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New Gov. Infuriates Educators

Education lobbyists in California say they may take Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to court over his proposal to withhold $2.3 billion in guaranteed school funds to help plug the state's $8.5 billion budget gap and over his effort to weaken a voter-sanctioned formula guaranteeing public schools funding each year.

That's not all. They are also spewing steam about Schwarzenegger's support of merit pay for teachers.

Schwarzenegger is proposing $2.9 billion, or a 7 percent increase over last year, in school spending. But that's about $2 billion less than what schools are owed under Proposition 98, which voters approved in 1988; it requires that the state direct 40 percent of new tax income to K-12 schools.

Educators say Schwarzenegger is reneging on a deal he made with them last year to forgo $2.3 billion owed to them under the formula with the promise that it would be repaid when the economy picked up. The governor also wants local districts to pick up the nearly $500 million that the state contributes to teacher retirement funds.

"Shocking is not a strong enough word,'' says Brett McFadden, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators, which joined eight other education groups to fight the proposals. "This is probably the most serious threat to California public education in the past 50 years."

But the governor claims children have "first call on the treasury." Thirty percent of ninth-graders do not graduate and barely 40 percent are proficient in math. His plan to reward good teachers, expand vocational education and expand charter schools are ground-breaking. "Special interests will push back on his proposals," his office states. "They want to preserve the status quo, when creativity, innovation and progress are what will benefit our children most."

" Shocking is not a strong enough word. This is probably the most serious threat to California public education in the past 50 years." -Brett McFadden, legislative advocate, Association of California School Administrators

While state revenues are expected to increase by 6.8 percent, Schwarzenegger maintains he can't justify giving education any more funding when he has to slash other state services to make up for the budget gap.

Part of the coalition against the proposals says Schwarzenegger is using merit pay as a smoke screen, according to Dean Vogel, secretary treasurer of the California Teachers Association.

"What the governor's administration would love would be for the education coalition to focus on merit pay and forget about the budget. It's just a tremendous tactic,'' he says.

It would cost the state $25 million to fund merit pay, which "pulls at the heartstrings of teachers," Vogel says. "It says to them, you aren't working hard enough."

The governor says the system which gives raises to low-performing teachers robs generations of students of learning opportunities.

State educators say California schools have faced more than $9.8 billion in cuts in the last four years. Coalition members say that along with possible court action, they may take the issue to voters with a ballot initiative. Already the California Teachers Association has been running radio ads criticizing the governor's education budget plan. "It's going to be an all-year fight,'' McFadden says.

--Fran Silverman

"Quality" Stressed in Ed Tech Plan

Moving away from counting "boxes and wires," the Bush administration's 2005 National Education Technology Plan outlines a framework it predicts will transform education by promoting strategies that use technology to improve student learning, says Susan Patrick, head of the U.S. Department of Education's office of educational technology.

"We've been focused on what's easy for us to measure, 5:1 ratios or connecting every school to the Internet," Patrick says. "We've gotten there. But we cannot say our school learning environment is mirroring the learning environment in the rest of society."

The plan, like its predecessors released in 1996 and 2000, doesn't come with any funding, but it's expected the education department will work to create programs that support the recommendations.

The plan lays out seven action steps that Patrick hopes everyone from the education department, to state education departments, to district administrators and building principals will use as a framework for assessing where they are and where they need to go.

The plan is the result of two years' work and includes input from more than 200,000 students and instruction and technology experts. And the plan includes scores of examples where action steps are already being implemented.

Early reaction to the plan is mostly positive, says Don Knezek, CEO of International Society for Technology in Education, which helped the department gather input from stakeholders.

"We've heard some comment that this looks more like a report than a plan," Knezek acknowledges, adding that some educators he'd spoken to were hoping to see a stronger recommendation for ubiquitous computing.

The National Education Association was particularly pleased with the recognition that "teacher preparation is key to effective technology use ... possibly the most pivotal aspect of technology expenditures," says Barbara Stein, NEA senior policy analyst.

7 Recommendations

Strengthen leadership by investing leadership development programs and developing partnerships between schools, higher education, businesses and the community.

