Celebrate Women’s History Month with this award-winning web gem

March is National Women’s History Month, and in keeping with that theme educators should direct their students to the National Women’s History Project web site. Teachers will want to bypass the main page of the site and head right for the educational content, provided in the “Learning Place” portion of the site. The National Women’s History Project Learning Place is designed to provide educators with information and educational materials about multicultural women’s history. Among the resources gathered here are “Performers,” a list of women’s history costumed performers by state. Audiences across the country can learn about historic women through first-person historical portrayal. The performers listed here will travel to your state and either introduce individual American women and men or focus on fictitious characters from specific time periods. The site also includes a list of women’s museums and organizations by state, and a list of women’s history links in categories ranging from aviators to political leaders to sports figures. Kids can even test their knowledge of women’s history online or with a printout version downloaded from the quiz page. The “Teachers Lounge” provides suggestions to help teachers make women’s history more accessible and lists exercises and games to do with students.


Bush plan to overhaul eRate divides educators

A controversial plan to combine the $2.25 billion eRate and nine other school technology programs into a single block grant is one of a handful of key proposals by President George W. Bush that has divided many policy makers and educators.

In his education plan, which he unveiled Jan. 23, Bush called for a consolidation of “duplicative” school technology programs–including the eRate–into a single block grant. The grant would be administered to schools by formula to help streamline the current federal application process.

Many school leaders who spoke with eSchool News said they welcomed this approach, because they believed it would free them from the burdensome red tape that accompanies the eRate. But education groups and some politicians oppose Bush’s plan to overhaul the eRate, which provides discounts on telecommunications services for eligible schools and libraries and is administered under the Federal Communication Commission’s Schools and Libraries program.

“President Bush’s proposal to convert the eRate into a block grant program with other Department of Education technology programs would be a grave mistake. This would be a major step backward, and I will fight it aggressively,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Anne Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, which represents more than 95,000 school board members who govern the nation’s public schools, shared Rockfeller’s view.

“Because of the rapid changes in education technology today, we are concerned that the proposed reconfiguration of the eRate program may erode school districts’ ability to effectively use these funds,” Bryant said.

Details of the plan

Bush’s education plan, entitled “No Child Left Behind,” not only aims to consolidate overlapping and duplicative grant programs; it also promises to increase accountability for student performance by requiring yearly testing, focus on what works by stressing research-based practices, and empower parents by giving them vouchers.

“Although education is primarily a state and local responsibility, the federal government is partly at fault for tolerating these abysmal results. The federal government currently does not do enough to reward success and sanction failure in our education system,” the proposal stated.

“Over the years, Congress has created hundreds of programs intended to address problems in education without asking whether or not the programs produce results or knowing their impact on local needs. This ‘program for every problem’ solution has begun to add up–so much so that there are hundreds of education programs spread across 39 federal agencies at a cost of $120 billion a year.”

Bush’s plan–which is more like an outline, since it lacks specific details and a budget–provides a general vision for reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which is set to be reauthorized this year. Unlike the current version of the act, which is divided into 10 broad-based themes, or “titles,” Bush’s plan outlines seven titles.

Under Bush’s plan, technology literacy and school safety would be combined into a single new title, called Title V: Encouraging Safe Schools for the 21st Century. This title would replace the current Title III technology programs with a single block grant, which also would encompass eRate funding.

By administering eRate funds by formula, Bush’s proposal aims to eliminate the burdensome paperwork required by the current application process. The funds would be targeted to high-need schools, including rural schools and schools serving high percentages of low-income students.

Schools reportedly would have the flexibility to use the funds for purposes that include software purchases and development, wiring and technology infrastructure, and teacher training in the use of technology.

The funds also could be used to buy internet filters in support of the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000, which–if upheld–will mandate the use of internet filters in all schools and libraries that receive eRate funding.

To make sure this money enhances education, states would be encouraged to set performance goals to measure how federal technology funds are being used to improve student achievement. States and school districts would risk losing federal funds if they failed to meet these performance goals.

Title V of Bush’s plan also would offer matching grants to establish community technology centers in high-poverty areas. These grants would be provided through the Community Development Block Grant Program, which is administered now by the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The proposals Bush unveiled Jan. 23 are only part of his agenda for education reform. The president said he would issue more specific details of his plan in the next few months.

Causes for concern

Although NSBA’s Bryant said Bush’s plan has many appealing features, some of his proposals raise questions and are causes for concern.

“The plan announced by the president is only an outline, so our overall evaluation really depends on the details and the level of funding proposed,” Bryant said. But “focusing on block grants controlled by governors will only fuel a different bureaucracy and may not give local school districts the resources or flexibility they need.”

