Up to $10,000 for parent communication software

Recognizing that communication is the cornerstone of education, SynreVoice Technologies Inc. plans to award up to 10 grants between $4,000 to $10,000 to school districts for the purpose of improving student achievement through enhanced parent communication and involvement. The award stipend must be used to purchase a SynreVoice’s SchoolConnects automated parent communication solution. In exchange for the award, grant recipients must submit annual report to SynreVoice that describes the use and benefits of SchoolConnects within the school district. The reports should reflect on the initial plan, explaining what worked and what did not.

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Discovery Communications acquires United Learning

Media and entertainment company Discovery Communications Inc., whose holdings include the Learning Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Discovery Channel School, has acquired United Learning, an Evanston, Ill.-based producer and distributor of educational multimedia products.

Under the deal, announced Sept. 4, United Learning will operate as a wholly owned division of Discovery’s consumer products group. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

United Learning has provided video content to supplement core curricular instruction for nearly 50 years. Its flagship product, United Streaming, is a video-on-demand subscription service offering 2,000 videos and nearly 20,000 video clips that are correlated to state standards.

While United Streaming already includes some Discovery content, company officials said the deal will give United Learning full access to Discovery’s library of several hundred thousand hours of video programming, thereby greatly expanding the range of content available through the service.

For its part, Discovery adds a proven company with 24,000 school subscribers and a different mode of content delivery: streaming video online.

“United Learning’s video library and digital delivery system, combined with Discovery’s content, will be a stronger enterprise and give us a major opportunity to grow education-related services,” said Judith McHale, president and chief operating officer of Discovery Communications.

“Our goal is to build a dynamic, multimedia business that will leverage the power of both our brands, our technologies, and our global reach to deliver world-class video products to schools around the world, ultimately … enhancing the classroom learning experience,” she concluded.

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From the Publisher: Modest Proposals

Reviewing major developments that came to light this month ignites an almost irresistible urge for action–be it prudent or precipitous. Herewith, then, in the spirit of Jonathan Swift, I offer several modest proposals:

As the worm turns

As you might have noticed, geeky boyz (sorry, no geeky grrls as yet) have been playing havoc with our computer networks. School tech personnel from coast to coast have had their work schedules delayed by weeks, and some IT departments have confronted thousands of hours of unnecessary toil because of worms, viruses, Trojan horses, and all manner of other malicious maladies unleashed onto the internet.

At press time, as we report in this issue, an 18-year-old high school student in Minnesota was charged with spreading a version of the SoBig worm. A 24-year-old Romanian was arrested in London on comparable charges.

Enough’s enough! It’s time to stop mollycoddling computer criminals. We need radical measures. We need the ultimate deterrence.

So let’s add virus varmints to the expanded roster of those who would get the death penalty under the revised version of the Patriot Act. Then we could ask General Ashcroft to brand these miscreants as “enemy combatants.” That way, their processing wouldn’t have to take up a judge’s time or bog down our overloaded court system.

And where better, after all, to plant a malicious code kiddie than six feet under, where it finally would be his turn to deal with all the invasive worms!

For the record

When it comes to gloves-off remedies, we all could learn a thing or two from the recording industry, as we report on Page 20. By suing 12-year-old girls, college professors, aged grandfathers, and little old ladies, record company executives have struck a responsive chord with the jackboot set around the globe.

In spite of the propaganda subversive kindergarten teachers have been peddling for years, sharing is NOT a good thing. Sharing is wicked and must be punished.

In light of this revelation, we should change our ways. We not only should cease sharing music files, but we also should go the record companies one better. Just to let the lesson sink in, we should declare a six-month moratorium on all recorded music.

Don’t share it. Don’t buy it. Don’t listen to it. (And based on some of the music available nowadays this would not be such a terrific sacrifice.)

Without sales and distribution problems to think about for six full months, record-industry leaders might be able to come up with some innovative ways to make music available quickly and cheaply online. Then they could stop harassing schools and colleges and alienating their best customers.

Devious Plans

A music moratorium might be novel. But it pales compared to a truly inspired idea. In tribute to genuine innovation, my hat’s off to Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Legislature.

During his re-election campaign last year, Gov. Bush opposed a California-style ballot initiative known as Amendment 9. It was to require class size reductions by 2010.

