Study: State accountability systems still lag

Several statewide education systems still fail to meet higher standards for accountability as required by the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), according to a nationwide report released May 6. Though nearly all states administer tests that measure students’ progress toward clearly defined standards, the majority of states still do not make the results publicly available in an electronic data warehouse so parents can compare them from year to year, the report said.

The report is the second in an annual series on “Testing the Testers” issued by The Princeton Review, a company that specializes in preparing students for high-stakes tests. The firm collected data from every state and the District of Columbia before ranking the accountability programs of each.

The rankings were based on 22 indicators under four key criteria: alignment of state tests with curriculum standards; test quality; the openness of the testing program to public scrutiny; and the extent to which test data are used to support better teaching and learning. States received scores from 0 to 2 points for each indicator, depending on whether specific standards were met.

According to Steve Hodas, executive vice president for strategic development at the Princeton Review, most states do issue strong, high-quality tests aligned with state standards. But breaking down the test results by demographic groups and making them publicly accessible is where most states fail, he said.

Only 8 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia (Massachusetts, Minnesota, Connecticut, Kentucky, Michigan, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois) received full marks for providing a multi-year data warehouse that itemizes test results by each question and demographic group, the report said.

“The more visible something is, the easier it is to detect mistakes,” Hodas said. “Because tests drive what goes on in the classroom, it’s important that every parent can look at the tests.”

Overall, states scored highest on test quality and alignment, the study indicated.

“No one is doing anything perfectly, but the states at the bottom are doing things really poorly,” Hodas said.

This year’s highest ranking states were New York (88.5), Massachusetts (85.7), Texas (84.3), North Carolina (84), and Virginia (81.7). The worst performing states included Montana (29), Rhode Island (48.5), South Dakota (49.8), West Virginia (52.2), and Wisconsin (53.2).

“At the top, you have states that have been doing testing for a long time,” Hodas said. “Not only are the people who write and administer the test more practiced, the whole legislature that mandates the test is more practiced.”

Hodas attributes some states’ low rankings to the use of generic, off-the-shelf tests. These tests don’t always align well with specific state standards, and most companies—to protect their intellectual property—won’t let states publish the test questions, he said.

Of the four lowest ranking states, Montana uses the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, Rhode Island uses an off-the-shelf test from Harcourt, and West Virginia uses the Stanford 9, he said.

Hodas suggested that states ranking lowest in the study could benefit by working together and pooling their resources to create a testing and accountability system they all could use. “What kids in Montana need to learn in fourth-grade math is not wildly different from what kids in Rhode Island need to learn,” he said.

State officials from Montana, the lowest ranking state, place little value on the study, although they agree the state’s off-the-shelf test is the culprit for their low ranking.

“The Montana legislature has steadfastly refused to put any more money into developing a state test. So, quite frankly, we don’t have the money,” said Joe Lamson, communications director for Montana’s Office of Public Instruction. Only 70 percent to 90 percent of Montana’s standards are reflected in the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.

“Clearly we’d like to have the Cadillac test, but the state doesn’t give use the money to do that,” Lamson said. “The point of doing a state test isn’t to get a good grade from [The Princeton Review], it’s to have our kids do well nationally. We’re confident that we give our kids a good education.”

To meet NCLB’s requirements, Montana will have to stop using the Iowa Test and develop a new criterion-based test that will be funded by the federal government, he added: “Our plans are already in place, and we’re moving forward.”

Links:

“Testing the Testers 2003: An Annual Ranking of State Accountability Systems”
http://www.princetonreview.com/statestudy

Montana’s Office of Public Instruction
http://www.opi.state.mt.us

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Budget ax falls on school tech programs

With state budget deficits soaring to near record levels, school technology programs from coast to coast are being slashed as policy makers and school leaders struggle to make do with sharply limited resources.

California, Indiana, Oregon, Texas, and West Virginia are some of the many states where lawmakers and school officials have been forced to cut back or eliminate programs that supply new computers, internet access, and instructional resources to K-12 students.

To be sure, technology isn’t the only budget line item being cut. Art and foreign language classes, school counselors and nurses, field trips and athletic programs, and even core subject area teachers and textbooks also are on the chopping block.

But given the tough new requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), some observers fear cuts to critical technology infrastructure programs will limit educators’ ability to track and analyze student performance data, making it difficult to meet the law’s intended goal.

“Our guess is it’s going to be another really tough year for technology in schools,” said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Griffith said the current budget crisis represents a unique scenario for schools, because it marks the first time in history where a severe economic downturn will directly affect the use of computers in education.

