to, they only have four years (before the next mayoral election)."

The glass is also half empty. The system has had to deal with the loss of 240 principals and 28 of 113 local instructional superintendents this year. Making it worse, the New York legislature produced the latest state budget ever, throwing school-based budget allocations into disarray until late September. Also, high-profile corporate fundraiser Caroline Kennedy resigned her position after about a year on the job.

As is often expected in New York City, both the teachers and administrators unions (both working without contracts) don't support many of

the changes.

"The Department of Education does not work with us at all on anything," says Jill Levy, president of the City's Council of School Supervisors and Administrators. "They have total disrespect for the union and for its contract, and I believe they have total disrespect for the expertise of our members."

Change Coming to NYC

--Rebecca Sausner

More $ Doesn't Mean Better Grades

Students' test scores show that spending more taxpayer dollars on education is not cutting it.

The American Legislative Exchange Council recently released the 11th edition of the Report Card on American Education: A State by State Analysis, 1981-2003.

In it, 73 percent of public eighth graders taking the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress math exam performed below "proficiency" and 32 percent performed below "basic."

Of 10 states that increased per-pupil expenditure the most in the past 20 years, only New Hampshire and Vermont ranked in the top 10 in academic achievement. And of 10 states that had the greatest decreases in pupil/teacher ratios over 20 years, only Vermont ranked in the top 10 in achievement.

Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa were ranked the top three states for elementary and secondary school performance, as measured by standardized tests.

Bending Rules to Succeed

Nearly one in three teenagers say you must "bend the rules to succeed," according to a recent Junior Achievement/Deloitte & Touche USA LLP poll conducted by Harris Interactive.

But teenagers also think people who practice good business ethics are more successful than people who don't, jumping from 56 percent in 2003 to 62 percent in 2004.

Thus, teens are getting mixed messages and educators must teach youngsters about ethics during formative years, says James Quigley, CEO of Deloitte & Touche USA LLP.

More than eight out of 10 teenagers turn to friends for help in making ethical decisions, followed by parents, teachers, the Internet, and clergy members, the report showed.

Diminishing Data

Claiming expense and time constraints, the U.S. Department of Education has cut back on the information it collects on charter schools, but critics are questioning the motivation.

"Most researchers are outraged, except for those with an agenda," says Alfie Kohn, an educational reformer and author of several books including his latest, What Does It Mean to be Well Educated? "Any good researcher wants to know as much as possible about their subject."

Education department officials say, however, they are committed to providing "reliable and timely data" on charter schools, but with the number of charter schools growing, the "realities of time and budget" influenced the decision.

The recent survey, The National Assessment of Educational Progress (otherwise dubbed the nation's report card), profiled 1,010 charter schools with myriad information, including details about student-teacher ratios, the qualifications of teachers and principals, and the attendance numbers of low-income students. It also compared charter and public school student achievement, which revealed charter school students generally lagged behind their public school counterparts.

Now, however, officials say the National Center for Educational Statistics will conduct a random sample from just 300 schools. Department officials denied the change has anything to do with the recent survey, saying the change was decided before the comparison data was available.

"Decisions on the design of NCES surveys nearly always involve compromises between all the information anyone could want and the realities of time and budget," says David Thomas, a department spokesman. Experts say the number of charter schools in the country will greatly increase in coming years because the No Child Left Behind act recommends public schools in need of improvement for more than two consecutive years choose charter schools as options to improve performance.

Given the administration's support for charter schools, critics are suspiciously eyeing the cutback in charter school data.

Kohn thinks the change is part of a trend. "When they possess data that won't come out the way they want it, they shut off the supply of data," he says.

--Margaret Tierney

Want to Drive? Better Attend Class

High school students in Minnesota who skip school will have a tough time getting a driver's license this year under a new rule Governor Tim Pawlenty plans to enact.

The rule will prevent 16- and 17-year-olds who violate state truancy laws by missing seven or more classes without an approved excuse from getting their licenses. Eighteen other states require students to attend school as a condition of getting or keeping a driver's license.

"In these days of school accountability ... this is a way to recognize that students and parents have responsibility as well,'' says Bill Walsh, spokesman for the Minnesota DOE.

"The message they are getting is attendance is important,'' says Charles Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

Jeanne Hall, coordinator of St. Paul public schools' Truancy Intervention Project, says many truants are grappling with drug dependency and poverty. In St. Paul, education officials work with police and social service agencies to get students back into school. The program has helped decrease the truancy rate from 73 percent in 1995 to 58 percent in 2003-2004.

"If you look at truancy and see the issues involved, it makes it clear that an executive order won't solve it,'' says Hall. "But you have to appreciate the attention the governor's office is bringing to it."

--Fran Silverman

Kentucky Computers To Fight Cancer

A handful of Kentucky districts have found one more use for computers.

