Testing rules sock Colo. cyber school

A dispute erupted on Dec. 16 when the ratings came out on the Branson Alternative School, a virtual school headquartered in Branson, Colo. State officials marked Branson down as one of the worst schools in the state, but angry supporters blame brick-and-mortar rules for artificially depressing the online school’s results.

Branson Alternative, operated from a 1920s schoolhouse in southern Colorado, reportedly earns millions for the otherwise impoverished district. And parents say it renewed their faith in public education after their children, many of whom have special physical or emotional needs, had bad experiences in regular schools.

But in just-released state rankings, Branson Alternative was tagged the worst elementary school, worst middle school, and third-worst high school in Colorado.

Critics say the rankings had more to do with turnout than with measures of school quality.

Like all students in all public schools in Colorado, kids who take courses from the Branson virtual school have to take Colorado Standards of Academic Progress (CSAP) and ACT tests. But last school year, 95 percent of Branson’s students didn’t.

Each of them was averaged in as a zero. Less than zero, actually. The punitive scoring for no-shows was designed to discourage principals from letting weak test-takers take a pass on exam day.

“I don’t oppose the testing,” said Branson Superintendent Alan Aufderheide. “But to put a punitive, coercive thing in like the math they put in, it doesn’t sit well with a number of people—me as well as any number of parents.”

Officials at Branson School started putting coursework online four years ago so the 40 students in the school wouldn’t fall behind on mud days.

“The roads are clay or gravel, and when we get a good rain for a day and a half, it just turns to awful,” Aufderheide said.

The online courses became an internet success story, according to an Associated Press report. The virtual Branson School won recognition from the state Education Department last year as a bona fide public school, and this year it offers a full slate of courses by computer to 520 students, from kindergarten up, statewide.

Families had many reasons for not taking last year’s tests, Aufderheide said. For some, it was inconvenient because distance-learning students have to travel to a testing site to meet a proctor. For others, it was a matter of political conviction.

But at least one legislator says Aufderheide and Branson OnLine parents are wrong to expect special treatment just because their students use keyboards instead of classrooms.

“I’m pretty adamant about the fact that if we’re going to spend public dollars to educate these kids, and we’re going to put them in school districts, then they take the CSAP,” said state Rep. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, chief author of the school finance law.

Aufderheide said the school was pushing for online testing—but state officials said that for now, only pencil-and-paper tests would be administered.


Branson OnLine


Follow up: Connect2 executives charged with eRate fraud

Federal authorities on Dec. 18 charged the owner of Connect2 Internet Networks Inc., a New York-based internet services company, and three employees with allegedly defrauding the eRate of millions of dollars.

eSchool News first broke the story on Nov. 8 that Connect2 might be one of several companies under investigation by the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co., the agency that administers the eRate, for possible violations of the program’s rules. (See “New eRate tool IDs questionable vendors,” http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=4072.)

The case marks the first time criminal charges have been filed against anyone for abusing the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program, which provides discounts to schools and libraries of between 20 percent and 90 percent of the cost of telecommunications services, internet access, and internal wiring.

Prosecutors allege that company owner John Angelides and employees John Dotson and Gary Blum faked paperwork and other documents to bring computers and other equipment to four New York area schools.

Under the rules of the eRate, schools must pay at least 10 percent of the cost of equipment purchased. The men initially promised the schools they would pay nothing to take advantage of the program, court documents say, but then the men asked school officials to make bogus payments—usually for tens of thousands of dollars—to make it appear as if the schools had paid their share. The money allegedly was funneled back to the schools.

Lawyers for the three men declined to comment on the charges. A fourth suspect, identified in a Dec. 19 New York Times report as Oscar Alvarez, was expected to surrender to authorities soon.

The charges against the men include conspiracy to commit wire fraud, making false claims on government programs, making false statements, and obstruction of justice.

SLD officials were not immediately available for comment.


Connect2 Internet Networks Inc.