As it exists now, the eRate is written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996. According to Rockefeller, the eRate–which offers discounts to all public and private schools and libraries for telecommunications services, internet access, and the internal wiring necessary to connect classrooms to the internet–is a successful program with bipartisan support.

“Under the Bush block grant approach, local schools would have less flexibility, not more,” he said. “Private and parochial schools would have to negotiate with state education agencies and worry about entanglements of federal regulations. Most important, the secure funding for the eRate and investments in technology would be jeopardized,” because the program would be subject to the annual appropriations process in Congress.

A step in the right direction?

Proponents of Bush’s plan say schools could see tremendous benefit from his proposal to streamline the administrative requirements of existing technology programs.

“Schools could submit one application and would be allowed the flexibility to pool funds toward everything from purchasing hardware and software, to modifying classrooms to make them technology-ready, to training personnel so that technology can truly be part of the formula for improving achievement,” said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.

Many educators who have experienced the eRate application process also welcomed Bush’s plan to reduce the program’s administrative burdens.

After reviewing Bush’s proposal, which is available on the Department of Education web site, Kyle Hutson, director of technology for the Rock Creek School District in Kansas, said, “That sounds wonderful. I just finished doing the eRate process myself for the first time ever–and what a royal pain in the butt!”

He added, “Anything to make my life easier would be better.”

Tom Sextro, technology director for the Holton Unified School District in Kansas, said he sees Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate as a step in the right direction, because it could mean less paperwork and more flexibility.

“Just getting rid of the whole eRate process and being funded directly [would be] great, in my opinion,” Sextro said. “Too many schools have probably missed out on funds just because of errors.”

He is concerned about the proposal to measure how federal technology funds are used to improve student achievement, however.

“Right now, we just get the money and spend it, but we don’t have to prove how it affects kids,” Sextro said. “In technology, that’s one of the toughest things to measure.”

“The eRate program is time-consuming. Anything to streamline that would be good,” agreed Charlie Reseigner, technology director for Pennsylvania’s Penn Manor School District. “But, to credit the government, the eRate has gotten better over the years.”

He added, “I would like to have seen a national push at the high school level to prepare students for the high-tech workforce.”

Gearing for a fight

Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association, said he thinks the chances are “very slim to none” that Bush’s plan to consolidate the eRate with other technology programs will succeed.

“The eRate has broad, bipartisan support from Congress,” Packer said. “There will be a significant disruption as you shift [control of] the program to the Department of Education from the FCC.”

But “at least [Bush] has a technology program,” he said.

Packer said his organization would work closely with Rockefeller, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, who also opposes plans to change the eRate program, and others to defeat Bush’s proposal.


U.S. Department of Education

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

National School Boards Association

National Education Association


New K-12 Management Solutions

ePALS SchoolMail
ePALS Classroom Exchange has introduced a safe, affordable, and customizable eMail solution for K-12 schools and districts. Called ePALS SchoolMail, the new service is a fully hosted solution, providing access to student and teacher eMail accounts from any internet-connected computer. Student accounts can be monitored by teachers and include the ability to filter out messages containing profanity, key phrases, attachments, or other questionable content. You can also set filter options based on the sender or recipient’s address or domain, so you can limit access to members of your school community only or to members of the ePALS Classroom Exchange community of 3 million students and teachers in 182 countries. In addition, access to external links, private chat, and other features can be blocked or unblocked at your discretion.

Accounts can be managed and centralized at the class, school, or district level. The service gives users the ability to send broadcast eMail messages at the class, school, or district level; track students’ eMail use; customize domain names and school or district interface; and control access to discussion boards and chat rooms, such as a chat room for district principals only or a discussion board for French students.

Another unique innovation of SchoolMail is its automatic, built-in language translation feature, which creates a multilingual user experience. Translations are available for 17 language pairs, including English, Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, Chinese, and Japanese. ePALS licenses a language translation application from a company called e-lingo and customizes it for use in SchoolMail.

Pricing for SchoolMail, which depends on the size and number of schools in a district, ranges from $3 to $8 per student per year in the first year, but a discount as high as 40 percent may apply in the second year of use. (613) 562-9847

Enterprise Student Information System (eSIS)
eSIS, a brand-new web-based administrative tool from Administrative Assistants Ltd. (AAL), is designed as a complete, web-enabled, user-friendly information system for tracking and managing student data in real time. Its multiple, optional interfaced modules let you collect, store, and manage an extensive amount of data on students in grades preK-12.

