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The $100,000 Teacher: Coming Soon to Minnesota?

Borrowing a page from other job sectors, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to give performance bonuses to attract and retain "super teachers" for the state's most challenged public schools.

As part of a broad new education initiative to improve student achievement and teacher quality, Pawlenty proposes to hire teachers from traditional or non-traditional backgrounds and pay them up to $100,000 annually, an arbitrary figure chosen as an "attention-grabber," according to the state's education department spokesman Bill Walsh. Pay levels would depend on how well their students meet achievement standards, including test scores.

Pawlenty hopes to kick-off the initiative at five pilot elementary schools, to be selected later, that serve mostly disadvantaged students. In his plan, administrators could hire, assign and dismiss new teachers without regard to tenure. The concept would allow qualified and experienced professionals from other fields, particularly math and science, "the opportunity to use alternative pathways to enter the teaching profession," Pawlenty says.

The state legislature, which meets in February, must approve and fund Pawlenty's initiative. That's no certainty. Rep. Jim Davnie, a teacher himself, notes that Pawlenty cut funding to 98 percent of Minnesota school districts earlier this year. "No one can argue with strengthening teaching and compensating teachers better, but we don't see a significant amount of money on the horizon," Davnie says.

And teachers who devise ways to improve student performance should share them with other teachers, but the bonuses might discourage them from sharing, Davnie suggests. "We may be rewarding one teacher at a cost to the rest of the students in the school. I don't think that's a good strategy," he says.

Pawlenty's new education program also includes developing mentoring and support systems for new teachers and establishing an online library of lesson plans for teachers to use across the state.

--Alan Dessoff

Georgia Struggles to Pay Top Teachers

Georgia officials, facing a severe budget crisis, are scrambling to deal with the soaring costs of a program that pays 10 percent bonuses to teachers who gain national board certification.

The bonuses cost about $100,000 three years ago. But last year, the state paid $3.5 million in bonuses to about 800 teachers. The projected price tag next year is $15.6 million as even more experienced teachers earn certification. Some state legislators are questioning whether the bonuses are improving students' education enough to be worth the cost.

State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox continues to support the program and she notes that national studies are underway to assess the "overall effectiveness" of certified teachers. She also cites reports that revenues in Georgia might be improving. When the data are available and the budget picture becomes clearer, "we will work together at all levels of government to do what is right for all Georgia teachers," Cox says.

--A. D.

Free Paychecks In New Orleans

More than 1,000 people who stopped working for the New Orleans school system since 1999 received a paycheck anyway. And about 2,000 others not entitled to benefits had their insurance premiums paid.

The estimated loss to the district due to the mix-up totals about $11 million. The checks were erroneously issued because it often took the human resources department months to remove former employees from the payroll system, according to The Times-Picayune.

Homework, What Homework?

American students are not inundated with homework every evening, contrary to popular perception, according to the recent report Do Students Have Too Much Homework?, released by The Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institute.

According to the report, most K-12 students do less than one hour of daily homework. In 1999, the majority of children aged 9, 13 and 17 all had less than one hour a night--similar results to those in 1984. The study also points out that U.S. students have among the lowest homework loads in the world. "There is no evidence that there is a crushing homework burden," says Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center.

The study was prompted by stories from major news outlets arguing that homework was too big a burden, Loveless says. The stories generally use anecdotal evidence, not facts from scientific research, he says. Stories of three- and four-hour homework loads for elementary school students are far from the norm, Loveless says, noting that less than 5 percent of third- and fourth-graders report having even two hours a night.

Loveless' study did not attempt to determine how much homework is appropriate per grade, but rather to quantify what is being done. However, there is a caveat. "There is evidence that more homework at the middle and high school levels correlates with higher achievement," Loveless says. "The more time spent on task increases the likelihood that the subject will be learned."

However, Etta Kralovec and John Buell, co-authors of The End of Homework (Beacon Press, 2000), say homework puts undue pressure on families and is biased against the working class. "The call for the end of homework is a call for greater accountability by schools, an acknowledgement of the value of trained professionals overseeing the entire educational process and an opportunity for all students to have equal access to necessary educational resources," the pair wrote on

--Steven Scarpa

Houston Woes Continue

Months after the Houston Independent School District was charged with falsifying dropout rates, comes a report that claims the district also misreported violence within its schools. The New York Times reports the district's own police, who patrol 80 middle and high schools, reported 3,091 assaults in the last four school years. In its report to the Texas Education Agency, the district itself reported 761 assaults during the same period. School violence has taken on more importance with NCLB, where schools can be labeled "persistently dangerous."

Cyber Ratings Range from Great to Witch-like

"Passionless imposters who only call themselves teachers" reads a banner on the Internet site Rate My Teacher, which threatens to expose and end mediocre teaching. In turn, stellar teachers are rewarded with open and honest feedback.

