House bill might kill ed tech research agencies

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce on March 20 marked up and passed by voice vote H.R. 3801, a bill that would overhaul the federal office responsible for conducting education research, collecting statistics on the status and progress of U.S. schools, and distributing information to those working to improve education.

As it stands now, the bill also would eliminate guaranteed yearly funding for the six Regional Technology in Education Consortia (RTECs), agencies that disseminate technology best practices and offer technical assistance to school districts.

H.R. 3801, the Education Sciences Reform Act, was introduced by Education Reform Subcommittee Chairman Michael Castle, R-Del. If passed, it would restructure the Department of Education’s Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI), which is scheduled for reauthorization this year.

According to Castle, the bill would transform OERI into a “streamlined, more independent [agency called the] Academy of Education Sciences. Essentially, this legislation attempts to address what I have come to know as serious shortcomings in the field of education research.”

He continued: “While some labs, centers, clearinghouses, and consortia provide excellent support to our schools, others do not. With the implementation of [the new education law, No Child Left Behind], all states and schools will need help—and they all should have access to quality technical assistance. My bill gives them that chance.”

A press release from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce says the bill would:

  • Replace the current OERI with the new Academy of Education Sciences. The academy would conduct and support research, disseminate findings, and strengthen and promote the coordination of scientifically based research. It would function as a separate office under the direction of the National Board for Education Sciences and would oversee such programs as the National Center for Education Research, the National Center for Program Evaluation, and the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Establish standards to “put an end to education fads that masquerade as sound science.” The bill would require all federally funded activities (including scientifically based research) to meet these new standards of quality.
  • Make technical assistance—including assistance in carrying out the requirements of the No Child Left Behind act—”customer-driven” and accountable to school districts, states, and regions.
  • Inject competition into the current system of labs, centers, and clearinghouses to provide for consumer choice and ensure high quality and relevant services and products.
  • Ensure that research priorities are informed by the needs of parents, teachers, and school administrators, not political pressure, and focus on solving key problems.

For fiscal year 2003, the bill authorizes $400 million for the Academy of Education Sciences, $111 million for the National Assessment Governing Board and the National Assessment for Education Progress, and $189 million for the establishment of a Regional Educational Applied Research and Technical Assistance Program.

The bill authorizes “such sums as necessary” for fiscal years 2004 through 2008. “Basically, [the bill’s authors] created the $189 million Regional Technical Assistance Program to help in matters such as implementing the Reading First and bilingual education programs,” said Jee Hang Lee, senior legislative associate for Leslie Harris and Associates, which represents the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) and the International Society for Technology in Education with legislative matters.

“Right now, we don’t know how prominently technology will play in that $189 million.” The Regional Technical Assistance Program would be a grant program with 10 regional centers.

While the bill was being drafted, according to a summary of the committee hearing distributed by CoSN, Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., introduced and then withdrew an amendment to authorize RTECs under the new legislation. As it stands now, the bill only authorizes funding of the RTECs for the duration of their current grants.

Once this period is up, RTECs must compete with other, non-technology related groups for funds under the umbrella of the Regional Technical Assistance Program. Lee said the Education Department needs the help of entities such as RTECs to help states and local districts identify and use research-based technology programs that work—but he is concerned that the competitive nature of the new Regional Technical Assistance Program would jeopardize funding for the RTECs.

Rep. Castle noted that further consideration would be given to the RTECs before the bill comes to the House floor, probably sometime in mid-April.

Paul Kimmelman, special advisor to the executive director of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, the organization that oversees the North Central RTEC, located in Naperville, Ill., said he anticipates the bill will be changed over the course of the legislative process, and he is hopeful that his organization will find funding under the new law.

“We believe that the work of our center has been very good work and [has been] well received by the region we serve,” he said. “With that in mind, certainly we’d like to retain our structure as it currently exists, but we recognize that the intent of this act is to improve education research and technical assistance in the country, and we support it.”

However the bill turns out, Keith Krueger, executive director of CoSN, said he hopes the result is “more and better research on the effectiveness of technology” in education. Krueger cited a number of recent studies, most notably the Clinton administration’s Web-based Education Commission, that “have all consistently pointed out that we’re spending less than one-half of 1 percent [of school technology funding] on research regarding what’s effective.”

That’s significant, he contends, because education technology processes within schools are not being improved. “We don’t know how kids learn with technology,” Krueger said. “There has been a huge disconnect between the research community and the user community, which is K-12 technology leaders.”

