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New NAEP Results: Urban Districts Closing the Gap

Big city students are trailing their national counterparts, according to 2002 reading and writing test scores, but some results reveal pleasant surprises, officials say.

In a first-of-its-kind measure, six urban school district results were included in the national report card, known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP began in 1969 and had only included state and national performances.

The six districts--New York, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta and the District of Columbia--volunteered to set the urban benchmark, comparing fourth- and eighth-grade achievement in reading and writing. This month, the 2003 NAEP scores will be revealed, when officials say the gap between city and national average performances will likely narrow.

"First of all, we were not surprised that the overall scores were lower than the national average. We already knew that," says Sharon Lewis, research director for the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of large urban districts. "This is a benchmark. And we expect to close that gap as we move forward."

Lewis points out positive results, saying that black fourth-grade students in New York City scored as well as black students nationally. And Houston's white, black and Hispanic students scored on par with the same groups nationally.

"New York City takes a lot of hits nationally," Lewis says. "When you look at their scores, compared to other districts, they are doing quite well."

As for the urban students' overall lower test average, Lewis points to the large concentration of poor students in urban areas. "I say that to you with reluctance," she says. "Just because there's a concentration of poverty does not mean there has to be lower achievement. ... It's our challenge in urban schools to catch up."

Chicago Public Schools' CEO Arne Duncan says he was pleased the NAEP data reinforced what they found on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills when it comes to eighth-grade reading results. Out of five urban districts, Chicago had the smallest percentage of eighth-grade students in testing below the basic reading level, 38 percent, Duncan says.

"We had by far the biggest drop in [percentage points of] students testing below basic from fourth grade to eighth grade--28 percentage points. It reinforces the idea that the longer we have students, the better they perform," Duncan says.

To help urban districts achieve more, council representatives meet annually with urban district curriculum directors to devise reading strategies to improve reading scores. They meet with research and assessment staff people to develop interim tests that children can take throughout the year to gauge what they know.

The council is also creating a blue ribbon commission, including representatives from Harvard and Stanford universities, to consider if the council is providing sufficient support to large districts.

--Angela Pascopella

Ho-Hum, Let's Use the Internet

Boring. That's one description students use when it comes to Internet usage in the classroom, even though they are absorbed when using the Internet at home, according to a recent study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

"It isn't so much that the Internet is not used, it is being used in a very boring way, just one more worksheet for the students to do," says Amanda Lenhart, a research specialist at Pew.

Whether educators like it or not, the Internet is one of the most powerful influences on a student. According to the study, 78 percent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 go online. The study was based on information gathered from 14 gender-balanced, racially diverse groups of 136 students from 36 schools.

The students in the study pointed out several factors that could be blamed for the disconnect between teachers and technology. School administrators--not teachers--set Internet policy, resulting in wide variations in student access to the Internet. Some administrators put greater emphasis on technology use than others. That problem trickles down to the classroom, students say, with teachers also having different policies. Lenhart described a Boston, Mass., high school that simply turned off the Internet when students used it inappropriately, rather than educating the students or legislating the problem.

The problem also becomes one of engagement. "Students repeatedly told us that the quality of their Internet-based assignments was poor and uninspiring. They want to be assigned more and more engaging Internet activities that are relevant to their lives," the study says.

The Internet is so rapidly becoming an integral part of a student's existence that if a conventional teacher is not conversant with it, they run the risk of becoming "an archaic artifact," says Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education. "Even great, outstanding traditional teachers are on the brink of losing a whole generation of users because of a lack of ability to interact, and part of that is because of the Internet," he says.

Knezek says when a teacher shows a lack of aptitude or suspicion of the Internet, the student questions if that teacher is capable of leading their education. "In the final analysis," the study says, "schools would do well to heed the Latin writer Seneca's words, which ring as true today as when they were written nearly 2,000 years ago: 'The fates guide those who go willingly; those who do not, they drag.' "

--Steven Scarpa

Survey: Big City Leaders Lament Restraints

Most urban superintendents say their hands are tied and they are set up for failure while they have to meet new stringent demands, according to a recent University of Washington study.

Based on a survey of 100 superintendents in the nation's largest urban districts, nine out of 10 superintendents say they need more authority to fix low-performing schools and help improve student achievement as the goals of No Child Left Behind lurk in their minds.

An Impossible Job? The View from the Urban Superintendent's Chair surveyed traditional superintendents, who climbed the ladder in education, and non-traditional superintendents, who came from business, universities, the military, government, and even the sports world.

Teacher unions often call the shots when it comes to seniority and assignments to schools.

"The thing that truly surprised me was that ... veteran superintendents stated, off the record, the extent to which patronage and cronyism is still a problem," says James Harvey, co-author of the study and senior fellow at the university's Center on Reinventing Public Education.

Traditional superintendents located the main source of their problems outside the system--on politicians and the public's demands, such as flack for hiring or firing a certain principal. The non-traditional superintendents saw their biggest problem internally--in school board and central office politics.

"All of the superintendents were sort of pleading for more independence and more authority," Harvey says.

