School leaders, education groups weigh in on filtering law

Technology can result in greater online safety, but only when combined with training, education, and the flexibility to use it sensibly, according to a handful of educators, experts, and private citizens who weighed in on the effectiveness of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), a law that requires eRate-funded schools to use a technology protection measure to keep kids safe online.

The U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) invited comments from the public to evaluate whether currently available internet blocking or filtering technologies and internet safety policies adequately address the needs of schools.

NTIA will use the comments to make recommendations to Congress about how to foster the development of technology protection measures that meet schools’ needs. Comments were required to be submitted to the organization by Aug. 27.

While some respondents were pleased with CIPA and the use of internet filters in schools, the majority said the law should incorporate internet safety education, flexibility to disable filters, and local decision making.

Others expressed concern that the law fails to address emerging technologies and that it stifles innovation and competition.

“We believe that unless technological protection measures are accompanied by adequate training, allow for flexible usage, and are governed by local decision making, they will never fully meet the needs of schools,” said the National Education Association (NEA) in its comments.

Training and education

Teachers need technology training, and besides relying on technology to protect them, students need to learn to use the internet responsibly, respondents said.

“We are convinced that any technological protection measure will only be successful if used in conjunction with appropriate training and instruction for both the children themselves and for teachers and other appropriate school and library staff,” said the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The Mid-Atlantic Regional Technology in Education Consortium (MAR*TEC) recommended that education leaders receive training, help, and support in developing and implementing effective monitoring policies and that school-district leaders participate in this training.

“Even if computers are physically placed in a room so that teachers can see the students’ workstations, teachers and educational leaders are unaware of what good computer monitoring entails and how strategies change and develop with students’ grade level maturation,” MAR*TEC said. “Districts need to educate teachers regarding their responsibility and potential liability and to provide them with effective monitoring strategies.”

ISTE recommended that teacher training should include information about how web sites can be added or deleted from the school’s blocked list.

Also, many respondents felt technology alone will never completely prevent minors from gaining access to inappropriate material online, and that teaching them what to do if they encounter harmful internet content is most beneficial.

“We believe programs that educate children to think critically and use the internet safely and responsibly are the most effective measures to protect children from dangerous situations or inappropriate material on the internet,” ISTE said.

The Consortium for School Networking said students need to learn skills to protect themselves when they use computers without filtered access outside of school. They also must be able to know how to deal with strangers online and how to evaluate information they receive through eMail or various web sites.

“URL filtering solutions are a good start toward minimizing inappropriate internet activity by students, but [those solutions] must not be seen as the panacea to a problem that extends well beyond the viewing of web pages,” said Michael K. Reagan, senior vice president for Vericept Corp., which makes filtering and monitoring software for schools and other customers. “If a mandate is made for schools, it should be for a comprehensive program that includes educating students on the dangers of the internet, what is and is not responsible use of the internet, and the consequences of veering outside of the acceptable-use boundaries as defined by the individual school district.”

NEA made a similar point, saying, “Training of staff and of students is also necessary to make them aware of what acceptable use of the internet is, what to do when harmful or otherwise prohibited material is not blocked by the filter, what to do if approached online by someone, and how to report any incidents or harmful sites.”

Simply requiring schools to adopt acceptable-use policies isn’t enough, respondents agreed. Schools should actively impress these policies upon students.

“If a school district treats their internet safety and acceptable-use policy as ‘yet another form’ that children and parents must sign in the beginning of the school year, but they are not reading, using, or enforcing it, it will not be not an effective deterrent,” ISTE said.

The Cleveland Municipal School District, for example, requires its students to pass a “Student Internet Test” with a perfect score before they can use the internet.

Flexibility to disable filters

Several respondents said schools need the flexibility to disable filters and blocking technology, because access to critical information often is blocked and CIPA doesn’t permit teachers to disable filtering software when minors are using the computers, even for research or other bona fide purposes.

“The No. 1 feature needed by educational institutions is flexibility. Unfortunately, although there are tools with considerable flexibility encoded, use of these features is prohibited by CIPA for schools receiving eRate funding for internet access and internal networking,” ISTE said. The law says filters may be disabled only when adults want unfiltered internet access for research or another lawful purpose.

“We believe that it is appropriate for schools to be empowered to disable the filtering or blocking technology when they believe it to be educationally appropriate to do so,” ISTE said. “Technological protection measures are not effective at every age or grade level, and indeed may hinder educational opportunities by blocking access to critical information. Therefore, we believe that realistic flexibility in the use of blocking and filtering software in classrooms and school libraries is both necessary and appropriate.”

ISTE also urged the NTIA to examine the issue of unblocking carefully, report on the current availability and usability of unblocking features, and advocate more research and development in this area to make these products more appropriate for “real-time” classroom use.

To completely avoid the limitations of filtering technologies, others recommended allowing students to search only a list of approved web sites.

“Through my Sandia job, I have found that allowing only approved sites is effective at keeping inappropriate content from entering a network,” said David Duggan, principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories and the volunteer technology coordinator at a parochial school in Albuquerque, N. M.

Local decision-making

Several respondents said the decision to use a technological protection measure should be left up to local school districts and not the federal government.

NEA pointed out that 75 percent of schools used filtering or blocking technology in at least some circumstances before CIPA was enacted.

“These choices, and the thousands of other choices made by schools and school districts throughout the United States, reflected local decision-making processes and encouraged flexible, innovative use of technology,” NEA said.

ISTE agreed that use of filtering technology is best left in the hands of local decision makers, because they have the greatest knowledge of the community.

New technologies and innovation

Some felt CIPA doesn’t make provisions for newly emerging technologies—such as beaming features of handheld technologies—that also can expose minors to harmful content.

“MAR*TEC recommends that research is commissioned to understand how point-to-point technologies are used in schools. The [Regional Technology in Education Consortium] organizations could design, coordinate, and implement this research,” MAR*TEC said.

Others said CIPA could do more to encourage alternative solutions to internet filters as a means of protecting students online.

“We are concerned that CIPA is having the effect of locking in filtering and blocking technology as the ‘technology protection measure’ of choice, thereby stifling potential innovation in the marketplace. With a large block of the education market required to purchase filtering or blocking products, and [with] most schools barred from disabling those products, CIPA provides blocking and filtering companies no incentives to develop new technological protection measures or improve the flexibility of existing software—for example, by developing simple overriding or disabling procedures for classroom use,” ISTE said.

Nancy Willard, director of the Responsible Netizen Project of the University of Oregon’s Center for Advanced Technology in Education, echoed this concern.

