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New York Targets Social Promotion Of Third Graders

Despite a collective howl of protest from parents, teachers, administrators and education academics, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg muscled through a plan to prevent the promotion of third graders who score at the lowest level of New York City's reading and math assessments. Research has shown mixed results for retention, but Bloomberg and NYC schools Chancellor Joel Klein say their plan addresses the weaknesses found in other retention initiatives.

Social promotion has made headlines around the country this year. In Georgia, a 2001 law that goes into effect this year requires third graders who don't pass the state's reading exam to either be held back or placed in a transitional class. Chicago implemented a similar plan in 1996. And in April the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research released study findings of "no substantial positive or negative effects of retention two years out" for third graders as well as increased special education placements for retained students and increased dropout rates for those retained in eighth grade.

But, there are other numbers in Chicago to be considered. Overall test scores have risen in the city during the last eight years, attendance is up and the dropout rate is down. Some teachers have publicly called the program a success.

Bloomberg and Klein say their effort will dramatically increase the support given students who fail. Test results for 2004 aren't in yet, but before the tests some 30,000 NYC third graders were given intensive remedial attention, including after school tutoring, breakfast tutoring and small group tutoring during the school day. In addition, about 15,000 NYC students attended Spring Break Academy this year, according to the New York Department of Education.

For the more than 10,000 expected to fail the tests, teachers must create portfolios that demonstrate their class performance. Those portfolios will be reviewed by the building principal and superintendent, and a decision will be made whether the student is "included in Summer Success Academy, retained, or [they] take the test again in August," says Michele McManus, spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education.

The teacher's union opposed the policy overall and is unhappy about the added task of creating portfolios, saying it is too "late in the process for the department to be creating this requirement," says United Federation of Teachers spokesman Dick Riley.

Administrators are unhappy with the policy, saying emphasis should be placed on earlier intervention rather than third-grade retention.

"Every bit of research indicates that an early childhood education aids in academic development and increases the chances of success later in life," says Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, which represents 5,500 principals, assistant principals and other supervisors.

But experts say social promotion and retention are black-and-white solutions to a complex education problem. The Chicago consortium concluded, "Grade retention is not an effective approach to remediating skill deficiencies for persistently low-achieving students. Neither is social promotion."

--Rebecca Sausner

Math in High Demand

A new public opinion poll shows the public wants to see more math in schools.

More than 75 percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed in Massachusetts and Washington say all students should take at least geometry and algebra and about a third of those people think all high school students should study trigonometry and calculus, according to a poll conducted by the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute and Seattle-based Partnerships for Learning.

Latinos Left Behind

Latino students are being left behind because they are unaware of assistance that could help them in the future.

Most Latino families are unaware financial aid is available for college, which leaves them out in the cold in higher education circles, according to a nationwide survey.

Latino students may not take the necessary courses for college entrance if they don't get information about financial aid until they are a few years into high school, says Louis DeSipio, research scholar for the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the University of Southern California.

And the report, commissioned by the Sallie Mae Fund, found that 75 percent of potential college students who are Latino indicated they would have been more likely to attend if they had better information about financial aid.

Principals Getting Le$$

For the first time in more than a decade, salaries for school principals have slightly crept down.

The 2003-04 average annual salary for an elementary school principal is $75,144, compared to $75,291 for 2002-03. The middle school principal earned $80,060 this year, compared to $80,708 last year, and the high school principal earned $86,160 this year, compared to $86,452 last year.

"It's small but troubling because it comes at a time when candidates for the principal's job are already in short supply," says Vincent Ferrandino, executive director of National Association of Elementary School Principals, which released the figures.

Teaching Commission Offers Old Strategies

Giving principals greater authority in personnel decisions and offering incentive pay for public school teachers are among recommendations by the Teaching Commission, a group led by Louis V. Gerstner, the former chairman of I.B.M.