A large portion of the research that has been done to date has little applicability in the classroom, Krueger said—and what little research that is applicable has not been widely disseminated. He added, “These are huge problems.”

Like supporters of H.R. 3801, Krueger believes that while OERI is important, it is not the only piece in the federal research “puzzle.” “There are dollars being spent at the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health. They all have larger budgets [than the Education Department] in terms of research,” Krueger said.

He believes that education leaders need to initiate a new dialog with agencies that are not traditionally thought of as being education-focused. These organizations might, in fact, be spending more money on educational technology research—on topics such as childhood cognition and the use of technology to improve learning—than ED.


House Committee on Education and the Workforce

Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del.

North Central Regional Educational Laboratory

Consortium for School Networking


Pennsylvania lawmaker questions computers in day-care centers

A Pennsylvania program that supplies preschools and day-care centers with free computers and internet access is being targeted by a state lawmaker as inappropriate—especially in a time of budget shortfalls. At issue is the question of how young is too young for children to be using computers in a government-sponsored program.

State Sen. Mary Jo White insists she’s no Luddite when it comes to providing technology for kids, but she does have her doubts when it comes to preschoolers and the internet.

White, R-Venango, is questioning a decision by the governor and the General Assembly to spend nearly $10 million a year—including $1.4 million in state funds and $8.4 million in federal money—to hook up day-care centers to the internet.

The program is called CyberStart. It was a favorite of former Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration that also has been taken up by Gov. Mark S. Schweiker. CyberStart provides free access to the internet for day-care centers, along with training for day-care staff members in how to use it.

“Why are we spending all this money to wire day-care centers?” White asked in what has become an annual question for her as the Legislature takes up Schweiker’s $20.9 billion proposed budget for 2002-03.

“You’re dealing with preschoolers here who can’t read, so it’s hard for me to understand why they need internet access,” she said.

Osaze Proctor might have an answer. The 5-year-old at the Harrisburg YWCA’s day-care center busied himself recently at a CyberStart computer, playing an internet-based game that required him to match pictures of objects with words they represented.

With the aid of a teacher, Proctor identified the “v” that begins the word “violin” and matched up the photo to the word by clicking and dragging with a mouse. The computer played a fanfare to celebrate Proctor’s success, and he clapped his hands in victory.

Although they use the computer regularly, children are not spending their days in front of the machines, said Jo Shepperd, director of community education for the YWCA. Rather, the computers are one of many components in the learning process, she said.

“They’re learning to use computers like they’re learning to use crayons,” Shepperd said. “It’s just another learning tool.”

Training of staff has helped make use of the internet more effective, Shepperd said. The CyberStart program provides a regional program manager who offers advice to staff on good web sites to use and ways to incorporate the computer into their activities.

“I still think that technology is a component that should be handled very carefully in early childhood classrooms,” Shepperd said. “I think it has a lot of potential…. We have to be careful how we use it, and I think that’s CyberStart’s intent.”

When Ridge announced CyberStart in 1998, he touted it as a program that helped children excel by giving them access to worldwide resources and computer-based training right from the preschool level.

Officials with the state Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) say they will have more than 1,500 day-care centers hooked up to the internet this year, with more than 1,600 free computers delivered. The program provides free hardware, software, internet access, and computer installation.

The program’s eventual goal is to have all 4,000 day-care centers in Pennsylvania hooked up to computers, said Matt Tunnell, second in command at DCED.

But this year, the Legislature is facing an especially tight budget, and faltering revenue projections mean the situation has become even more worrisome since Schweiker first proposed his plan for the next fiscal year.

Budget Secretary Robert A. Bittenbender has said the state’s revenues might fall short of projections by more than $700 million by the time this fiscal year ends on June 30.

White isn’t the only senator questioning the CyberStart program. Sen. Tim Murphy, R-Allegheny, wants to know what the program is doing for the children.

“Preschoolers are in a phase where they’re still learning their numbers, their letters, their colors,” said Murphy, who is also a psychologist. “Young children have a tremendous capability to learn, … but I’m not sure the internet is the best source to teach them.”


CyberStart program

Pennsylvania General Assembly

Department of Community and Economic Development


Manage your district’s tech support with TCO Helpdesk

NetSupport TCO Helpdesk, a web-based software tool from NetSupport Inc., allows school district technology personnel to log and manage help requests using customizable forms. The software also allows IT staff members to conduct a complete hardware and software inventory of a user’s computer and allocate an appropriately skilled person to solve the problem.