Schools and Libraries Division


Mine these valuable resources for “Closing the Achievement Gap”

“One of the most disheartening situations in the U.S. educational system is the achievement gap in standardized test scores,” writes Gina Burkhardt, executive director of the North Central Regional Educational Library (NCREL). To help schools close this gap, the folks at NCREL have created this web site, which serves as a repository for research, promising strategies, important meetings, and valuable tools for addressing the problem. Through this comprehensive resource, educators have access to a schedule of major meetings and projects designed to address issues surrounding the achievement gap; a quick-reference guide to frequently asked questions about the national disparity in student achievement; and a unique toolbox that links educators to information about the different roles community, technology, literacy, math and science, professional development, and school improvement can play in strengthening overall student achievement nationwide.


Ed preps $15 million tech-impact study

As the U.S. Department of Education (ED) prepares to launch a $15 million, five-year national evaluation of technology’s impact on learning, the agency’s chief technology leader says school districts should consider conducting their own ed-tech evaluations at the local level.

“We need to be able to make the case for why … technology is going to lead to increased student achievement,” said John Bailey, ED’s director of educational technology. “Schools can do some of the research themselves.”

Although conducting research at the local level isn’t required by law, Bailey said districts should consider doing it because of the benefits it can bring.

“If the only purpose … is to enhance the development of technology within that district, then it’s worth its weight in gold,” Bailey said of local research.

But there are political reasons it would make sense for districts to evaluate their technology initiatives, too. Evidence of success, he said, will help school leaders secure the funding and community support they need to expand their efforts district-wide, even during tough fiscal times.

“Everyone is asking, ‘Show me the effectiveness. Show me why it works.’ In tight budget times, this is even more critical,” Bailey said. “Otherwise we’re asking people to bank on the promise of technology without proving the effectiveness.”

Schools receiving grants for their ed-tech initiatives have been expected to conduct evaluations of their grant projects for several years now. Bailey’s appeal to school leaders would take this idea a step further, applying the process to a district’s entire technology program.

Klein Independent School District (ISD) in Texas is one district that already has started evaluating its own technology program.

The district hired a consultant to evaluate its Technology Integration Project, which required 19 elementary teachers to develop a model for teaching in the 21st century.

The teachers met every week for a full semester before researching what technology they each would use. Once they’d purchased the technology, completed training, and implemented it for a full year, the district brought in the consultant to measure the project’s success.

Ann McMullan, instructional technology officer for Klein ISD, said the district has migrated to a data-driven decision-making model in the last few years, so providing this kind of feedback was essential to its goals.

“We need to prove to our board and community why academic success occurred,” McMullan said. “In the past, it may have been enough to say, ‘It looks good. It seems to be working.’ But now we have to look at [whether] the data prove that we have improved academic success.”

The district’s evaluation was just completed this past fall and presented to the board. No request has been made yet to expand any of the district’s technology projects based on its results, she said.

Educators contacted by eSchool News agreed that school districts ought to be assessing the effectiveness of their instructional technology programs, but they said it’s an expensive and difficult task.

“To exclude all variables except technology is complex at best and impossible at worst if you are looking for empirical data. I would support doing this type of research if it is funded by ED, but [the department is] not likely to do this, and my district does not have the level of funding to do this properly no matter how much I like the idea,” said Marc B. Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California.

“Schools and school systems have neither the time nor, in most cases, the expertise to conduct rigorous research projects,” said Michael Hickey, a former superintendent who now is professor of education at Towson State University in Maryland. “They also are seldom allowed the time even to conduct rigorous evaluations of their initiatives, because the media and the politicians all want results now. The idea of really good longitudinal evaluation is something that we are very unlikely to see much of—even with the rhetoric of [No Child Left Behind].”

“The idea of rigorous research might not be realistic for most school districts, especially smaller ones that do not have access to research resources,” said Bob Moore, executive director of instructional technology services for the Blue Valley School District in Kansas.

But “schools should be evaluating their practices, with technology in particular, to determine their effectiveness,” Moore acknowledged. ” If you don’t know whether or not [technology] is having a positive impact on student learning, it makes it difficult to justify.”

National research

ED’s $15 million, five-year educational technology evaluation, mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, will examine the conditions under which technology is effective at increasing student achievement and the ability of teachers to teach. This national study is expected to begin this spring.

“The legislation was so vague and enormous in its task that it’s going to take quite a bit of focusing,” Bailey said.

Currently, a design team is charged with the complex task of narrowing the scope of such research. Here are some of the issues team members are tackling:

  • Given the breadth of the topic, what specifically should the study focus on?
  • What are the best indicators of success (test scores, 21st-century skills, attendance, etc)?
  • What subject areas, if any, should the study be limited to?
  • What is the best way to implement the design?
  • What strategies should be used to facilitate the randomized assignment called for in the legislation?