Developed using Oracle’s database technology, eSIS includes student demographics, scheduling, attendance, grade reporting and tracking, sports eligibility, historical data, and state reporting features. Optional modules include special education, continuing and adult education, student health information, fee management, curriculum tracking, and standardized testing.

AAL, the developer of eSIS, is a member of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF) initiative, which will allow the seamless transfer of information between SIF-compliant systems once a certification process is approved. (800) 668-8486

iMind Integrator
iMind Integrator, from California-based iMind Education Systems, is a web-based curriculum management, delivery, and assessment tool that allows educators to create and deliver lesson plans and assessments that are correlated automatically to state standards.

Through its partnerships with Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) and Achieve, iMind has aligned a set of core skill areas and learning objectives to the standards of 49 states (Iowa hasn’t developed a set of state standards yet). Teachers and curriculum planners can click on a template and build lesson plans around these various learning objectives, and iMind’s patent-pending correlation engine automatically aligns the lesson plans to the apporpriate state and national standards.

iMind Integrator includes a database of more than 500 web resources that have been linked to these standards as well, including online activities from FunBrain and Riverdeep Interactive Learning. Teachers can search for these resources by state standard or learning objective and can incorporate them into their lesson plans. In addition, the system will refer users to outside resources, such as best-of-breed software, that also meet the desired objectives. For an additional fee, iMind will import a school district’s own curriculum software into the system and correlate it to the standards in its database.

Integrator is a server-based solution that can be hosted by the school district or iMind itself and is sold at an annual fee per user. (877) 534-6463

NetSchools Orion
Like iMind Integrator, NetSchools Orion–from Atlanta-based NetSchools Corp.–is an internet-based subscription service that provides instructional management and assessment tools aligned to state standards. One difference is that Orion is hosted for schools in a closed-gated, password-protected online community.

Like Integrator, Orion features a lesson-planning application that is linked to a database of resources and communication tools. When school districts sign up for the service, they indicate which standards documents they want to use. Teachers then click on an objective and receive a list of links to web-based resources they can integrate into their lesson plans. They can build lesson plans or units and save them for personal or school-wide use.

The NetSchools Orion database contains more than 50,000 unique online resources that are correlated to various states’ standards, according to the company. Online assessment-building tools also are included, so a student can take an online test and get immediate feedback as to whether he or she has mastered a particular objective, along with links to remedial resources.

For an additional fee, users can get a premium membership, which comes with access to a web library of more than 200,000 unique URLs of NetSchools partner companies (examples include the Associated Press and its photo library, Classroom Connect, Homeworkhelp.com, and Apex Learning). This additional fee includes customization of the service to include a school district’s own software or local standards. (877) 638-7247

Limitless SchoolSpace
Chicago-based Limitless Inc. has introduced a complete, browser-based school enterprise system that provides a streamlined approach to scheduling, grading, attendance, administration, and facilities management (including financial, transportation, library, and food service systems), according to the company. Called SchoolSpace, the solution reportedly brings these elements together into one seamless, easy-to-use package.

The system runs on an enterprise-wide database that organizes, stores, and retrieves critical information. This single-database structure is superior to modular designs and provides every user with real-time access to all data, according to Limitless. Once data are stored in the system, they are available throughout all applications, eliminating the need for multiple data entry.

The system includes a feature called Analysis Suite, which provides a bevy of comparative, trending, graphing, and holistic tools to evaluate student and overall school performance. With a few mouse clicks, users can get reports and graphical analysis that can be used to make more informed decisions about instruction.

SchoolSpace also includes communications tools, such as Assembly Space (a virtual meeting space online) and a proprietary visual chat feature that is still being developed. In addition, the company’s partnership with SonicWall provides users with state-of-the-art security, content filtering, and antivirus protection.

SchoolSpace is generally run from a school or district server, but Limitless can host the application for smaller districts if requested. The solution costs about $5,000 per school, plus an additional $5 per student per year for tech support and automatic upgrades. For districts with more than five schools, SchoolSpace costs about $2,500 per school. A tour of the system is available on the company’s web site. (866) 724-5512

Computer Curriculum Corp. (CCC) and NCS NovaNET, two divisions of NCS Pearson, have merged to form a single entity called NCS Learn. The new organization is scheduled to release a web-based product this summer called NCS4Schools, which the company describes as an “all-encompassing school management system” in which assessment, content, and student information are seamlessly integrated.

