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D.C. Voucher Issue Sparks National Debate

Adebate in the U.S. Congress about creating a voucher program in the Washington, D.C., school district has focused unprecedented national attention on the issue. That attention--and President Bush's support for vouchers--has added a new wrinkle to the debate: whether a voucher program in this district would have a more far-reaching impact around the rest of the country.

Hoping to increase the chances of seeing the voucher measure pass, voucher supporters were working hard to localize the issue as it worked its way through Congress this session. At press time, the measure stalled in the U.S. Senate but was expected to be taken up again. The bill provides scholarships of up to $7,500 for about 2,000 low-income students. In September, the House of Representatives passed a version of the plan by one vote.

"Everybody is trying to make this some ideological national issue, and that's unfortunate," says Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), who supports vouchers. "They're trying to say this is going to spread, but this is a D.C. issue. I think the impact will be on the district's kids."

But Wisconsin Democrats complain that President Bush's vouchers endorsement, if not the Washington, D.C., voucher measure, has given momentum to Republican voucher supporters in that state. Days before the president's visit to Wisconsin last month, the state assembly approved a bill that would lift the cap on the number of students participating in Milwaukee's voucher program. The cap is currently at 15 percent, or 15,000, of Milwaukee's enrolled students. (See "Choice is Good," p. 39)

"Clearly it will draw more attention to it, and frankly I wish that George W. Bush and the national administration would keep their hands off Wisconsin," says state Rep. Marlin Schneider, a Democrat from Wisconsin Rapids. "We don't need Washington to meddle into our school system."

Schneider termed the assembly vote "a gift" from state Republicans to the president.

But Tom Petri, an education policy adviser to state Sen. Alberta Darling, a Republican from River Hills, Wisc., dismissed Schneider's assertion. He says the Milwaukee voucher program picked up steam after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year deeming a Cleveland voucher program constitutional.

"When that ruling came down," Petri says, "I think the debate in Wisconsin morphed from questioning whether this is something we should continue with to how big of a voucher program we want to have."

--Allan Richter

Aspiring Teachers Admit to Cheating

Nearly 60 percent of education majors in America's colleges cheat, according to a national survey.

Those surveyed admitted cheating at least once in the last year--on tests or by copying material without citing the source, reports Rutgers University Management Professor Donald McCabe, who conducted the survey.

Education majors were second only to business majors (63 percent) among collegians who said they cheated in the Rutgers' survey of about 18,000 anonymous students on 23 campuses. He also questioned 2,600 faculty members and 650 teaching assistants.

"I'm not surprised, but I'm always disheartened," says McCabe.

While copying from books and journals remains popular for written work, cutting and pasting from the Internet "seems to be where the action is growing," McCabe says. Students also admitted cheating on tests by copying from one another, using unauthorized crib notes, or sharing information about tests with other students to be tested later.

Not surprisingly, McCabe says, many students feel such behavior is trivial or not cheating at all. "Some clearly know they are cheating. Others don't like doing it but do it anyway. They see others doing it and feel that faculty and their institutions are not addressing it adequately. Still others don't care. They do whatever they can to just get through."

McCabe suggests some students with specific career objectives, like education, cheat because they become frustrated by required courses they find irrelevant.

Most students who know of cheaters do not report them for fear of being labeled a "rat" by classmates, McCabe adds. "I sometimes think we're seeing more cheating now because students perceive that's the way it is in the general society."

The American Federation of Teachers doesn't condone such cheating "particularly by individuals who will be teaching our children in the future," says spokeswoman Jaime Zapata.

McCabe says many participating universities are implementing or plan to implement new "academic integrity" initiatives. For example, some campuses are holding workshops for faculty and teaching assistants on academic integrity and some are reviewing penalty policies. Some are using computer software, such as, to help detect student plagiarism.

--Alan Dessoff

Lights, Camera... Oh, Do You Have a License?

In an age when teachers can go to the nearest movie rental store or rent a flick online to show their students the following day, whether it's an acceptable lesson or not, movie licensing is catching on.

