Bush administration pushes $200M cut for voc ed

Across America, nearly half of high school students choose vocational programs—from automotive repair to computer network design—as a major part of their studies, and a quarter of students go further and concentrate on a specific job-focused field, according to the U.S. Department of Education (ED). Now, millions of these students could face major changes in their studies if a Bush administration plan to remake vocational education is approved.

Bush wants to replace the $1.2 billion national program with a trimmer, $1 billion version that would require schools to prove student achievement before they receive federal grant money. And for the first time, states could shift federal vocational education money to programs that strengthen math and reading for low-income students.

The administration says it wants to ensure more young people are prepared for college or greater technical training and able to switch careers smoothly. Bush’s plan would raise the stakes for vocational education, just as his 2002 No Child Left Behind Act heightened expectations and consequences for those who teach general education.

“We can do this much more effectively if we just prepare people adequately so they’ve got options in life,” said Carol D’Amico, ED’s assistant secretary for vocational and adult education. “Just because we’re saying all students should have the same foundation doesn’t mean we’re saying all students need to go to a university and be a professor. What we’re saying is that training for a specific job is shortchanging our students.”

Details about the Bush plan won’t be ready until later this year, when Congress is scheduled to reauthorize the Perkins Act, the nation’s vocational education law. There probably won’t be a mandated curriculum, D’Amico said, but money will likely be tied to how well students score on tests and advance to the post-high school education needed for most jobs today.

Federal money often determines whether high schools keep their equipment and teacher training up to date. And although Congress contributes just 7 percent of the nation’s vocational education funds, advocates in the field fear cash-strapped states will back off their investment if the federal priority changes.

Vocational educators say the idea that occupational training doesn’t provide much in the way of academics is outdated.

“There are a number of perceptions about career technical education that are not necessarily reflective of what’s happening in schools today,” said Kimberly Green, who leads a consortium of state directors in the vocational education field.

“Can you go out and find schools that are doing old-world voc ed?” she asked. “Sure. But you can find bad English and math programs, too. The Perkins money has helped produce change.”

Most vocational education teachers don’t even use the word “vocational” any more—they don’t believe it represents what they do and know it still carries a second-class stigma for some.

The range of career programs these days is vast, covering such classes as architectural drawing, digital photography, engineering physics, landscape design, and sports marketing. Even the most traditional trades—fixing a car and cutting hair—have become complex.

For example, in Margaret Pilger’s cosmetology class at the Marshall Academy, a popular career-focused high school program in Fairfax County, Va., students use computer imaging to assess the best cuts and styles for their customers. At least twice a week, students immerse themselves in anatomy, physiology, and chemical theory.

“Not every student is Harvard-bound, and ultimately you must be able to earn your living,” Pilger said.

Every Marshall Academy student, college-bound or not, must pass Virginia’s high school exit exams. School leaders say the occupational courses help students meet the requirement by giving context to learning.

For instance: Hotel management students train with Marriott and Sheraton, emerging with experience and credits that transfer to local colleges. Network design students study three volumes of company manuals and finish their courses ready to test for professional certification.

Automotive repair courses used to rely on diagnostic machines that weighed hundreds of pounds, but students now must learn to use high-tech, handheld digital equipment to assess what’s wrong with cars that have twice as many electronic components as older models.

“What we’re trying to do in our classes is show [students] why they need to be strong in science, why they need to be strong in English, why they need to be strong in math,” said Paul Wardinski, the Marshall Academy administrator. “We’re not separate.”

But nationwide, D’Amico said, there aren’t enough vocational education programs that offer rigor and coordinate with colleges.

Her message for the states: If vocational education helps students reach high academic standards, it can continue and thrive. If not? “Then it could be in jeopardy,” she said.

Measuring how well vocational education does the job is complex, researchers say. Statistics run a few years behind, states use different figures, and technological achievement is rarely charted.

Bush’s proposed 2004 budget says existing vocational education programs don’t help students achieve academically, graduate from high school, and move onto training after high school.

A major effort by a regional education group found, in fact, that many vocational education students took a second-tier track of less rigorous courses. The Southern Regional Education Board set up a High Schools That Work program to promote a more demanding academic core curriculum and technical education for those who want it. Over 15 years, the program has grown to 1,100 schools in 27 states.

“The most powerful thing you can do to improve student achievement of career-oriented students is to give them opportunities to take the more demanding courses,” said Gene Bottoms, who directs the effort. “But when you push students into deep water, you better be prepared to give them extra help, and you better be able to connect it to their experiences.”

Some vocational education benefits will never show up on standardized tests, said Jay Diede, the principal of Watford City High School in western North Dakota. In a district that stretches 1,500 square miles, courses in farming, ranching, and vocational business keep many students engaged, he said. They emerge with leadership skills and a community commitment.

“They aren’t going to be taking our advanced math or advanced science,” Diede said. “But on the other hand, we have kids who go through our program who are honor students. I would challenge people to stop in to some of our programs. We have kids coming out of here with technology skills that are second to none.”

Links:

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

Marshall Academy
http://www.fcps.k12.va.us/marshallacademy

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

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Peruse this Houghton Mifflin site for NCLB news and information

To mark the one-year anniversary of the controversial No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), educational publisher Houghton Mifflin has unveiled a new web site dedicated to helping schools achieve the reforms set in motion by the Bush administration’s sweeping federal legislation. With a focus on improved reading achievement, the site provides resources that students, parents, and educators can use in eadvertisement
fforts to improve reading performance in schools. For instance, in the “National News” section, educators and parents can read articles and reports from the nation’s leading journalists about the impact NCLB is having nationwide. Another section, appropriately entitled “Expert Insight,” gives stakeholders an opportunity to view research papers and other reports filed by top reading experts about how best to improve literacy instruction in schools. Selected articles cover all sorts of important and often controversial issues, from achievement and assessment to the need for teacher training and additional funding. The site also contains a number of useful links to resources that aim to spell out the requirements of NCLB more clearly, as well as tips on how to write effective grant proposals and access to a weekly newsletter.