Since the August 2001 site launch, students at more than 26,000 middle and high schools have posted more than 2.7 million ratings for 454,000 teachers. Ratings are based on a five-point scale and include such comments as "world's greatest teacher" and "unclear, unhelpful and witchly."

Tim Davis, site owner/operator and high school special education teacher, says the site's purpose is to bring accountability back into the classroom. Administrators can use the site to uncover recurrent issues such as excessive cell phone or computer use by teachers during class, he adds.

The Web site relies on students to rate teacher quality but they may not be the most reliable source. "We've noticed a strong correlation between a teacher's ease and positive ratings. It's a popularity contest," says John See, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.

A number of teachers have threatened to sue Davis, but the site is constitutionally protected. The cyber hot seat expanded in November 2003, when Rate My Teacher debuted a new scale to rate superintendents.

--Lisa Fratt

Jail Time is Last Option for Parents of Truants

In Philadelphia, parents of truant children could become jailbirds. A year after implementing a program to hire Parent Truant Officers, or PTO's, who inform parents about truancy, the head judge of Family Court vows to imprison some parents to ensure students go to class.

"Make no mistake about it, I am certain that this year parents will be going to jail who do not cooperate," Judge Myrna Field stated in a news conference at family court.

Up to 15,000 students in the city are absent on any given day without an excuse. Even though school officials say prison would be a last-ditch effort, other parent groups oppose the new plan.

Veronica Joyner, president of Parents United for Better Schools, and Pat Raymond, president of the Philadelphia Home and School Council, agree that parents of truants need help. Both say truants may have valid reasons for missing school, including: being teased about their clothes or sneakers; lack of money for bus tokens to get to school; the fear of being bullied, hurt or even raped. "Kids don't see schools as a safe haven anymore," says Joyner, also founder and chief administrative officer of a charter school.

School officials say jail would come after a long process, including continual support through the newly established Family Help Center, which will help the district and court better coordinate anti-truancy efforts and help families who are referred to court.

If students have one to three unexcused absences, parents are called and sent a letter notifying them, says Delia Reveron, the district's director of attendance and truancy officer.

With three to seven unexcused absences, PTO's will visit homes to speak with parents. PTO's, who are hired by faith and community-based partners, will connect them to proper resources, such as heating companies and food assistance plans.

Students with eight to 10 unexcused absences will face, along with parents, the district's Saturday Morning Alternative Reach and Teach Program, a life-skills workshop teaching such tips as anger management. With more than 10 unexcused absences, students could be held back.

With eight to 24 unexcused absences, students are referred to the city Department of Human Services' Office of Truancy Prevention, if they weren't called already, to help. At 25 unexcused absences, students go before a school-based truancy court where the city's truancy prevention office and family court try to solve the continuing problem.

If all else fails, the case goes to family court where charges are considered. A judge could put students in a sort-of boot camp or imprison a parent for up to five days for failing to comply with court orders.

--Angela Pascopella

Less Play = More Fat

Children are getting less exercise and gaining more weight than their counterparts in past decades. And schools should be leading the fight to change it, health experts and child advocates say.

The number of overweight elementary students has doubled from 7 percent to 15 percent from 1980 to 2000 and tripled from 5 percent to 15 percent among adolescents, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. At the same time, a record number of children are being diagnosed with Type II diabetes, a disease not usually seen in people until they reach their 30s.

Yet the number of children receiving daily physical education instruction has decreased by 10 percent in the past decade.

"While the surgeon general and the 2010 health goals for the country recommend daily physical education, a great majority of school districts are not living up to those recommendations,'' says Paula Keyes Kin, spokeswoman for the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

Howell Wechsler, health scientist for the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, says schools are in a primary position to help students become more physically fit.

"This is not like other social problems being dumped on schools. Physical education has been part of the schools forever, going back to the Greeks,'' he says. "What we are asking them to do is pay more attention to it and stop the process of cutting back on the time allocated [to exercise]."

Schools, faced with financial constraints and pressure to perform well on standardized tests, have struggled with maintaining time in the school day and dollars for physical education classes, Kin says.

Even California, which released a study last year linking academic achievement with physical fitness, faces barriers to achieving fitness instruction goals, says Diane Wilson-Graham, physical education consultant for the California Department of Education. State law requires 200 minutes of phys-ed for every 10 school days for elementary students and 400 minutes for middle and high school students. But Wilson-Graham says many schools are struggling to meet those requirements. The budget is too tight for physical education instructors, and classroom teachers don't have the training to fill in, or are too busy preparing other lesson plans, she says.

California, which is establishing statewide physical fitness content standards, is one of less than a handful of states that require statewide testing for physical fitness. "We want the state to be a leader in this area,'' Wilson-Graham says.

--Fran Silverman

"No" to Florida's Class Size

Efforts to meet a voter-approved mandate to crunch class sizes in Florida are turning soft, according to the St. Petersburg Times.

"The class-size amendment will never be implemented," Florida's Education Commissioner Jim Horne was quoted as saying at a recent meeting of the Board of Governors, which oversees higher education in Florida.

