eSN Exclusive: Why the new federal anti-spam law lacks bite

Nearly two months after Congress passed the Can-Spam Act of 2003, imposing fines and limitations on those who deluge the electronic in-boxes of consumers, including school-age children, with swaths of unsolicited commercial eMail, educational technology leaders say the problem of spam in the nation’s schools continues–and it might even be getting worse.

Though the federal law, which took effect Jan. 1, does not outlaw the transmission of electronic spam mail, it does prohibit spammers from attempting to disguise their identities through dubious return addresses or misleading subject lines and from harvesting valid eMail addresses off legitimate web sites, including online school directories. The law also requires spammers to include an opt-out function in their solicitations, which would enable consumers to decline any future communications from senders on a case-by-case basis.

Supporters of the law had hoped the threat of stringent penalties–from stiff fines to criminal prosecution–would help curb spam, especially solicitations for pornography, sexual enhancement, online gambling, and other potentially offensive products and services. But since the law’s passage, computer users say they’ve been inundated with messages hawking everything from discounted valium to Viagra. The problem has become a source of frustration for school technology leaders in particular, many of whom are charged with the difficult task of keeping spam from reaching students and faculty during the school day.

Scott Kovacik, an information technology liaison for the San Diego City Schools in southern California, says even with the aid of a high-end spam filter–which blocks as many as 20,000 pieces of unsolicited eMail per month–faculty and staff in the nation’s seventh largest school system still receive on average a handful of bogus messages each day.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a teacher, principal, or administrator, Kovacik said: Spam is a problem. “No doubt about it, it’s a worldwide epidemic,” he said. “And [schools] are just as much a victim as any other business or corporation.”

And as for the new federal law? It hasn’t helped, at least not yet. “We’ve seen no significant change in the amount of spam received [since Jan. 1],” Kovacik said. “In fact, we’ve seen a large and rather annoying amount.”

The same can be said for schools in other states as well. “On a daily basis, it’s just as bad,” said Beth Kuehl, an educational technology specialist for Area Education Agency 267 in Iowa, which oversees more the 72,000 students in 62 public schools and a number of private institutions across the state.

Since the bill became law, Kuehl–who receives as many as 100 spam messages a day–says schools in her region still are filtering out only about 32 percent of unwanted messages on a daily basis.

Detractors contend that’s because the legislation is all bark and no bite. Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC)–the agency in charge of fining violators–likely will have mild success against the most novice of spammers, the law’s critics say FTC investigators are no match for the nefarious tactics of the world’s savviest commercial spam artists.

In fact, a recent report from one spam filtering vendor estimates that only 10 percent of junk eMails sent today are in compliance with the new federal law. According to Audiotrieve LLC, maker of the InBoxer filtering system, a survey of more than 1,000 messages collected through “honey-pot” eMail accounts–repositories created to bank and analyze spam–revealed that only 102 of the messages actually met all of the law’s requirements. Of the remaining 898 messages, the Boxborough, Mass.-based company said two-thirds had no opt-out feature and none appeared to have physical addresses as required by law.

“Unfortunately, Can-Spam doesn’t can spam,” said Roger Matus, chief executive of Audiotrieve. “Companies that already act at the margins of the law seem to also ignore these new regulations.”

Instead of making life more difficult for spammers, Matus says the law makes life easier, trumping stricter provisions laid out in state laws–such as those blocked recently in California and Virginia–while depriving individuals and corporations their right to sue spammers of their own accord.

The California law, for instance, would have let spam recipients sue advertisers who use misleading subject lines, invalid reply addresses, or disguised paths to send bulk commercial eMails. It also would have allowed civil judgments of up to $1,000 per message or $1 million per incident.

In all, 36 states have passed anti-spam laws–all of which are superceded by the federal legislation.

“The [federal] law actually makes the world a much safer place [for spammers],” Matus said, noting that under the Can-Spam Act only the federal government and state attorneys general can seek legal action against alleged violators. It doesn’t help that a large percentage of spammers conduct their operations overseas, he added–well beyond the long arm of federal law enforcement: “The [FTC] can’t reach them.”

At home, technology is creating problems of its own. Andrew Lochart, director of product marketing for spam filtering service provider Postini Inc., points out existing eMail technology was not built with the nefarious intentions of spammers in mind.

Originally, he said, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP–the language computers use to exchange messages across the internet–was intended to provide a free, uninhibited information exchange between technologists and academics, not a launching pad for mass-marketing campaigns.

In fact, it’s the open nature of SMTP that has left the nation’s eMail servers vulnerable to numerous threats–from debilitating computer viruses such as the Mydoom worm unleashed earlier this week to flash-flood spam assaults, Lochart said.

What’s more, the internet is a very easy place for people to hide. The savviest computer users are able to hop in and out of open relays at will and otherwise disguise their identities by spoofing internet protocol (IP) addresses–a move that makes them virtually untraceable. “You can claim to be anyone you want,” Lochart said. “Before you can prosecute [spammers], first you must be able to find them.”

He expects the FTC eventually will dole out fines to new and unaccomplished spammers, but doubts the agency will have much luck against more serious offenders. “It’s really going to take a massive overhaul of the protocols involved in order to catch the really big guys,” Lochart said. “I doubt they’re losing any sleep at night.”

Still, the FTC says it is making headway. Aside from drawing up new rules and giving periodic updates to members of Congress, the agency currently collects an average of 250,000 spam messages a day through tips from consumers and other means.

FTC staff attorney Katie Harrington-McBride said the messages are part of a massive collection effort on behalf of the agency to track and analyze spam transmissions in hopes of identifying suspect subject lines and other clues that will lead investigators to the origins of these scams.