Judging from the fallout, educators will be able to tell just where society places the importance of technology in relation to teacher salaries, school supplies, textbooks, and other basic necessities, he said.

In many states, the cuts already are under way.

In Wisconsin, where budget shortfalls are expected to exceed $3.2 billion over the next two years, Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, has asked the state legislature to cut short the state’s Technology for Educational Achievement (TEACH) program.

According to TEACH budget and policy analyst Mahrie Peterson, at risk is approximately $35 million per year in block grants and an additional $4 million in training resources used to boost technology infrastructures and school computer access throughout the state.

While the program originally was pegged as a five-year initiative, Peterson said those involved had hoped the success of TEACH would lead to its expansion. Given the current budget crisis, however, Doyle made it clear that the program had run its course, she said.

The initiative won’t be scrapped entirely. Doyle’s proposal does provide for limited funding for the Telecommunications Access portion of TEACH, which currently delivers high-speed internet and video access to more than 90 percent of the state’s K-12 schools.

Doyle explained the cuts by saying the state had backed itself into a corner.

“Right now, Wisconsin faces a $452 million deficit. For the next two years, we’re looking at a shortfall of $3.2 billion. It is the worst deficit that any Wisconsin governor has ever faced,” he said in his State of the State address. “Other states have patched their shortfalls by tapping into rainy-day funds. Even at the height of the boom, Wisconsin was one of only five states that failed to set revenues aside for a rainy day. Now a storm has broken out, and we’re left without an umbrella.”

In West Virginia, Democratic Gov. Bob Wise has proposed cutting nearly $5 million for the purchase of computers and other technology equipment used to support the state’s 281,000 students.

According to Jack McClanahan, assistant state superintendent for administrative services, school technology spending will endure a brutal 50-percent cut compared with last year’s spending. “Any time you have budget cuts, you have to make concessions and adjustments,” he said. “We’ll have to prioritize the money we have with the needs we have.”

McClanahan said he was most troubled by $2 million in potential deductions to the West Virginia Education Information System (WVEIS), a 13-year-old technology infrastructure that has allowed educators to collect data on student achievement, standardized test scores, and school financial records, including administrative costs. Were it not for WVEIS, the state would have a difficult time in meeting the rigid reporting and accountability demands established by NCLB, McClanahan said.

“We’ll keep [WVEIS] running. But there’s no question, things are going to get tight,” he said. “That’s why we’re taking this thing back to the governor.”

State education officials have said they plan to lobby for more funding before a final budget is passed. Still, a $250 million estimated shortfall headed into 2004 doesn’t bode well for their chances, McClanahan said.

In Oregon, the fallout from a severe statewide budget crunch has all but booted technology from its place on the high-priority list. As many as half of the state’s school districts are cutting days or even weeks of instruction off of the school year, and at least 1,100 teacher positions have been eliminated so far.

Scott Robinson, chief technology officer for the Portland Public Schools—where educators have agreed to work 10 days without pay so students can stay in school until the summer—said impending budget cuts have contributed to a cloud of frustration that looms over the 100-school district.

Lack of funding means some of the district’s most needy buildings will be equipped with computers that are more than seven or eight years old, virtual dinosaurs in today’s world of high-speed Pentium processors and extended RAM upgrades. What’s worse, Robinson said, geriatric systems will make it almost impossible for some schools to carry out the implementation of Oregon’s Technology Enhanced Student Assessment (TESA) program.

So far, only about 20 percent of schools throughout the state are connected to the system, which administers reading and mathematics assessments to students electronically. When it was launched two years ago, educators predicted TESA eventually would save the state millions of dollars in paper and data collection costs while meeting the increased accountability demands of NCLB.

Now, it appears those advantages will have to wait. “It is extremely challenging when you know that you are expected to do more, but with less resources,” Robinson said. “The word ‘data-driven’ means better collection, dissemination, and use of data, which implies a stronger investment in technology systems.”

The poorer schools, he said, are at a distinct disadvantage because they lack the saving graces of charitable contributions from wealthy families and other alternative means of fund-raising. “The schools that have trouble raising money within the community really are going to get left behind,” he said. “Many districts—not just Portland—aren’t going to be able to perform the necessary upgrades.”

About 70,000 students in Oregon already have lost access to an internet-based research database that lets them tap into articles from newspapers, magazines, and periodicals around the world.

