Helping schools and districts meet their specific needs—such as improving student achievement, tightening accountability, or enhancing professional development—was the main focus of the companies and organizations exhibiting at the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) held June 29 to July 2 in Seattle.

Businesses selling to educators have become acutely aware of the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and are now touting a plethora of new and upgraded products, solutions, and services that promise to meet these new challenges.

For educators the challenge is to separate true value from empty rhetoric. Buyers should always beware, noted John Bailey, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology, but it’s a positive development that educators are beginning to look to technology for help with real-life problems.

Instead of viewing technology as an add-on, said Bailey, who also advises educators to make informed decisions based on scientific research, educators “are thinking about technology linked to an education problem that they have—and that’s a good thing.”

Whether education companies are motivated by altruism or merely self-interest, they are clearly emphasizing their intention to take a greater responsibility for helping schools and districts succeed. In addition to what they are selling, many of the more progressive companies now offer free web resources, white papers, and training designed to help educators understand and address their challenges.

For example, Microsoft Corp. and the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) announced that they have teamed up to build a free online assessment tool to help schools and districts measure their success in using technology for school improvement.

The free assessment tool, available in pilot programs starting in 2004, will give schools the ability to document their progress toward—and support their implementation of—technology standards.

To date, 47 states and the District of Columbia have used ISTE’s National Educational Technology Standards (NETS) to encourage and document school improvement.

“Many states and schools are using the NETS standards as a target for improving teaching and learning with technology; the challenge has been finding a good resource for measuring growth toward those standards,” said Don Knezek, ISTE’s chief executive.

New eRate resource

Another free resource was unveiled at NECC by eRate consulting firm Funds for Learning LLC, which has created a web-based tool that schools and libraries can use at no cost to manage the extensive paperwork required by the eRate. The $2.25 billion-a-year federal program provides discounts on telecommunications services to eligible schools and libraries.

The tool, called eRate Manager, helps eRate participants monitor the status of their funding requests and then generate the multitude of forms that must be submitted to the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co.—the agency that administers the program—before eRate discounts can flow to applicants or their service providers.

Overall, the eRate process is quite complicated and results in millions of dollars in unused or unclaimed funding each year. “There are cases where people are leaving money on the table just because they lost track of it,” said Sara Fitzgerald of Funds for Learning.

“In these times of financially strapped schools and libraries, both businesses and applicants have a vested interest in trying to get approved payments to flow as smoothly as possible,” said Orin Heend, Funds for Learning president.

Besides keeping paperwork on track so deadlines aren’t missed, the eRate Manager provides a single place where applicants can store all the information about their approved funding commitments.

It also includes several features that enable vendors to communicate more easily with their clients about the status of forms so they can be paid on a more timely basis.

eRate Manager also helps program participants avoid clerical errors that otherwise might lead to payments getting delayed, because it automatically populates the payment forms with the pertinent, SLD-generated numbers and standard applicant or vendor contact information.

The software, which has been in development since early 2002, updates its data on the status of funding commitments and disbursements daily by mining the SLD’s (not-so-easy-to-use) Data Retrieval Tool.

“We make use of the SLD’s daily updated data on the status of funding commitments and disbursements,” Heend explained, “but we go much further.” eRate Manager, he added, makes it easier to generate and file the program’s payment forms, review the status of funding commitments, and see how much approved funding is still available for use.

eRate Manager comes in three versions, each tailored to the specific needs of applicants, state eRate coordinators, or participating vendors.

Schools and libraries can use the site for free to manage their own funding commitments. In addition, state eRate coordinators get free, read-only access to their state’s funding commitments so they can monitor whether their schools and libraries are making use of their approved funding.

The version for state coordinators, Heend said, “makes it easy for [them] to review the kinds of mistakes their applicants may be making, which companies are working in their states, which applicants may be in danger of missing a paperwork deadline, and which of their schools and libraries may be failing to take full advantage of discounts that have been approved for them.”

Vendors must pay a sliding fee, starting at $1,000, based on the number of Funding Request Numbers and Service Provider Invoice Numbers (SPINs) they must manage.

“We believe that the savings eRate Manager can generate for a company in terms of monitoring its eRate-related sales, reducing its eRate paperwork burden, and improving its cash flow position will quickly justify the service’s nominal cost,” Heend said.

Data-driven decision making guide

The Consortium for School Networking (CoSN) at NECC released a paper that outlines how educators can collect, analyze, report, and share data as required by NCLB.