The design team will spend until April designing the study, and implementation will follow. The team is holding conference calls each week and meets face to face every two months.

“As we get a little more specific, we do plan to offer more information [online],” Bailey said.

Because ED’s evaluation project won’t be able to address all educational technology issues, Bailey hopes others will use the design and survey instruments from this research to conduct a series of similar studies.

“It’s impossible to do a research study without leaving some things out,” Bailey said. “This isn’t going to be the silver-bullet study. There are going to be several studies.”


U.S. Department of Education

Klein Independent School District

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001


Jury’s verdict puts digital copyright law to test

A federal jury on Dec. 17 acquitted a Russian software firm of digital copyright violations for creating a program that cracks the security features of Adobe Systems’ eBook Reader software.

The case against ElcomSoft Ltd. was the most high-profile criminal prosecution under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which many education and consumer-rights groups consider unduly restrictive. Although the jury’s verdict doesn’t change the law, legal experts say the case was an important test of consumers’ rights to use digital movies, images, and books they legally obtain.

ElcomSoft “built a tool, and sure that tool could be misused by some people—but nobody alleged [the company itself] committed any infringement,” said Fred von Lohmann, senior intellectual property attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading DMCA critic.

The copyright act under which ElcomSoft was tried prohibits the production and distribution of any product that circumvents the security features of digital media. Supporters of the law—including the software, publishing, and entertainment industries—say it’s necessary to prevent the illegal copying and distribution of electronic content. But civil libertarians and some education groups argue that the DMCA stifles academic research and gives publishers too tight a grip over online content.

With Adobe’s eBook Reader software, for example, publishers can set such restrictions as banning printing entirely or restricting the number of pages or allotted time for reading.

The defense had argued that the ElcomSoft’s program merely enabled owners of the eBook Reader to exercise their rights to “fair use” under copyright law, including making copies of eBooks for backups, transfers to other devices, and other personal use.

Jury foreman Dennis Strader said that argument had a big impact on the jurors, who asked U.S. District Judge Ronald M. Whyte to clarify the “fair use” definition shortly after deliberations began. “Under the eBook formats, you have no rights at all, and the jury had trouble with that concept,” said Strader.

The young ElcomSoft programmer who developed the software, Dmitry Sklyarov, became a lightning rod for hacker rights when he was arrested last year after attending a hacker convention in Las Vegas. Adobe had complained to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) after the software became available for download in the United States, for around $99. Adobe eventually dropped its support of the charges against Sklyarov after internet policy groups threatened to organize a boycott of the company’s products.

But prosecutors continued to press charges against Sklyarov. The assistant professor at Moscow Technical University spent several weeks in jail before the government agreed to drop charges against him in exchange for his testimony at ElcomSoft’s trial.

Prosecutors had tried to prove that the ElcomSoft software was illegal because it permitted owners to freely distribute copyrighted material, encouraging piracy.

During the 10 days the software was offered in the summer of 2001, about 20 copies were sold worldwide, including nine in the United States.

Though Adobe provides the software for viewing eBooks free on computers, the program for creating such books sells for up to $10,000 per copy. Adobe has been concerned about any perception that copyright content isn’t secure. In response to the jury’s verdict, Adobe said it was disappointed but stood by its original decision to report ElcomSoft’s activities to prosecutors.

Prosecutor Scott H. Frewing had told jurors that the Russians “were selling a burglar tool for software to make a profit.” He quickly left the courtroom after the verdict and had no immediate comment.

Miriam Nisbett, legislative counsel for the American Library Association, hailed the jury’s decision.

“The [DMCA] really did tighten up what anyone can do with copyrighted material,” she said. “It was reassuring that the jury in this case saw that if there was a well-intentioned purpose, the company would not be [held] liable.”

Still, Nisbett said, it’s too early to tell whether the ruling will have any direct impact on how educators handle the use of digitally protected intellectual property in the future.

“I think we still have to be very wary, because there are very serious penalties for violating the DMCA,” she said. “We’re still going to have to tread very carefully.”

Nisbett said her organization believes the DMCA is too strict and does not provide enough latitude for fair use, especially in classrooms.