The class-size amendment to the Florida constitution would be so expensive, said Gov. Bush, that it “would blot out the sun.” That just wouldn’t do in the Sunshine State. But in a moment of off-mike candor overheard by a reporter on the campaign trail, Gov. Bush said he could sidestep the economic consequences of the amendment, because he had “a couple of devious plans” he could roll out in case the initiative should pass.

It passed. And true to his word, Gov. Bush last summer signed an early-graduation law, allowing high school students to forgo their senior year.

What a concept!

In one fell swoop, the early-graduation program both slashes costs and reduces class sizes. But why stop there? Just think of the savings and class-size reductions that could be achieved if Florida were to do away with high schools altogether.

And why not leverage this innovative thinking and do away with hospitals and highways, too? Once the ball was rolling, the opportunities could come non-stop.

Perhaps the ultimate savings wouldn’t be realized until the movement hit home in Tallahassee. Then Florida’s Sunshine Boys could do away with the Legislature and the governor’s office. Talk about a master stroke!

But hey, big challenges call for big ideas.

Those are some of my bright beauties. Why not let your colleagues in on a few of yours at the eSN Forum: http://www.eschoolnews.com/ubb/index.htm

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eRate agency could knock 3,700 schools off line

Florida’s 3,700 schools could lose their internet access this year if the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of the Universal Service Administrative Co. doesn’t reverse its decision to deny the state’s eRate application, warned Florida Education Commissioner Jim Horne.

The SLD, which oversees the $2.25 billion-a-year federal program, denied Florida’s request for more than $7.4 million in 2003 eRate discounts because the state’s three applications allegedly did not show that price was the primary factor in selecting a service provider.

“Price doesn’t need to be the only factor [in selecting a service provider], but price has to be the primary factor,” SLD spokesman Mel Blackwell said. “We didn’t have evidence that price was the primary factor in their selection.”

In appeals filed by Horne on behalf of the Florida Department of Education Aug. 21, the state argues the SLD misinterpreted Florida’s “evaluation criteria” for selecting vendors. State procurement laws “mandate that price be the primary factor in the [department’s] selection of a successful vendor,” the appeal said. Contracts also must be awarded to the bidder offering the “best value.”

“The evaluation process … clearly and convincingly shows that the department fulfilled this mandate,” the appeal said.

To find the most cost-effective solution, the state reportedly developed a rubric that assigned points to the various parts of the bids to help evaluators easily compare them. The category for “Overall Project Concept, Design, and Cost” was weighted the highest, accounting for 35 percent of a bid’s total score. The company selected by the state, Hayes E-Government Resources Inc., received the highest score of 83.6 percent. The next highest were Fijitsu (74.6 percent), AT&T (72.4 percent), and ITC Delfacom (41.6 percent).

Among other services, bidders were asked for their plans to provide help desk functions, end-user support, and security against hackers, viruses, and other threats, according to the appeal. Based on its overall approach, Hayes’s proposal offered the best value for the state, officials said.

The Gainsville Sun reported that the main lobbyist for Hayes, J.M. Stipanovich, is a former campaign manager for Gov. Jeb Bush. Frances Marine, a spokeswoman for the state education department, told eSchool News the contract “had nothing to do with the governor’s office” and noted that the procurement process was “protest free.”

Losing $7.4 million in eRate discounts will have a devastating effect on the state’s network, known as the Florida Information Resource Network, state officials said. The state had set aside $5.6 million to pay for the system but also counted largely on eRate dis-counts.

“In the tight budget year we just had, and with districts tightening their belts, I think it would be very difficult for districts at this point to come up with an extra $8 million [on their own],” State Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, chairwoman of the Senate Education Appropriations Committee, told the Sun.

Another problem is that the state already turned over the operation of its network to Hayes in July (through a contract signed in January) and since then has shifted employees and equipment over to Hayes, the Sun reported.

The state had negotiated in its contract with Hayes that if eRate funding were to fall through, the contract would terminate automatically, but that still would leave the state’s schools without internet access, according to the Florida newspaper.

Marine said the department is considering “multiple options” to continue internet service to the state’s schools. “However, we do believe that with the additional information provided to the SLD on the procurement process, a favorable appeal will result in the end,” she said.