“CIPA has actually undermined the development of new technologies. The vast majority of school administrators think that the only way to comply with CIPA is through the use of the current type of commercial, proprietary-protected filtering software. They think that if they try anything else, they will end up in trouble with the [Federal Communications Commission],” Willard said.

Economics also plays a large role in the development of innovative internet protection technologies. With tight budgets, many school districts must make cost a primary consideration for choosing a solution, ISTE said.

Also, financial difficulties at the business level have forced many companies to shift their focus away from education customers’ needs.

“The internet-access-management industry has fallen on very difficult times. Many of the previous vendors who were in this market are either leaving the market entirely or are significantly de-emphasizing their focus on education in lieu of more lucrative and easier consumer, small business, and enterprise markets for the same technologies,” said Nicole Toomey Davis, co-founder and president of DoBox Inc., a provider of parental control technologies for broadband connectivity.

For example, Davis said, SmartStuff Software provided a web-filtering solution to the education market, but since being purchased by Riverdeep Inc. last year, the company has shifted its focus primarily to its desktop management tools as opposed to its web-filtering and access-management software.

Also, Davis said, N2H2 Inc.—a vendor well-known in the K-12 filtering market—has seen its stock plummet from $30 a share to penny stock. (At press time, the company’s stock was trading at under 20 cents a share.)

Educators, their associations, and their corporate colleagues have now had their say on CIPA and related matters. Now, it’s up to the NTIA or Congress to decide what impact those comments will have on the law and federal regulations.

Links:

Comments on the Effectiveness of Internet Protection Measures and Safety Policies
‘http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipacomments/index.html

tags

Microsoft aims to rewrite mobile computing with its Tablet PC

Software giant Microsoft Corp. is expected to release a new technology this fall that the company hopes will revolutionize the concept of one-to-one computing in schools.

Not much larger than the spiral notebook found in most students’ book bags, the Tablet PC combines the handiness of a handheld computer with the power of a laptop. It’s an innovation Microsoft says will make the integration of technology a less daunting experience for teachers and students, many of whom have yet to embrace portable computers and online learning fully.

Several original equipment manufactures (OEMs), including Hewlett-Packard Co., Acer America Corp., and Toshiba Corp., have made plans to roll out the new high-tech, notebook-size devices later this year.

Microsoft will fashion the Windows-based operating system for the devices, creating what it hopes will be an ideal solution for schools, said Mary Cullinane, a former teacher and manager of Microsoft’s K-12 business.

“This is a phenomenal device for education,” Cullinane said. Unlike traditional laptops, she said, the Tablet PC will incorporate Microsoft’s digital ink technology, which includes a digital pen or stylus that lets users take handwritten notes directly on the device’s screen. These notes then can be saved and stored in the students’ own handwriting, or translated to text and added to other text documents.

Cullinane said the digital ink component is an essential part of the Tablet PC’s educational value, because it performs a feat not yet attempted by classroom laptops.

“With a laptop, the screen presents a barrier between student and teacher,” Cullinane said. “The Tablet PC is just like using a pad and paper.” Instead of integrating a flip-up screen, the tablet machines will more closely resemble large personal digital assistants (PDAs), in that the screens will lay flat or pivot to create more of an ideal writing surface, she said.

Students using the digital ink feature also will have the ability to save their notes and then search these handwritten notes by typing in a keyword or phrase they want to find. The idea is to move toward the evolution of a paperless classroom, Cullinane said.

The Tablet PC will run on Microsoft’s Windows XP Professional operating system and carry with it all of the functions and standard programs available on almost any Windows platform. Whether taking notes in Microsoft Word or creating spreadsheets in Excel, students will be able to perform a host of computing tasks in much the same way they could on standard desktop machines, the company said. Plus, wireless internet connections will make it possible for students to go online anywhere, at any time.

Cullinane believes the Tablet PC will be seen as an all-in-one learning tool, where students conceivably could take and store notes for every class, read electronic versions of textbooks, perform online searches, compose documents, trade eMail, and take computerized tests.

“People should think of it as, ‘What my laptop does, my Tablet will do, and more,'” Cullinane said. “Tablet PC is not a companion device. It’s a fully functional machine.”

Cullinane said Tablet PC devices, which will weigh less than three pounds, will be available in two models: a convertible model, which will include an integrated keyboard; and a traditional slate model, equipped with ports to attach familiar desktop devices, including a keyboard and mouse.

Microsoft and its band of participating OEMs are not the first to create a tablet computing device that works with handwriting recognition technology. IBM and Sony already have put to bed similar attempts that originally showed promise but eventually fell short.

Sony’s Vaio Slimtop Pen Tablet was discontinued in January, just two months after Microsoft unveiled the Tablet PC concept at an industry trade show in Las Vegas. According to Sony, the product was cheered by technology enthusiasts but shunned by average computer buyers, who favored cheaper desktops over Sony’s digital pen and handwriting recognition tools.

IBM’s TransNote came to a similar demise in February when that product, which sold for more than $3,000, was pulled for lack of sales. But Microsoft said it is undeterred by such failures. “Microsoft has brought this technology to a new level,” Cullinane said. “We are very excited.”

Part of this excitement can be traced to Microsoft’s ability to slash the price of its Tablet PC offering. Although pricing for Tablet PCs will vary based on the manufacturer, Cullinane said schools should compare the purchase to that of a mid-range laptop and expect to pay around $1,800.

Tech-savvy educators already have begun to speculate as to whether the movement will gain a foothold in schools. So far, opinions are mixed.

Brenda Moxley, instructional technology resource specialist for the Birmingham City Schools in Alabama, said she began researching the possibilities of pen-tablet technology more than a year ago.

Moxley, who entertained the idea of using pen-tablet devices not unlike those envisioned by Microsoft in Birmingham schools, said the larger screens provided what she thought was a more user-friendly environment than could be found on smaller, PDA-type devices.

“I really thought it would be much easier on the eyes,” Moxley said of the technology. She compared the shape and size of pen-tablet devices to the Ohio Art Co.’s popular Etch-A-Sketch children’s toy.

Elliot Soloway, a University of Michigan professor affiliated with a commercial effort to introduce Palm-style technology into the classroom, believes the Tablet PC’s size presents more obstacles than advantages when it comes to ubiquitous computing.

“Kids are not going to schlep around a three-pound brick, balancing it in the cradle of their arms to write. The whole point of handhelds is ease of mobility to promote learning in context—learning wherever and whenever a child is thinking, collaborating, writing, and collecting data,” he said.

To the contrary, Moxley said screen size was just one of many advantages. She also was impressed by the additional memory and added functionality associated with the slightly larger pen-tablet devices.

“I was impressed that [students] could store all the materials they needed in one device,” she said.