“We have a problem with the law,” she said. “If there are technical locks in place, you can’t circumvent them. This prohibits fair use. There should be exceptions that allow you to circumvent certain protections if you are going to make a non-infringing use of something.”

This is particularly important in the classroom, she said, where digital texts are being used and produced with greater frequency now.

In a civil case stemming from the same provision of the DMCA, a federal appeals court in New York sided with Hollywood’s major studios in upholding a ruling against a man who had posted on his web site a program that let users decrypt and copy digital video discs (DVDs).

The court held that permitting such software would deprive movie studios of revenues because copies of DVDs can be instantly circulated online.

Two other criminal cases, both against individuals, ended in plea agreements. Defense attorney Joe Burton said the government failed to prove ElcomSoft intended to violate the law, but predicted more prosecutions. “I don’t see [the verdict] as throwing a blanket on DMCA,” Burton said. “It will take another case to test that.”

ElcomSoft president Alex Katalov said the program that triggered the prosecution is no longer being sold in Russia or anywhere else. The Moscow company makes a variety of code-cracking and password recovery programs, and its clients include numerous U.S. law enforcement agencies—including, ironically, the FBI and the Department of Justice.

Had it been convicted, ElcomSoft could have been fined $2 million with additional penalties if willful intent was determined.


ElcomSoft Ltd.

Adobe Systems Ltd.

Electronic Frontier Foundation

American Library Association


Attorney: Proposed cyber school would violate NY law

Plans of conservative pundit William Bennett, a former U.S. Education Secretary, to launch a tuition-free, internet-based charter school in the state of New York have run afoul of state law, New York officials said Dec. 16. The law in question reportedly rules out any charter school unless its students all are educated in one building.

An attorney for the entity governing New York’s charter schools said education officials must reject the application for the New York Virtual Charter School submitted by Bennett’s company, K12 Inc. Bennett’s firm has established similar schools in Pennsylvania, Colorado, Ohio, Idaho, Minnesota, California, and Arkansas.

The State University of New York (SUNY) Board of Trustees, which must approve charter schools, and staff members of SUNY’s Charter School Institute said a charter school such as the one Bennett’s company is proposing for New York could provide top-quality education for any child in the state.

They reportedly agreed such a charter school could be a preferred option for students living in isolated or dangerous neighborhoods, for bullied students, and even for students with unconventional schedules because they are Olympic hopefuls.

The tuition-free school would provide students with home computers, other resources, and teachers online or at the proposed facility in the Syracuse suburb of Fayetteville, a K12 Inc. spokesman said, adding that parental involvement and frequent student assessments are key to his company’s charter schools.

On Dec. 16, however, general counsel Paul O’Neill of SUNY’s Charter School Institute told a committee of trustees that the state’s charter law doesn’t allow for internet-based education delivered via home computers. A provision of the law requires the charter school to be in one building. Bennett’s Virtual Charter School, however, would allow students to be educated from their homes or in small clusters statewide.

“This is exactly the sort of option New York families need,” said SUNY Trustee Candace DeRussy. “It’s high time New York move into the 21st century … I believe it’s irresponsible of us to deny New York families this option.”

The League of Women Voters of New York State, however, said the charter school should be rejected. “It cannot meet the needs of certain at-risk populations; it will lead to re-segregation of education in this state; it cannot maintain the separation of church and state,” said Elsie Wager of the league.

“We’re going to follow the law here,” said SUNY Trustee Edward Cox. “The law is the law.”

Under state law, the SUNY board’s Charter Schools Committee must by Jan. 1 reject K12 Inc.’s application or indicate that it has merit for further review and likely approval. This requirement forced the issue onto the board’s agenda in mid-December.

The virtual schools differ from home schooling in that they are more structured, and the computer and other educational resources would be paid for by state school aid based on the per-pupil funding to the student’s home district.

The school is proposed to handle 1,500 students in kindergarten through seventh grade the first year and grow to 3,500 students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

In October, Bennett opened the Arkansas Virtual School, saying the school will foster greater parental involvement and will feature “a self-paced, customized curriculum that benefits students of all abilities” and “a safe learning environment where character education can be an essential part of the academic program.”

A year ago, the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School opened in kindergarten through third grade, one of seven “cyber schools” in the state.