The Florida Information Resource Network links all of Florida’s public schools to the internet and provides eMail access to thousands of the state’s teachers. It’s also used by all 11 public universities and the state’s 28 community colleges. State officials last year decided to transfer control of the network over to a private company.

See these related links:

Florida Department of Education
http://www.fldoe.org

Schools and Libraries Division
http://sl.universalservice.org

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Report: Filters work OK, but better training needed

A new report says current internet filtering technology meets most, if not all, the needs and concerns of schools but recommends that vendors train teachers, administrators, and librarians on their products’ specific features so they are better equipped to use them.

The report also recommends that Congress expand the Children Internet Protection Act’s (CIPA’s) definition of “technology protection measures” to include a wider array of technologies that can protect children from inappropriate online content.

The Aug. 15 report, entitled “CIPA Study of Technology Protection Measures,” was prepared for Congress by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“Existing technology protection measures are capable of meeting a number of the needs of educational institutions,” the report said. “However, some educators are unaware of the capabilities of these measures or lack the knowledge about how to use many features of the technology protection tools.”

For instance, CIPA, the law that requires federally funded schools to use filters, sometimes allows adults to disable a filter for research purposes–but some educators do not know how to do that.

CIPA charged the NTIA with evaluating whether currently available internet filters adequately address the needs of schools, as well as the development and effectiveness of local internet safety policies.

To do so, the NTIA issued a public request for comment last May that elicited 42 comments from associations, technology vendors, government agencies, university professors, schools, and libraries.

Respondents identified six main needs and concerns that schools have about filters:

  • Balancing the importance of allowing children to use the internet with the importance of protecting children from inappropriate material;
  • Accessing online educational materials with a minimum level of relevant content being blocked;
  • Deciding on the local level how best to protect children from internet dangers;
  • Understanding how to fully utilize internet protection technology measures;
  • Considering a variety of technical, educational, and economic factors when selecting technology protection measures; and
  • Adopting an internet safety strategy that includes technology, human monitoring, and education.

Most respondents agreed filters keep students from being exposed to inappropriate content. “Where filtering fell short of being effective, the situation usually involved either overblocking or underblocking of material,” the report said.

For example, the Consortium for School Networking, which had polled its members, told NTIA that school filters often block web sites that teachers include in lesson plans prepared at home, leaving teachers to scramble at the last minute to find replacements.

Also, some schools expressed concern that the rules for using filters differ for those schools receiving eRate discounts and those receiving U.S. Department of Education (ED) funding. For example, the recipients of ED funds may “disable [filters] for certain use,” and recipients of eRate funds may “disable [filters] during adult use.”

“These provisions generate confusion and reluctance within educational communities about using disabling technology to accommodate override requests for fear of breaching CIPA,” the report said.

N2H2 Inc., which owns about 40 percent of the market share for filtering software in education, said it was pleased with the report.

“N2H2 will immediately begin examining the best ways to help implement the report’s suggestion of providing training for educators on the use of filtering,” company spokesman David Burt said. “Some possibilities include an online teachers guide for using N2H2’s software, online webinars, and live sessions at educational conferences.”

But the Free Expression Policy Project, a New York-based intellectual freedom think tank, said the report reads like a sales pitch for filtering software, even though it outlines the software’s overblocking and underblocking problems.

“The NTIA report is a poor substitute for the much more detailed, thoughtful, and analytically rigorous report released by the National Research Council … last year,” said Marjorie Heins, the group’s director.

See this related link:

“CIPA Study of Technology Protection Measures”
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/ntiageneral/cipa2003/index.html

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New NSF book targets girls’ interest in science, tech

A new, first-of-its-kind resource from the National Science Foundation (NSF) summarizes the methodology and results of 211 research-based grant projects that aim to increase girls’ participation in science, technology, engineering, and math.

The book, “New Formulas for America’s Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering,” is intended primarily to help educators make science and technology more accessible to girls and young women. But NSF says it also can serve as a resource for educators, parents, and professionals seeking examples of creative ways to explore science and technology with their students in general.

“This is a perfect back-to-school tool for those teachers, parents, homeschoolers, and administrators who want to see how research has identified hands-on learning that works,” said Judith A. Ramaley, who leads NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources. “It is full of ideas, contacts, and research that make it an essential element in the toolkit of every educator between the kindergarten and college undergraduate levels.”