The paper, “Vision to Know and Do: The Power of Data as a Tool in Educational Decision Making,” is the first major resource generated by CoSN’s multi-year Data-driven Decision Making: Vision to Know and Do initiative, a cross-industry effort to assist educators in the effective use of data to improve instruction.

“‘Vision to Know and Do’ describes how educators can implement sustainable school reform based on the simple yet powerful premise of collecting and sharing relevant data with key stakeholders, so everyone involved in the school community is working toward the common goal of improving educational outcomes for all students,” said Irene Spero, project director and CoSN vice president.

The 28-page paper focuses on the best practices of school districts that are successfully practicing data-driven decision making, such as the Pearl River School District in New York and Community Consolidated School District 15 outside of Chicago. It reveals how these districts are using data analysis to improve student outcomes and explains what other schools should know about integrating data into the decision-making process.

“Districts with a culture of data-driven decision making did not begin by building a data warehouse, but through a strategic planning or visioning process,” the paper says. “The district leadership avoided blame and burden, instead creating a culture of shared accountability. Everyone from the janitor to the school superintendent has clear responsibilities, measurable objectives, and performance indicators, as well as the resources and decision-making power they need to meet their targets.”

The paper suggests that school districts change their approach to school management first and then develop data management systems around this process. In addition, the paper offers lessons from the field with respect to factors for success, such as the scale and scope of implementation, data needs and quality, reporting, costs of adoption, professional development needs, and establishing partnerships.

‘Explorer Schools’ program

Math and science teachers from 50 schools nationwide are heading back to school this year ready to participate in a new program called NASA Explorer Schools. Their goal is to acquire new teaching resources and technology tools to make learning science, mathematics, and technology more appealing to students.

The initiative, sponsored by NASA’s Education Enterprise in collaboration with the National Science Teachers Association, will establish a three-year partnership between NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and 50 teams consisting of teachers and administrators from diverse communities across the country.

Participating educators will visit NASA field centers in an effort to spark innovative science and mathematics instruction directed specifically at students in grades five through eight.

News from the exhibit floor

More than 350 companies displayed their hardware, software, and related technology solutions at this year’s NECC. Here’s a sampling of the news from the conference exhibit floor (more information on those companies whose names appear in boldface may be found in the eSchool News “School Technology Buyer’s Guide”— http://www.eschoolnews.com/buyersguide):

School and data management solutions

Brother International Corp. introduced an array of products at NECC, including the P-touch PT-9600 Electronic Labeling System, a labeling solution suited to school asset management and inventory control. Equipped with a laptop-sized keyboard and rugged design, the PT-9600 is a portable unit for making and printing “crack and peel” labels individually or in a strip. Labels can have bar codes, serial numbers, and even date and time stamps, which are useful for keeping track of items in time-sensitive areas like the cafeteria. The suggested retail price of the PT-9600 is $799.99. http://www.brother.com

Chancery released a new version of its web-based student management solution (SMS). The new Chancery SMS 4.0 gives schools and districts an open, centralized system for managing student information designed and built on state-of-the-art web services technology. The product is scalable to support the needs of medium to large-sized K-12 school systems. As a centralized solution, Chancery SMS 4.0 requires less hardware, software, infrastructure, and personnel costs when compared with decentralized solutions, effectively reducing the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a student information system, the company says. Chancery also published a white paper on how to measure a school district’s TCO. For additional information or to request the TCO white paper, contact the Chancery sales department at (800) 999-9931. http://www.chancery.com

Discovery Software Ltd. introduced Teacherpalm, a Palm OS-based application that provides teachers with a tool to take attendance and assign grades using a Palm handheld device. In addition, the software gives teachers instant access to students’ discipline records, timetables, pictures, and medical and emergency contact information 24-7. Teacherpalm builds upon the success of Discovery Software’s Principalm product, which gives school principals and administrators instant access to students’ schedules, pictures, and emergency contact information anytime, anywhere. http://www.principalm.com

Follett Software Co. introduced Destiny, a new browser-based library management service that allows school districts to centralize the management of their entire library collections. The solution promises to free up technology and library staff members’ time. Running via either a wide-area network or the internet, the software enables users to access a wider range of library material and search for materials right from their web browser. http://fsc.follett.com

iAssessment demonstrated an early version of its new iPerform software, a web-based education performance management system that automates technology implementation and usage in K-12 schools. The software aims to help administrators make better-informed decisions from the top down with proprietary support and analysis technology. From the bottom up, it shows educators how to make better use of technology step by step. iPerform is scheduled for release later this year. http://www.iassessment.com