The database got off the ground in Oregon three years ago, when librarians from public schools, city libraries, and universities banded together to buy access to the system for all.

But after three years, the initial state grant expired. Organizers made a new plan to collect fees from all of the state’s 198 school districts—but 44 districts containing 70,000 students said they didn’t have the money, so they lost the service.

Many of the districts that could not come up with the 45-cents-per-student fee are located in areas without big city libraries or university libraries to turn to.

“Many districts have had to eliminate magazines from their libraries. We’re in dismal shape in this state,” said Gary Ross, media manager for the educational service district in Lane County. The database “is a reasonable alternative to having that magazine in your hand.”

In California, as part of a $21 billion plan to decrease state spending, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis has proposed cutting an additional $1.1 million from the Digital California Project (DCP)—a statewide initiative to bring high-speed internet access to public schools—despite the fact that DCP already had sustained an $11 million reduction in funding.

The move is part of wholesale budget reductions proposed to offset an impending $35 billion budget deficit—the nation’s worst—and would add to a historic $5.2 billion reduction in statewide education spending over the next year and a half, including possible teacher layoffs and reduced educator training programs.

Currently, DCP provides high-speed internet access in 55 of the state’s 58 counties. Despite the governor’s proposed cuts, officials expect to have 70 percent of schools and students connected to the network by June of this year, said Stephanie Couch, director of communications for the project.

Although a $1.1 million reduction might seem like small potatoes in the face of a multibillion-dollar deficit, some experts contend California has only begun to experience the pains of a budget crisis that could harbor severe long-term effects for its school technology programs.

On April 23, Lightspeed Systems—a company that helps schools and other public institutions build better internet-related infrastructures—released its annual “California School District Survey,” which paints a dire picture of the state’s ed-tech programs in years to come.

The survey, which polled more than 50 California superintendents and school board members, found that proposed budget cuts have hit school technology programs hard. In fact, according to the study, a third of the state’s school districts already have cut or frozen technology staff.

Even more unsettling, 36 percent of survey respondents had made plans to delay technology purchases for schools, while another 27 percent anticipated canceling school technology orders altogether.

John Jordan, assistant director to Lightspeed’s Education Solutions Program, said company officials are traveling throughout the state to help schools prioritize their technology needs and look for alternative sources of funding. “What you really need is a sort of focused solution,” he said. “Be cost-conscious, and look for those solutions that deliver just what you need.”

Jordan’s advice applies equally well to other areas of school budgets. Aside from pulling the plug on large-scale technology grant programs and putting new computer orders on hold, many schools nationwide have begun to downsize staff, cut basic services—including custodial employees—and charge additional fees for school busing.

The National Education Association has collected examples of how states and school districts have responded to the worst fiscal crisis many have faced since World War II. Here are some examples: In the high-poverty city of Baltimore, the budget crunch has seen the termination of a national pilot program designed to help parents work their way off welfare by assisting in after-school programs for their children.

In Hawaii, a newly erected library stands empty because the state did not have enough money to pay for the books that would fill its shelves. In Massachusetts, 17 school districts thus far have been denied funds to fix leaky roofs, broken boilers, and overcrowded classrooms, and some districts are charging students a fee ranging from $200 to $250 for school bus transportation. In Boston, the desperation has led to the closure of five schools.

In Oklahoma, 1,000 students no longer have a ride to school, as bus routes have been cut to deal with the shortages. More than 1,000 teacher positions and hundreds of support staff have been eliminated. In fact, money is so tight that some educators have doubled as school bus drivers, stepped in to mop dirty floors, and even donned hair nets to help serve school lunches.

Utah, which has the largest class sizes in the nation, now ranks 50th in per-pupil spending and is facing an additional 100,000 students over the next 10 years.

The list of desperate stories goes on—and increases almost daily—but no one is more intimate with the urgency of this problem than the educators whose task remains unchanged, despite fewer resources.

“Unless state or federal legislators tell us to close our doors, we’re going to have school for children,” said Jim Hirsch, associate superintendent for technology at the Plano, Texas, Independent School District. “Once the students do show up, however, the learning experiences will change if budget cuts continue on their current pace.”

Links:

Education Commission of the States
http://www.ecs.org

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

Lightspeed Systems
http://www.lightspeedsystems.com

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Feds, firms increase efforts to can ‘spam’

Educators frustrated by the amount of junk eMail, or “spam,” clogging school servers each day, take heart: Several government and industry efforts are under way to ease the problem. Whether they’re new laws or emerging technologies, however, some skeptics question how effective these measures will be.