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Videos show best math teaching practices from other countries

Intel Corp., working with LessonLabs Inc., has just released a professional development package that includes demonstration videos showing instructional techniques typical in Japan, Hong Kong, and Switzerland, three of six countries that outscored the United States on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The Intel package is based on findings derived from TIMSS, and algebra is the subject taught in the demonstration videos.

The study, called “Teaching Mathematics in Seven Countries: Results from the Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) 1999 Video Study,” summarizes the teaching practices of 638 teachers from Australia, the Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States.

Because these six other nations all outperformed the U.S. on previous TIMSS mathematics tests, researchers wanted to find out what American teachers could do to improve their results.

“This study allows us to learn from those countries whose students excel in mathematics,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. “We know that our current practices have not achieved the success we demand. So, we’ve asked experts to review the teaching practices of high-achieving countries to inform our teachers and staff in our teacher preparation programs how to improve U.S. teaching practices.”

In each case, a teacher was videotaped for one complete lesson, and in each country, videotapes were collected across the school year to capture the range of topics and activities that can take place throughout an entire year.

After systematically analyzing data collected from thousands of hours of videotaped lessons, researchers found that teachers from high-achieving countries do not use a single common method for teaching mathematics.

They also found teaching practices in the United States differ remarkably from the way mathematics is taught in high-performing countries.

In 1995, researchers conducted a similar study of math lessons from three countries: Germany, Japan, and the United States. After this study, researchers concluded that because Japan had a unique teaching style and scored the highest on the TIMMS, all teachers should teach like Japanese teachers.

However, the 1999 study concludes that there is no single method of teaching mathematics among high-achieving countries. The 1999 study was expanded to include eighth-grade mathematics and science lessons from seven countries. (Germany was not included because it did not perform better than the U.S. on the TIMMS.)

“All teaching in the different countries is unique,” said Jim Stigler, co-director of the TIMMS Video Study and chief executive of LessonLab Inc. Teaching practices are a reflection of culture, and each country—including the U.S.—has a distinct national style, he explained.

“We found that there isn’t one feature that all high-achieving countries take,” Stigler said, which could end age-old debates on what should be emphasized in teaching: procedural versus conceptual understanding? Teacher-centered versus student-centered?

“In these high-achieving countries, you see both,” Stigler said. For example, Hong Kong teachers tend to lecture at the front of the class, while students in the Netherlands do more independent and group work, he said.

“We get so trapped in our cultural way of teaching, but we have choices in how we approach this,” Stigler said.

Teaching is very complex and requires a combination of approaches, he concludes: “To improve teachers, you can’t just say do these three things. You have to give teachers the ability to judge and analyze what technique would be best for each lesson.”

Findings of the study

Researchers did identify some common practices among the seven countries. For example, all taught eighth-grade mathematics by solving problems, and least 80 percent of lesson time, on average, was devoted to problem solving. Teachers in all countries had students work together as a class, in small groups, and independently.

On average, lessons in all countries included a review of previous content as well as the introduction of new content. Also, teachers spoke more than students at a ratio of at least 8 to 1 words, respectively.

American and Czech Republic teachers spent the most time (28 percent) reviewing old content, compared with other nations (8 percent for Hong Kong and 5 percent for Japan) that focused more on new material, the study found.

Compared with other countries, Australia and the U.S. used a smaller percentage of problems that require students to make connections between mathematical facts, procedures, and concepts. Japan used the highest percentage (54 percent) of problems that emphasized making connections. The other countries ranged from 13 percent to 24 percent.

Also, Australian and American teachers tended to turn conceptual problems, where students have to think of what to do to find the answer, into procedural problems, where students simply follow directions to find the answer.

Calculators were used in more lessons in the Netherlands (91 percent) than in the U.S. and other countries, where calculator use ranged from 31 percent to 56 percent. Computers were rarely used in mathematics lessons in any country, ranging from 2 percent to 9 percent of lessons.

“There are no silver bullets, obviously, for mathematics teachers to use to get high student scores on these tests,” said Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “I don’t think there is anything [here] that is really surprising. I would like to think we were using more real-world concepts than we are.”

The testing requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act will make it hard for teachers to change some of their practices, especially when it comes to reviewing previous concepts, Lott added: “Teachers think that it requires a lot of review, and with all the testing we are doing now it will be a lot harder to get rid of that review.”

The study was released March 26 by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) and its sponsoring partner, the National Science Foundation.

Later this year, NCES plans to release two additional reports: one on eighth-grade science teaching and another that compares U.S. mathematics teaching in 1995 with that of 1999.

Professional development course

Based on the findings of the TIMMS Video Study, LessonLab and Intel are offering a new online professional development course that highlights teaching techniques from around the world. Teachers who enroll in the web-based course can observe and learn from videos of teachers in Hong Kong, Japan, and Switzerland.

“This 10-hour online course isn’t going to teach teachers how to teach algebra, but it will help them beef up their technique,” said Paige Kuni, Intel’s worldwide K-12 education manager.

“It’s not a Helpful Heloise Hint, where you add club soda and the stain goes away. Teaching is much more complex than that,” she added. “When I watch the U.S. videos, I see that U.S. teachers tend to do a lot of the students’ thinking for them.”

Teachers who participate in the online course use interactive, web-based tools to reflect and connect what they learn from the videos with what they want to happen in their own classroom. Thirty-five teachers already have piloted this program, which is offered either as a six-week facilitated course with an optional university credit, or as a non-facilitated course that allows for self-paced learning but with no credit.

“After taking the TIMSS video course, I began to understand that there are many alternatives in teaching algebra—that I needed to gather questions that help my students make mathematical connections, to further develop their critical thinking skills,” said Joseph Sabol, a teacher with the Alvord Unified School District in Riverside, Calif.