“It’s really too early yet to tell what the impact of the law will be,” Harrington-McBride said. Though the FTC has yet to announce publicly any legal action taken against alleged scammers under the new law, it does suggest computer users–including educators–can do their part by reporting illegal activity via eMail to the agency’s web site. To participate, consumers must send a copy of the message in question to the FTC’s unsolicited commercial eMail division at uce@ftc.gov.

Victims also can report concerns to the agency’s Consumer Response Center, which will make the complaints accessible to different branches of law enforcement.

With regard to pinpointing the exact source of such spam messages, Harrington-McBride said the FTC is well aware of the problems posed by the anonymous nature of the internet. One tactic law enforcement likely will use is to target businesses that employ spammers to conduct advertising campaigns for their products, the idea being to uncover a “money trail” that will lead them directly to the source.

Under the law, the FTC also will create a federal “do-not-spam” registry similar to the “do-not-call” list officials used earlier this year to stave off unsolicited telephone calls, though Harrington-McBride said details are still pending.

In the meantime, the FTC recommends that eMail users pay close attention to the opt-out provision of the law. If a spammer continues to send messages even after a user has opted out, the sender would be considered in violation of the law and subject to legal action, officials said.

But convincing computer users it’s in their best interest to participate might be easier said than done. Many contend the new opt-out provision goes against everything people have been taught about internet security.

As a general rule of thumb, San Diego’s Kovacik said he instructs educators to resist the temptation to respond to unsolicited eMails. While most legitimate businesses likely will respect the opt-out provision, he said, responding to an illegitimate eMail could put educators and others in a position to receive even more spam. That’s a risk he’s not willing to take. “Until this law gets some legs,” he said, “[our district] will continue to perform the practice of not clicking.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers acknowledge that they don’t anticipate stopping the spread of spam mail entirely, but say they are at least interested in giving consumers an opportunity to decide for themselves whether they want to receive the messages.

In an interview with eSchool News, bill sponsor Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont., said he would wait to see how federal officials interpret the rules before commenting on the impact of the legislation, but he hopes the law will make it tougher on people “who use the internet to scam.”

The idea, he said, is to create greater public awareness of the problem and give consumers “more control” over what messages they receive.

For schools, the problem is twofold. Administrators and information technology (IT) directors must continue to look for ways not only to protect faculty and staff from unwanted solicitations but also to keep students from receiving the messages.

A recent study from internet security firm Symantec Corp. reports that eight out of 10 children receive lewd, inappropriate, or potentially dangerous spam on a daily basis. The survey underscores the need for parents, educators, and policy makers to find new ways to combat spam.

In San Diego, educators have addressed the problem by refusing to give students school-sponsored eMail accounts. “We’ve floated the idea,” Kovacik said. “But in hindsight, it was a good idea not to move forward considering what we’re seeing now.”

In Iowa, Kuehl recommends that districts “keep a real tight network.” One way of doing that, she said, is to make sure people with school-sponsored eMail accounts do not fill out online forms using their school eMail address. Another option, which she would advise against, is to take eMail addresses off the school web site entirely. That way, she said, spammers have no way of harvesting those addresses and later using them in their commercial transmissions. The problem with this approach is that community members and parents also would have a hard time finding that information. “You can’t compromise community or parents,” she said. “That would be a real downfall.”

To date, the best option for schools remains some type of spam filter. But even the most advanced products–including Postini’s web-based service, which filters more than 2 billion messages a week for more than 5 million users nationwide–are not 100-percent effective.

So how long will it take to do away with spam entirely? Two years, if Microsoft chairman and chief software designer Bill Gates has anything to say about it. In a Jan. 23 speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Gates said the software giant is working on a solution based on the concept of “proof,” or identifying the sender of the eMail, according to an Associated Press (AP) report.

“One method involves a human challenge, or requiring the sender of an electronic pitch to solve a puzzle that only a flesh-and-blood person can handle. Another is a so-called ‘computational puzzle’ that a computer sending only a few messages could easily handle, but that would be prohibitively expensive for a mass-mailer,” according to the Jan. 25 report.

Under Gates’ plan, consumers also would have the ability to charge spammers money for accepting their messages.

“People would set a level of monetary risk–low or high, depending on their choice–for receiving eMail from strangers. If the eMail turns out to be from a long-lost relative, for example, the recipient would charge nothing. But if it is unwanted spam, the sender would have to fork over the cash,” according to the AP account.

“In the long run, the monetary [method] will be dominant,” Gates reportedly predicted.

Links:

Federal Trade Commission
http://www.ftc.gov

FTC spam web site
www.ftc.gov/spam

FTC web site on how to report spam
http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/online/inbox.htm

Postini Inc.
http://www.postini.com

Audiotrieve LLC
http://www.audiotrieve.com

Sen. Conrad Burns
http://burns.senate.gov

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

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Apple to build a second supercomputer at Virginia Tech

After building one of the world’s fastest supercomputers on its first try, Apple Computer Inc. is again teaming with Virginia Tech to make another high-performance machine using its new 64-bit Xserve G5 computer.

Xserve, a thinner, more compact machine designed for clustering with other computers, will replace the supercomputer Virginia Tech built in November using off-the-shelf G5 PowerMacs.

Project leader Srinidhi Varadarajan said the university will upgrade from PowerMacs to Xserves in April or May. Virginia Tech is still negotiating the price with Apple, though Varadarajan said any additional cost to the school would be “fairly minimal.”

The school’s cluster of 1,100 G5s surprised the supercomputing world last year by performing 10.3 trillion operations per second, making it the third-fastest machine in the world. Varadarajan and his staff of student volunteers built it in just weeks for $7 million, a fraction of the cost of traditional supercomputers.