The volume of spam has reached a critical threshold that requires swift action to protect the internet correspondence millions of people take for granted, regulators concluded May 2 at the end of a three-day forum on the issue in Washington, D.C.

“Things are worse than we imagined,” said Eileen Harrington, director of marketing practices for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which sponsored the forum. “There is consensus that the problem has reached a tipping point. If there are not immediate improvements implemented across the board by technologists, service providers, and perhaps lawmakers, eMail is at risk of being run into the ground.”

Harrington said that was the impression left by the dozens of technology experts, government officials, industry executives, and lawyers who flocked to Washington to discuss the problem of unwanted commercial eMail and what to do about it.

In March, 45 percent of all eMail sent across the United States was spam, according to Brightmail, a San Francisco-based anti-spam company. That’s up from 16 percent in January 2002.

For schools that provide students with eMail accounts, the problem is particularly serious, because much of spam is offensive or pornographic in nature.

Most of the panelists at the FTC forum agreed that a strong federal anti-spam law is needed and would be better than the mix of local laws now in 29 states.

Steve Richter, an attorney with the eMail Marketing Association, said the current patchwork of state laws is confusing and harmful. He gave the example of a Washington state resident who receives spam from New York relayed through a computer in Nevada.

“What law can you tell either of the parties—the sender or the recipient—to follow?” he said.

In late April, Virginia enacted the harshest anti-spam law in the nation, giving authorities the power to seize assets earned from sending bulk unsolicited eMail pitches while imposing up to five years in prison for violators.

The penalties reportedly can apply even if the sender and recipients live elsewhere, because much of the internet traffic worldwide passes through northern Virginia—home to major internet service providers such as America Online and MCI, and a conduit to major federal communications hubs in neighboring Washington and its suburbs.

The new law targets commercial bulk eMail, with certain provisions that kick in when someone sends at least 10,000 copies of a message in a single day or makes at least $1,000 from one such transmission.

But Virginia’s law illustrates one challenge lawmakers and industry executives face in clamping down on spam: how to define what “spam” is.

The same provisions could affect noncommercial unsolicited eMail from charities, churches, political candidates, or perhaps even schools if they exceed the volume limit, said Tim Murtaugh, press secretary for Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore. That means an employee of a large school system potentially could be prosecuted for sending out unsolicited bulk eMail messages to parents and other stakeholders.

John R. Levine, a board member of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial eMail, applauded tougher penalties for spammers, but questioned how effective Virginia’s law will be.

“It depends on prosecutors to put them in line along with rapists, murderers, and wife-beaters, so I don’t think it will be very effective without additional funding,” Levine said.

In a study released April 29 in advance of its forum, the FTC said a third of spam eMail messages contain false information in the “from” line to obscure a sender’s true identity.

Nearly half of this misleading information involves attempts to claim a personal relationship with the person receiving the eMail message.

Spammers also use misleading subject lines to get their pitches read, the FTC said. Many messages claim to be personal or business correspondence by using subject lines like “your order’s status.”

In Congress, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said she would seek federal legislation offering rewards for individuals who help track down spammers. Her bill would require marketers to label spam as “ADV:” and prohibit false or misleading message headers.

State laws with similar provisions have been hard to enforce, because they require tremendous resources to track down elusive spammers.

Lofgren’s bill would give individuals incentive to do the legwork by offering a bounty to the first person to report the spam and provide information helpful to investigators. The bounty would amount to 20 percent of any civil fines collected by the FTC.

In other federal action, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., has proposed a national “do not spam” registry, similar to an FTC service that is to begin blocking unwanted telemarketing calls this fall. And a pending anti-spam bill proposed by Sens. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., would require spam to have a valid return address.

Some forum participants were skeptical that these federal proposals would do the job.

“New laws that are unenforceable for myriad reasons or that are overtaken by the advances of technology have the potential to do more harm than good,” FTC Commissioner Orson Swindle said. “No single law, no single new technology, no new initiative, no new meetings are going to solve this problem alone.”

John Patrick, chairman of the industry-supported Global Internet Project, said any United States law would do little to stop spam from other countries—and the only solution is blocking it with new technology.

In late April, AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft announced a joint initiative to combat spam through techniques such as identifying and restricting messages with deceptive headers. But persistent spammers have found ways to dodge similar obstacles in the past.

FTC’s Harrington said the automated tools spammers use to “harvest” eMail addresses from the internet are “far more efficient and effective than we knew.”