Most superintendents express the need for more authority over personnel and buildings and more freedom to move teachers around where they fit best. But teacher unions often call the shots when it comes to seniority and assignments to schools. More experienced teachers end up in higher performing schools, in general, leaving rookies in lower performing schools. This leaves some superintendents scratching their heads, Harvey says.

--Angela Pascopella

Students' Views

Students offered several suggestions to improve and enliven educational Internet usage:

Better coordination of out-of-school education with classroom activities

Increasing the quality of access to the Internet in schools

Professional development and technical assistance to improve teacher aptitude with the Internet

Placing a priority on developing programs to teach keyboarding, computer and Internet literacy skills

Student insistence that policy makers take the "digital divide" seriously and begin to understand the achievement gaps between those who use the Internet and those who don't.

High School For Gay Students: Safe Haven Or Segregation?

Would Harvey Milk, the slain gay right's activist, support the nation's first four-year, fully accredited high school for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning youth? The school, named after him, opened this fall in Manhattan.

According to his nephew, Andy Milk, he wouldn't because the school represents segregation, which his uncle fought against. "Harvey stood for, 'We're out of the closet and we want to exist among everyone else,' " Andy Milk told the New York Post.

Craig Bowman, director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, which represents LGBTQ youth, disagrees, saying the school celebrates Milk's legacy. "It represents one more way the systems in our country--in this case the educational system--are recognizing the inherent equity and the discrimination that exists for these youth, and is doing something positive to eliminate that injustice," he says.

The school is an expansion of an existing program for students who could not attend school due to continuous abuse. The Hetrick-Martin Institute, a gay-rights youth advocacy group, had managed and financed the program since 1984. In June 2002, the Board of Education authorized $3.2 million for the new school.

Student population is expected to increase from 50 in the former program to 170 students. Curriculum and admissions standards are the same as any other NYC school.

New York State Sen. Ruben Diaz says needy schools are suffering after the money diverted to the school was taken from capital expansion funds.

In August, Diaz and a parent with four children filed a lawsuit in the New York Supreme Court challenging the school's legitimacy.

"The $3.2 million should be spent trying to establish a program where we could end all school violence and protect all children equally," Diaz says.

"We can not pick and choose one group based on their sexual preference and say to heck with the other ones."

Bowman says the difference between these students and other harassed students is that in many instances administrators and teachers don't protect gay students, 28 percent of whom drop out of major city schools. "There is a moral attitude involved with these students that doesn't come with students who are getting picked on because of their weight or the way they look."

"It's up to school administrators," Bowman says, "to create an environment of tolerance where differences are celebrated."

--Nicole Rivard

Seeing Stars in Minnesota

Minnesota parents, school administrators and teachers are seeing stars, but not in the sky. The stars are on new "report cards" that rate all schools in the state on academic achievement in math and reading, as well as academic opportunity, school safety and student participation.

Under the five-star rating system, schools receiving five stars in a subject area have made adequate yearly progress under the federal No Child Left Behind law and are performing among the top echelon of comparable schools in the state. Schools receiving one star have not made AYP for two consecutive years.

In addition to AYP status, the report cards provide information on school finance, staff and student demographics, and parent satisfaction.

The goal of the rating system is to "give parents the ability to look at their entire school, not just the results of one test," says state Education Commissioner Cheri Pierson Yecke.

"Getting accurate information to parents about their child's school is a key part of our statewide accountability efforts," adds Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "Stronger parental and community involvement in our schools starts with giving them a better picture of how their schools stack up."

Although parents "love the simplicity of pulling all the information together in an easy-to-read format," some district superintendents, principals and teachers aren't so sure it's a great idea, acknowledges state Department of Education spokesman Bill Walsh. "Their concern is that parents will look at the star ratings and won't consider what they mean or the data behind them. We're telling parents they should start with the report card for their school, then visit the school and talk with the principal," Walsh says.

--Alan L. Dessoff

Minnesota's 5-Star Ratings

Reading Math

***** 114 schools 92 schools

**** 120 schools 97 schools

*** 604 schools 649 schools

** 58 schools 58 schools

* 25 schools 25 schools

Illinois Surprise: My Principal is a Felon

Tougher and more costly criminal background checks will be used for some new employees in the Elgin (Ill.) School District U-46 after finding a school principal was a felon, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Calvin Gooch's resume showed he was an assistant coach in Cincinnati in the early 1990s, but school officials stated they had no record of him. Meanwhile, federal prosecutors said Gooch was working for AT&T Co. in Milwaukee from 1990-92 and was involved in a financial fraud scheme that resulted in prison. Gooch, who resigned last summer after his past was discovered, says he didn't want to advertise his criminal record.

The district will now use national criminal background checks, costing up to $55 per check compared to the state check which costs only $7, for new administrators, teachers and librarians, or anyone who works directly with students.

E-Rate Critical to Schools, Libraries

E-rate support for basic telecommunication services, Internet access and networking is vital while schools and public libraries face tough budget cuts, according to a new report from the Education and Library Networks Coalition.

In E-Rate: A Vision of Opportunity and Innovation, EdLiNC's third report, it shows how school, library and community leaders say the

"Stronger parental and community involvement in our schools starts with giving them a better picture of how their schools stack up." -Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty

E-rate program has brought new resources, opportunities and experiences to thousands of students, teachers, parents and community members. It helps deliver online professional development and maintain district-wide student achievement records.