In comparison, the world’s fastest machine, Earth Simulator Center in Japan, cost at least $250 million and can run 35.9 trillion operations per second. The next fastest is a $215 million Hewlett-Packard computer at Los Alamos National Laboratory that can complete 13.9 trillion operations per second.

Xserves use the same IBM PowerPC 970 microprocessors and Mac OS X operating system, and the upgraded supercomputer will use the same high-speed Infiniband network as the G5. What makes them better for supercomputing is that they were meant to be part of a network, while the G5 was always built for personal computing, said Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing.

“Xserves have information displays in the front that tell you what’s happening with processors, what’s happening with network connections at a glance, while a desktop doesn’t do any of that,” Schiller said.

And at 1.75 inches thick, the Xserves are built for stacking. They’ll effectively shrink Virginia Tech’s supercomputer to one-third its current size. The specialized components also will produce less heat, work more efficiently, and ultimately make a faster machine, Varadarajan said, though he doesn’t know how fast.

Jack Dongarra, a computer science professor at the University of Tennessee who compiles an annual list of the top 500 supercomputers, said the announcement suggests that Apple is ready to enter the market of high-end computers, an area where the company has had only a minimal presence.

“I think they did surprise a lot of people with their original machine,” Dongarra said. “My guess is they’re testing the water to see if the [education] community is interested in the kind of machine that Virginia Tech has.”

Since it was completed in November, Virginia Tech’s G5 supercomputer hasn’t been used for any of the scientific experiments that university officials were expecting. The upgrade will stall any practical use in academic research for another four or five months, but Varadarajan said it will be worth the wait.

“This will look a lot more like a traditional supercomputer,” he said. “It will allow us to address a different set of problems, larger problems over a longer period of time.”

School officials said they’re not certain what will happen to the G5 PowerMacs after they’re replaced.

Links:

Virginia Tech
http://www.vt.edu

Apple Computer Inc.
http://www.apple.com

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Latest version of NetOp School offers more functionality

CrossTec Corp.’s NetOp School software is known for its ability to give teachers thumbnail images or full-screen views of each student’s PC to make sure students stay on task during class time. The latest version, NetOp School 3.0, now lets teachers disable student access to all programs and web site URLs except those authorized by the instructor. This new version also has the ability to record a teacher’s lessons for playback later. The DVD-like playback controls include start, pause, stop, next, skip, and zoom. In addition, the new version boasts a tool teachers can use to create interactive lesson plans that include links to demo screens, URLs, multimedia files, and more.

“NetOp School was first developed in the mid-’90s to enable a teacher to take full control of a student’s PC, mouse, and keyboard,” said Robert Rounsavall, product manager for NetOp School. “With NetOp School 3.0, it’s now easier than ever for teachers to effectively demonstrate their teaching materials, control how students interact with those resources, and monitor their progress.”

NetOp School 3.0 starts at less than $650 per classroom. A free evaluation copy is available from the CrossTec web site.

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Microsoft Encarta Premium is a top-notch learning tool

Microsoft’s new MSN Encarta Premium, based on the company’s encyclopedia brand, is a learning and research tool that combines the functionality of Encarta Reference Library 2004 and the internet. Its built-in Homework Center provides students with step-by-step writing guides, literature guides, an archive of top periodicals, a collection of web site links, and an interactive math tutorial feature called MathHelp.

Powered by Design Science MathPlayer technology, MathHelp gives students step-by-step guidance with problems in commonly used textbooks. Students select a textbook, navigate to a specific problem, and review detailed explanations by expert mathematicians on how to solve it.

Encarta Premium is a stand-alone subscription service available only in the United States and Japan that costs $4.95 a month or $29.95 a year. As of Jan. 8, it also became available as a feature in Microsoft’s newest subscription service, MSN Premium.

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Linux-based tablet PC breaks the $1,000 price barrier

With the launch of Microsoft Corp.’s Tablet PC operating system in 2002, tablet computing devices have soared in popularlity. But the technology’s high price point has kept most schools from being able to afford such devices–until now.

Element Computer, a Staten Island, N.Y.-based manufacturer, has introduced a tablet PC device that runs on a Linux-based platform and costs only $999. The Helium 2100 has a 2-in-1 convertible design that transforms it from a laptop to a tablet PC. It runs on the new Desktop/LX Tablet Edition OS from Lycoris with a 1-gigahertz Antaur processor from Via Technologies. The Desktop/LX operating system reportedly is compatible with all printers, digital cameras, and components, so customers can feel as confident purchasing from Element Computer as they would from an all-Windows PC vendor, the company said.

“Being able to offer a tablet PC that people can afford is finally possible, and we are determined to bring devices like this to the masses,” said Mike Hjorleiffsson, president and founder of Element Computer.

The Helium 2100 features a 14.1-inch, touch-panel XGA active matrix display, 256 megabytes of installed memory (expandable to 1 gigabyte), 30 gigabytes of installed hard drive space (expandable to 80 GB), a wireless option, and up to three hours of battery life.

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‘Mydoom’ eMail worm snarls computers worldwide

An eMail worm that looks like a normal error message but actually contains a malicious program continued to snarl computers around the world Jan. 27. Security experts described it as the largest virus-like outbreak in months, one made even more troublesome by its timing.

MessageLabs Inc., which scans eMail messages for viruses, said one in every 12 messages sent on Tuesday contained the worm, called “Mydoom” or “Novarg.”

The worm began spreading rapidly Jan. 26 during business hours in the United States, where the world’s computers are concentrated. Many recent outbreaks began during Asian business hours–overnight in the United States–allowing antivirus vendors to develop new defenses by the time U.S. companies opened.

“Whenever a virus begins to start in the states, it usually becomes much bigger,” said Vincent Gullotto, an antivirus researcher at Network Associates Inc.

