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Oakland's Perfect Storm Leads to State Takeover

It was a "perfect storm" of sorts, dubbed by locals referring to the 48,000-student Oakland, Calif., school district during the last two years. As a result, the ship's captain, Superintendent Dennis Chaconas, and its locally elected school board, were tossed overboard when the state recently approved a $100 million bailout to save the district from bankruptcy.

Chaconas declined to be interviewed, but many details of the fiscal fiasco are clear. When he was hired in 2000, Chaconas promised a "renaissance" of the Oakland schools. He produced progress: students reading at grade level increased by more than 5 percent and standardized test scores at the elementary level showed strong increases. Additionally, a teacher exodus was stanched by a 25 percent salary increase.

Unfortunately, balancing the checkbook was not Chaconas' strong suit. In the fall of 2002, a $60 million deficit, accrued over two years, was revealed.

"The causes are attributed to lack of discipline around personnel costs," says Gary Yee, an elected school board member. "At the same time the district started losing around 2,000 students a year. And the piece that the people around here call 'the perfect storm' is the collapse of the state economy, which caused the governor to reduce the funding for schools."

When a $100 million loan was approved by the state, the state superintendent of education fired Chaconas and named Randolph Ward the state administrator of the district. A veteran educator with a master's degree in school leadership from Harvard, Ward is not new to takeover politics--he led the Compton, Calif., district after an early 1990s state takeover. That district returned to local control this year.

In Oakland, Ward found an overstaffed central office and a "very dysfunctional fiscal and control situation."

Ward reports to the state education superintendent, but will work with a fiscal crisis and management assistance team named by the governor. He plans to focus on "revenue enhancements," increasing enrollment, community and business support, and other "entrepreneurial strategies" to balance the budget. "This issue is not about needing more money in public schools, it's about using the money you have more wisely," Ward says.

--Rebecca Sausner

Video Games Build Visual Skills

Not all video games are bad, according to a research report.

First-person-shooter video games, those that require players to kill or maim enemies or monsters, directly improve visual attention skills, according to a story in The New York Times.

Experienced players are 30 percent to 50 percent better than non-players at taking in actions or visual clues that happen around them, according to the research led by Daphne Bavelier, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Rochester. The experienced players can identify objects in their peripheral vision, perceive numerous objects, switch attention rapidly, and track many items simultaneously. Such games also increase the brain's capacity to spread attention over a wide range of events.

Making a Special Law Better

Congress is a step closer to devising a bill for reauthorizing the 28-year-old Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Sens. Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, devised a new bipartisan bill that was expected to go to the full Senate possibly in the early summer. The Senate bill mimics many parts of the bill devised earlier in the U.S. House of Representatives

The bill allows flexibility for school districts in using IDEA funds to address vital needs of students, decreases paperwork for special education teachers, improves conflict resolution, and encourages mediation. The bill also improves discipline by simplifying procedures and increases parental involvement.

"We provide a bipartisan solution to the often contentious discipline issue by providing protections for children with disabilities while simplifying the rules that school districts use in discipline cases," Gregg said.

The bill's highlights:

  • clarifies methods to measure student progress

  • requires states to meet clear benchmarks to ensure special needs children get an education with the least restrictions
  • provides alternative dispute resolution for parents and schools to nip problems in the bud
  • requires schools to consider if a child's poor behavior results from the disability
  • allows parents to ask for a child's initial evaluation for IDEA services.
  • If and when both chambers pass the bill, it goes to President Bush for final approval.

    Four-day school week?

    A bill allowing four-day school weeks passed in Michigan in mid-June, but the governor vetoed it.

    Gov. Jennifer Granholm vetoed the bill because a companion bill, which would have tailored the teacher pension system to hours instead of days, was not included.

    Supporters say the bill would give districts flexibility on school calendars and may save money on utility bills, bus routes and maintenance.

    Buffalo Restores Teachers, Aides and Extras

    While many districts nationwide cut programs and staff this past year, Buffalo (N.Y.) Public Schools restored interscholastic sports and instrumental music, and recalled 173 teachers and 64 teacher aides, according to the school district.

    State officials promised that about $3 million was to arrive in the 2003-04 year, and district staff members who oversee grants say they expect increases in federal grants. In all, $5.4 million in additional revenue will be allocated for this coming year's budget.

    Fourth-grade Reading Up, 12th-grade Scores Down

    A look at the nation's students shows that the lowest-performing fourth-graders showed steady progress in reading since 1998, while high school seniors consistently declined in performance, according to The Nation's Report Card: Reading 2002.

    Results of the report from National Assessment of Educational Progress, made public in mid-June, also show reading scores for the lowest-performing eighth-graders slightly improved from 73 percent mastering the basics of reading in 1998 to 75 percent last year. And Massachusetts fourth-graders topped the nation in reading last year, with nearly half the fourth-graders scoring at proficient level or above.

    But achievement declined at all performance levels among 12th-graders nationwide.