LeapFrog SchoolHouse—the school division of LeapFrog Enterprises Inc.—released a new diagnostic tool, called the LeapTrack Assessment & Instruction System, that enables teachers in grades K-5 to quickly assess students, pinpoint areas for improvement, and prescribe instruction to ensure that every student is moving toward mastery of state content standards. This new release doubles the amount of reading, math, and language arts content of the original LeapTrack system, adds new reporting capabilities, and provides import-export capability that follows the guidelines of the Schools Interoperability Framework (SIF). http://www.LeapFrogSchoolHouse.com

Pearson Digital Learning released the newest version of its flagship student information system, SASIxp 5.5, which features NCLB and Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) reporting tools. With the new SASIxp—which stands for Schools Administrative Student Information system—educators can capture, aggregate, and disaggregate data at the school and district levels as required by NCLB. When SASIxp is integrated with Pearson Digital’s new Concert Instruction & Assessment online education community, educators will have a complete NCLB solution that will allow them to pinpoint areas needing improvement, design individual learning programs, and then apply targeted instruction, all through one seamless, integrated system. Concert Instruction & Assessment brings state standards together with aligned instructional content, including lesson plans, test items, and instructional resources. It also provides teachers with the tools they need to monitor student progress toward these standards. http://www.PearsonDigital.com

PowerSchool, a division of Apple Computer, released PowerSchool SIS version 3.6, a single-server, Windows- and Macintosh-compatible student information system. The latest version of PowerSchool offers more scheduling versatility and improved management of state attendance reports. It also has enhanced the conversion process of legacy, or historical, data to avoid data loss or corruption. http://www.powerschool.com

Sagebrush Analytics, a new data analysis and reporting solution from Sagebrush Corp., enables educators and school administrators to access, analyze, and share school and student data in a secure environment efficiently and cost-effectively. This web-based product gives all district staff access to multiple data sources at the school and district levels through a single, easy-to-use interface. The product is based on SwiftKnowledge technology and Sagebrush is the exclusive distributor. http://www.sagebrush.com http://www.swiftk.com

To give teachers more flexibility in transmitting, creating, and displaying tests, Scantron Corp. has released a new version of Classroom Wizard, its real-time assessment tool for Palm-powered handhelds and other mobile devices. Classroom Wizard 4.0, which supports 802.11b wireless communication, enables students to take tests using handheld devices, while giving teachers immediate and consistent feedback on students’ performance. Classroom Wizard 4.0 also takes advantage of the new graphics and wireless capabilities of AlphaSmart’s new Dana Wireless. Scantron also announced that it is now a licensed reseller of AlphaSmart’s Dana, Infinity Softworks graphing calculator applications for the Palm operating system, and the wireless printing solutions from Bachmann Software & Services. http://www.classroomwizard.com

The Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) Stoplight Report, a comprehensive reporting tool from SchoolNet Inc., gives schools and districts an at-a-glance analysis of their AYP status. The AYP Stoplight Report uses standardized test results, state-defined AYP goals, and student demographic information to demonstrate AYP status disaggregated by student classification, as required by NCLB. Administrators can use the Stoplight Report—color-coded in red, yellow, and green—to analyze students’ past performance, pinpoint their current needs, and project their future status. http://www.schoolnet.com

Vision Ventures LLC has launched a community-oriented calendar tool, called scheduleUs, that helps school staff, students, and families manage the school’s events schedule. “ScheduleUs saves schools time, money, and worry because they can quickly inform parents and students about who needs to be where and when as changes are made to any and all calendars,” said Chris Coffin, company president. ScheduleUs was developed in conjunction with three suburban schools in Chicago. The software comes in two versions: scheduleUs Publisher allows schools and organizations to create and publish their community calendars online, and scheduleUs Family allows families to view, synch to Palm OS handhelds, and print calendars for the entire family or just one individual. ScheduleUs Publisher sells for $189 per copy and includes a copy of the scheduleUs Family software. ScheduleUs Family by itself is $49. For volume pricing, contact Vision Ventures directly. http://www.scheduleUs.com

