What Ted Sizer knew

The constant evolution of school technology, documented daily on eSchool News Online, reminds us just how much the world has changed. In the education field, however, any form of change can be a scary thing.

I know this because I learned it 20 years ago in a college course I only took because friends had assured me the professor was “really good.” The subject matter was the history of American high schools, and the course was meant to give students an appreciation of the challenges teachers and administrators face.

The “really good” professor’s name was Ted Sizer.

Sizer was a rising star among educators back then, but he had not yet gained national recognition as one of the leading advocates for U.S. school reform. Yet even in those days before he became a legend, his lectures were mesmerizing.

From Day One, Sizer told us that the biggest handicap American educators face is a misguided but undying notion within most communities that each generation of children should receive the same educational experience as their parents. This mindset is the major, underlying obstacle to all school reform, because key stakeholders such as parents and politicians often are unwilling to accept even minor alterations.

As Sizer explained it, an older generation almost always views radical departure from the classroom norm as both a frivolous exercise and a back-handed slap at past methods. Adults would continue to believe that if the old teaching methods were good enough for them, then they had to be good enough for their children–even if they recognized that most everything else in life had changed.

Well, 21st-century hardware in school buildings alone is proof times have changed. Today’s interactive whiteboards and videoconferencing capabilities were unimaginable when I was in Professor Sizer’s class, but his lectures are even more relevant in the face of such progress. Making the best use of new tools requires more than just innovative teachers. It requires brave administrators willing to give teachers the freedom to try new instructional methods that might seem radical to an older set of stakeholders.

For six years, eSchool News has reported on new technologies that have value for schools. But covering the ed-tech landscape and cultivating an environment in which educators themselves actually take the next step are two very different things. We can tell you what’s out there, and we can tell you what others are doing with it, but only you can put it in students’ hands–and thereby change the world. As you challenge yourselves to embrace the future, eSN Online is doing the same. That’s why we spent months developing a new portion of our web site that allows educators to share ideas on everything from funding to installing to teaching technology. Our “eSN Ed-Tech Insider” made its debut in October, bringing a passionate group of ed-tech experts to eSN Online. These include teachers, administrators, software developers, vendors, technology directors, and even journalists. Some eSN Ed-Tech Insiders have made a career of teaching educators about technology, and all are eager to interact with our readers.

eSN Ed-Tech Insider is a joint venture between eSchool News and Clarity Innovations Inc. of Portland, Ore. Clarity, a leader in showing schools and teachers how to use weblogs in classrooms, helped us build a vibrant community you can’t find anywhere else. So, on behalf of eSchool News, Clarity Inovations, and a team of expert bloggers, I invite you to join us online. This should be the best sort of learning experience for everyone.

You can visit eSN Ed-Tech Insider at:
http://www.eschoolnews.com/eti/etiintro1.cfm

New PDRC, ERC, and more

In addition to the eSN Ed-Tech Insider, check out the new Atomic Learning entry in our Professional Development Resource Center (PDRC). Atomic Learning supports educators by providing user-friendly tutorials for many software applications used in schools. Atomic Learning’s 24-7 online instruction is available for more than 70 software packages, including the full Microsoft Office suite, Adobe Photoshop, Apple’s iMove, Macromedia Dreamweaver, Microsoft’s MovieMaker 2, and much more. Here’s a reliable place to turn whenever you find yourself staring at a monitor and wondering, “How do I do that?” Visit the Atomic Learning PDRC here:
http://www.eschoolnews.com/erc/professionaldevelopment/atomiclearning/index.cfm

eSN Online also has added another hot topic to our Educator’s Resource Center (ERC). It’s titled “Controlling Technology Costs.” We have put together a wealth of content on this subject, thanks to financial support from JDL Technologies. You can visit the ERC now at:
http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/reports/CostConscious/

Finally, in November we’ll have our recap of the National School Boards Association’s T+L2 conference in our “eSN Conference Information Center,” as well as complete coverage of how the presidential election results will affect the future of ed-tech funding. It’s a lot of great content you won’t want to miss.

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Lack of resources hampers school web sites

A shortage of time, money, and expertise might be keeping the majority of school web sites mired in mediocrity, according to Patricia Swann, an assistant public relations professor at Utica College. While nearly all schools today now have web sites, few are allocating the resources needed to keep content fresh or use the web’s unique interactive features.

“Good web sites take the resources of time, money, and proper public-relations staffing,” says Swann. Swann’s recent study analyzing the content and interactivity of more than 100 K-12 web sites in New York state was featured in last month’s column (see “Study: School web sites not making the grade,“).