A Movie Copyright Compliant Public Performance Site License is necessary if schools or teachers show movies to students. A license is unnecessary, however, under the "fair use" section of the copyright law if a teacher is present during the movie showing in class and the movie is an essential part of the curriculum.

Movie Licensing USA, the St. Louis-based licensing agent for major movie studios, handles licensing for schools. "The average school pays 5 to 8 cents per month per student," says Ray Swank, the business owner. "By paying the small amount of money [the school] will have access to every movie made by every studio in Hollywood."

Licenses can be obtained for movies from: Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures, Columbia Pictures, TriStar Pictures, Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists, Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures.

Licensing became a bigger deal in the late 1980s, when video cassettes, and later DVDs, made movies easily accessible to everyone, Swank says. Before then, movies were shown in schools using a 16mm movie projector. Schools that don't have licenses usually don't know they need one, he says.

A spokesman at a major Hollywood studio, who did not want to be identified, says movies are shown in classrooms to an "enormous degree" without proper licensing and that might be because schools cannot afford the fees. Movie studio representatives feel they don't have much control over whether or not schools have licenses, he says. They support education, but they also feel that licenses are important. Royalties go to publishers, writers and composers who help produce the films; they are the only payment for their work.

Kathryn Capps, a Berkeley High School and Willard Middle School parent in California, says in the past, many Berkeley High parents complained about inappropriate showing of movies. But she sees both sides--where the showing of movies has been "abused just a little too much" and where it is effective. She says her husband, who is a middle school teacher and didn't know about licensing, shows movies to his students as a reward for good work and a lesson. For example, he showed a good part of Henry V and had the students discuss it, write their own historical play about the period, and perform the play in class. "That's an example of someone who uses a medium to get the kids engaged," Capps says.

--Angela Pascopella

California District Earns Top Urban Prize

Long Beach Unified School District is the top urban district in the nation--showing the best overall improvement in student achievement and reducing achievement gaps across ethnic groups and between high- and low-income students, according to the Broad Foundation.

Long Beach schools won the Broad Prize for Urban Education in September. Last year's prize went to Houston Independent School District.

The winning district receives $500,000 toward college scholarships or other post-secondary education for students. The four finalist districts--Boston Public Schools, Garden Grove (Calif.) Unified School District, Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools and Norfolk (Va.) Public Schools--each receive $125,000 for scholarships.

$40 Fee for Skipping Class

Students in the Los Alamitos (Calif.) Unified School District who miss class need an excuse from home and, maybe, a $40 check.

The district sent a letter to parents early this fall discussing the value, both academic and financial, of a child going to school every day all day. It notes that 80 percent of the district's revenue comes from state contributions based on daily student attendance, or $40 per student per day. District officials says such checks for lost state revenue are voluntary. But some parents feel the money idea is manipulative and they won't buy into it. "I think the schools ask for enough money as it is," says parent Jean Scheele, explaining the cost of yearbooks, volleyball games and cheerleader outfits.

Latte Tax Rejected

Seattle's Initiative 77--to put a 10-cent-a-cup tax on espresso drinks sold in Seattle to pay for day care and preschool--was recently rejected by voters.

By more than 2-to-1, voters rejected the idea in September. Supporters said the tax on espresso drinks appeared bizarre, but it would make day care and preschool more available, improve the quality of teachers and staff, and replace some state funding for programs.

John Burbank, whose Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle devised the idea, said the opponents felt that the tax would hurt small-business owners.

Sign of Other Cultures

Arlington (Texas) High School teacher Shane Hensley grew up with a deaf sister and deaf parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. So it is only logical that Hensley, who can hear, grew up with American Sign Language as his first language.

It is also logical that when his school district decided to add ASL to their language curriculum, Hensley would be just the person to teach it.