Since 1993, NSF has funded more than $90 million in programs designed to spark girls’ pursuit of science, technology, engineering, and math, because women are largely unrepresented in these careers.

According to the agency’s most recent statistics, women represented nearly one-half (48.6 percent) of the college-degreed workforce in the United States in 2000; but only one-fourth (24.7 percent) of the science and engineering workforce.

To combat this trend, the book provides a concise description of each grant project, its elements, and the related and supporting research. It also includes contact information, web site addresses, the NSF grant program number, key project members and associates, and a list of key words for every project featured, as well as internet addresses for software downloads and information about other products that have resulted from these projects.

Educators are encouraged to contact the program leaders listed in the book to network, learn how to participate in serious NSF research projects, and obtain related lesson plans. “Instead of having to reinvent everything or not knowing where to start, [educators] can look in here and contact the folks [who’ve blazed the trail],” said NSF spokesman Manny Van Pelt.

The programs featured range from summer camps to after-school and in-school programs. Some offer training to ensure that teachers don’t leave girls behind in science and technology instruction; others are aimed at students themselves and offer creative, engaging ways to stimulate girls’ interest in these subjects.

One program, called Sisters in Sport Science, has about 540 sixth, seventh, and eighth grade girls from Philadelphia learn math and science principles embedded in sports such as basketball, soccer, hockey, softball, fencing, golf, tennis, and track.

Each Saturday, the girls spend roughly an hour practicing the sport and an hour studying the science and math behind it. For example, after learning how to hit a tennis ball, the girls would spend the rest of the time determining the ball’s trajectory, motion, and force. In basketball, they might study the math and science of the rebound effect.

In another example, Boston researchers worked with teachers to develop and pilot several successful models of Single Gender Math Clubs for elementary school girls. In each school, the math clubs served as a way for the teachers to study gender dynamics in their classrooms and as a low-risk place to experiment with math activities.

“After recognizing and reflecting on classroom gender issues in the math club framework, they could think about how to improve the coed classroom environment. Teachers at each site changed their regular classroom math instruction after experiencing their students’ responses to reform math activities,” the book said.

Although the book only includes programs directed at girls and young women, its content and lessons are applicable to everyone, NSF says.

“The book’s theme centers on transforming the science and technology learning experience, so it is not limited by a student’s gender, race, disability, or other social factors,” said Ruta Sevo, NSF’s senior program director for Research on Gender in Science and Engineering.

“The book is intended to be what every educator would want as a first reference,” Sevo continued. “Some of these projects changed mindsets. Some changed lives. All of them planted the seeds of discovery.”

The book has been published in print and electronic formats and is available free of charge from NSF.

See these related links:

“New Formulas for America’s Workforce: Girls in Science and Engineering”
http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2003/nsf03207/start.htm

National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov

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Handheld computer company Palm unveils new name

Soon, Palm Inc. will be no more. The company that pioneered the personal digital assistant and made the word “Palm” practically synonymous with any PDA will change its name to palmOne Inc. this fall.

The new name, which was unveiled Aug. 18, will immediately follow the official split of the company’s hardware and software units, expected to be completed in the fall.

The unit that develops the Palm operating system will remain as PalmSource Inc., and the operating system itself will continue to be known as Palm.

The division that makes Palm devices will adopt the name of palmOne, with products bearing the new logo by spring, said Page Murray, vice president of marketing for the Milpitas, Calif.-based Palm.

The task of choosing new names started after the spinoff was proposed more than a year ago to help each unit better compete with rivals, such as Microsoft Corp. on the operating system side and Sony Corp. on the hardware side.

Operating as both a hardware and software provider sometimes created snags for Palm, and hindered potential partners that feared the Palm units would share information or subsidize each other.

Keeping the word “palm” in the names was a no brainer. “It’d be a crime for both companies to not tap into the tremendous equity in the Palm brand,” Murray said.

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How to take on AYP failure–and succeed

Telling your school’s story has never been easy. How do you capture the delight of a first grader who has just learned to read, or the passion of a teacher who inspires a love of calculus among math-phobic teenagers?

Now, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has brought a new checklist of reporting requirements and jargon, from “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) to disaggregated data and student subgroups. As Ricky Ricardo would say, “You’ve got a lot of splainin’ to do.”