Consider innovative budgeting techniques; look closely at reallocating spending on technology, textbooks, instructional supplies, space and computer labs.

Improve teacher training, including ensuring that every teacher knows how to use data to personalize instruction (in support of NCLB ideals).

Support e-learning and virtual schools, including ensuring that every child and teacher has access to e-learning opportunities.

Encourage broadband access, 24/7 365 days a year, to the end user.

Move toward digital content, moving away from relying on textbooks and encouraging "ubiquitous access" to computers and connectivity for every student.

Integrate data systems, including a recommendation that schools require vendors to adhere to SIF protocol.

--Rebecca Sausner

One-to-One In Cobb County

If the Cobb County (Ga.) Board of Education gives the go-ahead, this district will be the site of the largest education laptop implementation in the nation.

Superintendent Joseph Redden is involved in contract negotiations with Apple Computer to work out details of the Power To Learn program, which calls for the company to provide about 63,000 iBook G4 laptops for students and teachers in grades 6-12.

According to the district, the pricing for the laptops, software and warranty, based on a four-year lease, comes to $271 per computer. Including support and training, the cost is about $350 per computer.

Bush Looks Higher

President George W. Bush is turning his second-term attention to high schools, unveiling a $1.5 billion plan to boost literacy, math and science skills, and to hold states accountable for student achievement. Educators say they welcome the attention, but are cautious about his approach.

In a move to extend the principles behind No Child Left Behind from elementary to secondary schools, Bush is calling for $250 million to cover required state assessments. The proposals come at a time when the nation's 15-year-olds are performing below the international average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving, with the U.S. ranked 27th out of 39 countries, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.

Cynthia Sadler, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, praised Bush's call for enhanced literacy efforts as a good beginning of increasing support for high schools. "The president ... demonstrated much-needed federal commitment to a severely underserved population----America's high school students,'' she says.

But Bush's push for increased testing of the students met with more resistance.

"We believe it's premature to extend the law's testing provisions to two additional years of high school,'' says National Education Association spokesman Daniel Kaufman. "The administration and Congress first need to fix the law's fundamental flaws and provide adequate funding to make it work.''

No Child Left Behind's elementary testing regulations evaluate students on their progress based on standardized test scores that critics say really only amount to a moment in time snapshot of how a particular student did on a particular day, not their annual progress. Critics say the tests hold no real value for students because they neither help them get into college nor earn a vocational certificate.

"We think this sort of testing would not shed light because it doesn't have anything to do with where kids are going or their grades.'' says American Association of School Administrators spokesman Bruce Hunter. "So you would have a fairly unmotivated group of test takers,."

High School Proposals

President Bush is also proposing:

$1.2 billion for high school intervention programs for students whose achievements are below grade level

$200 million for a "Striving Readers" initiative that will focus on improving high school literacy skills

$269 million for a Math and Science Partnership program that will provide professional development for math teachers and for projects that will help low-achieving students develop their math and science skills

$52 million to help train teachers in low-income schools to teach Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses

$45 million to encourage students to take more rigorous high school courses

--Fran Silverman

Shift in High School Education Necessary

Many American high school graduates are unprepared for the work world or college, according to a recent survey, and at least one education association says a shift in high school programs, challenging curriculum and continued focus on a federal vocational education grant are some solutions.

Two in five recent high school graduates say there are gaps between the education they received in high school and the skills, abilities and work habits that are expected of them in college and work, according to Achieve Inc.'s 2005 survey, Rising to the Challenge: Are High School Graduates Prepared for College and Work? A Study of Recent High School Graduates, College Instructors and Employers.

Fewer than 25 percent of graduates feel they were significantly challenged in high school, the survey says.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals say this isn't a surprise. "We have been for some time saying that a real concerted effort needs to be made to improve America's high schools, which have been the sort of neglected stepchild of the school reform movement in the last 20 years," says Michael Carr, NASSP spokesman.

While President Bush is calling for more high school testing, Carr says that's not the solution. "More testing doesn't tell us anything we don't know," he says. "We need real strategies. The model of the American high school no longer needs to exist."