Using a visually intuitive interface, teachers and other school employees in need of help can go online to submit a help request and view its status. NetSupport TCO Helpdesk provides an ongoing history of each user that asks for help. An electronic bulletin board displays in real time the number of requests currently being processed by the help desk professionals and how long users can expect to wait for resolution.

The software produces detailed reports that list the total number of requests for support, status of the calls, and average resolution time. These reports can help you identify the kinds of problems that prevail in your district and how much time they take to resolve, so you can budget your resources accordingly.


Leap all file transport hurdles with Sony’s Micro Vault

With increased access to digital photos and graphics, students are creating computer files too big to save on a single floppy disk to transfer them between home and school. With Sony’s Micro Vault USB storage device, however, students and teachers can save and transport large files—such as PowerPoint presentations loaded with audio and video—between computers with ease.

The Micro Vault is about the size of a pack of gum. It plugs into a computer’s USB port and is automatically recognized by the latest Windows and Macintosh operating systems. Users don’t have to worry about cables, adapters, software, or interoperability between PCs and Macs. The device also has a password-protected security feature to ensure security of the files.

The Micro Vault comes in four sizes:16 MB (orange), 32 MB (red), 64 MB (blue), and 128 MB (black). The suggested retail prices are $49.99, $69.99, $99.99, and $149.99, respectively.


Develop students’ reading skills with this new Lightspan program

The Lightspan Reading Center, a new online reading program for grades K-3, allows students to work at their own pace, whether they are prereaders or fluent readers. It provides real-time, online tracking of individual student progress by skill and objective, so teachers can assess areas of concern or strength quickly.

Designed especially for young students, the Lightspan Reading Center program provides step-by-step audio instructions that encourage students to complete interactive activities and move onto higher levels of achievement. Students will learn vocabulary building, comprehension, word analysis, phonics, study skills, critical thinking, and more.

In addition to the classroom tools, the Reading Center includes online and face-to-face professional development to help teachers stay current on the most recent research on reading and instructional approaches. It also includes a family-training component to increase family involvement and increase the school-home connection.

The Reading Center is part of Lightspan’s Early Reading program and is not intended to be used in isolation, said Lightspan spokesman Bob Scheid. The program was co-developed by teachers at Allen Independent School District in Texas and curriculum specialists at Lightspan Inc. and was partly funded by a Technology Innovation Challenge Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.


Calculate your students’ math proficiency with MathAccess

MathAccess, a new diagnostic mathematics assessment test from Vantage Learning, adapts to a student’s proficiency level, enabling schools to identify students’ math skills quickly, intervene when necessary, and provide custom curriculum accordingly.

MathAccess provides a cross-section of a student’s math ability and helps schools identify where students need more math instruction. It evaluates students on a common scale across grade levels, allowing schools to track student progress from year to year. This web-based, computer-adaptive software, which is based on technology that is used in more than 40 states and was most recently adopted by Virginia, can be customized to meet specific state or district needs.

“Until now, states [and school districts have] lacked an effective tool to diagnose student mathematic skills at an instructionally useful level,” said Vantage Learning CEO Peter Murphy. “Now, schools will have the ability to quickly and accurately determine where students need further mathematics instruction.”


Enforce your district’s AUP with help from Vericept Inc.

Vericept Solutions for Education—a collection of internet monitoring tools from Vericept Inc., formerly known as eSniff—captures and reports all violations of a school’s internet acceptable-use policy. Unlike typical filtering systems, however, Vericept Solutions for Education doesn’t block objectionable material, and it doesn’t presume to know what a school feels is appropriate.

Instead, the system—which consists of a Linux-based hardware device—captures and reports activity predefined by the school as inappropriate. Vericept’s unobtrusive monitoring technology uses advanced linguistics and mathematical analysis to analyze a school’s network traffic, including internet, intranet, and eMail use; print jobs; and instant messaging.

Vericept Solutions for Education allows schools to define their own boundaries when it comes to acceptable-use policies. The software simply captures the full content of the activity that violates these policies, so school officials can take action in real time or follow up later. By recording and reporting inappropriate internet use, Vericept helps school officials identify pending violent attacks, substance-abuse problems, or even attempted plagiarism. The device can capture when students use school computers to buy term papers online, download pornography, view drug or bomb-making web sites, or engage in racist dialogue. The sensitivity of the categories can be tailored to suit each school.

Vericept Solutions for Education costs between $10 and $20 per workstation, depending on the number of stations at a given school. In addition, there is an optional annual maintenance fee of 20 percent.