The recommendations in the group's report are not new. The report also recommends across-the-board teacher pay hikes, linking compensation to student performance and strengthening state teacher licensing and certification requirements.

But the Teaching Commission, founded last year, says its recommendations were not so much drafted to break new ground, but to strengthen strategies aimed at improving teacher quality. The group says it wants to encourage more administrators to follow the leads in Denver, Colo., and Mobile, Ala., which have moved forward with pay-for-performance plans.

"We don't say that there is anything new there," says Gaynor McCown, executive director of the Teaching Commission. "We explicitly say these are things people have done over the years, but we're saying that there needs to be some scale and it needs to be done in more places. States and school districts should move with this package of reforms. It's important that this is a package, that they don't just take one or two of these recommendations."

McCown acknowledges the tight fiscal constraints that many school districts endure, but said districts could consider reallocating funds to put the group's recommendations in place.

"In reality, there's never a good time to do anything financially. Nobody's ever looking to spend more money," she says. "We don't have any illusions that this is a panacea. Nor do we assume that this is going to happen overnight. Our real goal is to develop some consensus around this agenda, and then help states create some political will to make this happen."

--Allan Richter

Kids R Writing 4 Fun, But Not Well

The good news is that students are writing more these days. The bad news is the kind of writing they are doing is less than stellar. Instant messages via the Internet have now replaced the folded note passed secretly around classrooms. But these short, quick messages dashed off via cyberspace may not be helping students writing skills at all, some educators fear.

Students are learning to get their thoughts across quickly via computer writing but teachers say some abbreviated terminology, like "b4" for before and "b/c'' for because, is showing up in classroom essays.

Fewer than one in three of the nation's fourth, eighth and 12th graders are proficient in writing, according to a recent National Assessment of Educational Progress report. That means most students weren't able to compose organized, coherent prose in clear language with correct spelling and grammar. The July report found that 97 percent of all elementary students spend less than three hours a week on writing.

"Some of the problem may be what is going on with the Internet.

A lot of kids write these short kind of notes to get thoughts across, but to be able to organize and be coherent, that is where they fall down,'' says Marilyn Whirry, a former California 12th-grade English teacher and 2000 National Teacher of the Year.

Still, say others, at least the Internet gets students writing. There are other reasons students are not reaching proficiency levels. Often, writing is nudged out of the curriculum because educators must spend more class time on math or reading skills.

"There is a lot of direct instruction and facts that need to be transmitted during the school day and writing isn't often seen as the best use of a student's time,'' says Leila Christenbury, professor of English education at Virginia Commonwealth University and former president of the National Council of Teachers of English.

Also, teachers often don't feel comfortable teaching different forms of writing. Only a handful of states require courses for writing for teacher certification.

Each year, the National Writing Project, which started in 1974, trains about 100,000 teachers at 185 universities on how to teach writing, but that is still only a fraction of the teacher population.

But even when teachers are trained, there is another hurdle: time.

"I have 36 kids in my class," says Carol Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School in California. "Many teachers have 150 students a day. How are you going to read all those papers? That is the first obvious barrier."

Educators say districts must make more of a commitment to writing by incorporating writing standards across the curriculum, sending staff to writing seminars and training sessions and by requiring different types of writing besides just prompts used for standardized tests.

"Writing,'' says Maryann Smith, director of governmental relations and public affairs for the National Writing Project, "is the third R which supports the other two."

--Fran Silverman

California Gets More Connections

Virtual schools are gaining popularity. Two new Connections Academy virtual schools were recently approved to serve southern California K-8 students this coming school year.

Southern California Connections Academy will be in the San Diego Unified School District and Capistrano Connections Academy will be serving in the Capistrano Unified School District.

The two schools do not charge tuition to parents and will serve as many as 500 students in six California counties.

High Demand for Foreign Teachers Meets Short Supply of Visas

Already concerned about a shortage of teachers in some parts of the country, school districts are bracing themselves for new immigration rules that could restrict the number of foreign nationals available to fill teaching positions.

