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GED Rates Rise

Every year, more teens attempt to join the ranks of Bill Cosby and Ruth Ann Minner, governor of Delaware, not as comedians or politicians but as GED recipients.

Reasons for the rise include more lenient regulations, the changing economy and large high schools. Twenty-nine states prohibit teens under 18 from the GED, but most are granting more exemptions for students such as those who are pregnant or incarcerated.

The trend troubles some experts because some studies show that GED recipients earn less money in their lifetime than high school graduates. Urban Institute economist Duncan Chaplin explains, "There are few jobs where academics don't matter."

Historically, dropouts turned to high-paying factory jobs, but the jobs have been exported overseas. Today's dropouts have limited options and may take the GED sooner rather than later, says Joan Auchter, executive director of GED Testing Service.

Thomas Lasley, dean of the school of education at the University of Dayton, hypothesizes that GED recipients' chances of securing a post-secondary education are lower. But Auchter counters that most colleges and universities accept GED recipients. She admits their life circumstances like finances might make it difficult to complete a post-secondary education.

Lasley believes the GED is attractive because high school doesn't meet teenagers' mentoring and guidance needs. He says the eight-period day, high stakes testing and negative peer interactions in a regular school setting create an alienating environment.

Testing opponents claim high stakes exams also drive teens out of school and to the GED, and Florida data seems to support this idea.

Manhattan Institute research indicates exit exams have no effect on graduation rates, and Chaplin claims the Florida spike in GEDs could be a temporary phenomenon.

Accountability measures are a disincentive to retain problematic, low-achieving students--by stressing test scores over graduation rates, Chaplin says. The No Child Left Behind law could exacerbate this and encourage schools to push low-scoring students into GED programs. Holding schools more accountable for graduation rates could prevent this, he says.

Auchter encourages schools to better understand why students leave school by holding exit interviews with dropouts, enabling schools to design programs to better meet local needs.

--Lisa Fratt

Pressure May Lead to More Cheating Teachers

A new phenomena of cheating teachers is cropping up across the nation. Given recent anxiety around state tests and the No Child Left Behind law, an increasing number of teachers are cheating to help their students, according to published reports.

"Some people feel that they need to boost test scores by hook or by crook," Larry Ward of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing told the Los Angeles Times.

A recent study shows as many as 200 teachers in California were caught giving standardized test answers to students. In the Golden State, where local districts have control over punishing teachers, administrators have fired some educators, while others have received jail time.

New Orleans Superintendent Gains Powers but Opposition Intensifies

New Orleans Superintendent Anthony Amato got a boost from the Louisiana state legislature in his efforts to turn around the embattled district that has been plagued by low test scores and charges of financial malfeasance.

In lieu of the state taking control of the school board, state lawmakers in June passed a bill giving Amato the power to hire, fire and execute contracts without school board approval. But the bill left some school board members seeking his ouster instead and threatening to challenge the new law in court.

Amato moved quickly on his new powers, suspending his deputy superintendent Kennedy Khabo in July. The suspension comes on the heels of an FBI investigation and the arrest of nine school system employees.

But his actions and new power over daily operations of the district has prompted opposition from some school board members, who called an emergency meeting to discuss his performance as superintendent.

School board members Jimmy Fahrenholtz and Una Anderson, Amato supporters, filed a lawsuit and obtained an injunction against his firing at the hastily called June session. The school board then rejected a proposal to settle the lawsuit by dropping a clause in Amato's contract that would have allowed the board to fire him without reason and by a simple majority vote. Amato says that despite the opposition, he will continue to work for change and is heartened by the support he has received from the community.

Stephanie Desselle, vice president of the Council for a Better Louisiana, says Amato has a tough road ahead. "If the superintendent is truly allowed to do what he thinks is best and makes some good academic, policy, personnel and budget decisions without interference he may have a chance," she says. "But it will take years."

--Fran Silverman

Top Educators: Gruesome Video Has No Validity In School

One Lakeside, Calif., teacher allegedly told students, "That's what we get for being in a war we shouldn't be in." Another teacher supposedly said gruesome violence is on both sides of the Iraq war. And an Orange Unified School District teacher in California allegedly told students, "This is the enemy we're up against, and these are the things you don't get to see."

These are the reported explanations why several teachers in California allowed high school students to watch the Internet video of the beheading of American Nicholas Berg in Iraq in May. Teachers in at least five other states, including Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Texas, have been disciplined or investigated for showing the video or allowing students, as young as 14, to watch the gruesome act.

While nationally there is no policy or standard by which teachers must abide, two national education leaders say they don't see any educational value in showing the video or letting students see a decapitation occur.

"I'm reluctant to have codes and requirements put in place, but it's pretty clear to me that teachers are responsible for the physical and emotional welfare of children," says Paul Houston, executive director of American Association of School Administrators. "I think that when you show something that graphic and that timely in terms of it being so immediate, where do you draw the line?"