While the philosophy behind NCLB is easy to embrace–who doesn’t want all children to learn at high levels?–boiling down the essence of your school into a few charts, graphs, and statistics is a tortuous exercise for most administrators, let alone parents. We might trust in data, but what do the numbers really mean?

And that’s true even if your school is doing well. If your school is one of the thousands nationwide tagged as not making AYP (see the chart on the preceding page)–and schools with the greatest diversity of students are most at risk in this regard–how do you maintain the trust and support of your parents and community?

It’s not enough simply to post the data on your school or district web site. You need to help people understand the information and use it wisely. You need an effective communications strategy.

For example, are you going to embrace NCLB, do the minimum to get by, or fight against it? Are you going to provide context for the report card information, or let the data stand on their own merit? Are you going to engage parents and community members as allies in improving or defending your school? Are you alerting the media regarding your school’s or district’s AYP results, or are you waiting to respond until the state releases the data?

While my 20-plus years in the business world make me biased toward proactive, rather than reactive, public relations, there really aren’t any right or wrong answers to the questions above.

The key is to think strategically through the issues ahead of time, then make an informed decision about how you’re going to handle communications with your stakeholders–parents, teachers, support staff, real estate agents, business leaders, etc.

For example, if you know that certain subgroups of students aren’t going to meet their target goals, you have a much better chance of framing the issue if you let teachers, support staff, community leaders, and the media know in advance.

First, you can stress the progress your students have made. Then, you can outline the challenges you face and put the data into context. Finally, you can enlist the support and assistance of parents and the community in achieving these goals.

Thus, in terms of a media statement, electronic press release, or web posting, your message might go something like this:

“While we’re pleased that 32 out of 33 subgroups met their goals at XYZ high school, we won’t be satisfied until every child is learning at a high level. That’s why we’re (explain action step for correcting the problem) and why we need (stakeholder group) to join us in this effort by (explain action step you want parents or the community to take).”

More importantly, you’ll want to develop a process and action plan for involving and engaging parents and other stakeholders in the work of your schools. Use the data–the good, the bad, and the ugly–to help your team focus on solutions and results.

Taking a “This, too, shall pass” or “Maybe no one will notice if we don’t say anything” approach almost certainly guarantees failure. Make no mistake about it: This is a high-stakes game in the court of public opinion–not only for your school, but for public education as we know it today.

If you’ve already taken the proactive step of posting information about NCLB and your school’s annual report card on your web site (hopefully on your home page, where it’s easy for parents to find), make sure you cross-reference and link this information to other pertinent web pages and sections.

Many school and district web sites I reviewed for this article have great information about NCLB and AYP–in hard-to-find locations or isolated sections. Take the time to integrate NCLB and AYP designations into existing school report cards and profiles, even if the information isn’t flattering.

Burying AYP data, safety designations, and choice options in an obscure section of your web site–or simply providing a link to the state education department reports–speaks volumes about your commitment to open and effective communications and might foster allegations of cover-ups and obfuscation.

School leaders also need to address communication barriers that might keep parents from accessing NCLB information and choices. Having materials, including web-based information, available in a variety of languages and literacy levels is essential.

Communicating effectively with hard-to-reach parents or extended family members is going to require community outreach and a more personal approach. In addition to the web and school events, many parents will prefer to get their information from the district’s cable television show, the news media, or a community workshop. Just as kids show a preference for certain learning styles, parents like to access information in different ways.

Some parents are going to soak up every detail; others will find the avalanche of data overwhelming. Still others won’t really care until another parent or the news media expresses outrage that their child’s school has been declared unsafe or failing by the federal government. Make sure you address these various communication styles as you craft your NCLB public relations plan.

Web-based resources and templates abound for school leaders grappling with NCLB communication issues. One of the most practical and comprehensive listings is posted on the American Association of School Administrators’ web site (see “Reporting District Data: Resources and Best Practices”).

State education departments and school systems in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, and other states on the forefront of the accountability movement also are good resources, having already developed report card templates that report disaggregated data, as well as NCLB presentations, fact sheets, sample parent letters, newsletter articles, talking points, and other helpful tools for school leaders and parents. (See “NCLB: Communication Resources,” from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.)

While Greatschools.net doesn’t specifically address NCLB on its web site, districts would do well to emulate the nonprofit organization’s school choice wizard and parent-friendly school profile formats and language.