    Compared to 1992, when NAEP reading assessments began, the 2002 national results show no change in achievement in grade four, a gain at grade eight, and a decline at grade 12.

    Fast Facts

    The Nation's Report Card Specifics

    • Approximate number of students assessed in 2002
      • 140,000 fourth-graders
      • 115,000 eighth-graders
      • 15,000 12th-graders
    • Students read three types of texts representing different contexts for reading:
      • reading for literary experience
      • reading for information
      • reading to perform a task (grades eight and 12 only)
    • Students answer a combination of multiple-choice and constructed-response questions

    Meditation's Benefits

    For 20 minutes every day, students at a charter school in Detroit sit, close their eyes, and seemingly do nothing.

    But for 10 minutes in the morning in homeroom and 10 minutes at the end of their school days, 160 fifth- through eighth-graders at Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit are far from doing nothing. They are taking part in transcendental meditation-in a deeper rest than sleep. TM is a simple program for the mind, allowing the conscious mind to become aware of its "unbounded dignity," according to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the worldwide transcendental meditation movement.

    "The way we're moving in the technological era, we're going to have to make sure we have some kind of grasp on the quality of life," says Carmen N'Namdi, principal of the K-8 charter school under Central Michigan University. "Technology is making it so difficult to ever have rest. We can e-mail you, beep you ... You are responsible 24/7, and that is very demanding."

    Six years ago, a psychologist and her husband, who worked for Daimler-Chrysler, approached N'Namdi, who had already practiced TM on her own for years, to bring it to her school and learn how TM affects children.

    With donations from DaimlerChrysler and General Motors, instructors visit the school in the fall and teach students how to meditate. They also inform them how the body physiologically works during TM.

    Initial findings at the University of Michigan's Complementary & Alternative Medicine Research Center show that children using TM are happier over time, have higher self-esteem, and are better able to cope with emotions and manage stress, says Rita Benn, research scientist. Other studies are in the works.

    N'Namdi adds that children appear less stressed out. "One of my students said, 'I don't take myself so seriously.' It's allowing you to be more of yourself."

    --Angela Pascopella

    Despite Court Ruling, Pledge Goes on as Usual

    When California schools went back into session in late July, students continued saying the Pledge of Allegiance as usual and will so--for now.

    The Elk Grove (Calif.) Unified School District immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a lower court's ruling last spring that the phrase "one nation under God" in the pledge violates separation between church and state when recited in public schools. The Supreme Court will likely make a decision on whether to hear the case in late fall. "We felt that the language in the pledge, including the wording 'under God,' is not pushing religion on children. It is a reflection of an important part of the history of the country," says David Gordon, Elk Grove superintendent of schools.

    The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California and eight other Western states, issued a stay of its own decision in March to allow for the Elk Grove district's petition to the Supreme Court. Under the ruling, which has not been enforced, nearly 10 million children in the West would have to delete the phrase--'one nation under God'--from the pledge. The circuit court's opinion prompted a massive outcry nationwide. Federal officials, including President Bush, denounced it.

    Michael Newdow, a Sacramento, Calif., atheist, brought the case to the circuit court. He stated that his 8-year-old daughter should not have to listen to the pledge while in school.

    Barry Lynn, executive director of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, agrees with Newdow, noting the pledge did not include the phrase 'under God' until 1954 when the country was in fear of Communism and wanted to declare its goodness compared to the communists. "We don't see any reason for [the Supreme Court] to take this case. We think [the circuit court decision] stands as good law," he says. "The government is not supposed to get involved in the promotion of religion."

    Calif. Gov. Gray Davis says reciting the pledge in school is voluntary, but denying students a chance is wrong. "Certainly, if the U.S. Supreme Court can begin its day with 'God save the United States and this Honorable Court,' school children should be permitted to recite the Pledge of Allegiance," Davis says.

    --Steven Scarpa

    Shh! It's the Law

    Public school students in Texas will observe a minute of silence to reflect, meditate or pray and recite pledges of allegiance starting this coming school year.

    The new law requires school districts to observe a minute of silence and recite pledges to both the U.S. and Texas flags, a change from the former law that gives schools the choice of doing so. Unless parents submit a written objection, every student will be required to participate. The law does not mention penalties for students who fail to do so.

    Houston Fudges Dropout Rate

    A recent investigation revealed that Houston Independent School District either mishandled, lost or hid paperwork for thousands of students who may have been dropouts. An investigator's report showed that a high school administrator shredded more than 100 boxes of student records.

    District staff explained to an investigator, who asked why records were missing and why 30 student reports had been altered, that the network specialist faked them and later changed them back. In the June 2003 issue of District Administration, it was reported that Houston succeeded in closing the achievement gap between minority and white students. But one expert claimed student dropouts were not considered. At the time, school officials had no comment.

    Re-igniting Debate on Teacher Pay

    Contrary to popular thought, teachers get paid quite well, say economists who have studied the topic. In fact, their hourly salary matches or exceeds architects, civil engineers and accountants, according to the economists.