He is the third sign language teacher to be hired for Arlington's new program, a program that is growing in popularity among students. Two years ago, Carolyn Stephens, then a freshman at Arlington High, petitioned successfully to bring the language to the school. Hensley now has 150 students in five classes at both Arlington and Lamar High Schools.

"I am having a blast teaching the classes. It's all play time for me to teach my favorite and native language. We do activities, games, videos and lots of role play and practice. Charades is a big hit for practicing non-verbal communication," Hensley says.

Sign language was first taught in Texas as "a language other than English" in 1989 but has steadily been increasing in popularity since then.

Hensley says the benefits of learning ASL are the same as learning any other language, verbal or otherwise. "It broadens horizons, changes your world view and helps you to appreciate other cultures," he says.

Many colleges are also accepting the language for credit and many career options exist for those who have mastered ASL. The National Association of the Deaf "most certainly" supports the trend toward sign language in school, a spokesman says.,

--Steven Scarpa

Study: Genes Influence Intelligence

A new study of the interaction of genes, environment and IQ finds that the influence of genes on intelligence depends on class, according to a study conducted by a psychologist at the University of Virginia.

The results, which are to be published in the November issue of Psychological Science, suggest that early childhood assistance programs, such as Head Start, can help poor children.

The study shows environment factors--not genetic deficits--explain IQ differences among poor minorities.

Memory Could Link to Attention Span

Researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia are trying to quantify what was previously believed to be immeasurable--exactly how much information a human mind can retain at any given moment.

Nelson Cowan, professor of psychological sciences at UM, and Scott Saults, a psychology research associate, have recently published results of their studies on working memory in several academic journals. "We are trying to measure the primary capabilities of the mind," Cowan says.

The research is currently geared toward fellow academics, Cowan says. However, he says he believes that once more research has been completed the information could be invaluable to educators.

Working memory is the small amount of information people hold in mind to complete a mental task. To do this, Cowan and Saults designed experiments that would test a child's auditory and visual skills simultaneously. "What I have tried to do is measure what is kept in mind and to try to control it," he says.

The human mind retains information by grouping it in some logical sequence, Cowan says. By using test information where there is no opportunity to group items together, the researchers found that adults can retain about four chunks of information and children much less. For example, according to Cowan's research, first graders can retain two to two-and-a-half chunks of information.

Although he says it is too early in the research to offer specific tips on improving children's working memory, Cowan offers some general tips:

  • Educators need to be aware of the individual needs of children

  • Noncompliance might not necessarily mean resistance on the part of students--they may simply be unable to process more information
  • Different problems that children are required to complete in class and on tests should be analyzed.
  • "A lot of this is already being done," Cowan says.

    The research could mean, but has not proved, that some children potentially have difficulty controlling their attention and that might negatively impact their working memory. Conversely, it also means that if children have a good working memory they may have more control over their attention span.

    --Steven Scarpa

    California System Gauges Student Learning

    A K-16 information-sharing initiative heralded as a powerful new tool for improving classroom instruction is expanding statewide in California, where it was launched.

    More than 500 schools in up to 100 districts have joined Cal-PASS, "and more are signing up every day," says Brad Phillips, Cal-PASS project director and senior director of institutional research, planning and academic services for the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District.

    Phillips came up with the idea for Cal-PASS in 1997 and worked with others to develop it as a pilot project the following year. Its purpose is to gauge what students are learning and help them prepare for the next rung on the educational ladder. To do that, Phillips says, instructors need hard data to assess student progress instead of relying largely on word-of-mouth reports.

    "Parents often complain," Phillips declares, "that the teacher tells them Johnny didn't get what he needed to go on to the next grade. They're right. Cal-PASS is designed to get them ready for the next grade."

    Cal-PASS starts with a collection of data on student grade point averages, test scores and other factors in all courses at all grade levels in participating schools. Districts or individual schools collect the data annually and deliver it to a central computer in Sacramento. Then Cal-PASS shares the information with faculty in specific disciplines--English, mathematics, etc.--in grades the students have already passed.