Cancer researchers are borrowing school computers during idle periods to help develop potential cancer-fighting therapies with fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. It may take up to 10 years to develop new therapies, but the ability to harness multiple computers expedites the process, says Cary Peterson, executive director of information technology in Jefferson County Schools, a participating district.

In the first-of-its-kind program, the initiative entails placing a computer program on the hard drive of school computers powerful enough to handle the massive data-crunching required for virtual screening, Peterson says.

Molecular screening is intense work, explains Dr. John Trent of the University of Louisville's cancer center. It takes one computer 38 years to screen a molecular library that contains the millions of compounds that need to be tested for new drug development, but 1,000 computers can complete the task in 11 days, calculates Brian Gupton, CEO of Dataseam, the company that developed the program.

The Kentucky Dataseam Initiative is the first school-based virtual screening program in the U.S.

The Dataseam Initiative will not affect the time that computers are available for use by students because the program runs only when a computer is idle. Computers in the program will be left on overnight for additional data crunching.

This month, researchers will tap into 200 Macintosh OS-Xs in classrooms, labs and administrators' offices in Jefferson County Schools. It's a fraction of the district's total computer inventory, but not all computers are powerful enough to handle the screening task. Two other Kentucky districts have committed 170 computers and up to 12,000 school computers throughout the state may be offered for the cause, Gupton says.

Gupton says the program will inspire scientists and offer opportunity for curriculum development. Researchers, for example, can visit classrooms to discuss science and technology careers or illustrate molecular structure for students.

--Lisa Fratt

Poor Calif. District Wins Top Honors

A poor California district with many immigrant children won kudos for improving student achievement and helping to close the achievement gap.

The Broad Foundation, founded by billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, awarded the $500,000 top prize to Garden Grove Unified School District to recognize the most accomplished of the nation's impoverished urban school districts. The money will fund college scholarships for Garden Grove seniors.

Garden Grove accomplished its progress in part by fostering support for teachers and principals and with teachers using lesson plans in class based on data from student testing and state-mandated academic standards.

"Garden Grove is an example of standards-based education at its best, and the district's frequent testing, assessment and intervention has paid off. In the past three years, students have improved in reading and math at every school level," said Eli Broad, founder of The Broad Foundation.

Additionally, this year 94 percent of Garden Grove's schools met their adequate yearly progress targets under No Child Left Behind. Garden Grove U.S.D. has been a finalist each year since the Broad Prize began in 2002.,

Pushing Students to Be All They Can Be

Accelerating gifted and talented students is a good thing.

A recent study, A Nation Deceived: How Schools Hold Back America's Brightest Students, funded by the Templeton Foundation, strikes down previous thoughts by school administrators, principals and policy makers that children who skip a grade, enter kindergarten early or take algebra in elementary school, for example, will be social outcasts and expensive for schools.

Research also shows that when gifted and talented students remain in step with their age peers rather than moving ahead at the appropriate pace they can become bored, develop poor study habits and underachieve.

Racial Fight in Connecticut Continues

The popular Sheff vs. O'Neill court case from the 1990s that led to a historic January 2003 agreement to reduce racial and ethnic isolation in Hartford, Conn., public schools is not over, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Elizabeth Horton Sheff, the mother of a former Hartford student, and a coalition of parents, students and legal experts are going back to court to force the state of Connecticut to comply with that agreement, which established goals to comply with a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court decision declaring the segregated Hartford schools violate the state constitution.

The state failed to fulfill its obligation to create at least two magnet schools with 1,200 students for each year of the agreement. This fall, the state was to open three new magnet schools, but not enough students were enrolled.

Teachers Nix Public Education For Their Children

More than a quarter of public school teachers in Washington and Baltimore send their children to private schools, a recent study claims.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that public school teachers are almost twice as likely as other parents to send their children to private schools.

The teachers told the institute's surveyors that private and religious schools require greater discipline, achieve higher academic achievement, and offer a better atmosphere, according to The Washington Times.

Digital Divide Still Deep

Nearly every child, or 96 percent, from age 8 to 18 has gone online at least once, but only 15 percent of those with incomes of $20,000 to $25,000 had Internet access at home, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's survey.

The Children, the Digital Divide and Federal Policy survey found in 2001 that more than half of all children ages 3 to 17 with family incomes of $75,000 or more had Internet access at home, while 69 percent of children, six months to six years old, from families with incomes less than $20,000 a year have never gone online.

More Kids Being Expelled

More students are being expelled from school for a wider variety of issues. Between 1998 and 2000, expulsions nationwide jumped from 87,298 to 97,177, according to the Elementary and Secondary School Survey by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

Reasons may include the crackdown on student behavior since the 1999 Columbine school shooting massacre as well as the No Child Left Behind act's requirement that schools report violent acts and sanctioning those that report too many, inadvertently forcing schools to expel difficult students.

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