The course materials—which include a CD-ROM of the three videos, a study guide, and unlimited access to the online content for three months—cost $40, and credit through the University of California at Los Angeles costs $60.

LessonLab also is selling 28 videotaped lessons, complete with translations, on CD-ROM for $40 to help expose teachers to these practices. Unlike the online course, these CD-ROMs won’t include curriculum, but Stigler said they’re ideal for building professional development programs.

Links:

TIMMS Video Studies
http://nces.ed.gov/timss/video.asp

“Teaching Mathematics in Seven Countries: Results from the Third International Mathematics and Science (TIMSS) 1999 Video Study”
http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003013.pdf

LessonLab Inc.
http://www.lessonlab.com

Online course
http://www.intel.com/education/math

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‘Self-managing’ server technology could reduce network management costs

Beginning with its next generation of network file server software, Microsoft Corp. said it will offer new technologies designed to help business and school customers automatically manage their flow of computing power and resources to match their workload.

The new technologies will enable school information technology (IT) staff to spend less time defining requirements and validating that applications work, which will reduce deployment costs and network downtime, Microsoft said.

The Redmond, Wash., software giant formally announced its “Dynamic Systems Initiative” March 18. The effort is similar to others already under way at competitors, such as IBM’s “autonomic computing” initiative.

The central idea for all these efforts is that the networks of large enterprises such as companies and school systems should be able to monitor themselves, shift processing power, and dedicate storage where and when it’s needed. By instructing the networks to manage themselves, system administrators will be freed up to focus on other matters, rather than baby-sitting the network.

“The Microsoft Dynamic Systems Initiative will deliver a significant improvement in simplicity, automation, and flexibility to IT systems of all sizes,” said Bill Veghte, corporate vice president for Microsoft’s Windows Server group.

Microsoft’s initiative focuses on new technologies to create and support “smart” programs that know how to anticipate such needs, said Bob O’Brien, Windows Server group product manager. For example, every time someone places an order on a web site, the underlying program can be instructed to make a certain amount of storage available.

“If the application knows … what kind of resources it will need, it starts to see that work load increase, [then] it knows how many resources to put on,” he said.

In addition, Microsoft is working with hardware manufacturers such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp., EDS, and Opsware Inc. to deliver infrastructure that works seamlessly with these applications.

Windows Server 2003, Microsoft’s newest server software scheduled for release in April, will include some of the technology. Another component will be available later this year, and Microsoft expects to release more tools in the next three to five years, O’Brien said.

IBM announced its “autonomic computing” initiative about 18 months ago. “The complexity of technology is growing exponentially,” said IBM spokesman Michael Loughran. The goal, he said, is “to have IT people focus on the business and not focus on the actual infrastructure anymore.”

The IBM eServer product line, which incorporates autonomic computing, has the ability to self-configure, self-heal, self-optimize, and self-protect. That means the servers configure and reconfigure autonomously both at boot time and during run time; detect hardware and firmware faults instantly and then contain the effects of the faults within defined boundaries; measure the performance or usage of resources and then tune the configuration of hardware resources to deliver improved performance; and protect against internal and external threats.

Although school technology directors contacted by eSchool News said they were intrigued by the possible benefits of these new self-managing server technologies, many said the severe budget shortfalls they now face mean they could be slow to adopt such systems.

“At the moment, we are fighting to keep technology funding. I would like to test and use new products, but find this to be challenging at this time,” said Sandra Becker, director of technology for the Governor Mifflin School District in Pennsylvania.

Links:

Windows Server 2003
http://www.microsoft.com/windowsserver2003/default.mspx

IBM’s “autonomic computing” initiative
http://www-1.ibm.com/servers/autonomic

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New Sun licensing program offers hope for cash-strapped schools

Aiming to loosen Microsoft’s hold on the software market for education, rival Sun Microsystems is now offering schools an extensive collection of applications—from network and desktop operating system software to internet development tools—as well as quarterly refreshes and web-based training, all for less than $500 per year.

“Sun is giving back to academic and research institutions by providing low-cost access to software that will better equip today’s students for tomorrow’s workplace—and by making sure that educational institutions are never more than a few months behind on technology refreshes and are never obsolete,” said Jonathan Schwartz, executive vice president of software for Sun.

Among the many products included in the deal is Sun’s StarOffice software, which compares favorably with Microsoft’s popular Office suite on almost every function, conceding only to certain macro capabilities available when creating spreadsheets and other documents, said Dinesh Bahal, director of education solutions for Sun’s worldwide business group.

The majority of classrooms, school libraries, and computer labs still use Microsoft productivity software, but Bahal said Sun’s education customers do not have to pay for individual software licenses, a perk that can translate into tremendous cost savings for schools.

“It’s free and comparable in terms of usage,” Bahal said of Sun’s software. “It’s free across the world.”

Well, not quite. Depending on what pieces of Sun’s new EduSoft Portfolio media kit educators wish to acquire, some fees do apply.

For $495 per year, K-12 schools, colleges, and universities will have access to the entire range of software in the portfolio. Besides StarOffice, the portfolio includes Sun’s Studio suite of tools for developing Java and UNIX-based applications, as well as the company’s directory services, which would enable school network administrators to create customized directories for keeping track of students and computers throughout their districts.

Other titles in the portfolio include Sun’s Solaris 9 Operating Environment, a UNIX-based server operating system (OS); GNOME, a Linux-based desktop OS for customizing desktop working environments; Sun Ray software for access to applications running on UNIX, Solaris, Java, and Microsoft NT operating systems; and eMail and calendar applications, enabling educators to organize and communicate more efficiently.

Although schools do not have to purchase licenses for any of these products, the $495 fee covers quarterly software refreshes to ensure that the applications are running with the latest patches, protections, and upgrades.