School is still built on the agrarian society in terms of the school year, generally, from late August through June, and it is still four years long. But Carr says some children can graduate in three years while some need five years.

Carr says NASSP does support Bush's emphasis on Advanced Placement and international baccalaureate programs. "We believe academic rigor in high school needs to be significantly increased," he says, through more challenging curricula.

But Bush's request for deep cuts to the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Technical Education Act will hurt a successful program for students that work after high school, Carr says. Bush wants to replace it with a new $1 billion block grant program, Secondary and Technical Education State Grants.

But Congress will likely keep it intact. "There are too many kids out there benefiting from it," Carr says.

--Angela Pascopella

Stripping = Success

Eighth-graders at Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School in Palo Alto, Calif., were recently told they could earn a sassy living if they became strip dancers, among 140 other potential careers, according to Fox News.

William Fried, a popular speaker for the annual career day, told the students in January that stripping and exotic dancing could earn girls up to $250,000 a year, depending on their bust size. He has been giving a 55-minute presentation to the school's students for the past three years.

The principal planned to send letters of apology home to parents and considered barring the speaker from the next career day.

Wanted: Special Ed Teachers

The need for more special education teachers nationwide prompted a university in Rhode Island to create a new school.

The new School of Education at Johnson & Wales University, a big business and food services school, grew out of a market study that claims that 61 teachers in Providence had emergency certificates in secondary special education, which means they have not completed coursework necessary to meet the state's licensing standards. Now, J&W students can receive training in elementary or secondary special education.

Funding on Per-Pupil Needs Basis

The National Commission on Teaching and America's Future wants state school financing policies based on what it will cost to raise the bar and close achievement gaps.

According to NCTAF's 2004 report, Fifty Years After Brown v. Board of Education: A Two-Tiered Education System, inadequate conditions in many schools deprive children of their right for an equal chance to learn. Overcrowded classrooms in dilapidated buildings, insufficient instructional materials and technology, and too few textbooks are sapping any potential, the report states.

Adequate resources and rewards for performance should be given while poorly performing teachers and principals should be removed, NCTAF recommends.

Weighing More Letters on Report Cards

A new set of letter grades will be added to Texan student report cards if a Texas bill passes: BMI.

A student's body mass index, which measures body fat based on height and weight and indicates if a student is overweight, would be on report cards under the bill introduced by State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, a Democrat. The school would give parents information on increased body fat and health problems, she says, according to Fox News reports.

Arkansas implemented a similar law last school year, although the information is sent to parents and is not on report cards.

Selling Schools Via Video

Dwindling student enrollment, plans to build new schools, or luring teachers are among the reasons public schools nationwide are using video to make their cases. And we're not just talking VCR videos, but high-tech videos accessible on a Web site or DVD.

Using videotapes for communicating to parents or business groups has been around for 25 years, according to Edward H. Moore, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association. "What we're seeing now and why it's more prevalent is that the technologies have converged in the past few years to make it very easy and affordable for districts to use video in many different ways to reach constituencies," he says.

Districts are using it mainly for three purposes: Luring students to their schools given dwindling pupil enrollment; showing parents why building a new school, or any other project, is needed given overcrowding; or recruiting teachers, Moore says.

Mounds View Public Schools in Roseville, Minn., is just one district using a high-tech video to lure students from surrounding areas. The district, which has roughly 10,000 students, is down 1,600 students since 1998 mainly due to declining birth rates, according to Colin Sokolowski, district spokesman. The district, which gains $4,600 from the state per student, plans to cut $4.4 million from its 2005-06 school budget and close two elementary schools, he says.

The district decided a video touting its personalized attention and high test scores would lure others in. Producing the video cost the district $17,000, a small sum for something that would hopefully garner hundreds of thousands of dollars, Sokolowski says.

The professionally produced seven-minute video interweaves clips of students using protractors in class, playing violins and acting on stage, as well as playing on athletic teams. Several parents, teachers and students explain the benefits of Mounds View, touting it as a high achieving school that offers a plethora of programs for any interest.

--Angela Pascopella

California Schools Chief Offers P-16 Plan

A new California plan recently unveiled by Jack O'Connell, the state's superintendent of public instruction, would gain five years of instruction for students, according to The Sacramento Bee.