Some school and corporate networks were clogged with infected traffic within hours of the worm’s appearance, and operators of many systems voluntarily shut down their eMail programs to keep the worm from spreading during the cleanup.

Mikko Hypponen, manager of anti-virus research at F-Secure Corp. in Finland, estimated that 200,000 to 300,000 computers were hit worldwide.

The worm infects computers using Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating systems, though other computers were affected by network slowdowns and a flood of bogus messages.

Unlike other mass-mailing worms, Mydoom does not attempt to trick victims by promising nude pictures of celebrities or mimicking personal notes. Instead, one of its messages reads: “The message contains Unicode characters and has been sent as a binary attachment.”

“Because that sounds like a technical thing, people may be more apt to think it’s legitimate and click on it,” said Steve Trilling, senior director of research at the computer security company Symantec Corp.

Besides sending out tainted eMail, the program appears to open up a backdoor so hackers can take over the computer later.

Hackers, for instance, could later install programs that log keystrokes on infected machines, collecting username and passwords of unsuspecting users and distributing them to strangers. Symantec, however, backed away from earlier statements that such a program was included with the worm.

The worm also places copies of itself in folders used for sharing files through the Kazaa file-sharing network. Remote users who download those files and run them could be infected. Security experts say the spread through Kazaa is minor compared with eMail.

The worm also was programmed to flood the web site of The SCO Group Inc. beginning on Feb. 1 with service requests in an attempt to bring the company’s network down. SCO’s site has been targeted in other recent attacks because of its threats to sue users of the Linux operating system in an intellectual property dispute.

Microsoft offers a patch of its Outlook eMail software to warn users before they open such attachments or prevent them from opening them altogether. Up-to-date antivirus software also stops infection.

Christopher Budd, a security program manager with Microsoft, said the worm does not appear to take advantage of any Microsoft product vulnerability.

“This is entirely a case of what we would call social engineering–enticing users to take actions that are not in their best interest,” he said.

Mydoom isn’t the first mass-mailing virus of the year. Earlier this month, a worm called “Bagle” infected computers worldwide and even infiltrated a popular Department of Education (ED) listserve, but that worm seemed to die out quickly. ED said its virus-detection software neutralized the Bagle worm automatically by removing it from infected messages before they reached recipients.

Links:

Microsoft security tips
http://www.microsoft.com/security/protect/default.asp

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Take a virtual tour of four model middle schools with “Schools to Watch”

In celebration of the Month of the Young Adolescent in November, the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform welcomed visitors to take a series of online tours highlighting teaching and learning excellence in the middle grades. “For those interested in seeing innovative successful schools in action but who do not have the time or travel budget for a national tour, this cyber tour is the way to go,” said Deborah Kasak, executive director of the forum. The virtual tours–a feature of the Schools to Watch program, launched in 1999 as a national initiative to identify middle schools that are not only academically excellent, developmentally responsive, and socially equitable, but also have the organizational supports to sustain their success–invite education stakeholders to peek into the classrooms and hallways of four successful middle schools, located across the nation, to observe the practices and procedures that make them stand out from the pack. Members of the National Forum selected the schools based on the extent to which they met a number of criteria, including the promotion of academic excellence, developmental responsiveness, and social equity. The National Forum co-sponsors the Schools to Watch program with the National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Middle School Association, and National Staff Development Council.

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Democrats lead Bush in ‘eSchool News primary’

A majority of eSchool News readers favor a Democratic candidate over George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election, and Howard Dean is the leading challenger among respondents, according to survey results released today by eSchool News.

The survey–which ended Jan. 26, one day before New Hampshire residents headed to the polls for the nation’s first state primary–was conducted on the eSchool News web site beginning Jan. 2. Nearly 700 school superintendents, technology directors, board members, teachers, media specialists, technology vendors, and other education stakeholders participated. The eSchool News poll is representative of those responding, but the results are not scientific, and educators who did not participate might have different presidential preferences.

Of those who did respond, however, 42 percent said they would vote for President Bush, and 58 percent supported one of his Democratic challengers. Former Vermont Gov. Dean led all challengers with 20 percent of the vote, followed by retired Gen. Wesley Clark (12 percent), Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (10 percent), and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards (5 percent).

Many of the votes were cast before last week’s Iowa caucuses, meaning a number of respondents weighed in before Kerry’s win in Iowa revived his campaign–and before Dean made headlines with his concession speech following his disappointing showing in that state.

Among the 221 respondents who indicated they were Republicans, 82 percent chose Bush, and 18 percent said they preferred a Democratic candidate. Of the 252 Democrats responding to the survey, only 8 percent said they would support Bush in this year’s election. Other respondents indicated party affiliations such as Independent, Libertarian, and Other.

Superintendents overwhelmingly favored Bush in the eSchool News primary (64 percent). Forty-four percent of teachers and just 40 percent of school and district technology coordinators favored the incumbent president. Men (47 percent) were more likely to support Bush than women (35 percent).

In a time of shrinking state budgets coupled with growing expectations for the nation’s schools, the 2004 presidential race has taken on even greater significance for school leaders. The outcome could shape what becomes of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Bush’s signature education law, and what resources will be available to help schools meet the law’s stringent demands.

Several education groups have criticized Bush for not recommending more money to help schools comply with the law. The president also supports some measures, such as vouchers, that are unpopular among public school leaders.

Throughout his campaign, Dean has been an outspoken critic of NCLB for imposing what he calls rigid and unrealistic requirements, incentives for lowering standards, and an over reliance on testing. Like other Democratic candidates, Dean also believes the law should be funded at the full amount authorized by Congress.

Dean’s home state, Vermont, is one of a handful of states where legislators have considered passing up federal education dollars so they would not have to comply with NCLB’s demands.