Principals can update or enhance the site’s school profiles (gleaned from state department of education web sites) with information about special programs, parental involvement, school-business partnerships, after-school opportunities, etc. Profiles may be translated in several languages and may be printed easily for those without internet access.

If all of this feels just a tad bit overwhelming, you’re not alone. While many educators embrace NCLB’s philosophy, others worry that the act has simply given public schools new ways to fail.

Political agendas and conspiracy theories aside, it’s up to us whether NCLB becomes a positive catalyst for change, a communications disaster, or one more blip on the school reform radar.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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Microsoft, schools mull security in wake of worm

In the wake of the insidious Blaster worm that crippled thousands of Windows-based computers worldwide in August, school technology personnel and Microsoft officials alike were considering how best to protect their systems from future attacks.

Blaster and its many variants attacked a flaw in nearly all versions of the Windows operating system first discovered by a team of Polish researchers in July. Although Microsoft immediately made a patch to fix the flaw available on its web site, many school district computers remained vulnerable when students and teachers returned to classes after the summer break.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., the nation’s 14th-largest school district shut down its computers for more than two days to clean out the infection, said Larry Padgett, its director of network services. The district had to delay a head count that helps assign teachers based on school population.

Schools in Cleveland cautioned parents and students that the summer’s infections might delay the opening of classes, but the district mobilized 120 employees to scrub viruses from nearly 8,000 computers, and schools opened on schedule.

Employees had to work overtime, however, so school personnel could finalize student schedules, set up assignments, and prepare payroll.

“Everything got done, but it did not make for a pleasant opening,” said Peter Robertson, the district’s chief information officer.

Eighteen-year-old Jeffrey Lee Parson of Hopkins, Minn., was arrested Aug. 29 for allegedly launching a variation of the Blaster worm that infected at least 7,000 computers worldwide. At press time, no arrests had been made in connection with the main attack itself. But for schools, the arrest of Parson–who still attended high school at the time–underscores the need to educate students about the serious consequences of cyber crime.

For its part, Microsoft said Aug. 19 it is considering whether to sign up users of future versions of its Windows operating system to a service that automatically downloads and installs software fixes on their computers unless customers specifically opt out of the service.

No decisions have been made, but it is one way the company is considering tightening computer security in the future, said Steve Lipner, director of security engineering strategy for the Redmond, Wash., company.

“We think it would help the safety of a lot more customers if they had the benefit of the patching there [automatically],” Lipner said.

School technology leaders who spoke with eSchool News in the days following the attacks were lukewarm to the idea. But all agreed: Something must be done to simplify the process of ensuring that hundreds of computers across large networks remain protected from future attacks.

‘Protect Your PC’

Besides exploring the idea of automatic updates, Microsoft also has launched a “Protect Your PC” campaign to suggest ways consumers can guard their computers against attacks such as the Blaster worm and its variants.

Although Microsoft had posted a fix for the flaw on July 16, tens of millions of people waited until late in August to install it, Microsoft said, based on downloads from its Windows Update web site. The company decided to accelerate plans to promote security by launching its Protect Your PC campaign, said Amy Carroll, director of product management for Microsoft’s Security Business Unit.

Starting on Aug. 19, the company bought ads in several newspapers telling customers about setting up firewalls, visiting Microsoft’s update site, and buying anti-virus software.

It also has set up a new web site that offers step-by-step instructions for turning on existing security tools in Windows XP and suggestions for buying anti-virus protection. Microsoft is working on a video as well to post on its web site.

In the meantime, the company is encouraging users of the most current versions of Windows to sign up for Automatic Update, in which Microsoft automatically downloads and installs software fixes for them.

Automatic updates–available now for customers with Windows XP-are one way consumers can keep their software patched, said Craig Schmugar of Network Associates’ anti-virus emergency response team. But many customers might resist that option for a variety of reasons, he said.

Network administrators in large companies or school systems might be reluctant to allow automatic downloads, Schmugar said, because the downloads might interfere with how other programs work. Ideally, they would want to be able to test the software before widely deploying it across their enterprise, he said.

Piecemeal approach failing

School technology professionals who spoke with eSchool News largely agreed with Schmugar. Although they expressed frustration with the current piecemeal approach to network security-applying software patches as they are announced–they said they weren’t sure automatic updates are the answer, either.