The problem stems from a decision by Congress--whose members are coping with the political pressure of rising unemployment and national security concerns--to not authorize an increase in H-1B visas issued this year. The special visas allow educated foreign nationals to fill professional positions in the United States for up to six years.

Usually, foreign nationals who work as teachers are hired in districts that constantly struggle with teacher shortages, like rural areas and inner-city school districts.

"The program is valid because it provides qualified teachers in areas of need," says Jeanie Chung, a spokeswoman with the Chicago Public Schools. Chung says

H-1B visa workers are traditionally hired there to fill bilingual and world language teaching positions that are harder to fill.

"This has been a hot topic," says Joanna Carson, a business immigration associate with the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association. Carson adds that teachers should be exempt from the cap since they are serving the public interest. Right now, workers who are exempt from the cap include only those who are renewing their employment, working for a non-profit group, or employed by a college.

Critics say the visas take jobs away that could be filled by Americans, but Carson says employers use H-1B workers because they have a real need for them. She says employers are required to pay the prevailing wage to foreign workers and hiring someone under the H-1B visa program is a long and involved process.

"In order to use an H-1B worker, it's very expensive for the employer. There are delays, paperwork and expense which they wouldn't go through unless there were no U.S. workers to fill the position," Carson says.

Educators say there is a real need for foreign workers in some classrooms. They point to federal estimates that say 200,000 teaching jobs will have to be filled every year until the end of the decade.

Nell Ingram, executive director of the alternate certification program with the Dallas Independent School District, says this year the district was able to hire about 90 foreign teachers because recruiting started early in the fall. Ingram says with the new cap, however, she's concerned what next year will bring. Texas, a fast growing state where bilingual teachers are in high demand, will feel the effects of a foreign teaching shortage.

"I think next year, it'll make a tremendous impact," Ingram says.

--Margaret Tierney

Aggressive Behavior In Question

A recent survey of adults nationwide shows 85 percent are more concerned that teens today will act more aggressively than their parents did when they were teens.

The American Association of School Administrators survey, conducted by Ipsos-Public Affairs, shows that 62 percent say exposure to violence contributes to aggressive behavior and other emotional problems in children. And 88 percent say limiting the amount of violence children are exposed to is key to reduce aggression and other problems.

Most say they would support a law that requires companies whose products promote violence to pay some costs of programs designed to reduce youth violence. Similarly, 64 percent support new taxes on products that promote violence in order to use the money to reduce class size, increase after-school programs and establish other programs to reduce youth violence.

Win Some, Lose Some

Eleven states will lose federal educational funding earmarked for poverty-stricken students, says a recent Title I proposal released by the Department of Education.

Massachusetts took the largest hit from 2003 to 2004, losing $26.4 million in funding. North Dakota lost the smallest amount, losing $327,711 in federal money. California received the biggest boost from Title I, expecting to receive $114.8 million in 2004. Montana remained steady, receiving the smallest allocation at $88,456.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., attacked the Bush administration over the Title I allocations. "The Bush administration has flat-lined education funding, left 4.6 million children behind, and now come up with a questionable method for altering how the resource crumbs are divided among school districts," Kennedy says. Kennedy and Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., proposed a bill in late April to prevent $237 million in planned cuts to some low-income schools. Minnesota and Massachusetts are among the states to get smaller allocations than last year.

Federal education officials say they are not surprised that Kennedy and other senators from states who lost money would be upset. However, Congress specifically wants the money allocated according to the most recent census and poverty figures, in this case from 2000. "Facts are stubborn things and you cannot debate the child poverty stats," says Todd Jones, associate deputy secretary for budget for the education department.

Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist with American Association of School Administrators, says No Child Left Behind creates a greater need for districts to use Title I dollars to increase performance, rather than just help impoverished children. "We believe Title I is incredibly underfunded and does not meet the needs of many school districts," Kusler says.