Swipe a glance at this laptop anti-theft device from Caveo Technology

As more and more schools provide laptops for students and teachers, the Caveo Anti-Theft security system is an attractive option for making sure they remain with their rightful owners.

Caveo Anti-Theft, a security solution for laptop computers from Cambridge, Mass.-based Caveo Technology, has a built-in motion detector. When the PC card-like device detects motion, a warning signal goes off. If an armed computer is moved beyond a distance specified by the owner, the system assumes theft and initiates a series of security responses that include shutting down the computer, preventing access to the operating system, and sounding an audible alarm. The device also has an encryption option to protect confidential data.

The system is independent of the computer. Whether the computer is on or off, Caveo Anti-Theft can be armed or disarmed conveniently using the device’s Motion Password. The device can work for more than three weeks before its rechargeable battery needs charging.

“Laptop theft is a major concern and a costly problem that grows worse as the laptop increasingly becomes the computer of choice,” said David Lee, founder and CEO of Caveo Technology. The Caveo Anti-Theft device costs $99 and is available through a number of retailers, online catalogs, and resellers.


CNN backs off bid to sell sponsorships on school news program

In a victory for opponents of commercialism in schools, the Cable News Network (CNN) has backed off plans to sell sponsorships on “CNN Student News,” a program it produces for classrooms that has been commercial-free since it began in 1989.

Earlier this year, the network had floated the idea of introducing advertising, distressing activists who always saw CNN as a “purer” news alternative for schools than the Channel One service.

“It’s not worth the trouble,” said Turner Broadcasting System spokesman Brad Turell.

A textbook company already had expressed interest in buying a sponsorship, but CNN hadn’t completed the deal, he said.

CNN founder Ted Turner had touted the non-commercial nature of the program, formerly called “CNN Newsroom.” Teachers are instructed to tape the half-hour show of news reports geared to middle and high school students when it’s shown each school day at 4:30 a.m. Eastern time.

About 18,000 schools worldwide use “CNN Student News,” the network said.

It’s the chief competition to Channel One, a service started in 1990 that broadcasts a 10-minute news program, plus two minutes of commercials, to more than 12,000 schools. Channel One provides free video equipment to schools in return for a promise to show their program to students.

The national Parent-Teacher Association, which believes that children “should not be used as a pawn in commercial enterprises,” has recommended that schools show the CNN program instead of dealing with Channel One, said PTA President Shirley Igo.

“We’re glad that CNN came to its senses,” said Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert, an advocacy group that opposes commercialism in schools. “CNN has built up over the years a reservoir of good will because they didn’t show ads. It was very stupid of them to squander that.”

Commercial Alert is widely credited—or blamed, depending on your perspective—for the demise of ZapMe!, a company that supplied schools with free computers and internet-based educational content. The catch: Sponsors’ messages appeared in the margins of the computers’ web browsers.

Commercial Alert ran a public-relations campaign that was highly critical of ZapMe!’s business model, which ultimately caused ZapMe! to pull the plug on its service. The organization had launched a similar campaign against “CNN Student News” before the network backed off its plans.

CNN believed it was unfair to compare what it was planning with Channel One, which uses product ads similar to those on commercial TV. Under guidelines CNN had prepared, the sponsor would be allowed to identify itself for up to 10 seconds at the beginning of a segment, and an on-screen logo would be repeated during closing credits.

Only nonprofit foundations, educational product companies, or corporations supporting educational initiatives could apply. CNN believed its rules were more stringent than public broadcasting, which accepts sponsorships but claims to be commercial-free.

“We understand that this is a hot-button issue, and to put Turner Learning at the center of controversy would be a disservice to its mission, that we are fully committed to, and that we have provided commercial- and cost-free for the past 13 years,” Turell said.

The program costs Turner Learning, a division of CNN parent AOL Time Warner, between $5 million and $10 million a year to produce. The company was hoping to make improvements to “CNN Student News” and wanted to cap its costs.

Turner Learning will hold off on a final decision about sponsorships until it names a new chief executive for “CNN Student News,” Turell said.

Commercial Alert had argued that despite the guidelines, CNN would still be allowing ads that virtually any corporation that claimed an educational component could buy.

“It’s sort of the camel’s nose under the tent,” Ruskin said.

Ironically, the flap over commercialism at CNN comes at a time when Channel One is hurting. The company’s parent, Primedia Inc., is seeking a partner to help pay for equipment upgrades, although it emphasizes that Channel One is not for sale.