James Ross, technology coordinator for the 500-student St. Elmo Community Unit School District in Illinois, estimated that it took him close to six hours to update only the servers and mission-critical machines in his district’s two schools and single administration building with the latest Windows patch. “Good thing I was mostly caught up to start with,” he said.

But Ross said he would be concerned about network traffic becoming clogged if all the computers in his district were downloading patches automatically at the same time.

“If [Microsoft] could make it so the downloads happen in the background, not every machine [downloads a patch] at the same time,… and I don’t have to administer some complicated patching schedule, [then it] would be great,” he said of the idea.

Frustrated with the amount of time it took to download and install Microsoft patches after the Blaster attack, the Plano Independent School District in Texas set up a dedicated server to automate the process of updating its 26,000 desktop and 2,500 laptop computers.

Jim Hirsch, the district’s associate superintendent for technology, calls the solution a good compromise between Microsoft’s automatic download proposal and the need for schools to test patches before they are installed. The solution consists of a standard Windows 2000 server that hosts and delivers carefully selected Microsoft patches to the district’s computers, he said.

“There are occasions when Microsoft updates render educational software unusable,” Hirsch explained. With an in-house server delivering Microsoft updates to the district’s computers, however, officials can test and control which patches get installed.

“It will allow us to distinguish between Microsoft patches we want and Microsoft patches we don’t want,” Hirsch said. “We think this is a better solution than sending Microsoft patches we don’t want to every machine.”

With its in-house Software Update Server, the district also can control when Microsoft patches are installed by assigning times for different groups of computers to log in and check for updates. Not only does this help manage the district’s bandwidth, but it means that teachers don’t have to worry that their classroom computers will download and install updates automatically during class time.

Better solutions needed

Plano’s solution might address concerns about automatic updates, but it still involves a great deal of time to test each patch before distributing it to the district’s computers. Given the complexity involved in keeping software patches up to date, many ed-tech professionals say they are looking for better solutions to the challenge of network security.

Toward this end, a growing number of schools are turning to a solution made by Austin, Texas-based TippingPoint Technologies, whose UnityOne intrusion prevention system reportedly eliminates the need for schools to download and install the latest software patches on their computers.

UnityOne sits at the edge of a school system’s network like a firewall and inspects all network traffic that passes through. Using information about the latest software vulnerabilities from the SANS Institute, TippingPoint creates “virtual” software patches by tailoring UnityOne’s filter to guard against the vulnerability. All computers that reside behind the appliance are protected, TippingPoint says.

The device “was effective at blocking the Blaster worm,” said Mike Phillips, chief information officer for the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. “By the close of business [Aug. 12], UnityOne had blocked over 9,000 external Blaster attempts.”

Charlie Reisinger, director of technology for the Penn Manor School District in Pennsylvania, said his district takes a different approach by running a mixed-platform network with Macintosh, Windows, and Linux machines. “Since Macs and Linux computers are immune to Windows viruses, we knew that at least half of our computers would not be affected,” he said.

The Blaster worm demonstrates that the number and intensity of Windows-related viruses will only continue to get worse, Reisinger said.

“Most schools simply do not have the time or personnel to keep up with an endless stream of patches and security holes,” he said. “Imagine if we had to take our automobiles in for a patch or fix with the frequency that we do for our computers.”

He concluded: “It’s getting to the point that any district running an exclusively Windows network does so at its peril. Alternatives to Windows, such as Linux and Macs, are looking better all the time.”

See these related links:

Microsoft’s “Protect Your PC” campaign
http://www.microsoft.com/security/protect

TippingPoint Technologies
http://www.tippingpoint.com

New computer virus clogs eMail in-boxes
As if the Blaster worm that infected computer systems worldwide in mid-August wasn’t bad enough, a new strain of a virulent eMail virus spread quickly across the internet Aug. 19, causing fresh annoyance to computer users worn out by the previous week’s Blaster. At least one internet security firm called the virus the fastest eMail outbreak ever circulated.

The virus, which clogged tens of thousands of computer networks worldwide, underscores the need for school technology professionals to warn all computer users in their communities–including teachers, students, and parents–of the dangers of opening suspicious eMail attachments.