The product–actually a “solutions framework,” according to the company–will leverage the curriculum and assessment tools of CCC and NovaNET with NCS Pearson’s student information and financial systems and the textbook content of Pearson Education to create an “intelligent classroom.” This system will tie together instruction, assessment, remedial resources, and back-office enterprise functions into a single solution that enhances teaching and learning, NCS Learn said.

Through a password-protected web site, teachers, administrators, parents, and students will be given access to assignments, reports, and web-based assessments that measure progress toward state standards. A company spokesman said NCS4Schools would be offered either as a locally hosted and deployed, server-based solution or as an ASP-based model hosted by the company. Pricing hasn’t been set yet, but it will consist of a basic annual subscription fee per student, with optional supplemental components at an additional charge. (800) 242-7117


eMail messages from around the globe spark third-grade geography

An eMail message that a Durham, N.C., third-grade teacher sent to spur her students’ interest in geography also has taught them about the power of the internet.

Nicole Thompson’s students can tell you all about the penguins and killer whales in Antarctica. They also know about the months of darkness that grip Iceland each year and the tea that grows in Darjeeling, India.

The Greenbriar Academy children learned those facts, and countless more, thanks to a simple eMail message from Thompson that has raced around the globe and brought more than 20,000 responses in six weeks.

“It’s crazy, just crazy,” Thompson said. “At most, I thought we’d get about 2,000 replies.”

In early December, Thompson sent a note to about 100 people, mostly friends and relatives or those of her students’ parents. She asked the recipients to forward her eMail to people they know in other states or countries and to urge those people to write to her class.

She hoped the exercise would make geography lessons more interesting for her students at Greenbriar, a small private school.

As the messages started pouring in from every direction, Thompson realized she had greatly underestimated the power of the internet. By mid-January, messages had arrived from all 50 states, 87 countries, and each of the seven continents.

A chart at the front of Thompson’s classroom listed each nation she and the children had heard from. As more messages arrived, the children colored in each new country on a world map.

The children heard from a missionary in Tonga, an English teacher in Mongolia, a business owner in Israel, and a civilian worker at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I know where Mongolia is,” said 9-year-old Hunter Frank. “It’s easy to find on the map. Russia is even easier.”

One of the most interesting notes, Thompson said, came from a carpenter named John Ackley living at a research station in Antarctica.

“I am at McMurdo Station, which is about 800 miles from the South Pole,” Ackley wrote. “Temperatures are not too bad this time of year. Over the past three weeks, it has been around zero to 35 above zero. Not what you might expect from the coldest continent on Earth.”

Ackley sent photographs of killer whales and other life found in Antarctica, as well as shots of his surroundings.

Messages like that keep school fresh and exciting, Thompson said, and that helps children learn.

“I want to go to Antarctica,” said 8-year-old Caitie Attarian. “I also want to see Greenland. I just think it would be really neat.”

Thompson initially planned to end the project when the children had heard from all seven continents, but now she has set her sights a little higher. The new goal is to collect messages from every country recognized by the United Nations.

Some of the stragglers she is still waiting for include Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, and Ethiopia. But with more than 1,000 eMail messages arriving some days, Thompson figures it’s only a matter of time until the map is completely colored in.

“The kids are thrilled with this,” she said. “They just can’t wait to get to class.”


‘Rolling blackouts’ threaten California school tech programs

As California’s energy crisis worsens, skyrocketing power bills and rolling blackouts are holding many of the state’s school districts–and their technology programs–hostage.

“We’ve been lucky in that we’ve had no blackouts at all, and all our servers have battery backups,” said Kitty Sanchez-Pfeiffer, director of technology at San Marcos Unified School District (K-12, enrollment 12,000). “We’ve also told our schools to shut their client machines down if there is enough warning–but, of course, if the blackouts come without warning, the client machines will just go down with the power.”

Jamie Morse, director of technology for the Cambrian School District (K-12, enrollment 3,000) in West San Jose, agreed on the importance of power backups for the district’s all-important servers.

“Thankfully, all our servers have uninterruptible power supplies, or UPS, so they will shut down gracefully if a power outage occurs, rather than crash,” he said.

Morse said his district has yet to experience a blackout, “but basically, we are at the mercy of the power company.”

Most observers consider the Golden State’s current energy crisis to be a direct result of attempts to deregulate the industry over the past few years.

A rate freeze, part of California’s 1996 deregulation law, was established at what was then a generous level to assure utilities a steady stream of revenue as they sold off power plants and made the transition to deregulation. But last year, the price of wholesale electricity skyrocketed.

Because of the rate freeze, the state’s public utilities–which usually buy power for roughly 30 cents a kilowatt-hour–could charge customers only about a fifth of that amount, leaving many utilities serving California operating at a loss.

