Using the web to help parents shop for schools

Choosing a school for their children is one of the most important decisions parents will ever make, yet few guidebooks exist. Steve Rees is trying to change that, however—one school at a time.

His San Francisco company, School Wise Press, is using the web to inform and educate parents about California schools.

Marked by fresh writing, easy navigation, and coherent design, is an information-rich web site. Launched in 1997, the site translates the complex business of education into layman’s terms, making it easier for parents to locate and compare schools.

Parents can look up an education term, join the debate about vouchers, access test score data and statewide rankings, link to national clearinghouses, tap into online experts, or order parent-friendly publications.

Most of the information is free. Detailed school profiles cost $6 and give parents information about enrollment, teacher credentials, class sizes, computer resources, the make-up of the student body, and other key factors.

“We’re combining the old-world ways of getting words on paper in a polished form with the new-world ways of automating the data reporting for California’s 8,000 schools,” says Rees. “We’re selling school information one school at a time.”

Using public records and data, School Wise Press’s goal is to make parents “school smart” by helping them understand the complex business of teaching and learning.

“We try to present the data in a readable format and help explain what the figures mean and don’t mean,” says Gordon Smith, the site’s lead designer. “Context is so important, especially in the area of testing. In order to make good decisions, parents need to understand the pros and cons.”

While other web sites and education portals offer many of the same services, School Wise’s clear, concise writing, subdued advertising, and tightly organized format set a new standard for effectiveness.

By helping parents understand the nuances of testing, accountability measures, desegregation, school finance, or social promotion, School Wise hopes to inspire them to get actively involved in decisions affecting their children.

Here’s a sample of School Wise’s brute honesty and snappy writing from a recent posting on its Legislative Watch: “The ‘shape up or ship out’ solution: school accountability rules that rank schools, reward high scoring ones, and ‘assist’ low scorers. If low ranking schools don’t improve, there’s hell to pay. How fair are the rankings? How are they computed? And will school districts have more power (or less) to fix floundering schools?”

Or how about this, from the site’s Virtual Library: “Split Personality: What difference would it make if high school counselors were actually given the tools and the time to do their job? And how can overworked counselors handle two disparate student needs: college preparation and personal counseling? Millicent Lawton, of Education Week, gives us a comprehensive account of this complicated issue.”

The company’s proprietary software application can interpret relationships between data sets, recognize patterns, identify statistical anomalies, and explain them in sentences that can be “understood by anybody with a high school education.”

“We do what many special-interest publishers do: We interpret an area of technical expertise for the interested layman,” says Rees.

The site’s content is enhanced by its clean design and intuitive approach to navigation. Graphics are kept to a manageable size, and the information is displayed in a coherent fashion.

“Looks are not that important,” says Smith. “Design should add to clarity and make the information more accessible, not less. We tend to go toward the utilitarian rather than the glitzy.”

Smith says school webmasters would be wise to assume that parents and other site visitors will not have the latest and greatest technology.

“A lot of parents are going to be looking at our site using [America Online] or older browsers that aren’t frame-capable,” he explains. “We need to keep it simple, so people with older equipment will be able to tour our site quickly and easily, or upload our graphics without using a lot of bandwidth.”

While some educators shy away from controversial subjects or operate on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach to communications, Rees and Smith believe that open communication actually builds greater trust.

By using the web and other communication channels to share vital—and often controversial—information with parents and the community, school leaders can engage parents more effectively, they say.

“If we could make communications active and public-oriented rather than passive and ‘damage response’ oriented, we might be able to change the nature of this dialogue,” says Rees. “It’s right at the heart of our schools’ relationship to their customers.”


School Wise Press

Gordon Smith Design


Bush selects former FCC staffers, Hill aide for agency posts

President Bush on April 6 announced the nominations of three new commissioners to the agency that will shape how schools and other consumers get new high-speed web connections, wireless technologies, digital television, and other services.

If confirmed by the Senate, the three will give the Federal Communications Commission a Republican majority so that it can push ahead on several important items awaiting action.

Those include a review of rules that limit what broadcast stations can own and how much airwave space a wireless company can have in a particular market. FCC Chairman Michael Powell has said that such restrictions must be justified in today’s competitive markets, suggesting that the rules may be relaxed or eliminated.

Bush’s nominees to fill two GOP slots are Kevin Martin and Kathleen Abernathy, who would serve until 2006 and 2005, respectively. Both are former staffers at the commission. Martin more recently worked on Bush’s campaign as deputy general counsel.

The president said he would nominate Michael Copps to a Democratic seat on the panel. Copps is a former aide to Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee. His term would expire in 2004.

If confirmed, the three nominees “will bring important experience and expertise to the Commission and I welcome the opportunity to carry out the responsibilities of the FCC with them,” Powell said.

The Bush administration will likely have one more seat to fill at the FCC. Current Commissioner Gloria Tristani, a Democrat, is expected to leave by year’s end. House Democrats would like to see Andrew Levin, minority counsel to the Commerce Committee, in that spot.

Public interest groups said the GOP nominees are experienced Washington hands.