The total commercial value of Sun’s contribution to schools is estimated at more than $1 billion, the company said.

Of course, all of the software in the world would mean little to schools if educators and administrators were poorly trained and ill-equipped to use it. That’s why the EduSoft Portfolio also comes with free, web-based professional development, as well as discounted technology integration training and classroom education courses for schools.

These include classroom-based, instructor-led programs meant to provide teachers and college professors with information about how to teach UNIX and other computer applications to students in the classroom.

The whole idea, Bahal said, is not just to provide software and services, but also to reduce the total cost of ownership—from purchase and implementation to upkeep and production.

“It’s not just about installing the PC. It’s also about training, maintenance, and usage,” Bahal said. “All of the elements of total cost of ownership are attached.”

Bahal said Sun’s training courses place an emphasis on technology integration and how to incorporate applications into the fabric of day-to-day learning.

“Teachers often have a hard time with how to implement technology into the classroom,” he said, “[or] how to use [technology] in an educational context.”

Bahal called the offerings in the portfolio a “Chinese menu” and said schools can use only the products and services that suit their needs. If educators choose not to take advantage of the entire media kit because of the yearly fee, they still can use the online training programs at no charge and any of the other software in the EduSoft Portfolio for only the cost of the media themselves—for example, a nominal fee of $25 for the StarOffice product.

All nonprofit educational institutions are eligible for any of the products and services in the portfolio, as long as they pledge to use the offerings for bona fide educational and research purposes, Bahal said.

There are limitations, however. Schools cannot deploy the software through an internet portal accessible outside of school for use by parents and other individuals who are not using the products for educational and research purposes. “We don’t want [our products] getting into the hands of people who are not eligible,” Bahal said.

To make sure only nonprofit schools take advantage of the offer, educators first must contact Sun and register for the services in the portfolio.

Sun’s apparent generosity notwithstanding, competitors such as Microsoft caution that the cheapest solution doesn’t always provide the best alternative, especially where schools are concerned.

Despite Microsoft’s controversial new licensing fees, said Marcia Kuszmaul, manager of the company’s education solutions group, Microsoft has been commended by its school customers for providing discounts of up to 85 percent on some of its products for educational use.

According to Kuszmaul, schools don’t necessarily like the idea of being treated like charities. “Schools are enterprises,” she said. “We treat them like valued business partners.”

Sun denied requests by eSchool News to identify U.S. customers before the release of its EduSoft Portfolio, but at least one Canadian educator said he was looking forward to the offering.

“Sun’s EduSoft Portfolio will reduce our total cost of ownership and will give us the ability to evaluate the software in our own environment,” said Ted Dodds, associate vice president of information technology for the University of British Columbia. “This removes a cost barrier in making the latest technology available to our students, instructors, and researchers.”

Links:

Sun Microsystems Inc.
http://www.sun.com

Sun EduSoft portfolio
http://www.sun.com/products-n-solutions/edu/promotions/edusoft

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

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Librarians to provide 24-hour service online in Maryland

Maryland state officials have turned the traditional public library information desk into a virtual forum where students can chat with librarians about their research questions in real time via the internet—24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Librarians staffing the online research service, called AskUsNow!, guide students and other users to pre-selected web sites, databases, and other digital resources. Using any internet-connected computer, students can log onto the service for help with their research papers or homework—even in the middle of the night.

“This is more of a reference service than a tutoring service,” said Joe Thompson, project director of Maryland’s virtual reference service.

AskUsNow! started last year as a joint project between Baltimore County Public Library and Harford County Public Library with a $70,000 grant from the Maryland State Department of Education. On March 17, it was expanded to a round-the-clock program serving all counties in the state, thanks in part to a $155,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Many students use the internet for research, yet it is so vast and sometimes full of inaccurate content, Thomspon said. AskUsNow! saves students time because they don’t have to stumble around online to find what they need.

Students can access the service through the AskUsNow! web site or through a link on their library’s home page. Once students log on and type in their questions, almost immediately librarians will start chatting with them to provide an answer. The user and the librarian are able to see the same screen at the same time.

“We give anything [users] would ask for at a public service desk in a library,” Thompson said. Librarians can eMail students full-text articles or other resources from a variety of electronic services that the state’s public libraries subscribe to, including newspaper and magazine databases, encyclopedias, and criticism of various published works of art.

The user is sent a full transcript of the chat session—including all links and conversation—via eMail so he or she doesn’t have to take notes. The system also keeps a record of each question it receives and how long it took the librarian to answer it.

Thompson said the librarians currently receive about one question every 45 minutes. “Each one takes 20 to 30 minutes to answer,” he said. “It’s a much more time-consuming process answering questions online.”

Teachers who lead online courses have had to learn to use new teaching strategies—and so do virtual librarians, Thompson said: “You don’t have all the visual clues that you have in person.”

Maryland is the second state to set up such a statewide system, Thompson said. New Jersey has had a similar system for more than a year.

In Maryland, librarian staffing will come from 20 public library systems, five academic libraries, and the Maryland Law Library. The participating academic libraries are Anne Arundel Community College, Baltimore City Community College, Loyola/Notre Dame, Villa Julie, and University of Maryland College Park.

The system reportedly will be part of a larger library consortium that will enable librarians from Massachusetts and California to help Maryland residents in the middle of the night.

“This is really the next big leap I’m seeing in providing information online,” Thompson said.

The computer software that is being used by the state is called 24/7 Reference, which is available through a licensing agreement with the Metropolitan Cooperative Library System of Pasadena, Calif.

New Jersey first started making librarians available online from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. in October 2001. In that first month, librarians fielded 240 questions, said Peter Bromberg, program development coordinator for the South Jersey Regional Library Cooperative.

But when the service went 24/7 in January 2002, Bromberg said the amount of questions went up to 100 a day—and demand has continued to rise. Last January, the program, called “Q and A N.J.,” received nearly 5,000 questions.