Links:

George W. Bush campaign site
http://www.georgewbush.com

Howard Dean campaign site
http://www.deanforamerica.com

Wesley Clark campaign site
http://www.clark04.com

John Kerry campaign site
http://www.johnkerry.com

John Edwards campaign site
http://www.johnedwards2004.com

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Final 2004 budget a “mixed blessing” for schools

Ending months of delays, Congress on Jan. 22 finally approved a budget for fiscal year 2004, which began in October. The measure seals the fate of the Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology (PT3) program, while ensuring the survival of at least two other major ed-tech initiatives that President Bush had hoped to cut. Bush was expected to sign the bill shortly.

The massive $328 billion spending measure includes funding for the Departments of Education, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, and Veterans Affairs. It ends a three-month congressional impasse that Senate Democrats carried through the winter recess in objection to a number of controversial policy addendums, including a provision for private school vouchers in Washington, D.C., new media ownership rules, and a mandate that would require the rapid destruction of firearm sales records, to name a few. But Democrats, leery of bringing the federal government to a standstill, eventually acceded to the provisions, and the measure passed 65 to 28 in an afternoon vote.

Though many educators say they are pleased to finally know exactly how much federal money will be at their disposal in 2004, some groups, including the Consortium for School Networking, contend the final education budget presents a “mixed blessing” for schools, providing sizable increases for larger, formula-based grant programs such as Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), while decreasing or, in some cases, eliminating support entirely for other key technology initiatives.

Perhaps the biggest blow for ed-tech advocates was the exclusion of the popular PT3 program–a $62.5 million effort that promotes partnerships between colleges of education and K-12 schools to help new teachers integrate technology into their instruction. Though PT3 had appeared in neither the House nor the Senate appropriations bills, many ed-tech lobbyists held out hope for the initiative, making efforts to have it reinstated during final negotiations.

In November, Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education, predicted in an interview with eSchool News that losing PT3 would make it increasingly difficult for schools to recruit high-quality teachers who come to the classroom prepared to integrate technology into the curriculum. Knezek said he wasn’t concerned so much about the loss of the funding itself as he was about the loss of ideals that likely would result from the absence of federal leadership on this topic.

“K-12 education is a system,” he said. “We need to take a systematic approach, and that includes recruiting highly qualified teachers who know how to use technology.”

The Bush administration has long believed that PT3 is unnecessary, because the federal Improving Teacher Quality program–which appears in the new budget–already provides nearly $3 billion to support teacher preparation and professional development initiatives.

Another technology-specific education program to suffer a significant hit this year was the Community Technology Centers program, an initiative to help build computer centers in low-income areas. That initiative, which President Bush cut from his 2004 budget request, will receive $10 million this year–just half of what the Senate recommended for the program, and more than two-thirds less than the $32.3 million it received in 2003.

The Star School program, which supports the development of telecommunications services and audiovisual equipment in underserved schools, fared somewhat better, receiving $20.5 million this year. That figure, which is in line with the Senate’s 2004 budget request, falls $7 million short of what the program had received in 2003. But the House had voted to cut the program entirely.

Not every ed-tech program saw its budget cut in 2004. For the second year in a row, the Educational Technology Block Grant program will receive $695 million. And the Ready to Teach initiative, which works with public broadcasters to provide educational and professional development resources to schools, will receive $14.4 million this year, up from $12 million in 2003. The move represents a small victory for ed-tech advocates, who feared the program was on the chopping block after being cut from both the president’s 2004 budget request and the House spending bill.

Also receiving a boost this year was the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, an effort to expand or establish community centers that provide after-school educational opportunities for students. The program is slated to receive $1 billion in 2004, far greater than the $600 million figure recommended by President Bush but only slightly more than the $994 million it got in 2003.

Overall, the omnibus appropriations bill provides a $2.9 billion increase for U.S. Department of Education (ED) spending, a figure that Bush says represents the largest single increase for any agency.

But for the most part, those increases are at best indirectly related to school technology.

In all, ED will receive $56 billion in 2004, a good chunk of which will go toward Title I funding for disadvantaged students. This year, Title I is slated to receive the largest dollar amount of any one program, at $12.4 billion–nearly the same as the president’s budget proposal and an increase of $727 million over the previous year’s figure.

IDEA also will enjoy a significant increase in funding. For instance, Special Education Grants this year will spike to $10.1 billion–a $1.2 billion increase compared with last year’s figures.

Congress also backed the president’s ongoing commitment to his Reading First initiative, shelling out $1 billion for the second straight year to ensure that all students learn to read by the third grade. Other notable spending figures include a $1.9 billion increase for Pell Grants to help low-income students afford college, close to $20 million for the Improving Literacy Through School Libraries program, and $392 million to cover the cost of developing annual state assessments of students’ reading and math skills.

With the 2004 budget behind them, ed-tech advocates now will turn their attention to the 2004-05 appropriations process. With only a 1-percent planned increase in non-defense and non-homeland security spending next year, educational technology could face an even tougher road ahead in 2005.

Links:

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

The White House
http://whitehouse.gov

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

International Society for Technology in Education
http://www.iste.org

Bush promises new reading, math, and workforce education programs

From eSchool News staff and wire service reports
January 26, 2004

During his Jan. 20 State of Union Address, President Bush announced plans to introduce a program that would provide more than half a billion dollars in new funding for education and job training programs in secondary and postsecondary schools.

The goal of Bush’s Jobs for the 21st Century initiative is to improve the quality of education in the nation’s high schools and colleges to better prepare students for success in higher education and the new information-age workplace, the White House said.

Primarily, Bush wants to expand access to postsecondary education for low-income students, and he wants to foster a new generation of job training partnerships between community colleges and employers in industries with the most demand for skilled workers.