Hardware, software, and presentation systems

AlphaSmart previewed a wireless version of Dana, its affordable, two-pound laptop alternative that has a large screen and integrated keyboard but runs on the Palm operating system. The newest model has built-in Wi-Fi (802.11b) technology, allowing users to access eMail and the internet wirelessly. Besides its wireless capability, the new Dana offers many other new features, such as enhanced display quality and additional fonts in AlphaWord. Dana Wireless will be available for back-to-school season, and customers will have the option of purchasing Dana with or without wireless capabilities. http://www.alphasmart.com

Boxlight, a digital projectors maker, reduced the price for two of its most popular projectors—the SP-45m and XP-5t. At $999 each, these projectors will fit the budget of even the most financially conscious presenter, the company said. The Boxlight SP-45m features 1,000 ANSI lumens, monitor loop-through, digital keystone adjustment, and two power saving modes. The room lighting adjustment makes this projector versatile enough to be used in any environment, Boxlight said. At 5.8 pounds, it can be brought on the road or permanently mounted. The XP-5t features 800 ANSI lumens, manual zoom and focus, digital keystone adjustment, digital zoom, advanced video capabilities (including HDTV compatibility), and a component video input. This projector weighs 5.7 pounds and has a projection range of from 3.9 feet to 26.3 feet. http://www.boxlight.com

Corel Corp. announced that the Education Edition of its WordPerfect Office 11 software is available for purchase from retail stores across North America, competitively priced at $99. Released in April, the Education Edition previously was available only through approved academic resellers. WordPerfect Office 11 Education Edition includes the WordPerfect 11 word processor; Quattro Pro 11, a spreadsheet application; Presentations 11, a multimedia presentations application; and Paradox, a relational database application. http://www.corel.com

Gateway Inc. presented its Alpha Classroom vision, which incorporates innovative, cost-effective products to improve students’ access to and application of information and knowledge. By integrating technology products such as the company’s wireless notebooks, Tablet PC, presentation solutions, and professional development, educators will be able to create an environment where they fully engage students’ attention and capture “teachable moments,” Gateway says. http://www.gateway.com/edu/k12/ alphacampus

InFocus Corp., the digital projector maker, unveiled a new purchasing program the company said will save educators up to 60 percent off the list price of InFocus and Proxima projectors and give them an additional year of extended warranty, resulting in a three-year warranty on parts and labor. The InFocus Education Purchase Program (EPP) is available to all K-12 and higher education institutions in the United States and Canada and includes special pricing, promotions, sales, and services from exclusive InFocus-authorized A+ educational resellers. http://www.infocus.com/education

N2H2 Inc. released an internet filtering software solution designed specifically for schools and districts that use Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Like N2H2’s solutions for other platforms, the Linux version incorporates the company’s new Delegated Administration feature, through which school IT managers and network administrators can decide who has the authority to oversee internet use by delineating groups of users and assigning administrators across the enterprise. This feature aims to lighten the administrative load for the central network administrator while also giving local administrators more control. http://www.n2h2.com

Promethean Corp. released new software, called ACTIVPrimary, that makes its ACTIVboard electronic whiteboards useable in primary classrooms. The software features a teacher-controlled portion at the top of the ACTIVboard where young students cannot reach and a pupil interface at the bottom so even the smallest children can reach. The pupil interface includes buttons for colors, lines, shapes, text, and resource banks. In light of the growing popularity of plasma screens and other delivery systems, a Promethean representative emphasized that the company is positioning itself as a provider of presentation solutions rather than as merely an electronic whiteboard company. http://www.activboard.com

SMART Technologies presented its Rear Projection SMART Board 2000i, a new, low-cost, mobile interactive whiteboard. The 2000i combines the benefits of a large, shadow-free, touch-sensitive display with adjustable height. Teachers simply crank the handle to lower or raise the height of the board to accommodate different-sized students, including those with special needs. The suggested retail price is $12,999, but qualifying schools can purchase the 2000i with a SMARTer Kids Foundation grant for $9,749. SMART Technologies also released a new version of its SMART Board software that is compatible with Windows, Macintosh, UNIX, and Linux operating systems. http://www.smarttech.com

Curriculum and content

AOL@SCHOOL, the free online learning service from America Online Inc., has expanded its content offerings through new alliances with the United Nations Association and Encyclopedia Britannica. AOL@SCHOOL users now will have access to the online version of Britannica Concise and to the United Nations Association’s Model U.N. resources. http://school.aol.com