Some of the most popular inquiries relate to health, law, genealogy, and business. Students working on research papers also reach out often to the nocturnal librarians, Bromberg said.

The longest wait for help is between three and five minutes, Bromberg said, and usage goes way down at night.

Bromberg also said the online service has enhanced residents’ understanding of library services. The service has been praised highly by elderly and disabled New Jersey residents.

“We know that we’re reaching people,” Bromberg said. “We know that we’re making a difference.”

Links:

AskUsNow!
http://www.askusnow.info

Baltimore County Public Library
http://www.bcplonline.org/askusnow

Harford County Public Library
http://www.harf.lib.md.us/HCPL/askusnow/main.htm

Institute of Museum and Library Services
http://www.imls.gov

Q and A N.J.
http://www.qandanj.org

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ASCD conference underscores tech’s role in curriculum

Technology was a central component of the 58th Annual Conference and Exhibit Show of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) in San Francisco, March 8-10, but hardware and software were not in the spotlight. The emphasis was largely on curriculum and the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

To be sure, many of the 11,000 professors, administrators, and teachers reportedly in attendance fully expected to rely on technology to cope with current challenges. It was just that technology had become so ubiquitous that it was not a matter for direct attention.

Conversations around the conference seemed to center more on the appearances of major speakers such as former United Nations Ambassador Andrew Young, who had also held posts in Congress and as mayor of Atlanta, and television personality Linda Ellerbee.

Declaring that public education will be the salvation of the United States and the world, Young confided to the overflow crowds at the opening general session that walking to elementary school as a child prepared him for his role as U.N. ambassador: “I either had to fight, run, or negotiate.”

Observed Young: “Our continued survival as a nation depends on our relationship with our young people. We must find ways to make those relationships positive, even if they don’t always start out that way.”

Ellerbee, speaking at yet another overflowing general session, urged ASCD conference-goers to turn television into a teaching tool. The key is to understand the medium, she explained.

“It’s not enough any longer to learn to read and write,” Ellerbee said. “We must teach children to understand that [television] isn’t magic or brain surgery; it’s just television. The answer is media literacy.”

Educators and students should understand five key things about television, she said: (1) that what is seen and not seen on television depends largely on what will generate profits for broadcasters, (2) that television is not reality, (3) that television news is not the whole truth, (4) that television is biased in favor of the establishment, and (5) that television, at its best, can open minds.

An exhibit hall full of vendors was eager to open minds (and school pocketbooks), too. Traffic through the exhibit area was heavy on day one and, according to many exhibitors, acceptable on days two and three.

Here are some of the products and services that seemed to generate the most interest during the ASCD conference:

AlphaSmart Inc. demonstrated its latest portable computing solution. Called Dana, this keyboard/computing tool provides students and educators with the ability to enter information via keyboard, stylus, or touch-screen functions. A Palm-powered operating system transforms the AlphaSmart keyboard from jazzed-up word-processor to interactive computing device. The machines can import and export Microsoft Word and Excel documents. Students also can print their work directly to network-connected printers. At $400 and under, the Dana is the perfect one-to-one computing option for schools, according to AlphaSmart. Special education bundles, software packages, and other deals are available through the company. http://www.alphasmart.com

Blackboard Inc. touted three complementary products for K-12 schools. The Blackboard Learning System offers content management, assessment, and communication tools designed to help educators more easily manage, align, and create online resources for students, the company said. The Blackboard Community Portal System enables educators and administrators to develop personalized web portals across a school or district-level intranet, where they and other stakeholders can communicate all the information required to function in their day-to-day school operations. Finally, the Blackboard Transaction System enables administrators and school purchasing officials to track eCommerce transactions and control access to school facilities. According to the company, each product is committed to ease of use, flexibility, and interoperability. Also on display were Blackboard’s service and support products for its software, as well as its e-Education platform: a suite of tools used to create virtual high school classes. http://www.blackboard.com/k12/index.htm

Carolina Biological Supply Co. announced the completion of an inquiry-based middle school science curriculum, called Science and Technology Concepts for Middle Schools (STC/MS). In development since 1998, the curriculum now offers eight educational modules for science instruction, the company said. The idea behind the product is to offer a seamless approach to K-8 science instruction, allowing school systems to implement the program in part or in whole based on the individual needs of schools. The company also unveiled its GEMS (Great Explorations in Math and Science) materials kits, based on its GEMS teacher’s guides. The kits come with all the materials educators will need to teach GEMS-based units for up to 32 students, the company said. Carolina Biological Supply Co. also has partnered with the Baylor College of Medicine to produce three series of activity-based science and health programs for young students. http://www.carolina.com

ASCD and Excelsior Software Inc. announced a partnership to promote effective instructional and assessment practices with Excelsior’s Pinnacle Plus student assessment software. The product is to be the only student assessment software endorsed by ASCD’s “What Works in Schools” program. “Excelsior’s solutions will help educators track formulative assessment data with their students, thereby supporting our goal of increased student achievement,” said Mikki Terry, ASCD’s executive director for program development. The software enables educators to link individual assignments with the standards, objectives, and/or benchmarks they are responsible for addressing. http://www.excelsiorsoftware.com

In an effort to expand on the company slogan “Innovation in Education,” chip maker Intel Corp. now offers web resources for teaching and learning. The site features daily online learning projects and lesson plans, professional development activities and training opportunities, science and math activities for students, interactive community education initiatives, and resources to better acclimate teachers and students with technology. Teachers and students can log onto an “Innovation Odyssey” for a new learning project each day, or investigate cause-and-effect relationships through “Seeing Reason,” a tool that lets students create diagrams to illustrate and visualize thinking processes. “It’s a Wild Ride” evaluates a breakthrough learning project—the brainchild of three Idaho teachers—and shows other educators how to implement similar initiatives of their own. The company also previewed a video about new perspectives for algebra instruction as well as its “Design and Discovery” engineering program for students. http://www.intel.com/education