Now in its sixth program year, the E-rate continues to provide critical infrastructure and connectivity to schools and libraries nationwide.

More Pledge Rulings

A federal judge issued a restraining order in August preventing Colorado school officials from forcing students to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day.

The judge issued a temporary injunction against a Colorado law that requires public school students and their teachers to recite the pledge, first adopted in 1892, according to a Fox News story.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock said the law discriminates against teachers by allowing students to opt out with a note from their parents, but teachers don't have a choice to opt out or not.

State Senate President John Andrews says he thinks the ruling will be overturned on appeal, calling it a "gross insult to the patriotism of most Coloradoans."

American Faith In Schools Slips

Only 40 percent of American respondents to a survey have a "great deal" of confidence in public schools, down 18 percentage points from the public's high point of 58 percent in 1973, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The confidence level is on par with the medical system, at 44 percent, and television news, at 35 percent. Public school confidence waned in the 1970s and sunk to just 39 percent in 1983 after the A Nation at Risk report was released. But faith rebounded in the mid-1980s--reaching 49 percent in 1988.

Fun is Critical

Children need to run around on blacktops, swing on swings, and play in the sandbox while they are at school, according to one organization.

"Attention parents and principals: This school year commit to recess being a critical part of the elementary school day!" says the National Association for Sport and Physical Education.

Executive Director Judith C. Young says a six hour or longer school day is too long for children to go without breaks and substantial physical activity, especially with obesity rates soaring. Activity also contributes to creativity and cooperation in class, she says.

Superintendent Fails Literacy Test

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. At least that's what some teachers in Lawrence, Mass., believe. These teachers are suing Superintendent Wilfredo Laboy because he's penalizing teachers for not passing an English test, while he himself failed a different English test.

Early this summer, Laboy placed more than 20 teachers on unpaid administrative leave for not passing a new English-language fluency test. But the superintendent has taken--and failed--an English communication and literacy test three times. This test has been required for Massachusett's educators since 1998.

Leaders Gov. Mitt Romney and state Board of Education Chairman James Peyser stand by Laboy, a Puerto Rican native who learned English as a second language. They say he will ultimately pass the test by a December deadline. "I'm not sure the superintendent of schools is in the same level of importance to me in terms of English skills as are the teachers in the classroom teaching our kids," Romney said in a news conference.

His comments outraged teachers who think it's downright unfair and are suing Laboy.

"When we talk of high standards and accountability we believe that all educators should be held to the same high standards," says Kathleen Kelley, president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. "It is the height of arrogance for Gov. Romney to suggest that school department leaders may meet a lesser standard than the teachers and students they are expected to lead."

"Dedicated bilingual teachers, many of whom have passed the state certification test, are [being] placed on unpaid administrative leave because of their scores on a new English proficiency exam. Their many years of service to the children of Lawrence are being wasted, while a different standard is applied to Superintendent Laboy," says Kelley.

She wants to see the teachers who haven't passed be permitted to remain at work and be granted additional opportunities to pass their test just like Laboy.

No one at the state Department of Education nor Laboy could be reached for comment.

In addition, teachers and administrators can take the exam that Laboy failed as many times as they want. But if they fail, they must seek a waiver from the Department of Education to remain employed. Laboy, who also needs a waiver, had not received one by early September.

--Nicole Rivard

TESTING In the three years since being named superintendent in Lawrence, Mass., Wilfredo T. Laboy has improved test scores and helped repair the financial mismanagement caused by his predecessors. But now the focus is on him because of his failure to pass an English literacy test.

Stripling: Better Be Accurate

Houston Superintendent Kaye Stripling told more than 500 principals and administrators in August that they are responsible for accurate data on dropouts, as well as student achievement, according to a story in the Houston Chronicle.

"HISD's accountability rating hangs in the balance because of sloppy bookkeeping," Stripling told the administrators in a back-to-school meeting.

Several audits, including one from the Texas Education Agency, showed incorrect reporting on HISD dropout rates. And now the TEA has proposed lowering the district's accountability rating from acceptable to unacceptable.

So Many Teachers, So Few Spots

For the second straight year, the demand for teachers has fallen and is at its lowest level since 1998, according to results of an annual survey from the American Association for Employment in Education.

The nationwide teacher shortage that once had school district leaders scrambling to find enough instructors has eased as the economy has cooled. The soft economy means more people are willing to work for a teacher's pay. But instructors in math, bilingual education, science and special education are still tough to find. And nearly half of the nation's middle and high school teachers don't meet "highly qualified" teacher status in core subjects.

Paid Liaisons in NYC

In what is anticipated to be a key lever for change in New York City schools, 1,200 new parent coordinators are serving as liaisons between parents and school officials. The liaisons will also reach out to parents who may have never seen their children's classrooms before. Parent coordinators are paid $30,000 to $39,000 a year to work with community organizations that provide services to schools and serve as "an ombudsman for parent and school concerns" on issues like school policies and facilities.

A parent coordinator will be inside each school for parents in that school.

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