Electric companies have been selling their power to other states with less severe regulations, resulting in a lack of affordable power throughout the state. And that lack of power is affecting schools’ ability to operate.

Tony Hesch, field consultant for the California Department of Education, identified three possible scenarios that could result from the energy crisis.

“First, there are the rolling one-hour blackouts,” he said. “They are applied where the energy grid is short on power, and they may not hit every community. When they hit, most schools continue to operate, but the schools might go into a ‘study mode’ where they discuss electricity, power outages, and the current problems.”

Second, explained Hesch, is the possibility of more severe blackouts.

“In theory, if the energy isn’t shut down periodically with the rolling blackouts, a large portion of the state could go out,” he said. “In a school environment, we have to prepare for the worst, like what happens when an entire plant goes down.”

Finally, Hesch cited problems with some California districts that signed up to buy power at discounted rates years ago, when deregulation first started. “The really low rates were what we call ‘interruptible contracts,'” he said. “What that means is that the company will provide you with power, but when power is short–like it is right now–you’re expected to turn your power off.”

To make matters worse, nervous school administrators have no way of knowing when a blackout will hit their schools.

“We don’t announce it in advance for security reasons,” Ron Low, a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) representative, told the Associated Press. “We don’t want burglars to know where the power’s going to be off and where security alarms are going to be down.”

Security concerns aside, the state’s two largest utilities say there often isn’t enough time to issue such warnings.

But that leaves schools with hard decisions about how to teach.

“Imagine holding a computer class when you know that a rolling blackout might take down the power at any time,” said Hesch. “It’s hard to decide whether to go ahead and power up, and it’s also hard to find alternative curriculum.”

A ‘real hardship’

The threat of losing power isn’t the only peril facing California schools. With prices escalating, some schools have had to reassess the way they use their increasingly precious power supply–including the possibility of limiting computer use.

Some schools have seen their rates go up to as much as $9 per kilowatt-hour, Hesch said.

“They were spending more money on electricity than was in their entire general fund,” he added. “At least four schools that I know of have had to close for a prolonged period of time. They are all back up now, but that could happen again.”

California Gov. Gray Davis used his Dec. 8 State of the State address to take his toughest stance yet on California’s electricity crunch, threatening to take over power plants to avoid blackouts and utility bankruptcies. But many school officials think the situation will get worse before it improves.

“In my opinion, we are looking at probably another 15 [percent] to 20 percent increase [in power bills] before this gets better,” said Morse.

Morse said his district is taking several steps to limit its power consumption–but, so far, none of these have involved limiting computer use. “We just make sure our maintenance crews are ensuring that the timers on the heating [controls] are working properly. They are supposed to turn off automatically at night, but you have to check up on that,” he said. “We’ve also told teachers and janitors to ensure that everything is turned off [when not in use], including lights, PCs, and classroom equipment.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer agreed: “We are trying to conserve in other areas. It’s difficult to conserve energy when it comes to technology. But in my office, for instance, I have three fluorescent lights and we took out one, so it’s a little darker, but more energy-efficient.”

Most of the time, Sanchez-Pfeiffer explained, districts are unwilling to change their patterns where students are concerned.

“Right now, everything remains as we normally function,” she said. “We really try to protect our hardware, internet access, and the curriculum we deliver electronically.”

Sanchez-Pfeiffer said the city of San Marcos, the school district, and California State University at San Marcos are looking into other power sources, and district officials have notified school sites to shut down computers not being used.

“The problem is that we’ve found most of the computers in our district are being used,” she said–a situation that usually would be enviable.

Some observers wonder if the state’s energy crunch will force school districts to cut their technology budgets if it continues much longer.

“We are stressing that schools be prepared,” said Hesch. “The districts are doing a good job and rising to the challenge, but if this goes on for months, it will be a real hardship.”


San Marcos Unified School District

Cambrian School District

California Department of Education Energy Challenge


Interpreting CIPA from a legal perspective

Just when you figured the politicians had drained the cow on protecting fragile young minds from the wild wacky wilderness (www), Congress enacted the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). Tucked into the appropriations package for several Cabinet departments, including the Department of Education, the new law requires public schools and libraries to implement content-filtering technology on computers hooked up to the internet as one of the strings attached to universal service dollars. The filtering criteria spelled out in the legislation demands that the high-tech screening software installed to work with school web browsers is capable of blocking “material deemed to be harmful to minors.”