“What we will want to know is whether they will be willing to enforce the law as written,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman of the public interest firm Media Access Project. “Many deregulators have been all too willing to bend congressional directives.”

The agency should have five commissioners total, with the majority going to the party of the current White House administration.


Second-story instincts

Technology and the internet are changing what educators have to worry about, and the changes go beyond the obvious.

Time was when the alphabet soup of federal agencies meant next to nothing to the average educator. Except for once a decade or so—when issues such as Sputnik, school desegregation, or federal aid to education would explode into the headlines—it used to seem pretty safe for school folk to ignore what the geniuses and assistant geniuses where up to in Washington, D.C.

Ever since it really got rolling some 50 years ago, federal funding has held a degree of interest for educators. But even federal money has traditionally earned only a 6 or 7 percent rating on the educator-interest meter. Reason: Federal funding did—and still does—amount to only about 6 or 7 percent of the total funding for education.

Far more profound on the school funding front: whether your friends and neighbors will approve that tax levy or budget referendum.

So is 6 or 7 percent all that important? Well, as our Front Page story reports, President Bush just proposed his first federal budget, and you can judge for yourself. The Bush budget would knock out about $55 million in the federal support you’ve been getting for school technology.

Those $55 million would round out a bank account nicely. But in a field that spends $8 or $9 billion on technology every year, a federal cut of that size would hardly be apocalyptic (unless, of course, part of those particular federal millions had a role in funding the technology program in your schools).

Even so, Congress is as certain as sunrise to fiddle with that funding level before the budget actually is enacted sometime next fall or winter. In other words, it’s premature to worry too much right now. That’s why Mr. Bush’s budget is likely to leave the sleep of educators in Bmidji, Minn.; Gnawbone, Ind.; and the community where you live largely undisturbed.

But that doesn’t mean you have nothing to worry about from Washington. In fact, the variety of Washington issues to worry about is on the rise these days.

If not money, then meddling is what we need to watch out for.

In just this month’s issue of eSchool News, one story after another cites agencies and offices educators rarely, if ever, had to think about before. When, for instance, was the last time you had to wonder what the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was up to?

Well, now you do.

You do, that is, if you care how well web sites for kids are complying with the regulations enforcing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA, page 14). And just in case your schools’ web sites attract visitors under thirteen, guess what: You, too, had better be up to speed on the COPPA rules.

And how about that Federal Communications Commission (FCC)? It’s getting so not a month goes by without an FCC development important to education. So how much time did you spend in grad school studying the role of the FCC in education?

Neither did anyone else.

Yet right now, savvy educators from coast to coast are letting out a sigh of relief. The FCC won’t be taking away your instructional television spectrum, after all, to make room for cell phones, pagers, and other wireless devices (page 19). A spectrum change such as the one being contemplated by the FCC could have cost some school systems millions.

But just as one worry fades away another looms, this time in the form of the Child Internet Protection Act (CIPA). The FCC has just issued the rules schools and libraries must follow when it comes to filtering internet content (page 20). If you want your schools to remain eligible for eRate treats, you must perform your CIPA tricks before next Halloween.

No doubt about it. Technology and the internet have opened a window on the world for education, but they’ve also altered who might climb in. Unfortunately, some people in our federal government react to an open window like a second-story man. They’re gripped with an irresistible urge to grab a ladder.

It’s enough to make an educator want to shutter.

Gregg Downey
Editor and Publisher


“Memorial Day” is a memorable tribute to war veterans

This simple and tasteful web site from the U.S Army’s Center of Military History would make a good addition to any Memorial Day discussion about American veterans and United States involvement in all wars since the Civil War. Powerful photographs bring to mind the sacrifices the nation’s servicemen have made in the name of protecting freedom, both in the world theater and at home. A timeline dating from 1866 to the present traces the origins of Memorial Day, a holiday once known as “Decoration Day,” in honor of the tradition of decorating the graves of U.S. soldiers killed in action. The site’s timeline is filled with interesting facts. For instance, in 1866 a group of women in Columbus, Miss., who laid flowers for both Confederate and Union dead at a local cemetery were hailed in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune for their “healing touch for a nation.” And in 1966, Congress recognized the Waterloo, N.Y., celebration on May 5 as the “first observance of Memorial Day as a national holiday to pay tribute to those who gave their lives in all our Nation’s wars.” The site also includes a transcript of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s Memorial Day message and information about veterans’ organizations and memorials, including the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Vietnam Memorial.


“Facing History and Ourselves” invites students to confront prejudice

For almost 25 years, Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit professional development program for teachers and civic education programs, has engaged teachers and students of diverse backgrounds. Through an examination of racism, prejudice, and anti-Semitism, Facing History “promotes the development of a more humane and informed citizenry.” By studying the Holocaust and other examples of collective violence, students make the essential connection between history and the moral choices they confront in their own lives. The Facing History web site offers teachers and others in the community occasions to study the past, explore new ideas and approaches, and develop practical models for civic engagement that link history to the challenges of an increasingly interconnected world. Facing History helps students find answers to their questions, such as: How can we prevent violence and end racism and anti-Semitism? How do we find the courage to protect human rights so that “never again” truly means that we have learned something by studying the events that led to one of the most violent times in the 20th century? The web site provides information on resource materials, ongoing teacher support, and professional development training through a partnership with VIS Corp., providers of web-based learning.