Bob Moore executive director of instructional technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas, agreed. There is potential for the Tablet PC in K-12 schools, he said. But it would be premature to categorize the new devices as “total educational solutions.”

“While I think that the idea of one-to-one computing is interesting, the real issue is that each learner has the technology he or she needs at any given moment to accomplish a particular task. There hasn’t been a single technology invented yet that meets all of those diverse needs. Suggesting that a Tablet PC can meet all of the needs is just as silly as suggesting that a PDA will,” Moore said.

Some educators argue that the real problem lies in the sheer complexity of such machines.

“The Tablet PC is still a PC—and that’s a bug, not a feature. [It] has the same excess functionality, is as unreliable, and is as complex to use as a laptop or desktop PC. The ‘tablet element’ of the Tablet PC does not address the shortcomings of the PC from a teacher’s or learner’s perspective. There is no way that K-12 [schools] will be buying Tablet PCs in appreciable numbers,” predicted Cathleen Norris, a University of North Texas professor and classroom PDA advocate.

But educators who put their faith in PDAs are just as likely to be disappointed, argues Joe Kitchens, superintendent of the Western Heights School District in Oklahoma.

“To be honest, at this time we find handheld devices to have substantially less communicative and collaborative power than we would like to see supporting our students and classroom operations. I think and hope as time progresses that we will actually see the capabilities of handheld devices, notebooks, and tablets merge,” Kitchens said.

Educators who haven’t already will be able to form their own opinions about Tablet PC technology compared to laptops, handhelds, and other computing solutions when Microsoft releases the operating system to customers worldwide in November, Cullinane said.

Links:

Microsoft Corp.
http://www.microsoft.com

Hewlett-Packard Co.
http://www.hp.com

Acer America Corp.
http://www.acer.com

Toshiba Corp.
http://www.toshiba.com

Birmingham City Schools
http://www.bhm.k12.al.us

Blue Valley School District
http://www.bluevalleyk12.org

Western Heights School District
http://www.westernheights.k12.ok.us

tags

Despite first-year woes, Henrico schools to expand $18.5M laptop program

Biology teacher Ed Chapman says a science maxim aptly describes the first year of an ambitious program in Henrico County, Va., to equip the district’s high school students with laptop computers: “The more complex something is, the more likely it is that a small thing will upset it.”

As the 2002-2003 school year was getting under way, Henrico school officials were confident last year’s problems have been solved and the groundbreaking technology initiative will run more smoothly, even as it is expanded to the county’s middle schools.

In one of the largest and highest profile initiatives of its kind, Henrico is paying $18.5 million over four years to lease iBook laptops from Apple Computer Inc. Computers were issued to about 11,000 high school students last year. About 23,000 iBooks will be deployed in the new school year.

“One of our most important lessons from the first year is making sure teachers have reliable access to the material,” said Superintendent Mark Edwards. “We have had some of the top experts on wireless networks coming in and analyzing our preparedness for fall. We expect to have greatly enhanced network reliability.”

Technical glitches were not the only problem in the program’s first year. Some students were disciplined for downloading pornography and others for attempting to hack into the school’s computer system to change grades.

Mike Smith, technology director for the Henrico schools, said a better internet filter will be used this year to prevent students from accessing inappropriate material. He said the filter is 95 percent to 98 percent effective.

“The porn industry wants to get to children,” Smith said. “As long as that’s the case, you’re never going to be able to block 100 percent of it.”

Security enhancements also will make it virtually impossible for students to use the wireless iBooks to hack into the school system’s wired network, Smith said.

Despite such initial problems, the Henrico program has been a model for others. Maine has signed a deal with Apple to provide laptop computers to every seventh- and eighth-grader, and Roanoke County schools are planning a pilot program to provide laptops to some middle and high school students. Officials from both places visited Henrico in hopes of learning from its problems and successes.

Edwards emphasized that more than 99 percent of Henrico’s high school students used their iBooks responsibly. Students are required to sign an agreement to use the computers appropriately.

Alina Karabaich, a sophomore at Mills Godwin High School, said she did not witness much misuse of the iBooks last year. Some students played games on the computers during study hall early in the year, she said, but school officials eliminated the games because they were taking up too much bandwidth.

Karabaich, 15, said she used her iBook for note-taking and to help design a web page on the Holocaust for a history class, but that was about it. Her father, Tony Karabaich, said some teachers seemed confused and ill-prepared for the initiative.

“Either the teachers weren’t aware of all the ways to use the computers, or they just had trouble integrating them into the classroom,” he said, adding that he expects the program to improve as teachers become more comfortable with the technology.

To that end, teachers have had additional training over the summer. Parents of middle-school students also will be required to attend a training session before their children are issued an iBook.

“We made a lot of progress in the last year on digitizing content and building a strong pool of web resources,” said Patrick Kinlaw, staff development director for the Henrico schools. Now teachers are focusing on applying the new resources to their academic discipline, he said.

“The iBook adds a new dimension to instructional resources,” Kinlaw said. “Students and teachers have at their fingertips connections to limitless research, people, and sites that promote learning.”

As teachers worked on their iBooks during a training session at J.R. Tucker High School earlier this year, Chapman reflected on the computers’ potential as an instructional tool.

“My job is to teach biology, not to use a computer,” he said. “But students respond so well to computers—especially introverted students. It kind of evens the playing field. Students are much more willing to collaborate electronically. They’re less inhibited.”

Kinlaw said students often are more comfortable with technology than their teachers are, so the youngsters and teachers end up working together more than they might in a traditional setting.

“It brings us closer to being a true learning community where teachers and students are one, learning together and learning from each other,” he said.

Hermitage High School geometry teacher Pete Anderson said the interactive nature of the computer holds students’ attention better than the traditional classroom lecture. “It becomes a journey of discovery, not the sage on the stage,” Anderson said.

Jackie Warren, an eighth-grade teacher at Tuckahoe Middle School, said she is looking forward to using the computer in her civics and world history classes.

“It gives me a variety of sources to go to for information and to keep students captivated,” she said. “And students are very adaptable. They love buttons and switches and all that.”

Links:

Henrico County Public Schools
http://www.henrico.k12.va.us

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

tags

ED grants $580K for study of Japanese technology

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is underwriting a $580,000 project to report on technology innovations in Japan. Grant recipients at the University of Southern California say their online project, dubbed the “USC Japan Review,” will alert Americans to important technology innovations that might otherwise go unnoticed. But some exasperated American educators say ED would do better giving that kind of money to one or more U.S. school districts.

Professors and other academics at USC Annenberg’s Online Journalism and Communication Program say they will spend the ED grant on creating a web site dedicated to highlighting technology innovations in Japan.