His plan includes:

  • Community-based Job Training Grants: Building on the successes of his High-Growth Job Training Initiative, a strategic approach that has provided seed money to fund job training partnerships between community colleges and local high-growth industries, Bush proposes $250 million in 2005 to strengthen the role of community colleges in workforce development. These new competitive grants would be used for training in community and technical colleges that are linked with local employers looking for more skilled workers.

  • Enhanced Pell Grants: The Bush administration proposes to establish a $33 million program to enhance Pell Grants to reward low-income students who participate in the State Scholars program by taking a rigorous high school curriculum. This program would provide an additional $1,000 per year to students in the first two years of college who complete the rigorous State Scholars curriculum in high school, enroll in college full time, and are Pell Grant recipients. Next year, approximately 36,000 low-income graduating high school seniors would be eligible to receive an enhanced Pell Grant under this proposal.

“High school graduates are not entering college and the workforce with the skills they need to compete in a changing economy,” the administration said in statement about the initiative. “Research from the Education Department shows that there is a strong link between the courses completed in high school and the completion of a postsecondary degree.”

The president’s latest jobs initiative also includes additional funding for three learning programs designed to spur increases in high school math and reading scores–something the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has done with mild success in elementary schools, but has been unable to do thus far with the nation’s secondary schools. In fact, recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) demonstrate that, although achievement for fourth- and eighth-graders is on the rise, scores for 12th graders have declined in both reading and mathematics.

To help bolster reading scores in secondary schools, the administration has proposed a new $100 million Striving Readers Initiative that would provide for competitive grants to develop, implement, and evaluate effective reading interventions for middle or high school students who read below grade level.

White House officials designed the program to complement the Reading First State Grants initiative, which provides reading instruction for children in kindergarten through third grade that is grounded in scientifically based reading research. The proposal would provide funds to approximately 50 to 100 school districts for reading intervention programs to help middle and high school students catch up to their peers in reading, officials said in a press release about the plan.

The proposal also would provide additional assistance for high school mathematics instruction. Through his 21st Century Jobs initiative, Bush has proposed a $120 million increase for Mathematics and Science Partnerships grants as authorized under NCLB.

The new three-year competitive grants would support projects that have significant potential to accelerate the mathematics achievement of all secondary students, but especially low-achieving students. The initiative would focus on ensuring that states and school districts implement professional development projects for mathematics teachers that are strongly grounded in research and that help mathematics teachers strengthen their skills, the White House said.

Bush’s plan also looks to open the door for minority students to participate more actively in Advanced Placement (AP) courses.

“While enrollment in AP courses has nearly tripled over the past decade, studies show that minority students participate in AP classes and tests at rates far below those of non-minority students, since many students from low-income families attend schools that do not offer AP classes,” according to a White House press release about the program.

The administration has proposed a $28 million increase for the AP program authorized under NCLB, a hike that would bring spending on it to nearly $52 million a year. The program has two components: Advanced Placement Test Fee and Advanced Placement Incentive grants.

The purpose of both programs is to support state and local efforts to increase access to AP classes and tests for students in low-income schools, as well as other programs with challenging curricular and end-of-course examinations such as the International Baccalaureate program.

With job growth expected to occur in occupations requiring a strong foundation in math and science, many K-12 systems continue to look for highly qualified teachers to strengthen instruction in these core academic subjects.

The administration hopes its new Adjunct Teacher Corps will help address this ongoing human resources dilemma by bringing professionals with subject-matter knowledge and experience into the classroom. Bush has proposed $40 million to provide competitive grants to partnerships between school districts and public or private institutions to create opportunities for professionals to teach middle and high school courses in the core academic subjects, especially in mathematics and science.

Officials say the grants would be used to:

  • Identify, as adjunct teachers, well-qualified individuals outside of the K-12 educational system, including outstanding individuals at the height of their careers in business, government, and institutions of higher learning.

  • Facilitate arrangements for these individuals to function in this capacity, for example, by teaching one or more courses at a school site on a part-time basis, teaching full-time in middle and high schools while on leave from their jobs, or teaching courses that would be available online or through other distance-learning arrangements.

The proposal would provide for approximately 60 to 100 awards for partnerships to create and implement arrangements for using well-qualified individuals as teachers on an adjunct basis, as is done in colleges and universities, officials said.

Finally, Bush has proposed $12 million in funding for the State Scholars program, designed to ensure that students enter college with the skills necessary to succeed in a rigorous postsecondary environment.

According to a recent study by the Manhattan Institute, 70 percent of all students in public high schools graduate, but only 32 percent of students leave high school academically prepared to attend college, officials said.

In August 2002, Bush announced the State Scholars Initiative, modeled on the success of the Texas Scholars program, to encourage high school students to take more rigorous high school courses. Under the State Scholars Initiative, 12 states already have received assistance in developing and promoting strong courses of study, as well as providing special incentives for students enrolled in these programs, White House officials said.

Links:

Jobs for the 21st Century press release http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2004/01/20040121.html

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Corporate branding heats up for education

With school budgets tighter than they’ve been in several years, a growing number of school leaders nationwide are tapping into a revenue stream that many people believe should have no place in academia: corporate sponsorships. Now, two new organizations aim to profit by bringing schools and companies together, helping schools earn money for technology and other programs in exchange for the right to attach, or “brand,” a company’s name to their initiatives.

California-based Wise Connection is a unique marketing firm whose mission is to play matchmaker for cash-strapped schools and civic-minded corporations. For a fee, the company matches schools with local businesses interested in sponsoring anything from school building renovations to new computer labs or even ice-cream socials.

The America’s Schools Program (ASP), also of California, has created a national licensing program that enlists schools and businesses. Participating organizations adopt and display a special ASP logo indicating their support of the program. Companies pay for the right to take part, and most of the proceeds go to participating schools.