“CraniaMania” lets students compete with their peers

Looking for a fun and competitive way to challenge your students? CraniaMania is an online destination for high school students that aims to improve academic achievement through real-time practice and interscholastic competition. Accessible any time from home or school, CraniaMania is an educational supplement for teachers and a forum for achievement-oriented students to practice, compete, win prizes, and meet other like-minded students. This free education site promises to help students sharpen their test-taking skills and knowledge of academic subjects through fast-paced practices and competitions. The content adheres to national and state secondary school curriculum standards, as well as Advanced Placement and SAT curricula. Achievement-oriented students ages 13 to 18 who are looking to improve their test scores, increase their knowledge, and compete with their peers can practice in private and compete in public against other students, teams, classrooms, and schools on this new game site. Educators looking for ready-made, nationally approved content to supplement lesson plans, and those looking for engaging new ways to incorporate technology into the classroom, also might appreciate this site. One warning to educators: CraniaMania makes no bones about selling sponsorships for its online competitions, so if you don’t want kids exposed to any ads at all, you might want to steer clear. CraniaMania features proprietary academic content in a number of secondary school subjects, all developed by a team of expert educators, according to the site’s creators.


Mine this online database for nuggets of wisdom on school funding issues

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently launched an online database that will help school administrators and the group’s members track a wide variety of education funding issues. The database can be found on the site under “Policy Issues” and “education.” Although the site is designed for state legislators, most information is open to all visitors who are interested in learning more about how certain state mandates affect schools. NCSL describes the site as an “information clearinghouse” that explains how state education funding formulas work and tracks all education-finance litigation. Among the topics covered are funding for technology infrastructure, construction, special education, and transportation. The site also addresses issues such as school choice, teacher quality, after-school projects, school violence, civic education, school-to-work, and releases from the National Center on Education Finance. As funding for school districts may be transformed by policy changes resulting from the new political climate, this site is a great way to keep up with federal- and state-related funding issues.


Make “The Technology Source” one of your sources for ed-tech information

The University of North Carolina publishes “The Technology Source,” a bimonthly, peer-reviewed periodical, as a resource for educators working to create useful technology programs and initiatives that address the needs of all stakeholders, from students to teachers to families. According to the site’s authors, the purpose of The Technology Source is “to provide thoughtful, illuminating articles that will assist educators as they face the challenge of integrating information technology tools into teaching and into managing educational organizations.” Articles cover topics in the areas of assessment, virtual universities, case studies, and faculty and staff development. Recent articles covered a range of education topics, including: “Seven Principles of Effective Teaching: A Practical Lens for Evaluating Online Courses,” “Online Communities as a New Learning Paradigm: An Interview with Paul Shrivastava,” “eLobbying: Marketing eLearning to the Legislature,” “Electronic Tuition Rates Overcome Distance Learning Barrier,” “Using Technology to Improve Curriculum Development,” and “The Role of Education Faculty in Choosing Web-based Course Management Systems.”


“” could bolster your teacher recruitment efforts, powered by the Center for American Jobs, is a new recruiting solution that integrates the web and the telephone to provide employers with a comprehensive skill assessment of job candidates. The web site is intended to provide a fast, easy, and cost-effective way for employers to find pre-qualified candidates that meet their minimum hiring standards. The heart of involves the pre-screening and pre-qualifying of prospective employees, using state-of-the-art Interactive Voice Response (IVR) telephone technology and the internet. Responding to recruitment advertising, candidates can call 800-NOW-HIRING or go to the web site to answer a series of job-related questions designed to pre-qualify them to the employers’ hiring standards. The site’s proprietary system compares the candidate’s answers to employers’ individual hiring criteria, and, where there is a match, automatically eMails or faxes an enhanced resume to employers. The site also allows candidates to record a special message to prospective employers, allowing them to listen to those messages at any time via the internet or the telephone. Use of the service is fee-based for districts, but free to the job-seeker.


“” is a well-organized education portal

This useful educational resource portal was conceived and designed by a retired Long Island junior high school history teacher of 32 years and is sponsored by BASCOM, a developer of secure school web sites. contains links to nearly 2,000 sites for students, teachers, and parents, with a special emphasis on practical information. The site recently added 200 new linked resources, with some links offering streaming radio and video. “Learning the Net” and “Microsoft Product Tutorials” are new to the list as well. Other notable features include curriculum-related links for major subject areas, reference links, links related to high school and college, and teacher and parenting links. The site is pretty bare-bones, with no bells or cyber-whistles, but it scores high for ease of use. Addressing a plethora of subjects from current events to the arts, colleges and careers, lesson plans and resources, and virtual field trips, this site is a great way to locate materials to supplement lesson plans.