Now Software, a division of Power On Software, announced its Spring K-12 Education Special. Now through March 31, schools can purchase the company’s On Guard Macintosh or On Guard Windows programs for $1,500. That’s $500 off of the original price, according to the company. The products are designed to protect school computers from unwanted modifications and system reconfigurations. On Guard prevents users from renaming, moving, copying, and trashing files and folders, the company said. The product also limits access to the system files and locks control panels and printing. It even directs file saving to other media or specific folders. The company also demonstrated its Now Up-to-Date & Contact product, which provides a customizable calendar and organizer for administrators, allowing them to keep appointments, organize orders, publish calendars, and manage assignments with the use of a single application. The special educator price for this software is $49.95. http://www.nowsoftware.com

Paxton/Patterson showed off its Active Data Management and Information Network (ADMIN) for educators. This remote grading tool for the Palm operating system lets teachers engage electronic rubrics to make performance-based assessments. The Grade Manger tool provides educators with a Palm gradebook organizer for lab scheduling and test data correlation. In addition, Standards Manager and Reporting Manager functions help users devise a number of reports to show where students stand in relation to national, state, and local standards, as well as individually or by class. http://www.paxtonpatterson.com

Reading and Language Arts Centers (RLAC) Inc., maker of the Phonics First reading program, claims its approach is one of the best in the business when it comes to meeting the new demands of NCLB. Anchored by the five keys to literacy as outlined by the National Reading Panel (NRP)—phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary, decoding and spelling, and comprehension—Phonics First reportedly is based on numerous research studies about how students best learn to read. RLAC also offers instructional reading software, tutoring, multi-sensory products, and summer and family reading programs. Its Phonics First Orton-Gillingham professional development initiative has been validated by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the NRP, the company said. RLAC reports its programs help teachers improve the reading skills of both beginning and struggling students. http://www.rlac.com

TetraData Corp. announced that it has signed an agreement to provide a State Data Warehousing Analysis and eReporting System for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction. Data warehouses will be made available to school districts throughout the state to assist in state accountability reporting. Each school district’s data warehouse will be equipped to handle national, state, and local assessments, as well as pertinent demographics, said Martin Brutosky, chairman and chief executive officer of TetraData. “We are pleased to be working with North Dakota school districts and look forward to a successful data analysis and eReporting implementation in North Dakota,” he said. http://www.tetradata.com

Yamaha Corp. of America demonstrated its Music in Education (MIE) Technology-Assisted Music Program. Dubbed “the country’s fastest growing music program,” this initiative features unique, “split mode” keyboards that allow two students to work together creatively on a single machine or play independently, depending on the intention of each lesson. At the heart of the MIE program, however, is its curriculum. The package comes with hardware, software, lesson plans, quizzes, and other resources to bolster the effect of hands-on music education in schools. Used in combination with computer technology, the company said, these interactive resources allow music teachers to adjust their teaching methods based on the individual needs and interests of each student in the class. http://www.yamaha.com/yamahavgn/CDA/Home/YamahaHome

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“Illuminations” uses Java applets to shed light on difficult math concepts

Created by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), “Illuminations” aims to revitalize mathematics instruction for students by providing a wealth of online resources spanning the entire math curriculum. Based on the NCTM’s own standards, the site offers five key tools for better math instruction. i-Math Investigations provides an array of interactive, multimedia classroom activities and instructional supplements. There also is a comprehensive library of math-related web resources—including more than 1,000 carefully reviewed online mathematics sites—as well as a section devoted to classroom-ready lesson plans submitted by expert teachers and a Java applets section where educators will find interactive tools designed to illustrate new concepts and formulas. Finally, the “Inquiry on Practice” section is ideal for teachers searching for ways to improve their teaching repertoire. According to the site, the inquiry file contains video vignettes, research reports, and articles designed “to encourage thinking and discussion about how to improve the teaching and learning of mathematics for all students.” All content on the site is conveniently organized by grade level.

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Maine laptop program gets high marks in mid-year survey

A mid-year progress report on Maine’s pioneering program to give all seventh graders in the state a laptop computer says the machines already are having a positive effect in the schools. The report, released this month by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute, might well have spared the program from steep budget cuts by the state Legislature to offset the state’s fiscal crisis.

By an overwhelming margin, seventh graders who received laptop computers last fall say the computers have made schoolwork more fun. Teachers also give the laptops high marks, saying the computers enhance learning by providing students with access to more extensive, up-to-date information.

Although the researchers caution that the laptops have only been in classrooms for a few months, they say the “mid-year evidence indicates that the laptop program is having many positive impacts on teachers and their instruction, and on students’ engagement and learning.”

The report was presented March 13 to the Legislature’s Education Committee, which was considering taking money from the laptop initiative to increase general purpose aid to local schools.

The committee recommended using other funds instead, said Rep. Glenn Cummings, D-Portland. “At this point there is no move on the part of the committee to touch the laptops, which I view as a great victory,” Cummings said.

The laptop initiative, launched last year by former Gov. Angus King, involved the distribution of more than 17,000 Apple iBook computers to the state’s seventh graders. The program also calls for distributing more than 16,000 laptops to eighth graders this fall. The state owns the computers, but students use them throughout the school year.

More than 8,000 students, 731 teachers, 154 principals, and 40 superintendents responded to surveys conducted by the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research, and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine in Portland.

In addition to the surveys, the mid-year study of the laptops included interviews, site visits, and classroom observation. The study focused on such questions as how the laptops are being used and what their impact has been on teachers, students, and schools.

Among the findings: 83 percent of students said the laptops improve the quality of their work. For example, one student wrote that “actually, it improved my reading because … I don’t like to read. And when I got the laptop I just loved reading the stuff online because it’s pretty interesting, more than the textbooks.”