“Spammers are provided with an endless menu of new and fresh eMail addresses to send to,” she said. “That accounts for a good deal of the exponential increase in volume.”

In 2001, the FTC received 10,000 junk e-Mails each day forwarded by complaining consumers. The agency now receives 130,000 messages daily.

Links:

FTC spam site
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/edcams/spam/index.html

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“Frontline” examines the front lines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series “Frontline” has launched a new online feature called the World Fellows Program, which aims to foster new voices in international reporting. In this first installment of the program, students can accompany a University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism student as she makes her way to the Israeli frontier by way of a war-torn path that includes the West Bank, Gaza, and Lebanon. Along the way, students will read first-hand accounts of the physical, cultural, and historical borders built as a result of the decades-long land dispute between Israelis and Palestinians—a primary source for much of the anger many Arabs harbor toward Americans. Students can witness the historical tension among these warring peoples with the help of interactive maps, photographs, and well-written journalistic accounts encompassing the opinions and attitudes of those who live there today. The site also contains links to recent news stories relevant to the conflict, as well as an introduction to the author and the purpose of her mission. Other resources on the Frontline site include information about the war in Iraq and the escalating tension between the United States and North Korea.

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Irradiation hard to swallow for some parents

Every day, 27 million children sit down in school cafeterias to eat a plateful of government-supplied food. The meals consist of typical lunch fare—burgers, green beans, pizza, apples, lasagna. But thanks to federal approval of a new technology, schools soon might add a helping of controversy: irradiated meat.

Congress last year directed the Agriculture Department to accept irradiation as a method of sanitizing meat for the national school lunch program.

The idea seemed reasonable to lawmakers. The department itself deemed the technology safe in 1999 after concluding that its benefits—preventing food poisoning—outweighed the risk of any potential side effects.

As schools wait for the government to offer them the chance to buy the meat, fears about irradiated food have resurfaced. Parents and consumer groups worry such meat has unknown long-term health effects and want more research.

Irradiation involves directing gamma rays produced by the radioactive material, cobalt 60, or electricity at meat to kill harmful bacteria. Research shows that most of the radiation passes through without being absorbed. The small amount that does remain kills the bacteria.

Leigh Davis said she imagines that one of her 17-year-old son’s staples, turkey sandwiches, could be one meal featuring irradiated meat.

“It’s just one more thing that we’ve got to worry about kids ingesting and being exposed to,” said Davis, of Cranford, N.J. “You don’t know what the impact of that is 20 years later.”

The Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service has determined that consumers are slow to accept irradiated meat, partly because they have not been informed about its benefits. The department recently awarded a $151,000 grant to Minnesota for a campaign to teach parents about irradiation in three of the state’s school districts.

Jean Daniel, a department spokeswoman, said the success of the project will be seen by whether any of the schools buy irradiated meat. “Even if it’s offered, it will be up to local schools to decide if they’ll have irradiated products,” she said.

Minnesota on the whole appears to support the technology. It is home to International Dairy Queen Inc., a fast food chain specializing in soft-serve ice cream that also sells burgers. A hundred of its Minnesota franchises are serving only irradiated burgers as part of a test project that began last year.

The chain has been careful to ensure that customers are aware the hamburgers are irradiated, displaying it on posters and training staff to explain what it means. Dean Peters, a Dairy Queen spokesman, said business has remained steady and executives are considering expanding the program.

“We certainly wouldn’t have gained anything from not telling our consumers about it,” he said. “There would be mistrust if consumers went into a store and got a product, didn’t know that it was irradiated, and then found out that it was.”

Grocery stores increasingly are putting irradiated meat on the shelves. SureBeam Corp., a leading meat irradiation company that kills bacteria with electricity, says few stores sold irradiated meat in 2000 but 5,000 stores offer it now.

Consumers might notice the meat because it is marked with a radura, a symbol that is a circle with what looks like a flower in the middle. Packages also are labeled with “treated with irradiation.”

The Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute has supported marketing irradiated meat in stores because the technology has proven effective in destroying toxic bacteria. But the group questions the idea of feeding it routinely to schoolchildren.

“There is nowhere on the face of the earth where there is any population that has consumed large amounts of any irradiated food over an extended period of time,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, the institute’s director. “I think it comes close to using the nation’s schoolchildren as guinea pigs.”