MessageLabs, which scans eMail messages for viruses, said that within 24 hours it had scanned more than 1 million copies of the “F” variant of the “Sobig” virus, which was blamed for computer disruptions at businesses, colleges, school districts, and other institutions worldwide.

The previous record was “Klez,” with about 250,000 copies spotted during its first 24 hours earlier this year, MessageLabs chief technology officer Mark Sunner said Aug. 21.

There have been faster outbreaks on the internet, but those circulated through networking functions built into Windows operating systems.

The “Slammer” worm struck more than 75,000 computers in just 10 minutes in January, with the number of infected computers doubling every 8.5 seconds, according to researchers at the University of California and other institutions. It went on to infect hundreds of thousands more.

eMail viruses like Sobig can hit the same computer multiple times, so the number of infections are not directly comparable.

Sunner said the latest virus was able to spread so quickly because it essentially had eMail software built in. Previous ones relied on existing software packages like Microsoft’s Outlook and did not spread as quickly among users of rival eMail software.
Sobig did not physically damage computers, files, or critical data, but it tied up computer and networking resources, forcing networks like the University of Wisconsin-Madison to shut down outside access to its eMail system Aug. 20.

“We were removing 30,000 bad eMails an hour,” said Jeff Savoy, an information security officer at the school.

Regarding the Sobig virus and similar attacks, internet security firm Symantec Corp. has posted the following advice on its web site:

  • Turn off and remove unneeded services. By default, many operating systems install auxiliary services that are not critical, such as an FTP (file transfer protocol) server. If these services are removed, blended threats have less avenues of attack, and you have fewer services to maintain through patch updates.
  • If an attack exploits one or more network services, disable–or block access to–those services until a patch is applied.
  • Always keep your patch levels up to date, especially on computers that host public services and are accessible through the firewall.
  • Enforce a password policy. Complex passwords make it difficult to crack password files on compromised computers. This helps limit damage when a computer is compromised.
  • Configure your eMail server to block or remove eMail that contains file attachments that are commonly used to spread viruses, such as “.vbs,” “.bat,” “.exe,” “.pif,” and “.scr” files.
  • Isolate infected computers quickly to prevent further compromising your organization. Perform a forensic analysis and restore the computers using trusted media.
  • Train students and employees not to open attachments unless they are expecting them. Also, do not execute software that is downloaded from the internet unless it has been scanned for viruses. Simply visiting a compromised web site can cause infection if certain browser vulnerabilities are not patched.

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A look at school AYP failure by state

The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools to ensure that all students in each subgroup meet Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward their state’s learning goals. Schools that fail to meet AYP for all subgroups in two consecutive years must offer students the option to transfer. After three consecutive years without meeting AYP, schools must offer supplemental educational services as well as school choice. Schools that fall into either of these categories are in the “improvement” phase.

Below you’ll find a partial snapshot of the total number of schools that missed AYP this year, by state. All figures are preliminary and are subject to change, because not all states have finished calculating their schools’ AYP and because schools have 30 days to appeal their status. Wherever possible, the figures include the total number of schools in a state that did not make AYP; however, some states only report the number of Title I schools that did not make AYP. The list was compiled by eSchool News editors.

Total number of schools Number of schools that missed AYP Percentage of the State’s Total Schools
Alabama 1547 47 3%
Alaska 488 283 58%
Arkansas 1131 126 11%
Delaware 171 98 57%
Florida 3,177 2,525 79%
Georgia 1998 846 42%
Illinois 4,212 576 14%
Indiana (*Title I totals only) 791 117 15%
Iowa (*Title I totals only) 800 11 1%
Kansas 1,376 183 13%
Kentucky 1,270 27 2%
Louisiana 1,400 65 5%
Maine 707 153 22%
Maryland 1,392 518 37%
Massachusetts 1903 208 11%
Mississippi 870 118 14%
Missouri 2,055 1,033 50%
Montana 862 172 21%
Nevada 500 222 44%
New York 4,200 715 17%
North Carolina 2,251 1,195 53%
Ohio 3,939 820 21%
Oklahoma (*high school not counted) 1801 51 3%
Oregon 540 365 68%
Pennsylvania 2,786 1,130 41%
South Dakota 752 208 28%
Tennessee 1650 711 43%
Texas 7,733 1,000 13%
Virginia 1,822 732 40%
Washington 2,000 436 22%
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