The state’s laptop program has increased the use of technology within classrooms dramatically, the report said. Only 10 percent of students reported using computers in school at least five hours a week before getting their laptops. Now, 65 percent of students say they use computers in school at least five hours a week.

Students are using their laptops to research information, complete assignments, create projects, and communicate with teachers and other students, the report said. Nearly 90 percent of students said the laptops make schoolwork fun, and about 60 percent reported an increase in the amount of work they’re doing both in and out of school. “The nature of student learning in classrooms may be changing because students have the tools to pursue, organize, analyze, and present information more readily at hand,” the report said.

Teachers are finding that their lessons are more extensive, use more up-to-date resources, and provide more opportunities to explore knowledge and information in greater depth, according to the report. They also can communicate more easily with their colleagues, which has created new opportunities and has allowed them to exchange ideas.

One teacher reported that she was “working on a unit with a teacher in Milan, Italy. We are going to have our students collaborate on a project of some sort.”

Although teachers said they see the potential for using the laptops in more sophisticated ways—for example, only a quarter of respondents now use their laptops for student assessment—they said technical problems sometimes limit their use of the machines. Many teachers also expressed a need for more time and professional development.

Students, too, reported technical glitches. Nearly half (45 percent) said they’d experienced problems in the last two weeks. But these problems haven’t dampened students’ enthusiasm for the program; 88 percent of students agreed they’d like to use the laptops more often in class.

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative
http://www.mainelearns.org

Mid-year laptop study (requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)
http://www.usm.maine.edu/cepare/pdf/ts/mlti.pdf

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Study reveals shifts in digital divide for students

The early part of the 21st century has seen a tremendous surge in internet use among children, regardless of age, income, or ethnicity, according to a study unveiled March 19 by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). But in spite of this technological evolution, the digital divide lingers and—in some cases—is getting worse, experts warned.

The report, called “Connected to the Future,” states that 65 percent of American children ages two through 17 now use the internet from school, home, or some other location. That represents a 59-percent growth rate since 2000, when only 41 percent of children were logging online from similar places.

Despite marked increases in technology access, the study raises a number of red flags that educators and other stakeholders should be aware of, said report author Peter Grunwald, of the independent research firm Grunwald Associates

“If we are not there already, we are moving at breakneck speed to a time when logging onto the internet is as fundamental to daily functioning as making a telephone call,” the study said. What’s troubling, however, is that many schools still are not equipped to integrate technology seamlessly into the curriculum.

In schools—where internet use by African-American children ages two through 17 exploded from 12 percent in 2000 to 31 percent in 2002 and where access for low-income children ballooned by 60 percent over the same two-year period—69 percent of all students still say the computer lab is the place where online learning occurs most frequently, the study found.

In fact, at a time when policy makers, educators, and labor authorities nationwide have said that technology skills need to become as much a part of students’ educational repertoires as reading, writing, and arithmetic, less than one-third of all students say they use technology in the classroom.

“If the vast majority of children are using the internet primarily in computer labs, then it’s not unreasonable to suppose that internet-based learning may still be on the periphery of the curriculum,” the study said.

Educators agree: The integration of technology into the curriculum presents an ongoing challenge.

“We are working on making access more available in the classroom, but many teachers separate the use of technology to a time of the day or week as opposed to it being one of the learning tools, like a book or piece of paper, in the classroom,” said Marc Liebman, superintendent of the Marysville Joint Unified School District in California. “We have a long way to go and a lot of mindsets to change before we will be successful at fully integrating technology and the internet into everyday instruction.”

But if the relationship between technology and the curriculum is still too weak, technology does excel as a research tool, the study showed. According to the report, almost half of the children surveyed said they use the internet in school libraries or media centers for research purposes.

“The fact is that some great teaching and learning can take place in computer labs. In most schools, it is the only place where a teacher can accomplish one-to-one computing for [his or her] students,” said Bob Moore, chairman of the board of directors for the Consortium for School Networking. “One could argue that when you look at student time on the internet for learning purposes, library media centers, computer labs, and classrooms—in that order—can be very appropriate.”

Della Curtis, who coordinates the office of library and information services for schools in Baltimore County, Md., said she thinks the library is an ideal place for students to learn the in and outs of internet technology.

“The library media center is a natural place for students to use technology to access information needed to solve research problems, to learn to use [technology] in an efficient and effective manner, and to learn how to evaluate information,” Curtis said.

Researchers say the discrepancy between technology’s use as a research tool and as a curriculum aide could be attributed to the notion that school infrastructures are not robust enough to support the demands of “simultaneous online users in multiple classrooms.”

Of course, with a majority of state and local governments facing budget shortfalls, it’s anybody’s guess how long it will be before schools can commit the funds to bolster inadequate infrastructures and provide that support, the study said.

In the meantime, “we can make technology and the internet more of an integral part of the instructional program by developing more online curricula, lesson plans, and assessment tools that are easy for teachers to use. Without that, true integration will not happen,” Liebman suggested.

The problem becomes especially critical for children in predominantly low-income, African-American, and Hispanic schools. In spite of recent improvements, students in such schools still have not achieved access equal to what most high-income children enjoyed two years ago, the study said.

“Our challenge in education is to provide learning experiences and classroom environments that allow children to function with technology resources in a natural way and give all children real-life experiences that assist them in outside-of-school learning and working situations,” added Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District.

The broadband divide

Although access from school is one way to use the internet, home connectivity raises other issues—such as the degree of high-speed broadband access in homes.

Between 2000 and 2002, the number of families with high-speed broadband access nearly quadrupled, from 10 percent to just around 37 percent of homes nationwide, the report said.

That’s a significant increase, especially considering that children with broadband access at home told researchers that faster connections have allowed them to spend more time online, encouraged them to watch less television, and even enabled them to achieve better grades.