Though the methodologies of the two organizations differ, their goals are the same: to broker successful business relationships between schools and corporations. Such deals are win-win situations for all involved, the companies say: Schools get extra money to supplement their budgets, and businesses get additional exposure and the good will generated by their financial support.

But not everyone agrees. One outspoken critic of the practice is Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit organization that opposes what it calls the “commercialization” of the nation’s schools.

“We send kids to school to teach them how to read and write and learn to think–not to shop,” he said. Even if companies direct their marketing campaigns to parents as opposed to students, Ruskin said, the concept itself is ethically flawed.

“Integrity means respect,” he added. “[This practice] essentially turns the school into an auxiliary huckster and at substantial risk to the school’s integrity.”

Wise Connection

Bracing for a third straight year of budget reductions, officials at the Scotts Valley Unified School District in northern California recently tapped Wise Connection to recruit corporate sponsors who could help take some of the sting out of education-related spending cuts.

Scotts Valley officials expect they’ll be forced to cut close to $1 million from a $15 million budget next year. And with approximately 85 percent of the district’s budget focused on payroll, there isn’t likely to be much left over to support technology initiatives and other classroom programs, said school board member Allison Niday.

According to Michele Tummino, Wise Connection’s founder and director of community relations, the idea is to approach only those potential benefactors who have demonstrated a commitment to the community and who have a vested interest in preparing tomorrow’s workforce for success in a 21st-century economy.

The concept is simple. Tummino and her marketing team seek out regional or national companies that have advertising dollars to spend and invite them to sponsor an event or program in the district. Once a deal is struck, Wise Connection plans a marketing campaign with the schools. Depending on the size of the financial contribution, this could mean anything from a sign announcing the corporate sponsorship of Back-to-School Night to a plaque dedicating a contribution to the media center or top billing in a newsletter sent home to parents, among other strategies.

In return, the sponsoring company has two options: It can either donate a portion of its profits to the schools, or agree to an up-front payment that includes the schools’ share as well as a small percentage for the agency. That way, Tummino said, schools can participate at no cost.

Not that corporate advertising in schools is anything new. Across the country, many schools already have opened their doors to big-name advertisers such as Coca-Cola Co. and Pepsi Co. The soda machines lining the halls and locker rooms of most schools are a testament to that, Tummino said–as are the credit cards that pledge to donate a portion of your bill to the school of your choice, and the dental hygiene campaigns that send smiling students home with a new toothbrush and a tube of Crest or Colgate toothpaste. The problem is, she said, schools don’t see much in the way of a return from such programs.

“These big companies really aren’t giving the schools much of anything except the opportunity to become a giant convenience store,” Tummino said. “It really has to be a win-win situation for both parties in order for this thing to work.”

Instead of allowing corporate sponsors to establish a presence in their buildings virtually free of charge, Tummino recommends schools take a more business-minded approach. “Schools are so used to being beggars and taking whatever is given to them,” she said–but corporations often are willing to shell out a lot more if asked. “We need to make sure the money goes back into the schools,” she added.

In October, the Scotts Valley educational foundation announced the first two sponsorships secured through Wise Connection: a $14,000 donation from a local construction company to help build a new middle school, and $5,000 from a local roofing firm to address budget concerns.

In all, Niday–a ranking member on the local school board and mother of two middle-school students–estimates the district has seen more than $60,000 in donations and sponsorships since entering into its relationship with the recruiting firm.

But that’s just the beginning. Tummino recently reached an agreement with one of the region’s largest realtors in which the company has agreed to pay the district as much as 1.5-percent commission on the price of every home sold across the area in exchange for marketing rights in the schools. In a region where the average house costs upwards of $650,000, the deal could elicit quite a windfall for schools, she said.

Though Tummino views Scotts Valley as a test bed for her unorthodox marketing tactics, she hopes eventually to engage in national sponsorships and said her firm already is in talks with a number of big-name companies, including one of the nation’s largest brokerage houses.

That’s good news for parents like Niday, who say they’ve been running out of options. Last year, for instance, the district was able to raise more than $400,000 in donations from parents to save the jobs of staff members ranging from library clerks to guidance counselors. But with budget scenarios worsening, it’s not likely they’ll be so lucky this time around.

“People need to recognize the dire straits we’re in,” she said. “The mess [California] is in right now has really mandated this path for us.”

District leaders agree. “With no end in sight to the fiscal crisis our state is facing today, school districts have no choice but to turn to community and business to support basic educational programs,” said Steve Fiss, district superintendent. “With ongoing sponsorships from businesses here and across the country, we can continue to deliver what we are known for and what is expected of us–high-quality education. At the same time, we’re able to make our community aware of businesses that value education and are willing to take an active role in supporting our children.”

Wise Connection refuses to seek partnerships with companies that hawk alcohol, tobacco, or fast-food products, including soft drinks. It also is not actively pursing corporations that market to children. In general, Tummino says, the firm seeks companies that deal in family-oriented services such as housing and banking. In that regard, she says, educators shouldn’t feel like they’re competing for a child’s interest or attention against a flashy toy company or video game manufacturer.

Tummino hasn’t sold everyone on the pitch, however. Commercial Alert’s Ruskin says it has less to do with the intentions of the advertiser than it does with the integrity and authority of the educational institution.

The problem boils down to an issue of trust. Despite the inadequacies inherent in today’s public education system, he said, most Americans still have faith in the institution. But that trust, he warns, is waning–and its integrity is compromised once stakeholders show a willingness to let corporate America buy its way into the school system.

While Ruskin admits the short-term benefit of additional funds is plenty alluring, especially during tough budget times, he’s equally convinced that the long-term effects would be devastating. “These are institutions central to the health of our children and society,” he said. “Once the American taxpayer turns its back on them, it will be very hard to get [the taxpayer] to turn back around.”