The site’s content will expose students, teachers, and other tech-savvy users to a wireless culture, which is advancing far more rapidly than anything yet to arrive in the United States, they say.

Be it expanded text-messaging capabilities; the integration of global positioning systems into cell phone technologies; or increased bandwidth and reception range, Japanese services typically outpace American innovations, according to Larry Pryor, director of the online journalism program and one of the study’s chief organizers.

“There is no question that the applications they have in Japan are well above what we do in the states,” Pryor said. “Japan is going to become the most intensely wireless country in the world.”

Pryor said the university based its grant application on broad evidence that Japan was continuing to build up its massive technology infrastructure, including an increase in PC hook-ups and broadband connections – all advancements the Eastern world typically lagged behind on in previous decades.

“The government’s policies on internet technology state categorically that it is the government’s goal to make Japan a totally wireless, hooked-up nation over the next several years,” he said.

USC Annenberg’s three-year initiative will focus mainly on providing information on three main topics: the hottest trends, government policies, and the latest technological developments to come out of the Eastern hemisphere.

A web log – updated daily – will contain world news stories, research reports, and coverage of new government polices on technology issues. Visitors also will have access to original content submitted by freelance writers. According to Pryor, the features will focus on exposing new technology trends not yet in vogue in the West.

And the site will host a live forum discussion where students, academics, and others can log-on to discuss changing trends and stay abreast of what new technologies are looming in the East.

Pryor said the research will be especially important for education as colleges and K-12 districts across the nation look to cultivate and expand their use of broadband and wireless technologies.

“Distance learning has gotten a bad reputation because it was tied up in the dot-com collapse,” Pryor said.

He believes that as demand for increased broadband and cable access increases so will the need to provide new technologies that people – especially students – can use.

“We want to gain a better understanding of what is happening abroad. The internet provides a perfect way to do that,” he said. “This site is designed to be an ideal educational tool.”

But some K-12 educators say they doubt the project’s potential to improve technology awareness and bolster the quality of education.

Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Unified School District in California said he thinks ED is spending money where it doesn’t need to.

“Have we forgotten all of the technology companies whose job it is to know this information and bring to market those things of value? When compared to what $580,000 would do for a school district – any school district – to improve educational opportunities for students, my personal opinion is that someone at ED ought to lose [his or her] job for even considering this type of grant.”

But ED officials say the grant is part of the Technological Innovation and Cooperation for Foreign Information Access program. A program that was designed to keep U.S. industries informed about what’s happening in other countries.

Even so, Rick Bauer, chief information officer for the Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., is skeptical about an academic institution’s ability to complete such a task.

“I wonder about the ability of a college to keep track of these developments. Most universities have to be dragged kicking and screaming into curriculum change and into teaching new technologies, so I would not quickly look to academia to keep me abreast of developments in this area. I hope there is some kind of real-world sanity check going on before we breathlessly are told what the next ‘new, new thing’ is going to be.”

But Pryor argues cautious restraint is one of the reasons Westerners have been slow to imitate the techno-wizardry so often associated with Eastern innovation.

In efforts to identify technology innovations passing under U.S. radar, Pryor’s team will employ a team of Japanese-speaking graduate students. Their goal: to translate important tech news from the East that has failed to receive publicity in the United States.

Pryor said he hopes the new online initiative, still in the planning phase, will shed light on the extensive work that is being done overseas and, thereby, increase the quality of education technology available in the United States.

The initiative is slated to launch in beta form sometime between January and February of 2003, with a final version expected by the end of March, Pryor said. “This is an exciting time because there are some positive signs that new media technologies are making good strides. The grant is intended to promote understanding between countries.”

Links:

Hill School Pottstown, Pa.
http://www.thehill.org/

Marysville Unified School District
http://intergate.mjusd.k12.ca.us/

USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communications
http://ascweb.usc.edu/home.php

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

URL for when the USC Japan Review goes live
http://www.uscjr.org

tags

Tech is one of few tools left in worsening teacher crunch

Technology—used to enhance teacher recruitment, aid certification preparation, and assist professional development—is one of the few tools school leaders still can use in the worsening shortage of qualified teachers. New federal regulations are highlighting the long-anticipated problem.

Starting now, according to the Improving Teacher Quality component of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), school districts that receive Title I funds must hire only “highly qualified” teachers—meaning those who are certified in the subjects they’re teaching. By the end of 2005-06 school year, all teachers will have to meet the same requirement.

Although educators applaud the federal government’s effort to improve teacher quality, they say meeting these requirements puts an extra burden on school systems already plagued by a shortage of teachers, particularly in science and math.

“The requirement doesn’t take into consideration the market pressure that schools are under,” said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA). “There are very few school systems that try to put unqualified teachers in classrooms on purpose.”

Cash-strapped state budgets, private sector competition, and a reduced ability to retain qualified teachers leave school leaders little room to maneuver. Technology is one of the few tools still available.

States have limited resources to devote to the problem, but many are using technology and the internet to aid districts in the recruiting process.

Carol Whelan, assistant superintendent for the office of high-quality educators at the Louisiana Department of Education, said 15.6 percent of Louisiana teachers are not certified or are teaching outside of their areas of expertise.

“Recruiting and retaining [are processes that] take time. There’s a lot of competition. Every [other] state is recruiting as well,” Whelan said.

To address the requirements, Louisiana has developed a plan to get teachers certified, set up regional computer labs where teachers can practice for certification exams, and started a teacher cadet program that targets students in high school who might be interested in becoming teachers.

The state also built a web page, called Teach Louisiana, that shows teachers what they need to do to get certified, lists jobs teachers can apply for, and shows parents what credentials their child’s teacher has.

School districts compete with corporate America for highly skilled math, science, and technology professionals, yet because of budget constraints, they can’t offer the same lucrative salaries and opportunities. To make matters worse, school districts also are stealing high-quality teachers from each other.

“When you are in a poorer school district, you have a hard time even competing with wealthier school districts,” said Bill Krugler, deputy superintendent of the East Side Union School District in San Jose, Calif. Although Krugler’s district is fully staffed for the start of the new school year, 13 percent of its 8,000 teachers have only emergency credentials—a situation reflected in districts across the country.

Unqualified and emergency-credentialed teachers fill classrooms nationwide. One in four high school instructors teaches out of his or her area of expertise, according to U.S. Department of Education (ED) data. This average increases to 34 percent if only high-poverty schools are counted.

Many experts say the nation’s teacher quality problem is a result of low wages, scant professional development and support, and a lack of prestige. They also say high-quality teachers are hard to retain.

Research shows that high-quality teachers lead to higher academic achievement, but 15 percent of teachers leave the profession while only seven percent enter, said Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Critics say although NCLB requires skilled, high-quality teachers to help improve student achievement, it does little to address the roots of the problem.