In fact, among households with broadband internet access, six times as many parents reported grade increases in their children’s schoolwork as reported decreases, the study said. What’s more, 13 percent of parents attributed those gains to the increased functionality of broadband access.

However, some experts worry whether the emergence of broadband—which can cost up to five times more than standard dial-up services—will create a new kind of digital divide: “not over access, but over quality content,” the report suggested.

According to the report, the average annual income of families with broadband access is at least $72,000, and the average annual income of families who plan to get broadband in the near future is $65,000.

That leaves the majority of underserved families to make do with slower dial-up connections, and it begs the question of whether second-rate access will result in second-rate online experiences for students in years to come.

“I worry about this a lot,” Liebman said. “But I also believe that education is slowly realizing that technology and [the] internet may provide new opportunities and avenues for all students to be successful, especially those that speak different languages and those for whom a traditional education does not work.”

Instead of shying away from new technology trends because they are not affordable or prove difficult to implement, Liebman suggested, schools should search for funds and grant programs that can help provide high-speed access in schools, especially for those students who lack these amenities at home.

“Schools need to figure out how to give more access at schools to compensate for those [students who] don’t have access at home,” he said “I am not sure how to do it, but we need to have longer hours where technology is available before and after school, as well as in [the] evenings, so that these students are not shortchanged on access.”

Connected from home

Still, educators and other stakeholders, including parents, probably will be encouraged to learn that traditionally underserved children, including those from minority and low-income families, are using the internet—regardless of connection speed—at rates much closer to their more well-to-do peers.

Children are jumping online with greater frequency these days from several locales, and they are doing it at a much younger age, the study said. Only 6 percent of children ages two to five used the internet from any location in 2000, the report said. By 2002, however, that figure had expanded to 35 percent of children from the same age group.

More importantly, many of them are going online for educational reasons. According to the survey, one in five students polled said they logged onto the internet from home every day for school-related purposes.

And once children get online, many stay online. Teenagers, for instance, log on more than any other age group, claiming to spend an average 8.4 hours a week online at home.

According to the report, their activities in cyberspace vary from internet surfing to eMail correspondence and entertainment, including playing video games and downloading music files.

But 64 percent of teenagers said education activities constitute at least part of their weekly online experience, putting learning a close second behind general web surfing and exploration, the report said.

All of this, of course, is hard evidence for educators that technology is changing the way Americans—young and old—live their lives.

“Five years ago, you didn’t ask someone for their eMail address,” said Frank Cruz, a CPB board member.

Even television, the revolutionary device that for years has connected homes to the outside world, is losing ground in the face of more interactive digital media. According to the report, teenagers on average spend 3.5 hours per day online, compared with 3.1 hours in front of the TV, which translates to 24 minutes more daily time online than with television.

Part of that increase can be attributed directly to a spike in overall home computer ownership.

By 2002, 83 percent of all family households reportedly owned computers. Computer ownership in African-American families, for instance, has soared in recent years, from 39 percent in 2000 to 71 percent in 2002, the study said. The same can be said for low-income households: from 45 percent in 2000 to 65 percent in 2002.

While these numbers still lag behind the rates for Caucasian and high-income households—87 percent and 97 percent, respectively—the increases have opened the door for the internet to a play a far greater role in students’ everyday lives, from communication to schoolwork.

The pervasiveness of that influence is partially represented in the number of households that now not only have computers but also claim to provide internet access—via dial-up or broadband—for children from home.

According to the study, 78 percent of children live in a home where they or their parents have access to the internet. That represents a 70-percent growth rate from 2000.

Again, the biggest gains came from children in African-American and low-income families. Internet access in African-American households rose by the near-astonishing rate of 205 percent from 2000 to 2002, but access in low-income homes also rose by a respectable 96 percent during the same period, the study said. Meanwhile, 50 percent of Hispanics said their children now go online from some location, whether in schools, at libraries, or from home.

Researchers say the increases are indicative of a number of trends in internet access for students nationwide. The problem, however, is that with the latest gains emerge new wrinkles in the digital divide. The questions for American households no longer revolve around if and when such access will occur, but rather who plans to go online and how they intend to get there.

“Even with the growing numbers and diversity of children going online from home, striking disparities remain,” the report states.

Growing up online

In terms of ethnicity, the greatest disparity in the digital divide exists between Caucasian and African-American children ages 13 to 17, the report said. Although 69 percent of Caucasian children in that age group use the internet at home, the study revealed that just 37 percent of African-Americans from 13 to 17 have that advantage.

The disparity disappears at younger age levels, the report said. In fact, among students ages two to five, the divide is almost nonexistent—23 percent for Caucasian and Hispanic children and 21 percent for African-Americans, respectively.

Researchers theorize that higher levels of inequality among older age groups could be attributed, in part, to the notion that younger children have younger parents, many of whom have “grown[n] up on the internet.”

Grunwald said he believes tech-savvy parents are the key to helping today’s children better acclimate themselves with the internet. Their familiarity with the technology, he said, lets younger parents play the role of competent guide for their children as they begin journeying into cyberspace.

“If this is true, five years from now we may observe the fading of the ethnic gap for older children as well,” the report said.

Existing gaps and lingering challenges aside, organizers overall were encouraged by the findings.

“This study shows that the internet is fast becoming a ubiquitous tool for a growing number of American families,” said Robert Coonrod, president of CPB. “Kids are using it in unprecedented numbers, and parents believe it is valuable to their children’s learning.”

“This is an affirmation by students and parents about the role technology plays in learning,” said Mary Boehm, president of the BellSouth Foundation, a report sponsor. “But their still is much work left to be done.”

Links:

“Connected to the Future” report
http://www.cpb.org/ed/resources/connected

Corporation for Public Broadcasting
http://www.cpb.org

Grunwald Associates
http://www.grunwald.com

Consortium for School Networking
http://www.cosn.org

BellSouth Foundation
http://www.bellsouthfoundation.org

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