Channel One was strongly profitable for several years, but has slumped recently.

One reason is that some advertisers consider the service expendable because—not being students—they don’t regularly see their commericials, said someone familiar with the business who asked not to be identified.

Commercial Alert also began a letter-writing campaign to advertisers last year, urging them not to buy commercials on Channel One.

Asked what impact the campaign had on Channel One’s business, executive Jim Ritts said, “Virtually none.” The company has suffered from the same ad sales slump affecting all of television, said Ritts, president of Primedia Television.

He was bemused by the dispute over sponsorships on “CNN Student News.”

“The notion that it hasn’t had a commercial purpose from the beginning is laughable,” Ritts said. “They’ve been promoting the CNN brand.”


CNN Student News

Channel One

Commerical Alert


Court hears testimony in challenge of web filtering law

Mandating internet filters in public libraries puts unconstitutional restraints on free speech and amounts to censorship, librarians testified before a federal court March 25.

Librarians and free-speech advocates say the filtering technology used to block internet pornography is imperfect and inadvertently blocks important information on health, sexuality, and social issues.

“We would, for the first time, be in the position to potentially block out constitutionally protected speech for all our patrons—adults, children, and staff,” said Candace Morgan, associate director of the Fort Vancouver Regional Library in Washington state, in testimony before the court.

The American Library Association (ALA), the American Civil Liberties Union, and others are challenging the constitutionally of the Children’s Internet Protection Act of 2000. This law, known as CIPA, requires schools and libraries to block pornography as a condition for receiving eRate discounts—federal money to pay for internet access and internal wiring.

The lawsuit challenges only the requirement placed on libraries, which have to comply by July 2002. The government contends that the law does not censor libraries, because they can simply decline to accept funding.

The trial in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia before a three-judge federal court panel began March 25 without opening statements and is expected to last nine days.

“Instead of relying on filtering technology, we should be educating children,” said ALA’s Judith Krug before the trial began. “It’s not only learning the difference between right and wrong, but how to use information wisely. … There are no quick fixes.”

Other plaintiffs include the Multnomah County Library in Portland, Ore., which wants to offer patrons a choice between filtered and unfiltered internet access, and Jeffrey L. Pollock, a Republican Congressional candidate who supported the law until he discovered that his web site was blocked by a popular filtering product.

The law also presents other practical problems, including how to set up systems that can “read” library cards to tell whether a child or an adult is using a computer and how to define what the legislation calls “bona fide” research, said Ginnie Cooper, director of Multnomah County Public Library, serving 500,000 people in the Portland, Ore., region.

“There are some 5-year-olds whose parents do not want them to know where babies come from, and there are some [whose parents] do,” Cooper testified. “We don’t try to presume the values of parents.”

The law’s supporters say that if printed pornographic materials are not in a library’s collection, there is no reason the materials should be available to library patrons online. They also say filtering software has vastly improved since the measure was passed, making fewer mistakes and allowing librarians or administrators to unblock sites blocked in error.

“They’re still not perfect, but neither are safety belts, and we use them,” Miriam Moore of the Family Research Council told the Associated Press. “It’s a preventive measure.”

Critics of the law say they shouldn’t be forced to pay for flawed technology that hinders more than it helps.

Krug cited examples of filters blocking web sites for golfer Fred Couples, as well as American Indian groups because of references to peyote—a plant used in native religious ceremonies but banned in many states for its hallucinogenic properties.

Filters can be set to block sites that appear on a “denial list” or contain objectionable words. Some filters also can block eMail and chat-room messages.

Some pornography still gets through unless the filters are set to allow access only to pre-approved sites, but that approach also rejects more legitimate content.

Congress first tried to combat online porn in 1996 by making it a crime to put adult-oriented material online where children can find it. The Supreme Court struck down the law in 1997, saying it was too vague and trampled on adults’ rights.

A year later, Congress narrowed the restrictions to commercial web sites and defined indecency more specifically. Sites must collect a credit card number or other proof of age before allowing internet users to view material deemed “harmful to minors.”

A federal appeals court has barred enforcement of the 1998 law, saying the standards are so broad and vague that the law is probably unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue this year.

Like the latest lawsuit, challenges to the 1996 and 1998 laws began at the U.S. District Court in Philadelphia.


American Library Association’s CIPA page

American Civil Liberties Union

ACLU’s Web-Blocking Trial page

Family Research Council

eSchool News CIPA Survival Guide