Kusler says there should be a mechanism by which states can contest census figures. "We have always questioned how the census numbers are used for funding. There is no vehicle to protest or get that changed."

--Steven Scarpa

Peace Corps Curriculum

The Global Youth Charter High School, part of the Center Unified School District in North Sacramento, Calif., will open with its core lessons taken from the Peace Corps.

Administrators are working with Peace Corps officials to create a school based on the importance of thinking socially, locally and globally.

Although the Peace Corps has offered lesson plans to teachers, having a school build an entire curriculum around the agency's principles is something new. The school, to open this fall with 200 freshmen and sophomores, will not be a training ground for the Peace Corps.

New Tech Head Honcho

Susan Patrick is the new director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education. Patrick had served as acting director since February when she replaced former director John Bailey, who left to join President Bush's reelection campaign.

Patrick oversees coordinating programs and policies on technology to promote the mission of the department and the No Child Left Behind act, including virtual education, student data management systems, online assessments and the National Education Technology Plan.

District Backs Down on Gender Discrimination

The Westminster (Calif.) School District narrowly averted a financial disaster in April when the Board of Trustees reluctantly agreed to update its discrimination policy to reflect state mandates against gender discrimination.

Of more than 1,000 school districts across the state, Westminster was the only one to refuse to adopt a state policy that would allow students and teachers to define their own gender when making a civil rights complaint. Three trustees, the majority of the board, rejected the law because they said it would compromise their Christian principles, drawing the ire of people across the community.

However, the state threatened to withhold millions of dollars in state and federal funding for education if the board did not comply. "We are relieved that the students will continue to receive the funding needed for their education," says Molly O'Shaughnessy, director of the California Safe Schools Coalition.

Jack O'Connell, California superintendent of public instruction, issued a stern warning to the three trustees, urging them to remain true to the state's strict anti-discrimination policies. He said the board is technically in compliance, but said he has "grave doubts as to the sincerity of the board's actions."

"I want to again express my disappointment that those who took an oath to educate children would abuse their elected positions and attempt to flout the law. This sets a destructive example for our children and is contrary to the democratic values of our society. Our children deserve better," O'Connell wrote in a letter to the board.

According to a 2004 report by the coalition, half of the students surveyed felt their schools weren't safe for "guys who aren't as masculine as other guys," and a third felt that their schools were unsafe for "girls who aren't as feminine as other girls," O'Shaughnessy says.

--Steven Scarpa

Denver Re-invents Teacher Pay

Denver teachers could be paid in part based on how well their students learn --a first in a district this size--if the voters approve the measure next year.

In March, the teachers ratified ProComp, a salary system designed to increase teacher pay. The new system eliminates the traditional steps and structure that award increases solely for years of service.

"ProComp is a way to connect our goals with compensation. Teachers who contribute directly to our goals will be rewarded," says Denver Superintendent of Schools Jerry Wartgow. "Our polls show that the public is willing to support higher pay if it's associated with accountability."

With ProComp, a masters-level teacher who qualifies for the hard-to-staff and hard-to-serve increases, could earn $79,816 compared to $59,135 in the current system.

"The most positive part is that it really focuses on stronger, more professional, more competitive salaries for teachers," says Carolyn York, manager for collective bargaining and compensation for the National Education Association. But linking test scores and salary might be a concern, she adds.

Michael Allen, program manager for the Education Commission of the States, admits the incentive could encourage teaching to the test, but notes it is OK if the test is aligned with standards. But Allen says incentives are too small to change teacher behavior. For example, other districts nationwide that have successfully encouraged teachers to move to challenging schools offer incentives up to $5,000 compared to a bonus of less than $1,000 in Denver's new plan.

Still, the new pay scale depends on voters--they must pass a $25 million increase in property taxes in November 2005 to fund ProComp. If the vote fails, teachers will remain on the old scale.

--Lisa Fratt

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