    "We're telling teachers how students did in these courses at the next level and what adjustments they need to make to better prepare them," Phillips says.

    To protect their privacy, individual students are not identified. "The idea is not to track Johnny but hundreds of thousands of Johnnies," Phillips states. "There's great prediction power [or more accuracy] with large numbers."

    Phillips sees Cal-PASS as a model for other states. "The idea is to get information back to the people who have the most power to change students' lives--and they are the classroom teachers," Phillips says.

    --Alan Dessoff

    Florida Asked To Stop Tests

    The NAACP is seeking to stop the use of statewide assessment tests in Florida until achievement gaps between minority and white students is squashed in the state's schools.

    The NAACP filed a federal complaint against Florida's education department and seeks to achieve racial balance in schools among students and teachers, alleging that Florida has intentionally discriminated against black children, according to the Associated Press.

    Florida's minority students have scored well below white students in standardized tests, including the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. FCAT is now used to determine if students are held back a grade and whether seniors graduate. Due to the new state policy, 33,000 Florida children must repeat third grade this year, five times more than last year.

    Lonely Star State

    About one in eight public schools in Texas failed to meet minimum federal performance standards, meaning many could lose students next year unless they improve, according to state educa-tion officials.

    Officials say that 98 school districts statewide flunked the new standards showing adequate yearly progress, as spelled out in the No Child Left Behind law, according to The Dallas Morning News. Rankings are based on student test scores, attendance in elementary and middle schools, and high school graduation rates.

    On the positive side, 940 school districts, or nearly three-fourths of all Texas schools, met the adequate yearly progress standards. The rest of the school sites are awaiting ratings or were not rated for various reasons, including they had only young children enrolled and are not tested by the state.

    Are Graduates Ready for College?

    While 70 percent of all students in public high schools graduate, only 32 percent of the nation's public high school graduates are qualified to attend four-year colleges, according to a recent national study based on the class of 2001.

    Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States, the study conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, shows that black and Hispanic students have it even worse. Only 51 percent of all black students and 52 percent of Hispanic students graduate, and only 20 percent of all black students and 16 percent of all Hispanic students leave high school ready for college.

    North Dakota had the highest high school graduation rate (89 percent) in the nation in 2001, while Florida carried the lowest graduation rate at 56 percent.

    U.S. Not Getting Bang for its Buck

    Out of more than 25 industrialized nations, the U.S. spends more public and private money to educate each student, but American test scores in math, reading and science lag and the nation's graduation rate was below the world average in 2001, according to Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators 2003 edition.

    The study, conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is an annual review. It shows that American 15-year-olds scored in the middle of the pack in math, reading and science in 2000, while the U.S. spent $10,240 per student from elementary school through college in 2000. Average spending among more than 25 nations was only $6,361.

    The U.S. fared better in reading literacy among fourth-graders, where it was among the top scorers in 2001. But American students declined in performance as they grew older.

    Urban Schools Losing Out

    Urban schools are losing highly qualified teacher candidates due to dysfunctional personnel departments and sluggish hiring timelines, according the nationwide report Missed Opportunities: How We Keep High-Quality Teachers Out of Urban Classrooms.

    The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps some of the nation's largest school districts recruit teachers, found that in any given year in late summer, when many urban districts make job offers, many candidates have fled for suburban districts. The lost teacher prospects that go to suburban schools usually have better college grades and a degree in their teaching field than those hired in big cities.

    The findings are based on job applications in four urban districts in the Southwest, Midwest and East.

    Obesity Grades In Arkansas

    Arkansas is going where no state has gone before--testing all of its 447,000 school children to identify severely overweight children and to raise parents' awareness that their children's lifestyles may need change.

    The program is the nation's first comprehensive, statewide effort to combat the growing problem of obesity in children. It has some parents upset and fearful that their children will be taunted or labeled.

    The effort began this school year, calculating each child's "body mass index"--to indicate body fat based on height and weight. Results and educational materials about health risks will be sent to parents next spring.

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