The amendment orders the state to give schools money to lower class sizes. By 2010, pre-K through grade 3 classes can have no more than 18 children; grades 4 through 8 no more than 22 students, and high school classes no more than 25 kids. This year, the state spent $517 million to reduce class sizes, enough to cover a quarter of the state's university system budget.

Parents Sue Over Wireless Network Health Concerns

Parents of five children sued the Oak Park Elementary School District in Illinois for installing a wireless computer network, worried that exposure to the network's radio waves could harm children.

The parents' complaint, filed in Illinois state court in October, references growing evidence showing that "exposure to low intensity, but high radio frequency radiation poses" serious health risks to human beings, particularly children, according to Reuters. The school board has said it would monitor research about the safety of the networks, but stated it would still use Wi-Fi.

A hearing is scheduled for February.

Fourth Time is a Charm

The Lawrence, Mass., superintendent who failed part of a state-mandated literacy test required for Massachusetts educators has now passed the exam. The September retest was his fourth try.

Wilfredo T. Laboy, who is a native Spanish speaker, struggled with transcribing passages read via an audiotape. This part of the test gauges grammar, spelling and punctuation, according to The Boston Globe.

Laboy was ridiculed by commentators after failing his own test three times and then placing 20 Lawrence bilingual-education teachers on unpaid leave for flunking a separate English fluency test.

DOE Pushes to Expand Tough Courses

The U.S. Department of Education is asking the nation's public high schools to do more. The department recently launched a campaign to prod states to expand rigorous course offerings and demand more of students before they go to college or start work.

The effort comes as many children are leaving school unprepared. U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige called the situation "staggering." The effort includes a series of regional meetings on high school improvement, new Web sites on college financial aid and career choices, grants to help students prepare for tougher courses and teams of advisers to help states pursue reforms. The next step would be to overhaul vocational education, forcing schools to prove student achievement before receiving federal funds.

Teacher Stress Rising, But Venting Helps

Several surveys in recent years have confirmed what many educators need no survey to tell them: Teachers are stressed out. With standardized tests pressuring teachers to improve student performance, researchers say the problem is getting worse.

"Reducing stress involves predicting the problem and then controlling it, but they can't control it in many cases," says Dr. Mark Attridge of Optum, a Minneapolis-based health consulting firm. "If you know you can't control it, it's even worse. You know that [troublesome] kid in your fifth hour is going to be at you, and now you have to conform to all these national and statewide standards. So, there's even less control over your own class."

Echoing the results of other surveys on the subject, a 1998 Optum study in Minnesota found that 44 percent of educators endured high stress levels. The high stress was reported by educators of all ranks and cut through age, economic and gender boundaries. Many studies have shown that educators cited a lack of support from administrators as a key source of stress.

Optum followed up its research over several years to find solutions. Attridge said his firm established "behavioral" stress relief strategies at an inner city Minneapolis school to give teachers greater control and less costly alternatives to prescribed medications. For example, educators were encouraged to seek more support and vent to friends and family, find brief exercise breaks, and improve their diets. Self-care exercises prompt teachers to segregate problems into controllable activities and focus less on dynamics that are less controllable, he says. For example, he says teachers should not fret about a student's negative home life, but refer those problem cases to social workers.

Over a year, stress levels declined by about 15 percent at the school. "You can only change this so much," Attridge says. "It's hard to make a huge difference. If you give them an extra hour of prep every day, that would be huge. Schools can't afford that. Teachers are buying kids pencils out of their own budgets."

Darryl Alexander, the American Federation of Teachers' health and safety director, says she worries that mental stress among educators could impact physical health. With little success so far, she has been trying to get the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study the physical consequences--measuring levels of the stress hormone cortisol, for example, in teachers. "I would like to see if teachers have a disproportionate rate of stress-related diseases," she says. "We need more documentation."

--Allan Richter

Report: Smaller Is Not Always Better

Small secondary schools may not be better, after all. A new study published in Sociology in Education questions the smaller-schools-are-better theory and entertains the thought that bigger can be better, according to The Plain Dealer.

The study found that male students in small schools are almost four times as likely to attempt suicide than those in larger schools and they have a higher incidence of depression. Boys at private religious schools are almost twice as likely to bring a gun to school, while girls in the same situation are three times as likely to do so. Part of the reason is due to the idea that big schools offer a great mass of diverse students. That diversity means students at big schools theoretically have a better chance of finding friends.

Terrorist Shirt Gets OK

A high school student who wore a T-shirt with President Bush's face on it and the words "International Terrorist" did not break the law, a federal judge ruled.

U.S. District Judge Patrick J. Duggan ruled there is no evidence the shirt--worn by Dearborn, Mich., student Bretton Barber last February at Dearborn High School--created any disturbance or disruption.

An assistant principal forced Barber to hide the anti-Bush message or go home. Officials at the school, where many students are Arab-American, feared the shirt would inflame passions.

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