Michael Pons, a National Education Association spokesman, agrees with Houston, saying the timeliness of the video is much different from watching Holocaust videos or movies, highlighting piles of dead bodies, in the 1960s and '70s while he was in school. "It was historical material, not contemporary," he says about those movies. But Pons adds that if "someone came to show very graphic footage of what was going on in Vietnam [at the time] there would have been heated discussions on both sides."

Houston says children need to know the cruelties of war and evil that lurks in the world but "you don't have to put it in their faces." Administrators can't chose to "look away" or indirectly "encourage" teachers to do this, Houston says. He adds that those teachers should be treated based on their past performance. If this is a one-time lack of judgment, or "dumb thing," they shouldn't be harshly punished. But if the teacher consistently walks "along the edge" with such judgment errors, they should be punished.

Pons declined to say whether he thinks teachers showing this video should be fired. The NEA allows individual school district boards to set policy on what is and isn't appropriate to be shown in class, he says. Some districts are reviewing current policies and establishing new ones due to the Berg video incidents.

--Angela Pascopella

E-Rate Vendor to Pay $20 Million in Fines

NEC Business Network Solutions, the Texas company overseeing e-Rate, paid more than $20 million in penalties after it was shown the program was rife with malfeasance. The e-Rate program is a federal initiative that distributes billions of dollars annually to school districts to pay for computer equipment and Internet access.

The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has been conducting hearings on the embattled program, trying to determine what exactly went wrong. The committee, chaired by Rep. Jim Greenwood, R-Penn., is inquiring into allegations of mismanagement. The investigation, prompted by San Francisco school officials, found that contractors routinely overcharge school districts, which do not look for competitive bids. However, in some districts, it was discovered that school officials received kickbacks for steering business to NEC.

"We now know significant sums have been wasted and that the allocation process is rife with abuse. Some of the corporate scofflaws are being called to account, but that process has not as yet effectively deterred the rampant fraud associated with the program," says Rep. John Dingell, D- Mich., ranking minority member of the committee.

While initial probes have been focused on San Francisco, Atlanta and Puerto Rico, investigations could reach further. "We are not in a position to confirm or deny whether there are any other investigations ongoing," says U.S. Justice Department spokesman Charles Miller.

One company, Lightspeed Systems, gets half of its revenue from e-Rate sales. Chairman Rob McCarthy defends e-Rate, saying it meets real needs, particularly in low-income areas where most districts would not have otherwise afforded anti-spam and content filtering software.

As for the abuse, McCarthy says, "the solution is to increase the number of auditors and the number of audits. ... If that means diverting some money from technology to putting in place sound systems, it's worth it. E-Rate is a critical component of our nation's education system."

Under the May agreement, NEC pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud and one count of antitrust violation. The company will pay $15 million in fines and will provide $5.6 million in maintenance, equipment and services to several school districts that are e-Rate customers.

"We've made mistakes with e-Rate. We've acknowledged and accepted responsibility for those mistakes, cooperated fully with the government, and taken action to ensure that these problems can't happen again," said Gerald P. Kenney, NEC general counsel, in a statement.

--Steven Scarpa

Millions Donated to Revamp K-12 Technology

The Microsoft Corp.'s U.S. Partners in Learning program will invest $35 million in the next five years to work with the state of Washington to revamp the way technology is used in schools across the country.

Three million dollars has been committed to Washington, where Microsoft, educational agencies and state educators will work together to devise programs that will prepare teachers to use 21st century skills in innovative ways in the classroom and help at-risk students.

"Technology has opened new doors of opportunity for our students and has also placed a new responsibility on our educators. By working with an innovator such as Microsoft we will be able to better use technology in our classrooms and develop teaching models that can be used in our state and across the country," Washington Gov. Gary Locke said in a statement.

JES & Co., an Arizona-based, non-profit education research and development corporation, is one of several companies working with Microsoft to design programming and professional development. "The states themselves will help us define and build this exciting program," says Dini Golder-Dardis, executive director of JES & Co.

JES is working with Microsoft to develop five online courses to improve students' and teachers' abilities to construct networks, use software for school projects and integrate technology in the classroom.

"The education of tomorrow demands that we innovate today," says Sherri Bealkowski, general manager of the Public Sector Solutions and Programs group at Microsoft, "and invest in this effort as a community."

--Steven Scarpa

Robot Graders

A new wave of robotic writers could sprout along the corn fields of middle America, according to some experts.

While Indiana school officials work to fine tune a new program allowing computers to grade English essays, some question the notion of having machines evaluate student writing.

Indiana is the first state to have a computer score student essays, and despite a few technical kinks in the system, officials are satisfied with the results. Recently, about 80 percent of eligible high school juniors opted for the computerized version of the moderate-stakes English test, which included an essay, says Wes Bruce, Indiana's director of school assessment.

Bruce says the new testing in English and algebra was implemented after a two-year pilot program and he is confident the essays are graded fairly.

He says the computers have been specifically trained to mimic teacher assessments and the program assesses its own reliability when delivering a score, so teachers can pick out the tests that need to be re-examined.

Some, however, are worried it could undermine the teaching and learning of high-quality writing.