A California school district shares her concern. Earlier this year, the school board in Point Arena, Calif., banned irradiated foods from school cafeterias after listening to arguments from an expert on the technology and to representatives of Public Citizen, a group that contends irradiation could cause cancer.

Bill Meyers, chairman of the seven-member Point Arena board, said he would be convinced irradiated meat is safe for the 500 students in his district if a controlled, long-term study proves it is OK.

“It just seems like a fairly clear precautionary principle. The studies haven’t been done,” Meyers said.

To Dr. Peter Berkman, those concerns are unreasonable. An emergency room physician in San Diego, he frequently sees children and adults severely sick with food poisoning, suffering from painful abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some are on the brink of death.

“What I’ve seen, taking care of children like that, it’s devastating,” said Berkman. “It’s amazing to me that 5,000 people die a year from foodborne illness, and the country yawns.”

Irradiation is one more step in meat processing that could prevent someone from dying of food poisoning, he said.

Links:

Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program
http://www.fns.usda.gov/fns

SureBeam Inc.
http://www.surebeam.com

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Eliminate the need for two-way radios with this long-range cordless telephone system from EnGenius Technologies

Eliminate the need for two-way radios with this long-range cordless telephone system from EnGenius Technologies
The new line of industrial, four-line cordless telephones from EnGenius Technologies of Costa Mesa, Calif., eliminates the need for schools to have separate two-way radios and is a less expensive alternative to cell phones.

The EnGenius Industrial Cordless EP-436, which claims to be the longest-range multiline system on the market, works with up to 36 cordless handsets. The EP-436 provides superior voice clarity across 250,000 square feet indoors or 3,000 acres outside, and a built-in auto attendant automatically directs callers to the correct headset.

The phone system allows text messaging between headsets and features battery hot-swapping, which allows you to change the battery while a call is on hold. Each headset operates as a full two-way radio and can be used even when out of range of the base unit.

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Enhance security with this electronic lock-and-key system from Videx

In light of a report earlier this year that exposed the vulnerabilities of keyed entry systems based on master keys, some school leaders are considering replacing the entry systems in their district’s most sensitive areas with electronic versions. The CyberLock system, from Oregon-based Videx Inc., is one of the best such systems we’ve come across.

The CyberLock system replaces a standard mechanical cylinder lock and key with an electronic version that is more secure and also enables school and business officials to track who has entered and when. One key can open many locks, including doorways, padlocks, cabinets, safes, and vending machines—and the locks cannot be picked or duplicated.

Installing the cylinder into the lock hardware is as simple as removing the existing mechanical cylinder and replacing it with the CyberLock cylinder. The lock installs without wiring of any kind and does not contain a battery. The power required to open the lock comes from a 3-volt lithium battery in the key itself.

The system’s CyberKeys are programmed with the access privileges for each user. A standard key holds a list of up to 1,250 locks the user can open, with the schedule of days and times they are allowed access.

Each time a key is used at a lock, a record of the lock identification number (ID), date, and time is stored in the key, and a record of the key ID, date, and time is stored in the lock. The key stores up to 1,150 of the most recent access events, and the lock stores the most recent 1,100 access events. Locks and keys also record when an unauthorized person attempted to open the lock.

The system’s CyberAudit access control software for the PC allows administrators to manage locks and keys, define user access privileges, create master and reset keys, and view a log of audit events. The CyberKey Authorizer enhances CyberLock systems by providing the ability to update keys without returning to where the host computer is located and simplify the management of expiring keys.

A complete CyberLock Starter System costs $797 and includes two CyberKeys, a programmer, a CyberLock electronic cylinder, a base station, a serial cable that connects the base station to a computer, and the CyberAudit access control software.

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‘Internet nurses’ serve rural schools’ health needs

High-resolution cameras and speedy internet connections to a doctor’s clinic in Norfolk, Neb., are helping some cash-strapped schools provide nursing services they otherwise might not be able to afford.

“It is a good way to level the playing field for rural areas in getting good health care,” Dr. Keith Vrbicky said of his American Educational Telecommunications LLC.

Through internet broadcasts to schools, Vrbicky’s company provides advice from nurses—and doctors, if necessary—on hard-to-diagnose cases. It also offers information on asthma, diabetes, adolescent development, and other topics.

Vrbicky, an obstetrician-gynecologist, started the company in 1997 to focus on international telemedicine and distance education. He opened an office in Egypt, but business slowed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

So he turned to helping schools in his own state, providing internet nursing services for free last year to schools in Leigh, West Point, and Pleasanton, Neb. He now charges for the service and is starting a pilot program for businesses.