    Their studies re-ignite the age-old debate on teacher salaries.

    In two pieces published recently in the Hoover Institute's Education Next journal, economics professor Richard Vedder of Ohio University and Michael Podgursky, chairman of the department of economics at the University of Missouri-Columbia, say teacher salaries compare with salaries of other professionals considering the length of their work day, number of days they work-about 190 days including professional development compared to 240 days for most other professions--and fringe benefits.

    Using statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor, Vedder says only lawyers and judges earned significantly more than teachers on a weekly basis in 2001 and their hourly wage topped the highest paid category of workers--in executive, administrative and managerial fields. Teachers enjoy shorter on-site work schedules, better health care benefits, better retirement packages, and more sick days than most other professionals do, Podgursky says.

    Nonsense, says the American Federation of Teachers. AFT research analyst Howard Nelson, says the calculations are flawed. Hourly wages computed by the professors didn't calculate afternoons or evenings that teachers work developing lesson plans or grading papers, Nelson says, revealing a 50-hour work week. The AFT, which uses data collected by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, maintains that teachers, at an average yearly salary of $44,367, lag behind accountants at $54,981, engineers at $96,238 and computer program analysts at $74,534. If additional summer pay were added to the computations, teachers would still earn just $49,438.

    Joe Bush, data specialist at U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, says the BLS doesn't compute average hourly wages for teachers due to work year and contract differences. But BLS's yearly wage data show that elementary and middle school teachers lag behind nurses at $48,240, accountants at $50,690 and mechanical engineers at $63,530.

    While both sides can't agree on exact wage figures, they agree some changes are needed. Podgursky and Vedder say the problem is more about how pay is distributed. Teachers with larger class sizes or those who handle more difficult students should receive more, they say. Higher salaries should be considered for teachers in more competitive fields, such as science and math, because they can be lured away to the private sector.

    California teacher Brian Crosby says in his book The $100,000 Teacher that six-figure salaries should be available for teachers at the top of the profession, or the best 5 percent. And Steve Farkas, research director for Public Agenda which recently surveyed teachers, says there should be some flexibility as long as pay isn't tied to student test scores.

    --Fran Silverman

    Student Hacker Erases Class Files

    A junior at Marion High School near Rochester, N.Y., last school year was charged with hacking into his school's computers and erasing folders belonging to the junior class.

    Police stated that Clint W. Triou, 17 at the time, deleted the password-protected folders where his classmates stored class projects. He was charged with computer trespass, a felony, and computer tampering, a misdemeanor. The director of computer services for the Marion school district stated they found hacking software loaded on a computer, and Triou used it to access the administrative computer.

    Radiated Beef in School Lunches

    The U.S. Department of Agriculture gave the OK to allow hamburgers and meat loaf to be treated with low doses of bacteria-destroying radiation and served in school cafeterias.

    Individual school districts will have a choice to not buy irradiated ground beef when products are available January 2004.

    Irradiation, which is endorsed under the World Health Organization, exposes food to ionizing radiation that kills insects, mold and potentially deadly bacteria. It has been used on wheat flour since 1963 and is used to sterilize many non-food products.

    Full-day Kindergarten Pays Off

    A first study-of-its-kind, targeting nearly 22,000 kindergartners nationwide, found that full-day kindergarten students make greater reading gains than children who attend half-day kindergarten.

    The recently released The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, by the National Center for Education Statistics, found "slight but significant" differences in scores for both sets of children. "It's not huge and whether or not it's a meaningful difference, time will tell," says Val Plisko, the center's associate commissioner.

    The study tracks a sample of 1998 kindergartners through the fifth grade, both in public and private schools. The analysis of early reading gains is part of NCES' The Condition of Education 2003 report. Overall, the number of five-year-olds enrolled full-time rose from 42 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 2001.

    One part of the study found attendance in full-day kindergarten is highest, in general, in the South (83 percent of children in the South attended full-day programs, compared to 45 percent in the Midwest, 41 percent in the Northeast and 23 percent in the West), urban areas and among black and poor children. But it doesn't mean they read better than white children in half-day kindergarten, Plisko says.

    Full-day classes were more likely than half-day classes to spend more time every day on letter recognition, letter-sound match, rhyming words, reading aloud and alphabetizing, for example.

    Most states allow districts to offer full-day kindergarten but don't require it.

    Teacher Quality Guide

    Improve teacher quality and improve student achievement. The Public Education Network believes the two go hand-in-hand. The group is spearheading an effort to improve the quality of teaching in America's schools.

    PEN recently released, A Community Action Guide to Teacher Quality, which offers ways to create school and community environments that support teacher quality, and ways to engage the community in support of teacher quality.

    The guide calls for communities to create "teacher quality initiatives." Depending on the specific community, a TQI, might work with:

  • state representatives tointroduce a new bill

  • the school district administration to change how existing policies are implemented
  • local colleges to revise teacher preparation programs.

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