Another key issue hampering the “aggressive embrace” by school leaders of the latest web-based technology is the issue of control, according to Swann.

“If the school does not have public-relations input or control of the content and interactive features of the site, it is likely that the more sophisticated interactive features, [such as] fresh information, journalists’ format needs, [and] navigational features & may not be a high priority,” says Swann.

When a school web site’s content and format are controlled by programmers, technology coordinators, or teachers, the public-relations perspective of the web as a powerful tool for building and maintaining positive, lasting relationships between schools and their stakeholders might be lost or given short shrift, according to Swann

“Information and technology staff may not operate under the same perspective and knowledge of relationship-building that public-relations practitioners have,” says Swann.

Even when public-relations practitioners have control over content and interactivity or are able to work collaboratively with their peers in information technology or at the schoolhouse, too often they’re not given the resources needed to do the job right.

School web masters, many of whom toil as unpaid volunteers using their home equipment, face a similar fate. In desperation, many schools are turning to students for help.

“In school districts, resources are stretched,” says Swann. “I’m hearing anectdotally of school computer classes and clubs providing content and design for the school web sites. Can you imagine how their district newsletters would look and read if untrained, inexperienced students did this? Do you think this would be done in the commercial world?”

Not surprisingly, then, no matter who’s in charge, the web site simply becomes one more item on an already overcrowded “to do” list.

Faced with increasing competition, sensational news coverage, and higher expectations, school leaders really can’t afford to neglect the world’s fastest-growing communications channel.

For those leading public schools, the need to build communication bridges with stakeholders is even greater, given the growing threat of deregulation and privatization.

With more than 75 percent of American families now using the internet, school leaders need to pay more attention to how well their front door to the world is performing.

“Basically, schools need to commit at the highest levels–superintendents and school boards–and decide whether or not they are serious about their web site,” says Swann. “If they don’t have the resources–time, staff, and money–to do it professionally with public-relations input, then they should rethink their strategy.”

To understand just how potent a school web site can be, Swann recommends viewing the award-winning sites honored by the National School Public Relations Association (www.nspra.org) in its annual communications contest.

Currently, Swann is developing a web site audit checklist to help school districts redesign their web sites more effectively, and she’s conducting a national study of school district web sites. She’s also working with other organizations to survey parents about their information needs regarding school district web sites and is looking for sources of funding.

In the meantime, here’s a checklist we developed at LGA to evaluate web sites. If you find yourself checking “no” more often than “yes,” your school or district web site probably isn’t realizing its full potential as a relationship-building tool.

WEB SITE EVALUATION YES NO
Overall Image/Appearance/Branding:    
Ease of Navigation:    
Web Site Organization Designed to Accommodate Various User Styles/Interests:    
Relevance of Content to Audience(s):
    -Parents
   
    -Students    
    -Teachers/Staff    
    -Volunteers    
    -Community Members    
    -Realtors    
    -Journalists    
    -Other    
Content Formatted Specifically for Web; Limited Use of PDFs    
Quality of Images (photos, graphics, color, etc):    
Download Times/Ease:    
News You Can Use:    
Interactivity:    
Appropriate Use of Graphics,
Buttons, Animation, etc.:
   
Drill-Down Content:    
On-Line Services
(availability, ease of use, relevance):
   
Feedback Loops/Surveys/Data Capture:    
Basic Contact Information:
Organization/Department Name
Address(es), Cities, State, Zip Codes
Telephone & Fax Numbers with Area Codes
Email Links to Staff
   
Search Functions Embedded in Website    
Links to Pertinent Resources:    
All Links Active/Functioning:    
Currency of Information on Subpages/Subsites:    
Use of “Under Construction”:    
Sections Segmented by User/Audience:    
HTML/Coding Quality    
Site Picked Up Easily By Major Search Engines:    
Counter Broken/Out of Date?    
Target audience clearly evident:    
Resources/sources for additional information provided/easy-to-access:    
Site Maps/Index(es)/Archives Available; Easy to Use:    
Other Comments/Recommendations:    

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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New framework helps schools link technology to NCLB success

The State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) has released a free online guide designed to help schools achieve more efficient integration of technology. Funded in part by the U.S. Department of Education, “Profiling Educational Technology Integration (PETI): Resources for Assessing Readiness and Use” provides a suite of tools designed to assist states, districts, schools, and researchers in profiling their progress with technology over time, documenting both readiness and effective use. Resources include a framework for assessing educational technology; an “NCLB Matrix” linking technology questions and indicators to NCLB goals; district, building, and classroom observation tools; a list of helpful methodologies and protocols; sample reports; and a roster of corporations and other organizations with information relative to PETI. Several states, including California, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, already have begun to utilize the components of PETI by aligning surveys with the framework and participating in the pilot of the instruments.