“We haven’t had any complaints from that school,” said Jeff McCloud, of the Pennsylvania Education Department.

The Pennsylvania school’s enrollment swelled from 400 students last year in kindergarten through second grade to 1,400 this year in kindergarten through fifth grade, said K12 Inc. spokesman Bryan Flood.

“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to offer this educational opportunity across New York,” Flood said.


SUNY Board of Trustees

K12 Inc.


TV shows spur interest in forensics classes

Inspired by such top-rated television shows as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and “CSI: Miami,” students across the country are lining up to take forensics classes in high schools and even middle schools.

Proponents of the courses view them as another way to get kids interested in science and technology. But critics fear this trend raises disturbing ethical questions and might sensationalize violence if not handled correctly.

“It seems to me that schools need to focus on education and citizenship training for young people,” said Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, Calif. “As a general matter of curriculum, I would think this is something schools would have to approach very carefully.”

Such concerns notwithstanding, forensics classes are well under way in some schools, such as the Richfield, Minn., High School. If there were a television show called “C.S.I. Minnesota,” it might look a lot like Emily Loerakker’s class at Richfield High.

There is the ominous “Crime Scene: Do Not Enter” police tape tacked to a wall. There are the telltale blood drops spattering a piece of paper. There’s even a crowd of gawkers looking on with morbid curiosity.

The blood is actually corn syrup, food coloring, and cocoa, and the onlookers are students in Loerakker’s forensic science class, one of the most popular science electives at Richfield High and part of a national effort intended to make science more attractive to students who don’t normally take to it.

James Hurley, development director for the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, said he has talked to more than 800 middle and high school teachers from the United States and abroad about starting classes.

More than 200 teachers have taken the academy’s seminars, including Loerakker, who started her class last year. Because of its popularity, she is teaching two more this year as science electives.

“I’ve seen a lot of kids who just don’t get traditional biology,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of progress when they take this class.”

Jill Johnson, assistant principal, is proud of what forensic science has accomplished, but acknowledges some initial trepidation.

“It’s a great class and a popular class, but it’s not without controversy,” she said. “Last year, we had one parent object to some of the content.”

The district decided the class was pertinent to educational goals, although teachers had to be careful with some of the material. It’s an elective, so students don’t have to take it. They can also see more graphic material on the prime-time crime shows or the Discovery Channel, supporters of the class say.

Nationally, some parents have been concerned about violence and the appropriateness of such classes in schools, Hurley said, but careful selection of topics can avoid sensationalism in favor of science.

“We welcome questions about it,” said Hurley. “We asked the question: How can we help you make an appropriate, accurate, and ethical application of forensics to your science class?”

Court TV has even gotten involved, posting curriculum material on its web site that can be used by classes.

“Really, since the O.J. Simpson case, the general public has been fascinated with the complexity of police work,” Johnson said.

Roberta Geiselhart, investigative supervisor for the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office, has spoken to classes at Richfield High and said she thinks forensics offers valuable lessons in biology, physiology, physics, technology, and math.

“I think these classes have a benefit in that it’s a nice approach for kids who don’t do well in regular science classes,” she said. “They often do well in this. It’s a real application of scientific principles for them.”

Geiselhart also said such classes give students insight into the real lives of medical and crime-scene investigators, and it’s certainly not the glamorous one seen on the numerous television shows.

In fact, one of her assignments was to have the Richfield class watch a show and “tell me what the flaws were.” The class responded, finding several instances in which TV investigators goofed or used flawed science. “It just showed me what even a little education can do,” she said.

On Dec. 6, Loerakker’s class got to push the boundaries a little. They got to stand on the tables and splatter Karo syrup around, a task they took to gleefully.

First, small teams of students measured their “blood” in beakers, then dropped it from various heights. Then they measured the size of the blood spatters. They also had to write a hypothesis: What did they think would happen as the liquid was dropped in varying amounts from various heights?

Loerakker started the course with a death-scene re-enactment, in which a section of the classroom was partitioned off, and students had to collect evidence and take measurements. They learned to take fingerprints and footprints, and future classes will discuss blood typing, DNA, and discovering trauma direction by measuring the angle of blood spatters.

“The class is really fun,” said Kim Jensen, a senior. “I want to go into forensics, and I’ve wanted to be a cop ever since my friends took this class last year.”