The Federal Communications Commission has until the middle of April to issue regulations for the law’s implementation, but by that time the law already will have met its first court challenges. Both the American Library Association and the American Civil Liberties Union have declared legal war on CIPA and are looking for armament in the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment. Even if you don’t agree with the “free range” approach of these groups to the wide-open spaces of the web, they have been very successful in defeating previous legislative attempts to fence in the wild wild web. At least one federal court (in Mainstream Loudoun v. Board of Trustees of the Loudoun County Library) has declared the mandatory use of content-blocking software unconstitutional.

But the filtering mandate faces an even larger challenge: filtering out material that is “harmful to minors” without gathering useful, or at least harmless, information in the same dragnet. Filtering software is notoriously clumsy at performing its appointed task. It’s like Alice in Wonderland trying to fit in by using the imperfect Eat Me, Drink Me size adjusters. Some software is too lenient, while other programs block sites that mention words like “breast” and nicknames for Richard. Blocking criteria, whether locally determined or established by vendors, is notoriously subjective. But perhaps the most daunting problem faced by educators trying to soften the impact of the wicked web is that students have discovered that most filters can be circumvented with less effort than it takes to get a passing grade in wood shop.

Of course, one of the potential beneficiaries of the law is the software-filtering industry. Some school districts already spend tens of thousands of dollars with companies that charge big bucks to protect students from everything from nicotine to nudity. Beyond the high cost of purchasing content-blockers, some companies keep track of students’ web-surfing habits and sell the results to other companies, which use the information to guide their own advertising plans. The federal government even buys data from filter vendors.

School districts that object to the law or find complying with it too expensive or of little practical value can take refuge in one provision that has received little publicity in all the brouhaha. The filtering law includes a requirement for “local” definition of what internet material is “harmful to minors.” The decision is up to school officials or the local school board. In fact, the law forbids the FCC or any other governmental agency from establishing criteria for deciding what is harmful. Furthermore, once the school system certifies that it has installed and is using “technology” to “filter or block” the evil web stuff, the government is prohibited from reviewing that decision or questioning the criteria used to make the certification.

On this basis, school systems that see the law for what is really is–the exploitation of public fear by politicians–will spend as few scarce education dollars as possible on this boondoggle. For older students, put in place well-written acceptable-use policies and back them up with reasonable supervision and firm enforcement penalties for violations. For younger students, the solution is much simpler–all internet access should be supervised by adults, not software.


What’s wrong with CIPA

What bothers me most about the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) is that it insults my intelligence and questions my responsibility. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., must believe that we are either stupid–and have no idea how to control internet access on our networks–or completely irresponsible proponents of porn and the access of porn by our students. He must see himself as the white knight of morality riding in to save the taxpayers’ children from the depraved and bumbling teachers and librarians who insist on providing unrestricted access to porn piped directly into classrooms day in and day out.

Beyond the generally insulting tone of the law are some serious issues related to its enforcement–and McCain’s obvious inexperience with filtering technology and alternatives to filtering that can be used to combat this problem.

For those of you who haven’t followed this legislation, CIPA is the latest evolution of bills that attempt to tie eRate funding to the installation of filtering technology. According to this law, schools and libraries that receive eRate funding would have to install filtering technology to block child pornography, other legally obscene material, or material deemed to be “inappropriate for minors.”

Unlike its predecessor (the Child Online Protection Act), which was struck down as unconstitutional for being too vague, CIPA clarifies what is to be blocked with terms such as “legally obscene” and “child pornography,” which have specific legal definitions. The definition of obscene, however, is based on somewhat subjective criteria, such as “contemporary community standards” or “patently offensive” (see link), and often is challenged on a case-by-case basis.

Subjective criteria such as these are sometimes necessary when evaluating the appropriateness of a single book, periodical, or web site, but they work because a thorough discussion of that single work’s merits can take place. What McCain is proposing, however, is not an open evaluation of individual web sites against the criteria for obscenity. Rather, he would leave the gory details of evaluation to private companies that are under no obligation to disclose their policies or to produce a list of sites deemed “obscene.” These companies would have the authority to label a site as obscene without notifying its author. Measurements of “contemporary community standards” and what is “patently offensive” are left to a handful of people who are beholden to no one in the community for their decisions.

More troubling than his willingness to hand over our First Amendment rights to a handful of internet filtering companies is McCain’s apparent lack of understanding of the nature of the problem. In his comments introducing the bill, he said, “As we have seen through an increasing flurry of shocking media reports, the internet has become the tool of choice for pedophiles who utilize the internet to lure and seduce children into illegal and abusive sexual activity. … In many cases, such activity is the product of individuals taking advantage of the anonymity provided by the internet to stalk children through chatrooms and by eMail” (Congressional Record, June 22, 2000, page S5647).