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ED offers advice on creating effective tutoring programs

With this free guide from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, educators will learn what it takes to provide NCLB-compliant tutoring to low-income students enrolled in struggling schools. Titled “Creating Strong Supplemental Educational Services Programs,” the online booklet explains the intricacies of the law and shares practical advice about how to deliver the best possible services to the right kids. Educators will learn from the experiences of five school districts that have been successful in creating and expanding free tutoring programs and making them work for students and parents. The advice provided in this guide on implementing free tutoring programs covers four basic actions, suggesting the “first steps” to take and how to “go deeper.” The four key actions discussed are: Embracing the Spirit of Supplemental Educational Services; Building Relationships with Providers; Reaching Out to Inform Parents; and Setting Clear Goals and Tracking Progress.

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Measure your readiness to handle a crisis with the “School Safety Assessment Tool”

In honor of National Emergency Preparedness Month in September, Prepared America–the provider of a comprehensive set of online emergency preparation and planning tools for schools and first responders–announced that it is making its “School Safety Assessment Tool” available online at no charge. The tool’s purpose is to make school leaders aware of the basics of school safety while assessing their preparedness in dealing with a crisis. It aims to help school leaders answer difficult questions that will need to be addressed in an emergency situation, such as: Do you know who is in charge during an emergency situation? Where is your school’s emergency contact information located, and is it easily accessible? Is your school’s emergency contact information current? What is your school’s formal procedure for communicating to concerned parents? “Taking a proactive step in school safety preparation is imperative to effectively and efficiently communicate and execute a plan during a crisis situation–and we hope that our assessment tool will raise this awareness,” said Janis Fairchild, president of Prepared America. To access the School Safety Assessment Tool, go to Prepared America’s web site and click on “Get Prepared.”

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Up to $30 million in matching grants for LeapFrog technology

Through the LeapFrog PASS Program, LeapFrog Enterprises Inc. will provide up to $30 million in LeapFrog SchoolHouse classroom products to accredited preK-8 public and private schools across the nation. The LeapFrog PASS Program provides a matching gift of $500 per school toward the purchase of LeapFrog SchoolHouse products. The LeapFrog PASS program will award matching gifts until Dec. 31, 2005 or until the $30 million in gift supplies are exhausted.

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$5,000 to faculty who create outstanding new online coursework

The Bbionic Course Contest will recognize and reward faculty and instructional designers who create technologically rich and pedagogically sound online courses. The annual contest is open to faculty, staff, and administrators of Blackboard institutions. Five participants will each receive $5,000 for the best course entries. Applications can be submitted starting on November 15, 2004.

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Win a trip to Hawaii for creative energy conservation projects

The fourth Igniting Creative Energy Challenge is an educational competition designed to encourage students to learn more about energy and the environment. Students are asked to submit entries that reflect the competition theme, Igniting Creative Energy, and demonstrate an understanding of what an individual, family, or group can do to make a difference in their home, school, or community. Students may express their ideas on energy conservation and the environment in the form of science projects, essays, stories, artwork, photographs, music, video, or web site projects. They may also submit recent service projects or results from the National Energy Foundation’s own Energy Patrol activities. A total of four grand prizes will be awarded to three students and one teacher. Three students, one in each grade cluster whose work best exemplifies the Challenge criteria, will receive a hosted trip to Hawaii April 26-30, 2005, for themselves and a parent or legal guardian. In addition, one teacher with the highest average score of student work from 15 or more qualifying entries will be chosen for a trip for two to Hawaii for the same fun and educational experience.

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$50,000 in reading software to help Florida high schools

Under the Peterson’s FCAT Success Grant program, five Florida public high schools with a history of low FCAT performance, and a willingness to use technology as a tool to improve student achievement scores will be selected to receive free access to Peterson’s FCAT Online Reading Course for up to 200 students in preparation for the FCAT administration in February. The value of the grant is $10,000 per school.

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Middle school gets preview of Texas’ long-range tech plan

The Bryan-College Station Eagle of Bryan, Texas, reports on a local middle school’s participation in the state’s Technology Immersion Project. The wider initiative calls for all students in grades 6-12 to have laptops by 2012. The two-year pilot program is costing the Bryan district $850,000, but the funds are matched by the Texas Education Agency.

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