“The problem is a result of a lack of resources, and we still have a lack of resources,” said Arnold Fege, director of public engagement and advocacy for the Public Education Network. “The politicians are only meeting us halfway. They provided the bill and the legislation, but they haven’t provided the resources.”

NCLB recommended $3.175 billion for Improving Teacher Quality for fiscal year 2002, but President Bush requested only $2.6 billion for the program in his 2002 budget, and Congress funded it at $2.85 billion. For 2003, Bush requested $2.85 billion, but in July the Senate appropriations committee recommended $3.1 billion. The House has yet to take up its education spending bill for 2003.

Rob Weil, deputy director of educational issues for the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), said the legislation doesn’t provide enough governance to make a significant impact on issues such as teacher salaries, retention, or professional development, which are the main causes of the problem to begin with.

“[ED] would argue with you, but no, there are not enough things in the bill to [address those needs],” Weil said.

Weil agrees that more money could help. “It’s not all about salary, but teachers want to have families too,” Weil said. “We’re talking about raising a family and having a comfortable living, and it’s very difficult to do on a teacher’s salary.”

In San Jose, the starting salary for teachers is $40,000 but the median price for houses is $420,000, said East Side’s Krugler. Because wages can’t keep up with the city’s high cost of living, teachers are forced to commute 60 or 70 miles or find roommates, he said.

Houston’s organization, AASA, has recommended to Congress that it authorize a financial incentive—such as a $5,000 to $6,000 tax credit—for qualified teachers who work in urban, disadvantaged school districts. So far, no such action has been taken.

Krugler noted that many state governments aren’t in a position to help financially, either. “We can’t depend on the federal or state government to solve this dilemma,” he said. “In California [as in many other states], we are facing a huge budget deficit.”

The Improving Teacher Quality requirements of NCLB have prompted Krugler’s district to refine its teacher training and retention programs. The district also is looking to increase local taxes to raise more money.

Innovative solutions like those in Louisiana may help, but AFT’s Weil points out there are no strong federal penalties for failing to comply with the new teacher quality requirements.

“Unlike schools that don’t make Adequate Yearly Progress, there are very few sanctions if you don’t make your [Improving Teacher Quality] goals,” he said.

This means the overall impact of the program’s requirements will be determined by educators. “It’s going to be as effective as how serious different people across the country take it,” Weil said of the program.

Improving Teacher Quality requirements

Beginning with the first day back to school, the Improving Teacher Quality component of NCLB requires that school districts hire only “highly qualified” teachers. Districts also must devise a plan to ensure that all teachers are teaching in their core subjects and meet the “highly qualified” requirements by the end of the 2005-06 school year.

According to NCLB, a highly qualified teacher must hold a bachelor’s degree and have either a state certification or license to teach in that state. Charter school teachers must meet the certification requirements of their state’s charter school law.

NCLB has additional requirements depending on what grade teachers teach and if the teacher is new to the profession.

For example, new elementary school teachers must demonstrate their knowledge and teaching skills in reading, writing, math, and other areas by passing a rigorous state test. Middle or high school teachers must pass a rigorous state test in the subjects they will teach, and they should essentially have earned their undergraduate degree in those subjects.

Like school districts, states also have to devise a plan to ensure that all teachers are teaching in their field and that they meet these requirements by the end of the 2005-06 school year. State plans must have an annual measurable objective for each district and school to increase the percentage of teachers meeting these goals each year.

NCLB requires paraprofessionals to have obtained an associate’s degree and demonstrate the ability to help teach reading, writing, and math.

School districts can use part of the Title I funds for ongoing training and professional development to help teachers and paraprofessionals meet these new requirements.

Links:

ED’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (Look under “NCLB Regulations”)
http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/asst.html

Public Education Network
http://www.publiceducation.org

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
http://www.nctm.org

American Federation of Teachers
http://www.aft.org

National Science Teachers Association
http://www.nsta.org

Teach Louisiana
http://www.teachlouisiana.net

tags

Interest in satellite child locators grows with recent abductions

Using the same technology that enables transportation managers to track the location of school buses, it’s conceivable that educators some day might use special GPS-enabled bracelets to monitor the whereabouts of students, such as on a class field trip.

For now, the devices are too costly for most schools to consider. But given the recent spate of high-profile child abductions across the nation, cost isn’t deterring some parents from purchasing the gadgets.

Eric Wasman, a mortgage broker from Redwood City, Calif., now double-bolts his front doors and shuts his windows even on hot nights. And soon, he’ll arm his two young daughters, ages 4 and 2, with high-tech bracelets he hopes will keep them safer and buy him some peace of mind.

The child locator sold by Wherify Wireless Inc. is among a growing number of satellite-based products targeting worried parents.

Worn like an oversized wristwatch, the much-hyped device lets parents track their children’s whereabouts via the internet or by phone. Due to be released next month in kid-friendly “Galactic Blue” and “Cosmic Purple,” the 3-ounce locators are part Lojack, part pager, part baby sitter.

Experts on missing children warn that such devices are not foolproof and could give parents a false sense of security.

“Parents need to realize what these devices can and cannot do,” said Tina Schwartz of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. “It doesn’t take the place of safety education and line-of-sight supervision.”

Whether they are worrywarts or justifiably concerned, “parents need to realize it’s a supplemental and not a primary means for keeping your child safe,” she added.

Wasman understands the Wherify child locator isn’t guaranteed to protect his children, but he’s willing to pay $800 for a pair and about $30 in monthly service fees.

“When it comes to your kids, you can’t be too careful,” he said. “And the worst thing is just not knowing.”

Wherify’s GPS Personal Locator combines global positioning system satellite and digital wireless technologies to pinpoint a wearer’s position within a few feet, the company says.

Parents can view satellite or street maps on Wherify’s web site or call an 800 number, day or night, to obtain their kids’ location and movements within a minute.

A “bread crumb” mode lets parents preset times for tracking. The monitoring service would contact the parent by phone, pager, or fax if the child isn’t at the right place.

In a kidnapping or other worst-case scenario, the wearer can contact 911 by pressing two buttons.

The locator, marketed for children ages 4 to 11, has a built-in numeric pager and is made of water- and cut-resistant material.

Parents lock the bracelet onto their children’s wrists and can unlock it by key or remotely. Cutting or forcibly removing the band would activate an alarm for the company’s emergency operators.

Because the product relies on satellite technology, there may be some spots, such as underground or inside concrete buildings, where the monitoring service will fail to get a bearing.

But the company says the device should work in most homes and buildings, urban canyons, and dense forests. If not, Wherify would be able to trace the last-known location.