“It’s very beneficial to schools that don’t have a nurse, and our experiences with them were very good,” said Larry Ferguson, superintendent of Leigh Community Schools.

Vrbicky hopes to help alleviate problems caused by a nationwide nursing shortage and school budget cuts.

His company might be the only one providing this kind of service to schools, although some universities and medical colleges have undertaken similar projects, said Jonathan Linkous, executive director of the American Telemedicine Association.

Westside Community Schools in Omaha signed up its 10 elementary schools this school year after the county cut funding for a visiting nurses program that the district had relied on.

At Westside’s Swanson Elementary School, health assistant Nancy Yount can activate a videoconference in less than a minute when she links with Vrbicky’s clinic 90 miles away.

Yount’s computer screen fills with a hallway and doors in Vrbicky’s office, and shortly afterward a nurse enters the picture. In the right-hand corner is a smaller square, showing Yount in her own office, together with a student at her side cooperating with a demonstration.

Yount picks up a high-resolution video camera connected to the computer and trains it on the student’s injury. A nurse on the other end gets a close look while talking through the computer to Yount and the student.

“It’s a nice tool to have,” said Yount, who has used it several times this school year, including to help verify that a student had shingles and the best course of action for dealing with it.

Outside Nebraska, 21 schools in southeast Kansas are getting the service, and Vrbicky’s company recently signed a contract with the Universidad Autonoma de Guadalajara’s School of Medicine. The university will use the network to help provide clinical care in Mexico and elsewhere.

Vrbicky’s company has faced challenges in hooking schools up to its services. It found Macintosh computers that lacked the software to support American Educational’s platform were widely used at Westside and the Kansas schools. The company has provided computers while it works on the problem.

The schools’ costs for the program are based on the number of students served and other factors. Westside is paying $60,000 for the 2,800 students in its elementary schools.

Putting nurses into each of Westside’s 10 elementary schools was not feasible at $25,000 to $40,000 a position, and Vrbicky’s company was a viable alternative, said Ken Baldwin, director of building services at Westside.

American Educational is compiling medical records for all the schools’ students and is sending three to five nurses to Westside schools when necessary to help with health exams.

The Southeast Kansas Education Service Center, known as Greenbush, used a grant this year to have American Educational put cameras in 21 rural school buildings. Some of the schools had been doing without a nurse, while others shared a nurse among six buildings, said the center’s Kristy McKechnie.

The service is better than a telephone consultation, and it can be applied to special-needs students who might require daily monitoring, medication, or other consistent medical help, McKechnie said.

“The benefit is the nurse actually seeing the child,” she said. “If there is a cut or an abrasion, the nurse can see the problem. Or if the student is having trouble breathing, the nurse can watch the chest and hear the wheezing.”

It’s also more personal, McKechnie said: “If I’m a child, I can actually see an adult who is looking at me.”

See these related links:

American Educational Telecommunications
http://www.aetmedical.com

American Telemedicine Association
http://www.americantelemed.org

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from the publisher: eRate Action Now

With nearly all eyes cast toward Baghdad, a small but ferocious fedayeen in the U.S. House of Representatives has mounted an all-out offensive against the eRate. (See the Front Page story, “Schools lobby to save eRate” and the “eSN Special Focus: eRate Under Fire,” beginning on Page 29.)

Distraction and unawareness among the population at large are allies of the faction out of kill the eRate. Working in a convenient obscurity, these injudicious zealots have targeted one of the most successful programs ever mounted by the federal government in the service of education.

Although it’s true that every one of the eRate adversaries in the House is a Republican, educators and education advocates probably would do well to avoid casting the eRate fight in purely partisan terms. It is not yet clear, for example, that the anti-eRate putsch is embraced by all Republicans. In fact, the eRate is likely to have supporters among some in the White House, the U.S. Department of Education, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the U.S. Senate, and even among some members of the House.

Democrats in Congress, once they awaken to the threat, might savor a partisan wrangle on the eRate, because it probably is one of the few battles they could win, even as the minority party. But for those of us interested, first and foremost, in preserving the eRate, it probably would be better to seek out and embrace all the support we can find—on both sides of the aisle.

As to those stealthy eRate enemies, we might do well to apply the lesson of the Iraqi battlefield. Confront the destructive forces. Drag their nefarious strategies into the light of day. Then watch the bully boys back down, head for the border, or skulk back into the darkness empty handed.