He advocates a state-sponsored and free pre-school to all 4-year-olds whose parents want them to attend as well as better preparation for high school graduates for college. The plan would include tougher graduation requirements and advanced academic skills for those who don't plan to attend college.

Intelligent Design an Option

High school students in the Dover Area (Penn.) School District have a choice of hearing a statement about "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution in their biology classes.

At one time, the district required the evolution theory be mentioned in teaching biology. Early this year, the district had required science teachers to mention intelligent design in class, which essentially states that the universe is so complex that a higher force, or God, is responsible for creating it.

Now, the district allows a choice, after seven science teachers signed a letter in January objecting to the policy on grounds that it would violate the state's professional standards and practices code for teachers. Many teachers had objected to reading the statement about intelligent design because it is "not science," according to Tom Scott, an attorney for the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

Students were allowed to be excused from listening to the statement about evolution, before starting the evolution series in biology earlier this year, if their parents objected.

New Test In New England

One more test will be given to students who take English as a second language.

Students in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire will take new standardized tests designed to reveal if their understanding of English is improving, according to published reports. The test has five portions, which children must pass to be considered proficient.

If not enough children improve, a school could lose federal money, be forced to notify parents about the failure, and even be forced to allow students to enroll elsewhere. The test does not replace other standardized tests.

Girls Lead Boys in Reading, Writing

Boys are no match for girls when it comes to achievement in reading and writing.

Boys do better in mathematics and science. But girls are also catching up in those subjects, although they don't like them as much as boys do.

The U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics reports the gender comparisons in an update of a similar 2000 study. "It is clear that girls are taking education very seriously and that they have made tremendous strides," Rod Paige, then Education Secretary, said in releasing the latest trends.

Meanwhile, contrary to "a common perception" that boys regularly do better in mathematics, the gap between the sexes actually has been "quite small," NAES reports.

Overall, according to NCES, girls' high school programs in mathematics and science "are at least as challenging as those taken by males," although girls are less likely to report liking math or science or seek out careers in those subjects.

Alfie Kohn, an education critic and writer, says the report "challenges the view that gender differences are inborn and unchangeable."

The study also says boys are more likely to have certain problems like diagnosed learning disabilities or be victimized at school that could affect their academic performance in early grades.

"Schools need to be assertive early in terms of identifying and intervening with any child who is showing signs of struggle," says Jane Browning, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of America. "You can get really good indications from 4- and 5-year-olds, and even down to age 3, based on their speech and language development. But if a kid is allowed to go past age 7, it's often too late."

--Alan Dessoff

New Schools Chief Comes Out Strong

The new education chief is in and she's making waves. Within days of her new start, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, who was approved Inauguration Day, criticized a PBS cartoon show that depicts gay couples, supported President Bush's drive to expand high school testing, and took a stand against a lapse in morality judgment.

The U.S. Department of Education recently cut its contract with Ketchum, a public relations firm hired to mainly promote the No Child Left Behind law, after it was publicized that media commentator Armstrong Williams was paid $240,000 to talk up the law.

Spellings took the stand despite NCLB being her baby. She helped write the law, which requires annual testing in grades 3-8 and one test during grades 10-12. Bush wants to extend annual proficiency exams to grades 9-11, but Spellings says she'll consider reasonable changes in how the law is enforced.

Spellings also criticized the Public Broadcasting Service for a "Postcards from Buster" cartoon that depicts two lesbian couples. The department gives money for the show through a federal program that educates children through television. "For the Department of Education or public broadcasting to get into things that are, you know, in a grayer area, is just not something we need to do," she told the Associated Press.

--Angela Pascopella

Blues-Fighting Drug Use Dips

After years of soaring prescription rates for antidepressants for children, fewer American children are taking such medication, such as Paxil and Prozac, according to The Washington Post.

The 10 percent decline of antidepressant use last year comes months after controversy over evidence that medications increase the risk of suicidal thoughts and behavior among some children. Activists that urged warnings on labels revealing the drugs' risks said the drop reflects better decisions from parents and physicians.

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