McCain neglected to mention that his filtering legislation would do little or nothing to restrict eMail, instant messaging, or chat, which are the ways that virtually all of these offenses occur.

He also said, “Today [filters] are adaptable, capable of being fine-tuned to accommodate changes in web sites as well as the evolving needs of individual schools and even individual lesson plans” (Congressional Record, Jan. 19, 1999, page S531). The reality is that filtering technology hasn’t changed all that much in the past few years.

The ability to unblock sites and provide different levels of access is nothing new. But doing it well requires technical expertise. The person managing the filter must examine the log files regularly and unblock sites that show up there erroneously. Interpreting these logs requires a basic understanding of how web access works and of hypertext markup language. By forcing schools with limited tech support staff to install filters, CIPA has the potential to subvert a working low-tech solution of observation and education and replace it with an unmanageable technical solution that blocks access to legitimate material.

I do not criticize CIPA for promoting filtering. We filter at our school, and I feel that our system works relatively well. My concern lies in the fact that the government is trying to take the responsibility for determining how best to address the safety of school children out of the hands of local communities and place it in those of a few filtering companies. Furthermore, McCain seems unwilling to accept the fact that most schools that have chosen not to install filters have done so after careful consideration of their options and have made a decision based on principles and pedagogy. He has rejected the notion that a low-tech solution can be just as (or more) effective than a filtering solution.

I know of several schools that have made the decision not to filter based on philosophical reasons. These schools employ numerous low-tech solutions to help teach students how to use the internet responsibly. Some of these include: Placing student workstations only in locations monitored by adults with screens positioned so they can be seen easily, Disabling the ability to auto-hide the Windows task bar to prevent students from hiding pages that have been minimized, Writing a clear acceptable-use policy with specific consequences for violations, Having frank discussions with students about inappropriate material and responsible use of the internet, Restricting computer access to students with specific tasks to complete, and Monitoring, but not blocking, internet access through a proxy server.

CIPA gives no credence to solutions such as these. What is troubling is that these are basics that schools should be doing whether they filter or not. CIPA requires none of them, nor does it mention any of them as acceptable alternatives or supplements to filtering. According to CIPA, a school need only install a filter and do nothing else related to teaching students about using the internet responsibly, and it will be in compliance. In many places, untold numbers of legitimate educational sites will be erroneously blocked, and if the database is not regularly updated, access to “obscene” material will become increasingly available. Meanwhile, nothing will have been done to prepare students to use the internet responsibly when they get home or go to college.

CIPA is so wrong-headed on so many levels that its very existence baffles me. Rather than growing out of a real problem and offering a solution to that problem, it comes from fear and a lack of trust of the adults in charge of schools and libraries. Sure, a problem exists, but the problem is not the kid who looks at dirty pictures while he’s supposed to be doing a history paper. The problem is the teen-ager who comes home to an empty house and sits in front of his computer unsupervised for hours. The problem is the online service that permits adults to send unsolicited instant messages and eMail to children. The problem is the parent who has never talked to his child about what he does online or doesn’t even know how to turn on the computer.

These are the problems we face, and they are much more complex than McCain would have us believe. Filtering solutions exist that may help combat these problems, but they are imperfect, and they are not the only solution. The most valuable solution is a human one. Students need to feel responsible to a human being who will be pleased with good behavior and disappointed with bad. This is a fundamental component of a teacher-student or parent-child relationship, and it is something that a piece of software can never replace.


The landscape is changing for technology grant seekers

It’s the first few weeks of the new administration and everyone is wondering what changes the Bush administration will bring. As a grant writer, I am wondering how the federal and state funding landscape will change. Will there be new initiatives, an emphasis on new areas, or the demise of programs we became accustomed to the last eight years?

Here are some of my thoughts about what we may see, based solely on what I have read so far about President George W. Bush’s plans for education and conversations I have had with colleagues in the past few weeks. (Don’t be under the impression that I have “inside” information from the Beltway!)

In the education plan that Bush released in January, he proposed establishing a $3 billion technology fund. However, this fund would be a consolidation of eRate funds along with eight Department of Education technology programs that are part of Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. States and schools would have flexibility in using the technology funds for teacher training, software purchase and development, and systems integration.

What could this consolidation mean? From a grant-seeking perspective, it could mean fewer proposals to submit–a welcome change for many districts that do not have a grant writer on staff. The consolidation of programs may result in block grants, where schools would submit one application requesting funds and indicate which particular programs they want to be considered for (similar to the Community Development Block Grant program).