Her classmate, Dennis Hanson, agreed. “I generally don’t like science, but I like this class,” he said. “It’s more interesting because it’s more real; it’s less about theories and more about life than other science classes.”

Some students acknowledge that the course can be a bit trying, especially when they talk about the realities of death and such unseemly topics as rigor mortis.

Geiselhart said that’s not all bad. In fact, she has used her opportunity visiting the class to move beyond the science and math, and talk about something more important: “I very bluntly talk to them about life and death issues and lifestyle choices,” she said.

“We talk about being a bully, and where that can get you, and we talk about all the people I see who were not wearing seat belts,” Geiselhart said. “I say, ‘I know some of you are using drugs. That’s none of my business, but I can say I’ll be seeing you sooner rather than later, professionally, and it’s not a good place to meet.'”

Hurley acknowledges it’s not practical to suggest that a lot of these students will wind up working in a medical examiner’s office. But the tools used in forensic science can help in other career paths in chemistry, biology, and physiology. “It can even lead to careers in forensic accounting, which recently looked into what took place at Enron,” he said.

Joanne McDaniel, director of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence in Raleigh, N.C., said it’s important that the content of such classes be developmentally appropriate for students.

“This is what pop culture is providing us,” she said. “One thing we know about teaching is that we’ve got to make [the material] relevant for students. This is one way of doing that.” But, “there is a right way and wrong way to teach [about] murder. What is important … is that this information be presented in the proper context.”

As these types of programs expand nationally, McDaniel predicts it will be difficult to ensure that instructors are teaching about crime in a proper, age-appropriate fashion. Although there is little doubt that educators had good intentions when they conceived of the forensics class, the curriculum comes with little guarantee that other teachers will maintain similar convictions as the program catches on nationwide, she said.

“It’s troublesome if it’s not done right,” she said.


American Academy of Forensic Sciences

Court TV’s “Forensics in the Classroom”

National School Safety Center

Center for the Prevention of School Violence


Turn to this “Desktop Reference” for useful NCLB guidance

When the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was signed by President Bush in 2001, it brought with it a laundry list of new responsibilities for educators nationwide. Now the U.S. Department of Education (ED) has put together a number of online tools designed to help school leaders muddle through the details. The latest resource from ED is a 140-page desktop reference covering every major aspect of the legislation. The new desktop reference, which can be downloaded for free from ED’s web site, contains information on every major program in the law, including standards for improving academic achievement; recruiting, training, and retaining high-quality teachers; flexibility and accountability; English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction; and the use of technology in the classroom. According to ED officials, the manual details the purpose of each program, tells what’s new in the law and how each program works, and lists requirements, including how to achieve quality and measure performance, as well as key activities and responsibilities of state education departments.


ED pushes for national digital file format for textbooks

The U.S. Department of Education (ED) is spending nearly $200,000 to create a single “national file format” that will be used to make textbooks accessible to blind or disabled students.

Adopting the standard will be voluntary, which is contrary to legislation introduced last spring that would have required textbook publishers to submit electronic files of all textbooks sold to schools nationwide according to a universal standard.

That bill, dubbed the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act of 2002 (H.R. 4582 and S. 2246), has been held up in committee. In the meantime, ED is taking the initiative to create a voluntary standard to coordinate the efforts of publishers and educators.

“Since there is not yet agreement regarding the optimal file format standard for all students, a national voluntary standard would provide a baseline for future development and enhancements,” said Robert H. Pasternack, ED’s assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services.

The National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum at the Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST) in Wakefield, Mass., is charged with forming an advisory panel that will develop, implement, and measure the standard’s success.

With current practices, students who need alternatives to traditional textbooks often wait months before receiving their books.

“If you’ve purchased a new textbook that isn’t available in Braille, you may have to wait six months,” said Chuck Hitchcock, chief educational technology officer for CAST. “What [the national file format] will do is ensure that kids get their textbooks and materials at the beginning of the year, at the same time as other kids.”

When publishers make a textbook, it is assumed that shortly thereafter they will create a digital file that educators can use to convert the textbook into an accessible format for disabled students, such as refreshable Braille, print Braille, or accessible hypertext markup language (HTML).