America’s Schools Program

Corporate sponsorships of educational programs also can raise ethical dilemmas for school leaders. In Scotts Valley’s case, for example, one could argue that the roofing firm’s donation of $5,000 unfairly gives it an edge over competitors when the district must solicit bids for any roofing work.

The America’s Schools Program was designed to ease this concern. It’s a national initiative whose goal is to incorporate every K-12 school in the nation under one instantly recognizable symbol: a large star that schools are invited to hang in cafeterias and stamp on report cards and office stationary to show their participation in the program.

The idea, according to ASP chief executive Don Baird, is analogous to how the International Olympic Committee licenses its famous five-ring symbol to corporations for a fee to help fund the Winter and Summer games.

Already under way in a number of states, including California, Florida, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, and Texas, ASP seeks to form partnerships with state school board associations which, in turn, agree to promote the use of this national symbol in schools.

Participating schools stand to make money by receiving a portion of the proceeds collected by ASP’s corporate partners. On the business side, ASP seeks out national companies and organizations and asks them donate a slice of their sales revenue to schools. Businesses then are invited to place the ASP logo on their products, demonstrating to consumers that they support–and give money to–education.

For schools, the allure is that they do not have to endorse a particular product to receive the money. Instead, they support a generic symbol, providing an alternative for stakeholders who say the presence of corporate logos in schools is a risk not worth taking.

So far, the organization has formed a number of alliances, including a bottled water deal that gives a portion of all bottled water sold in select stores to participating schools; a nationwide ink-jet recycling program that gives up to $1 for every printer cartridge refilled by business organizations back to education; an affinity credit card program that donates a portion of every item purchased with it back to schools; and, most recently, an agreement with the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation to support its programs in member restaurants and business offices across the country.

ASP also is looking at additional ways to pump new revenue into schools, including the creation of a musical compilation CD that can be sold at participating food and retail outlets, as well as plans to produce a national television special promoting the America’s Schools symbol.

To get enough national corporations to sign on, however, Baird first must create awareness of the symbol. Businesses, he admits, are reluctant to sign up unless they are convinced that their message will reach a national audience. Only then, he says, will the initiative show potential to drive the bottom line.

Baird said he isn’t sure how much money ASP has brought into participating schools to date, but it probably isn’t more than “a few thousand [dollars]”–though he hopes that will change.

“These things take a while to get rolling,” said Baird, who expects his company will spend upwards of $7 million before the trend catches on nationally. He compares what ASP is trying to do in K-12 schools to what the NCAA did with college athletics. “It’s really the same thing,” he said. “The idea is to create one instantly recognizable symbol.”

But building a national brand takes time. Currently, ASP is focusing its efforts on creating public service announcements to be broadcast on radio stations across the country and on creating billboard advertisements to help familiarize parents and students with the symbol.

Convincing school boards that it’s worth it is another challenge. “We talk Chinese basically to the education hierarchy,” he said. Most school decision-makers are not used to taking a business-minded approach to school funding, he explained: “It’s really just a different dialect than they’ve ever understood before.”

It’s unclear whether most school board associations will jump at the idea, but early indications are that many are at least warming up to it.

The Oregon School Boards Association (OSBA), for example, has given the go ahead for the state’s 1,263 schools to begin displaying the logo. Though it’s left to the discretion of schools whether they will participate in the program, OSBA Executive Director Chris Dudley said a number of them already have stamped the ASP logo on letterheads and office stationary and have begun hanging posters in the hallways.

While the program probably won’t eradicate the budget problems schools now face in Oregon–where educators last year agreed to work 10 days without pay so students could stay in school until the summer–it should at least help offset those shortfalls.

“This really is an opportunity for businesses to partner with schools in a different way than they have in the past,” Dudley said. Unlike agreements where a single company pays a flat fee to have its corporate logo displayed on the scoreboard at the local football stadium, ASP provides the opportunity for schools to tap a continuous revenue stream, he said.

“This is a much more comfortable [option] for schools,” he said. “We are very protective about allowing people to have access to our kids. … We’re not selling students.”

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) does not have a formal position on ASP or the existence of such corporate partnerships in schools in general, but Dick Anderson, the organization’s executive director for associate member services, did say that with state and federal funds in short supply, schools across the nation have been “hard-pressed” to find alternative means of funding for even the most fundamental of school-related programs.

Anderson, who serves as a key liaison between state school board associations and NSBA, said the push to provide corporate advertising in schools is reminiscent of what Edison Schools founder Chris Whittle attempted to do in the late 1980s with the launch of Channel One–an advertiser-supported television network broadcast in schools.

“Is it the best way to operate? Probably not,” he said. But given the reality of tough budget times, the notion that at least some schools would entertain the idea isn’t out of the question–and NSBA says it’s a decision local school boards and members of the community must make based on their own individual circumstances.

Rather than endorse a specific program like ASP, NSBA believes it’s critical for school boards to gauge community sentiment regarding such programs and to rely on extensive research and feedback, highlighting both the benefits and potential detriments that could arise from entering into a similar form of partnership.

Anderson suggests that school boards set strict criteria regarding the types of companies and products they are willing to endorse. He also suggested that schools not enter into any type of corporate sponsorship unless the terms of the agreement are suitable to the community at large.

What is acceptable in one school district might cross the line in another, he said. From advertising on school buses to placing clip-out coupons onto school lunch menus, there are varying thresholds of public acceptance when it comes to the business of commercializing America’s schools.

Links:

Wise Connection
http://www.wiseconnection.org

America’s Schools Program
http://www.americas-schools.org

Commercial Alert
http://www.commercialalert.org

National School Boards Association
http://www.nsba.org

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