The device uses “enhanced GPS,” which combines GPS and cellular technology to pinpoint a location, reportedly allowing it to work inside buildings and in other areas typically challenging for traditional GPS.

Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Wherify, which spent four years developing the locator and tracking service, claims thousands of parents signed its customer wait list just within the past month.

Similar people trackers are offered by Applied Digital Solutions and other companies, but Wherify’s locator—designed specifically for children—has garnered industry awards and the most publicity.

Endorsers include Oprah Winfrey and Marc Klaas, whose 12-year-old, Polly, was abducted from her bedroom and killed in 1993.

Wherify president Timothy Neher came up with the idea after he temporarily lost sight of his niece and nephew at a zoo. He hopes the device also would deter pedophiles and perpetrators and aid police when needed.

Although abductions by strangers are on the decline, according to FBI statistics, recent cases have shaken parents because most of the victims were snatched from inside or near their homes.

“I’ve probably had hundreds of phone calls and eMails on these tracking products over the past six months,” said Randy Smith, founder of the Lost Children’s Network.

He considers the technology “a great way for a working parent to be at the office and see if little Sally made it to day care by the shuttle.”

Parents concerned about abductions by other family members, which account for the vast majority of missing children cases, also are interested in such devices, he said.

Richard Winn, a Pine Grove, Pa., father of 9- and 6-year old girls, has been waiting for a child location gadget for years.

An avid fisherman, he paid almost $900 for a GPS system to help his boat find his best fishing spots. If GPS is used for boats and cars, as well as for tracking pets and felons under house arrest, he wondered, why not for children?

He plans to purchase two locator bracelets, using them as a tool and “not a crutch” to verify, for instance, that his daughter riding her bike to a friend’s house arrives safely.

“I don’t mean to sound paranoid, but there are real threats out there,” Winn said. “And I’m not shallow-minded enough to think it can’t happen to me.”

Links:

National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
http://www.missingkids.com

Wherify
http://www.wherifywireless.com

Applied Digital Solutions
http://www.adsx.com

Lost Children’s Network
http://www.lostchildren.org

tags

Study reveals neurological origins of dyslexia

Using technology to pinpoint the neurological origins of dyslexia, a team of Yale University researchers has released a study that proves dyslexia is the result of a physical miscommunication within the mind—and not the result of intellectual shortcomings that can be outgrown over time.

Nearly one in five Americans struggles with dyslexia, which prohibits the mind from recognizing the sound structures of certain words. The study’s findings suggest dyslexia is not a developmental disease, which eventually will go away, but a permanent brain disorder that educators must learn to teach to.

The study, which included 144 participants, is the largest brain-imaging experiment focused on the reading disorders of children to date. Its findings should prove useful to educators as they consider ways to improve reading under the Bush Administration’s Reading First initiative—the policy that holds all schools accountable for ensuring every student can read by the end of third grade.

“What this research shows us is a reading problem that is really, truly real,” said Dr. Sally Shaywitz, director of the Center for the Study of Learning and Attention, part of the Yale University School of Medicine’s pediatrics department. “There is a glitch in the brain.”

That glitch, Shaywitz said, is the result of a deficiency in the occipital-temporal area of the brain. Located on the back left-hand side, this is where the brain forms “neuro-replicas” of familiar words, she said.

These replicas allow students who read more easily to recognize words they have seen before, without having to sound them out on each occasion. Students who lack this function are at a disadvantage because they must rely on memory and other parts of the brain to compensate for the malfunction, Shaywitz said.

Like frustrated commuters who encounter a mid-morning detour, students with dyslexia arrive at their final destinations by taking the long way around. This redirection of neural activity slows the reading process, making it more difficult.

During the study, researchers performed individual brain scans on students while they read. According to Shaywitz, the results showed that students who had the most difficulty also demonstrated the least amount of neurological activity in that area of the brain responsible for replicating and storing learned words.

Shaywitz said the occipital-temporal area of the brain is not unlike a camera, taking pictures of words whenever it sees them. The more times the brain is exposed to a word, the clearer and more focused each stored image becomes and the easier it is for the brain to recognize what it is seeing on the written page.

For dyslexic students, many of whom have gone undetected or been wrongly categorized in the past, these findings are significant because they emphasize the need to diagnose dyslexia at a young age, Shaywitz said. Teachers need time to modify approaches to reading instruction for certain special-needs children.

That said, dyslexia sometimes goes unrecognized for good reason, Shaywitz said. Most children who suffer from the disorder eventually develop compensatory systems, shifting the burden of reading to other parts of the brain. This ability to adapt is reduced as children age beyond the developmental point where such corrections can be made, she added.

“What our data show is that even children who can read words accurately are doing so with a great deal of difficulty,” she said. “This imaging shows us the neurological basis for that difficulty. Teachers mean well—but up until recently, they didn’t have the means to identify these problems.”

According to the National Reading Panel (NRP), commissioned by Congress in 1997 to evaluate different approaches to reading instruction, there are five critical skills educators must emphasize for improved reading lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary development, and text comprehension.

Shaywitz, who was one of 14 members to serve on the NRP, also pointed out the need to funnel these skills into gradual, progressive learning experiences.

“You really have to teach reading systematically and progressively,” she said. “Kids really do need a lot of practice to build these ‘neuro-replicas’ in the brain.”

But the exception with dyslexic students is that many of them need to spend a great deal more time developing basic skills and identifying the sounds associated with words, Shaywitz said. If students pass lessons and skill sets by compensating for certain inherent neurological defects, they eventually will reach a level where it becomes impossible to keep up with kids who read more easily. If uncorrected, the problems will persist and plague them for life, she said.

“We need to get to them in the first three grades. Learning to read can become such a burden as children age,” Shaywitz said.

If America really does plan to have all its children reading by third grade, as the Reading First initiative states, educators must be conscious of these difficulties when teaching to dyslexic students, Shaywitz said. Just because a student is dyslexic doesn’t mean he or she is incapable of learning. What it does mean is that the student needs to work harder to develop certain skills, she said.

At beginning levels it becomes extremely vital to stress phonemic awareness and the proper sounds associated with certain words, she said. Teachers also must strive to demonstrate what she called “systematic phonics,” where sounds are associated with lettered symbols.

Another important exercise is reading aloud, Shaywitz said. Children who suffer from reading disorders such as dyslexia benefit from the practice, because it lets the educator point out mistakes while guiding students to the proper corrections.

As it becomes increasingly obvious that more and more students require supplemental practice and individual attention to reach their full educational potential, some educators say the integration of new technology tools to individualize instruction and assess progress becomes essential.