“The problem for the publishers is that every state requires something different,” Hitchcock said. Kentucky, for example, requires documents in HTML format, while Texas requires American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) format.

In fact, half of the states have passed legislation in the past few years that stipulate what digital format publishers must provide, whether it’s Microsoft Word, ASCII, HTML, or another format.

Publishers also favor creating a single format because it will reduce the burden and costs associated with providing multiple formats of the same file. But uniformity won’t happen with a voluntary standard, they say.

“We are working with CAST, trying to come up with a workable file format and hoping for the best. But, in all honesty, it’s not going to address the needs that are there,” said Stephen Driesler, executive director of the Association of American Publishers.

“If all 26 states [that have adopted their own standards] go out and have an epiphany … and say, ‘We need to change and adopt this national file format,’ then I’ll eat my words,” Driesler said.

Hitchcock said it’s pretty likely that states will adopt the standard, but Driesler remains skeptical that 26 states would change their laws—especially not in the near future.

“The practical reality is nothing is going to happen [in 2002]. It would be [2003] before state legislatures could do anything,” Driesler said. “Having worked with state legislatures and state departments of education, these things just don’t work at a high rate of speed.”

He added, “It’s totally going to be up to the states to make this happen.”

Texas is one of the states that has its own law regarding the format of digital textbook files.

“I don’t believe our agency would be opposed per se, but we need to see the devil in the details to see how well [ED’s proposal] fits our needs and the work of our braillist,” said Chuck Mayo, assistant director of textbook administration for the Texas Education Agency.

(See the April 30 eSchool News article, “New bill would give blind students equal access to textbooks at http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showstory.cfm?ArticleID=3669.)


National File Format Initiative

Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST)

CAST’s National Center on Accessing the General Curriculum

Association of American Publishers


Benton: America’s $40 billion-plus ed-tech investment at risk

America, over the past 10 years, has invested more than $40 billion to equip schools with computers and connect classrooms to the internet, the Benton Foundation pointed out at a conference Dec. 11, in Washington, D.C. Now, as a financial crisis engulfs most state governments, that multi-billion-dollar technology investment is at risk, Benton warned.

The conference, hosted by the nonpartisan, public-interest foundation, was held to preview a new report intended to outline what must be done to ensure the nation’s ed-tech investment doesn’t go to waste.

The report, “The Sustainability Challenge: Taking Ed/Tech to the Next Level,” is scheduled for online release in the next two weeks with a print edition to follow Jan. 1, 2003. It is the third in a series from Benton focused on the eRate and other ed-tech funding issues.

“We’ve made significant progress in getting computers and the internet into America’s classrooms,” said Norris Dickard, Benton Foundation director of public policy and editor of the publication. “However, it’s become clear that many schools are not using this new infrastructure to its maximum potential. Schools need well-trained teachers and [high-] quality curricula that take full advantage of these ed-tech investments. Yet states are cutting ed-tech funds, and technology fatigue may be hitting state and local policy makers—just as they are given new authority to transfer federal ed-tech funds to other uses.”

The Benton report outlines a number of critical “next steps” the foundation said are needed to sustain America’s ed-tech infrastructure and ensure that this investment helps support student achievement. The report offers a “Sustainability Top Ten List” of reforms including these:

  • Accelerating teacher professional development
  • Professionalizing technical support
  • Ensuring all Americans have 21st Century Skills and
  • Adopting a new national goal to bridge the home and community digital divides

Besides those four recommendations, the report includes calls to implement authentic ed-tech assessments, create a national digital trust for content development, focus on the emerging broadband divide, increase funding for federal ed-tech block grants to $1 billion, share what works, and continue ed-tech funding research.

As school leaders at the conference and elsewhere got their first look at the findings, they all acknowledged the report’s sound content and good intentions, but some questioned the feasibility of implementing its recommendations.

One California educator predicted Benton’s recommendations will do little to better the increasingly troubled situation in schools in her home state. “I get really tired of hearing these things. The suggestions are the same [as] have been espoused for years,” said Sharon Eilts, a teacher in the Sunnyvale, Calif., School District. “These suggestions seem like pie-in-the-sky when we in the trenches have so much to deal with. The old war horses like myself keep plugging along, but an apple and some oats would be nice.”