Victory is all but assured if supporters rally, but it could be lost without decisive, concerted action. In other words, now is the time for all good educators to come to the aid of the eRate.

We need loud, sustained communication in defense of our vital education programs. We should rise to the challenge before opposition solidifies. We should mount an educational counter-offensive aimed at those lawmakers, commissioners, and government staffers not yet committed to the attack on this vital program.

The Consortium for School Networking, the American Library Association, and a few other interested associations have taken up the torch. But many remain silent, seemingly oblivious to the threat. We should spur our somnolent professional associations to action on this issue. We should encourage corporate partners to enlist and throw their considerable powers of persuasion into the fight as well. And most importantly, we should alert parents, community education advocates, and the general news media to what’s been going on.

Saving programs from the chopping block is a far easier task than getting programs reinstated after they have been done away with.

At the same time, we mustn’t confuse legitimate and needed reforms with efforts by the few to terminate the eRate.

The alleged abuses of the eRate represent a relatively small percentage of the program as a whole, but that’s no reason not to put an end to whatever actual wrongdoing might be found. Most of the abuses alleged so far appear to be technical violations caused by lazy school officials, sloppy paperwork, or overenthusiastic applicants. But clamping down on such violations right away takes ammunition out of the hands of the opposition. In fact, the swift, firm action taken so far by the Schools and Libraries Division of the Universal Service Administrative Co. is more likely, in the long run, to protect the eRate than to harm it.

There are more educators, parents, and corporate partners by far that favor preserving the eRate than there are misguided true-believers seeking to bring the program down.

Education has the moral high ground here, and we have the numbers to carry the day. Let’s use both to the advantage of our schools and students.

Let’s set up a din that will vibrate all the way to Washington, D.C. Let’s act right now to save the eRate.

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Study: Spell-check function impedes students’ writing

A study by four University of Pittsburgh researchers suggests that students who use the grammar and spell-check functions of word processors tend to place too much trust in the software’s ability to catch mistakes, resulting in more errors than if they’d used their own judgment.

In the study—which underscores the danger of relying too heavily on technology—33 undergraduates were asked to proofread a one-page business letter, half of them using Microsoft Word with its squiggly red and green lines underlining potential errors.

The other half did it the old-fashioned way, using only their heads.

Without grammar or spelling software, students with higher SAT verbal scores made, on average, five errors, compared with 12.3 errors for students with lower scores.

Using the software, however, students with higher verbal scores reading the same page made, on average, 16 errors, compared with 17 errors for students with lower scores.

Dennis Galletta, a professor of information systems at the university’s Katz Business School, said spell-checking software is so sophisticated that many students have come to trust it too thoroughly.

“It’s not a software problem, it’s a behavior problem,” he said.

Galletta and his team of researchers—which included teaching fellow Alexandra Durcikova and graduate student assistants Andrea Everard and Brian Jones—approached the experiment expecting to discover that students who demonstrated a strong command of English would use spell-check and grammar correction software to better effect than students who were less proficient in English. But that wasn’t the case.

When using the software, Galletta said, “everyone got worse”— especially students with superior verbal skills, which he acknowledged was surprising.

“Our speculation is that experts tend to be less careful when the [software] is on and assume that their text has been checked carefully for them,” the researchers wrote. “Users of the [software] seem to attribute greater power [to it] than it really has; they are lulled into a false sense of security.”

Although Galletta admits the sample size for the experiment was relatively small, he said the results were so telling—and in many ways, unsettling—that a larger sample size wasn’t needed.

The study found the software helped students find and correct errors in the letter, but in several cases they also changed phrases or sentences flagged by the software as grammatically suspicious, even though they were correct.

For instance, the letter included a passage that said, “Michael Bales would be the best candidate. Bales has proven himself in similar rolls.”

The software—picking up on the last “s” in “Bales”—suggested changing the verb from “has” to “have,” as if the subject were plural. Meanwhile, the spell-check feature ignored the word “rolls,” which should have been “roles.”

Microsoft Corp. technical specialist Tim Pash said grammar and spelling technology is meant to help writers and editors, not solve all their problems.

Richard Stern, a computer and electrical engineer at Carnegie Mellon University specializing in speech-recognition technology, said grammar and spelling software will never approach the complexity of the human mind. “Computers can decide the likelihood of correct speech, but it’s a percentage game,” he said.

See these related links:

University of Pittsburgh’s Katz Business School
http://www.katz.pitt.edu

Dennis Galletta’s home page
http://www.pitt.edu/~galletta

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