"In the quest to test more cheaply and quickly, teachers will drill kids on formulaic writing to get high scores, but not the kind of written communication that they'll need in college and in life," says Robert Schaeffer, a spokesman for National Center for Fair and Open Testing, an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass.

Computerized assessment is cheaper and quicker. Bruce says computerized assessments will halve the cost of testing (one source puts the cost at $1 for every computerized test versus $5 for every test graded by a human) and free up teachers from grading hundreds of essays each year. The state is even looking to expand computerized testing to open-ended questions next year in biology, U.S. history and Algebra II.

"Certainly, it's not the silver bullet," Bruce says. "The issue is not, can you do this; it's what will happen when you do?"

Pilot programs have begun in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and South Dakota, but as of June, none of those states have opted for the new assessment measures.

Indiana schools found some technical glitches in the computer program and logistical problems in having enough computers for every student in labs to offer the tests. "Though we've spent decades working out the pencil and paper side, we're just beginning on the electronics side," Bruce says.

--Margaret Tierney

Computer Toxins Feared

Dust on many computers and monitors contains chemicals linked to reproductive and neurological disorders, according to a new study. Researchers say schools with young children and women of child-bearing age should require that future purchases of computers and other electronics be toxin-free. This study is among the first to identify risk factors for certain flame retardants on the surface of common devices in schools, homes and offices, according to published reports. It was released in June by Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, Computer TakeBack Campaign and Clean Production Action.

Pledge Fight Over

The Supreme Court recently ruled that a California father could not challenge a school district's right to have the Pledge of Allegiance recited. The unanimous ruling in June reversed a lower-court decision. The father, Michael Newdow, did not want his third-grade daughter to listen to the phrase "under God" in school. Newdow, who is an atheist and in a custody dispute with his daughter's mother, could not speak for the girl, the court ruled.

Arkansas Unveils New "Healthy" Report Cards

Arkansas is the first state in the country requiring annual reports of children's health. The state began mailing health reports to families of all the 450,000 public school children in June, informing parents of their child's weight and giving tips for obese children, such as offering healthier snacks such as fruits, limiting sodas, and increasing family exercise time.

Virginia is considering a similar report card.

The Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, which analyzes weight data, found that 40 percent of the state's children are overweight or at risk of becoming so. The schools measured the children's height and weight privately.

NASA Picks Teachers For Astronaut Training

Three teachers are among the latest class of 11 astronauts recruited by NASA to start training this summer for a future journey into space. The teachers, who will use their experience later in the classroom, will train with a corps of more than 100 astronauts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The teachers could be scheduled for space flight by 2009. Barbara Morgan, teacher-turned-astronaut, who has been training since 1998 is scheduled for space in 2006.

Head Start Chief Out

Windy Hill, the U.S. Head Start Bureau chief, has resigned after she was charged with mismanaging the program. She initially announced she would resign in November. But the National Head Start Association did not want her in office that long because it felt she might derail the Health and Human Services investigation into her misconduct and cover-up efforts.

The association outlined new evidence in late June that Hill violated federal ethics laws by failing to disclose that she was on a leave of absence and had not resigned from Cen-Tex Family Services when she started at Head Start in early 2002. An HHS review and outside audit found Hill was guilty of extensive financial mismanagement and other abuses.

In April, the association uncovered that an independent audit detailed how Hill mismanaged the Texas Head Start agency for which she was responsible before appointed as Head Start Bureau chief.

From U.K. with Love: Dyslexia Program Hits States

A controversial program designed to minimize or eliminate symptoms of dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention disorders from England is now looking to make its way into U.S. public schools. An extension of Dyslexia Dyspraxia Attention Deficit Treatment, the DORE Achievement Centers, named after founder and British businessman Wynford Dore, have more than a 90 percent success rate. But opponents say the treatment is not yet supported by current research.

The drug-free treatment uses a personalized exercise program for 10 minutes twice daily for a year. The exercises focus on stimulating the cerebellum, which is supposed to help patients process information more quickly. A typical one-minute exercise is throwing a beanbag from one hand to the other while standing on one leg. The cerebellum has many pathways leading to the cerebrum, or "thinking brain," which aren't fully developed in people with learning disabilities. New research suggests the cerebellum is responsible for integrating sensory information to facilitate learning. The end result has been major improvements in reading, writing and comprehension, with no regression.

Skeptics of DORE say the program makes their treatment sound like a "silver bullet." Jane Browning, the executive director at the Learning Disabilities Association of America, says the program is similar to treatments that have been around for 30 years. "I don't see it as a big breakthrough," she says.

According to DORE representatives, the treatment takes a physiological approach rather than a phonetic approach to combating learning disabilities. Randall Redfield, DORE national vice president for marketing, adds it is a "good compliment" to learning. He says DORE does not provide knowledge, instead it builds "new neural pathways to new parts of the brain from the cerebellum."

Twenty-five schools in England are using the program to help students with disabilities. And DORE has five independent clinics, such as doctor offices, already in the U.S. Redfield says they have not met with the U.S. Department of Education but would welcome discussion. Starting in September, DORE is initiating a pilot program with a Boston public school, which has not yet been identified.

--Michelle Lawler,

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