Although this could simplify the application process immensely, it might also mean a reduction in funding. States would have the authority, through block granting, to realign funding–and this does not necessarily mean that levels would remain the same as they were before the block grants were instituted. Some of my colleagues fear a significant reduction in eRate funds or, in the worst-case scenario, the elimination of funds. The same also could be said for any one of the technology programs in the Department of Education that are selected for consolidation.

Ultimately, what could occur is an increase in applications for the block grants (because of the simplification of the process), combined with less money being available. The result could be an even higher degree of competition for dollars than already exists. As grant seekers, we can do our part by lobbying our state and federal representatives to preserve funding levels for technology-related programs.

Will there be a shift in priority areas for education funding? According to Education Secretary Rod Paige (Education Week, January 17), “Core agenda items of the Bush administration include imposing new accountability demands on states and schools, providing more local control of federal funds, increasing parental choice, raising child literacy rates, improving school safety, and closing the achievement gaps between students of different family backgrounds.”

Some of these areas are not new. But the Bush plan is marked by an increased emphasis on reading, especially at an early age. One of President Bush’s campaign proposals was to establish a new $5 billion initiative to ensure that all students learn to read by the third grade, with an emphasis on disadvantaged children. Participating states in the initiative would be required to include phonics-based instruction in their programs, train K-2 teachers in reading preparation, and test students in reading in grades three through eight.

Note, also, that Bush would like to move the Head Start preschool program to the Department of Education from the Department of Health and Human Services. In the Education Week article, Secretary Paige stated, “I do not feel that the broad range of services by Head Start should be discontinued, but early education, especially reading, should become the centerpiece.”

An increase in accountability could result in increased student testing, which Bush strongly advocates, and an increased emphasis on the program-evaluation components of grant-funded projects. Reviewers may be looking for significant levels of testing of students to support an applicant’s assertion that his or her project will increase student achievement.

In addition, applicants may be asked more frequently to select research-based solutions to problems and to include the data that show the impact of these solutions on student learning. Vendors of software solutions should be collecting data showing their products’ impact beyond the testimonials of classroom teachers, because future grant seekers will be requesting this type of information from them.

Of course, these are only observations based on the few details we have of the Bush plan so far. I’d welcome any comments from readers who might disagree.

Whatever changes will occur under the new administration, they are unlikely to affect the current funding cycle for federal grant programs. But savvy grant seekers should keep an eye on future developments that could result in a whole new grant-seeking landscape next year.


“Parlo” parlays online lessons into foreign language fluency

Parlo’s unique Virtual Immersion method of language learning enables students to enjoy a “study abroad” experience without having to leave the comfort of their computers. Students can visit the Parlo.com web site to enroll in premium online courses with enhanced audio and interactivity, as well as a wide range of free eMail lessons in French, Spanish, English, and Italian, with German coming soon. Parlo’s site also features pen pals, magazine articles, teachers’ materials, and shopping opportunities. This site is a great way for educators to supplement language learning in the classroom. Parlo offers a variety of materials that teachers can use to enhance the language immersion experience for students. Teachers can choose which lesson topic suits the needs of their students most. Dialogs, grammar explanations and exercises, reading selections, pronunciation activities, and quizzes can help emphasize important concepts learned in class and provide extra practice for students who need help with particular language skills. Students are encouraged to take a diagnostic test in their chosen language of study in order to help Parlo place them at the right level for lessons and chat rooms. Language Curriculum teams consist of top language teachers, linguists, publishers, and ESL specialists, with focused knowledge in technology and distance learning. Full online courses cost approximately $39 to $49 each.


Unlock the myths behind St. Patrick’s Day with this History Channel resource

Who was St. Patrick? Did he really drive all the snakes out of Ireland? What Irish national symbol was part of St. Patrick’s Christian teachings? What’s the meaning of “Erin Go Bragh?” What are some fun things to do to celebrate the Irish national holiday? The History Channel’s St. Patrick’s Day web site is an informative look at the March 17 holiday. In keeping with the History Channel’s excellent reputation for compelling, accurate, and informative programming, this web site gives all the fascinating details related to St. Patrick’s Day. Detailed information on Ireland’s conversion from paganism to Christianity and the Anglo-Irish conflict that consumed the Emerald Isle for 800 years is included. Irish scholars can take an online quiz on the history of Ireland, and the “Interactive Ireland” section of the site provides users with a map of the country so they can click on certain areas to get more information about the region’s history, attractions, and culture.