“This issue brings to light the extreme need to increase the use of technology-based instructional strategies to support and augment what classroom teachers are able to accomplish with their students. In addition, educational technology allows the use of different learning modalities and the individualization of the curriculum, as well as therapeutic applications to help students with learning problems,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of California’s Marysville Joint Unified School District.

Although the brain-imaging technology that enabled researchers to make their discovery—called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI)—is painless and highly efficient as a research tool, Shaywitz said she does not yet envision a time when brain scans will be used to diagnose dyslexia on a clinical basis, nor does she see a need for such a step.

“You don’t necessarily need a high-tech solution to [diagnose dyslexia],” she said.

Dyslexia is not hard for doctors to diagnose clinically, and fMRIs cost a great deal more time and money than the alternative, Shaywitz said. Still, the technology is critical on the research level, because it provides a guide to clinical work and an explanation for those educators who for years have misunderstood the affliction, she said.

Links:

Yale University School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics
http://info.med.yale.edu/pediat

No Child Left Behind
http://www.nochildleftbehind.gov

National Reading Panel
http://www.nationalreadingpanel.org

Marysville Joint Unified School District
http://intergate.mjusd.k12.ca.us

tags

Computer tells athletes when it’s OK to play after concussion

As K-12 athletic directors gear up for another season of high school football, the safety of student athletes becomes a primary concern. Now, thanks to innovative software from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), high school trainers might no longer have to rely on the word of a player to determine whether an athlete has a concussion or is ready to return to the field.

Over the last decade, the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine’s concussion program has developed a computer program that could take the guesswork out of diagnosing a concussion.

Using a battery of memory and reaction tests, the Immediate Post-concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing system, also called ImPACT, can assess the severity of concussions and can help coaches and trainers determine when it is safe for players to play.

“There have been concussion guidelines for years,” said Dr. Mark Lovell, a neuropsychologist and the director of the concussion program. “They are useful for pinpointing the signs and symptoms, but there’s a certain amount of guesswork with the guidelines, because we have to rely on what the athletes are telling us. And athletes aren’t always truthful because they want to get back on the field.”

About 160 high schools and 100 colleges across the country use the ImPACT system with software that costs about $1,000.

Using the program, trainers or coaches test players on football, soccer, or other teams at the beginning of the season. The players’ memory, reaction time, and processing speed are measured during a few minutes of tests.

The test results are used as a baseline. When athletes are injured, they can be tested again to see how their performance stacks up to pre-injury test results.

A concussion happens when the brain is rocked back and forth inside the skull because of a blow to the head or the upper body. Even a mild concussion will affect an athlete’s reaction speed and memory, Lovell said.

Lovell believes at least 10 percent of athletes involved in contact sports sustain a concussion each season.

Coaches also can use the computer test to determine whether players have recovered from their injuries—a process that can take anywhere from 24 hours to 10 days.

If a concussion is not detected and an athlete is injured again, it can cause permanent brain damage. In rare cases, a second concussion can cause brain swelling and death, Lovell said.

Joseph Perry, the athletic director of Keystone Oaks High School in suburban Pittsburgh, has used ImPACT for about three years. He’s found it’s a useful tool when he needs to convince players—and parents—that an athlete’s concussion is serious.

“Here we have a parent demanding that [the] child play, for fear of a lost scholarship. But with this program we can say to [the parent], ‘Look, we have top-notch people saying that this kid can’t play,'” Perry said.

Links:

ImPACT
http://www.impacttest.com

tags

Teachers’ union challenges legality of Wisconsin cyber school

A Wisconsin school district’s plans to start an online public school this fall are being challenged in court by the state’s teachers union.

The Wisconsin Connections Academy is a kindergarten through eighth grade virtual school that plans to educate about 300 children from their homes across the state under a charter granted by the Appleton School District.

But the state’s teachers union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), has filed notice that it is challenging the legality of the Connections Academy. The notice is a necessary legal step before filing a lawsuit, which could come later this year.

The school plans to use teachers hired by Appleton and curriculum provided by a private company, Sylvan Ventures.

WEAC officials argue private companies and school districts could make major profits by supplying online education for much less than the state aid amount set for students who transfer under the public school open enrollment law.

“We are concerned that the Wisconsin statues do not permit this kind of school and enrollment that is being contemplated by the Appleton School District,” said Lucy Brown, WECA’s legal counsel.

At press time, 262 of Appleton’s virtual school students would come from outside of the district and 22 students would come from within the district. WECA is concerned that the district could reap a huge profit by pocketing extra money built into the state’s per-pupil funding for services such as teacher aides, school psychologists, janitors, nurses, and extra-curricular activities—all services unnecessary for an online school.

“State monies should not be used to fund things that are not there,” Brown said.

The district would receive about $5,000 in state aid for each student in the program, said Linda Dawson, an Appleton assistant superintendent. About $2,000 will go toward paying the principal and six teachers, and about $3,000 will go to Wisconsin Connections Academy and Sylvan.

“No one’s making a lot of money at this point,” Dawson said.

Online schools are eligible for public money just like regular schools as long as they are run by a school district. The state’s open enrollment law lets students attend any public school district in the state if there’s space.

Virtual schools in other states—most notably Pennsylvania—have faced similar challenges. Last year, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association challenged the legality of that state’s seven cyber charter schools in court, arguing the schools were educating mostly homeschooled children at the expense of local school districts.

The court dismissed the case, but handed the state’s school districts a partial victory by saying districts should have the opportunity to question tuition bills sent to them by cyber charter schools.

In June, Pennsylvania passed a law to partially reimburse the state’s school systems for per-pupil funding lost when students enroll in alternative schools. The law also transferred authority for the establishment, evaluation, and renewal of cyber charter schools from local school districts to the state education department, thereby tightening accountability for the online schools.

In February, the North Carolina Board of Education skirted a controversial proposal for New Connections Academy, an online school also developed by Sylvan Ventures. North Carolina law only permits 100 charter schools to operate at a time, so the board avoided controversy by approving other charter schools until it reached the state limit.

WEAC’s Brown said Wisconsin legislators need to step in and implement controls over cyber schools like Pennsylvania lawmakers did.

“If there isn’t a community interest, where a lot of local kids go to the school, then the district might just be interested in making money, and we want to make sure that doesn’t become a problem,” Brown said.

Bill Thomas, director of educational technology for the Southern Regional Education Board and an expert on virtual schooling, agrees that states need to revise their charter school legislation to address cyber charter schools more clearly. When it comes to cyber charter schools, there is still the question of deciding “how much money is enough,” he said.

But Thomas said there are several ways for school districts to justify the additional costs associated with operating a fully online school. If done correctly, online instruction is actually more labor-intensive than traditional instruction and requires a smaller ratio of students to teachers, as well as a significant investment in technology and course development.