But another educator had a different perspective. “These recommendations are a good distillation of priorities, based on the experiences of educators and researchers across the country,” said Nancy Messmer, director of library media and technology for the Bellingham, Wash., Public Schools. “It feels right to me to emphasize strengthening the key relationship in learning – that between teacher and student – by accelerating and deepening ongoing professional development.”

According to Helen Soule, special assistant for technology in the office of postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), America’s schools must have “netricity.” This is like electricity, she explained, computer access and the internet must be available in every classroom at every school nationwide. “We have to get technology into the mainstream of everything that we do,” she said. “This administration believes that technology is very important in education.”

Margaret Honey, co-director of Education Development Center Inc., an international non-profit organization, is a co-author of the Benton Report. The wide array of choices and the rapid pace of change make technology a challenge for educators, she said: “What we have tried to do here is lay out a foundation for this new culture of learning that has to take place.”

According to the report, “There are a number of emerging models that states and local districts can follow to get the most from, and sustain, their instructional technology infrastructure.”

One such model is the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) initiative developed by the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN).

Too often school leaders look at technology funding as a one-time hardware cost, said Sarah Fitzgerald, one of the event’s panelists from Funds for Learning, an education consulting firm specializing in the eRate. Fitzgerald helped develop CoSN’s TCO model. What decision makers often fail to realize, she said, are the inherent costs associated with technology training, maintenance, and technology upkeep.

“Schools need to ask about the softer costs,” Fitzgerald said. “When you think about the vast numbers of computers put into classrooms over the last four or five years – you have not seen that same commitment for tech support.”

Another problem, Fitzgerald said, is that low-performing schools often have low-tech expectations, as opposed to high-performing schools, which have the means to take bigger, more productive strides toward technology innovation.

Still, she said, just because a school lacks the financial wherewithal to implement the latest gizmos doesn’t mean ed-tech initiatives should be shelved until more money is available. In fact, she added, it’s the poor-performing schools that must work hardest to increase technology’s availability. Benton’s Dickard acknowledged the challenge of allocating adequate resources to technology during a time of shrinking budgets, but he said it is necessary nonetheless.

As he wrote in the report: “We contend that it is imperative for schools to leverage the large ed-tech investments they have made to date, to maintain the infrastructure they have in place, and be strategic about upgrading and supporting networks in the future.”

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and other recent federal initiatives provide a framework, Dickard said, which places the emphasis on accountability, results, and identifying what works best to achieve success.

Now that local leaders have more discretion as to how they spend federal funds, Dickard said, schools might choose to spend money originally meant for technology integration on other needs, such as hiring additional teachers or building extra classrooms.

For some institutions, the temptation to spend technology dollars on non-technical needs increased on Dec. 2. That’s when the ED announced, in its final NCLB rules, that students in failing schools must be allowed to transfer to any school within their home district, despite existing challenges such as overcrowding, class-size limitations, and health and safety requirements.

“Some schools might say, ‘We don’t need technology; what we need are more teachers in the classroom,'” Dickard said: That’s why federal and state governments must step up efforts to increase ed-tech funding despite state budget shortfalls.

Even educators in school districts celebrated for their progressive use of technology are concerned by the fiscal state of the states.

“All of the current initiatives in public education, from technology to comprehensive curriculums, are in danger due to fiscal problems at the state and local levels,” said Jim Hirsch, assistant superintendent for technology at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. “All of us in public education continue to strive to reach these and similar targets in our communities. But until a sustainable model for funding public education is brought forward, we will continue to strive in starts and spurts, but not reach all the targets we’d like.”

Another educator, commenting on the new report, offered his own assessment of the current situation.

“We are always having financial crises in education,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville, Calif., Joint Unified School District. “That isn’t going to change, so the real questions is what are we doing and how are we going to expand what we are doing with the resources we have.” Toward that end, he added: “It would be nice if [ED] and the state [education departments] would prioritize what they expect, instead of giving everything the same priority. That’s how they can help us be more successful.”

The Benton Foundation hopes its new report will provide educators and policy makers with a blueprint for what must be done, especially in hard times, to preserve the massive technology investment already in place in the nation’s schools.


Bellingham Public Schools

Benton Foundation

Consortium for School Networking

Education Development Center Inc.

Funds for Learning

Marysville Joint Unified School District

Plano Independent School District

U.S. Department of Education