Carnegie Learning has a new pricing structure for its mathematics curriculum. The company’s Cognitive Tutor software used to be available only on a site-license basis, but now schools can buy curriculum-specific licenses for $95 per student, plus a $300 set-up fee, on an annual basis, allowing more students to have access to the company’s Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry, and Integrated Math I, II, and III courses. http://www.carnegielearning.com

Discovery Channel School is adding several free content areas to DiscoverySchool.com, its web-based library of creative curriculum resources. The new “On TV and Lesson Plans” section features a calendar of upcoming educational TV programs from the Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, Animal Planet, Travel Channel, and Discovery Health TV. The Curriculum Center, coming this fall, will provide puzzles, quizzes, worksheets, vocabulary activities, and more for 10 core science units, including genetics, chemistry, electricity, bacteria, and solar systems. Also this fall, a companion web site to the Blue Planet series—which tells the story of the world’s oceans—will offer lesson plans, quizzes, puzzles, and video clips for middle and high school science classes. http://www.discoveryschool.com

EdGate, a provider of web-based content, has launched a new, subscription-based online educational tool called EdGate Personal Edition. This tool provides thousands of educator-evaluated resources, organized into specific categories such as Research Tools, Special and Gifted Education, Music Hall, Current Events, and more. It also reportedly provides thousands of lessons and assessments—each correlated with state standards—that are not available elsewhere. A one-year subscription to EdGate Personal Edition costs $11.95 per user, per year. http://www.edgate.com

Evan-Moor Educational Publishers has released a new five-book series called “Look, Listen, and Speak” that combines audio, visual, and print resources to build vocabulary and fluency for students in grades one to three. Each book in the series includes an interactive CD-ROM, a full-color print poster, and 48 four-color picture cards for games and language development activities, along with an 80-page reproducible book that models strategies for introducing concepts and vocabulary through student activities and games. http://www.evan-moor.com

Holt, Rinehart & Winston introduced a web-based, interactive version of its Holt Middle School Math program for grades six through eight. The online version, called Holt Middle School Mathematics Premier Online Student Edition, allows students to practice difficult math concepts using interactive models and manipulatives. The program also features sophisticated graphics that make sometimes-elusive math concepts accessible through clear, colorful animations and other rich-media presentations. The solution comes with built-in software that allows users to perform functions previously requiring a graphing calculator. http://www.hrw.com

Interact eLearning Solutions, from Australia-based XSIQ International, provides teachers and students in grades 4-12 with a comprehensive online curriculum in 17 subjects. It also provides teachers with an easy-to-use authoring tool so they can edit existing content or create new learning resources. The product includes an interactive library of more than 3,000 multimedia objects to support learning. Lessons incorporate three-dimensional elements, audio, voice-over-instruction, vibrant images, full-motion video, animation, Flash, and QuickTime. Software Express, of Charlotte, N.C., is the official reseller of the product for schools in North America. http://www.swexpres.com/interact

Learning.com announced plans to release an enhanced version of its EasyTech technology integration software this fall. The new version will include new technology integration lessons on visual mapping, databases, graphics, desktop publishing, presentation software, typing, and web browsing. It also will include more than double the amount of integration activities to help educators successfully integrate technology into their core curriculum. http://www.learning.com

Macromedia Breeze, a web-based tool for creating and sharing digital content from Macromedia Inc., is now specially priced for education, starting at $9,750. Macromedia Breeze allows teachers to author their own content, publish their ideas online, and add narration, quizzes, and other assessments to PowerPoint presentations. The company also offers extensive professional development resources and a wide array of web-authoring software tools ranging from the simple to the highly sophisticated. http://www.macromedia.com

Oracle Corp. demonstrated its free online learning community for students ages 7-14, called Think.com, which provides students and teachers with their own web sites, spam-free eMail accounts, and discussion tools. Students and teachers can use the service to transfer pictures, documents, and audio or video clips, as well as share ideas, create class discussion, and conduct polls. Think.com is a closed community, so students are protected from spam and other unwanted eMail. Think.com also includes a parent page to keep parents informed of classroom activities. Oracle, known generally as a business solutions provider, also offers educators the Oracle Internet Academy for high school students and sponsors the ThinkQuest academic competition and awards program. http://www.think.com

PASCO Scientific’s probeware now has the ability to transfer the data it collects to Infinity Softworks’ scientific graphing calculator software that runs on the Palm operating system. This added functionality allows students to do an advanced analysis of the vol