WEAC’s claim that private companies and school districts could make huge profits by supplying online education “comes across as a very weak argument,” he said.

A second proposed virtual school in Wisconsin is encountering problems of its own.

A company called K12—led by former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett—plans to continue its efforts to start the Wisconsin Virtual Academy this fall, but spokesman Bryan Flood said time is running out.

The Virginia-based company encountered an obstacle when Wisconsin’s Lake Mills School District decided against providing the school a charter, Flood said. The company then tried to reach an agreement with the McFarland School District, also in Wisconsin, but ran out of time for the coming year, he said.

Full operations remain a goal for the 2003-04 school year, Flood said. The 300 Wisconsin students who already signed up for the coming school year will be offered K12’s home schooling curriculum at a discount.

Links:

Wisconsin Connections Academy
http://www.connectionsacademy.org/wi

Wisconsin Education Association Council
http://www.weac.org

Sylvan Ventures
http://www.sylvanventures.com

Pennsylvania School Boards Association
http://www.psba.org

Southern Regional Education Board
http://www.sreb.org

Wisconsin Virtual Academy
http://www.wivcs.org

K12
http://www.wivcs.org

tags

Schools brace for sale of Houghton Mifflin Co.

Debt-laden Vivendi Universal announced plans Aug. 14 to sell off $9.8 billion in assets, including educational publisher Houghton Mifflin. The announcement carries significant weight for the company’s K-12 school customers, which include users of educational software from Sunburst Technology and Knowledge Adventure, now a division of Sunburst.

The sell-off signals the first step to break up the French media and entertainment conglomerate constructed in a two-year buying spree by former chairman Jean-Marie Messier.

Messier was ousted in July, leaving Vivendi struggling under $18.6 billion in debts. Messier’s replacement, Jean-Rene Fourtou, has since been seeking to reduce the company’s borrowings.

Analysts say it’s too soon yet to tell whether the sale of Houghton Mifflin, which Vivendi acquired for $1.7 billion in 2001, will have a direct impact on the throngs of products and services it sells to schools throughout the world. Besides textbooks, assessments, and supplemental materials, these products include software titles such as Type to Learn, Hyperstudio, and the JumpStart series of school software.

In the near term, however, the sale could be both good and bad for Houghton. The company no longer will carry the stigma of its financially troubled parent, but it will have to stay focused through a series of potentially hazardous leadership changes, said Adam Newman, director of research for financial analysis firm Eduventures Inc.

“Despite the turmoil surrounding Vivendi, Houghton continues to perform well,” Newman said. The sale should help the publisher put some distance between itself and the slimming conglomerate.

But that’s not to say there won’t be problems, he said. According to Newman, fear and uncertainty are not uncommon when companies undergo critical shakeups in leadership.

“It’s a real people issue,” he said. “The company does not want to experience a flight of talent. The real challenge is whether the new leadership can provide the energy that will be needed to really rally the folks who are there.”

In light of Houghton’s continued strong performance in the education market, Newman said he doesn’t expect Vivendi will have trouble securing a buyer.

But “the transaction is going to be driven by Vivendi’s needs,” Newman said. The company is thirsty for quick cash to pay down its ballooning, multibillion-dollar debt, and it is likely to accept whichever bid promises the most money up front, he said.

Ideally, Vivendi would stand to make a better profit by breaking Houghton up and selling it in pieces. But Newman thinks an all-or-nothing deal is more likely, given Vivendi’s immediate need for cash. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be Vivendi’s cash constraints that are going to drive this deal,” he said.

Under these circumstances, there are three wholesale buyout firms Newman believes possess both the interest and the financial wherewithal to consider the purchase seriously.

Those companies are Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co., an international firm with a history of more than 100 transactions and $100 billion in total financing; Boston-based Thomas H. Lee Co.; and Forstmann Little & Co., which in the past has poured more than $10 billion into 30 companies across the world.

If a buyout firm does succeed in purchasing Houghton outright, Newman said it’s anybody’s guess what could happen next.

Any number of firms would be interested in getting their hands on certain pieces of Houghton’s business. Several major education players, including Scholastic Inc., Knowledge Universe Inc., and the Washington Post Co.—with its test-preparation firm Kaplan Inc.—have expressed an interest in expanding, Newman said. Acquiring some piece or pieces of Houghton’s business would be a step in that direction.

Though there are several possibilities, Newman stressed nothing is certain until a deal is announced.

As for Houghton’s school customers, Newman said it’s unclear whether a breakup of the company into divisions would have any adverse impact on the services it offers to educators. But drastic changes, he said, are unlikely.

“Any time you have an acquisition, there is the potential for minimal as well as drastic change,” he said. But with a company like Houghton, which has done well, there often is little need to disrupt its relationships with customers by shaking things up and eliminating services. Vivendi’s plan to dispose of at least $9.8 billion in assets—$4.9 billion of them in the next nine months—was approved by Vivendi directors at a board meeting on Aug. 13, the company said in a statement.

Vivendi said its board also would meet Sept. 25 to “review in detail the company’s strategy to optimize all of its assets.” After his appointment as chairman on July 3, Fourtou said his priority was tackling Vivendi’s cash crisis.

Vivendi’s statement said the firm has made progress with a plan to set up a $2.94 billion credit line with its banks. Vivendi already had obtained $980 million in unsecured credit last month.

In another move away from Messier’s era, Fourtou also announced the appointment of Jean-Bernard Levy as chief operating officer, the statement said.

Levy replaces Eric Licoys, who was close to Messier. Licoys agreed to continue with Vivendi as an adviser to Fourtou, the firm’s statement said. Fourtou also presented the board with “new management principles” for Vivendi, the statement said without giving details.

Messier tried through costly acquisitions to transform Vivendi, once a humble water company, into a world-leading media giant to rival the likes of AOL Time Warner Inc. His ambitious plans and glitzy lifestyle initially saw Messier hailed as a French business marvel. But his reputation took a dive as Vivendi racked up huge debts and reported massive losses.

According to Peter Grunwald, an analyst with Grunwald Associates, Vivendi’s decision to sell Houghton Mifflin reflects a pattern of carelessness evolving in large companies, many of which look to expand too quickly and too often.

“The education business, especially, is different from a lot of other sectors,” he said. “It’s important for large companies involved in acquisitions of education and technology businesses to understand why they are doing it and put some thought into how those strategies are going to fit into the overall structure.”

Links:

Vivendi Universal
http://www.vivendiuniversal.com

Houghton Mifflin Co.
http://houghtonmifflin.com

Sunburst Technology
http://sunburst.com

Eduventures Inc.
http://www.educventures.com

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com

tags