Schools inspire young artists with computer animation classes

The Lancaster New Era of Lancaster, Pa., reports on the local high school’s computer animation classes, which are among the most popular with students. Many schools are finding that teens who love video games and cartoons soon discover that technology provides them with a unique form of artistic expression. The school also offers courses in digital photography and web page design.


Congress updates special-ed law

States and school systems should get more money from the federal government to pay for new technologies and other services for students with disabilities, under the final terms of a bill to reauthorize the landmark Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that now serves some 6.7 million children.

The bill, which Congress passed Nov. 19, aims to boost discipline in class, better identify children with disabilities, get help to students earlier, and reduce lawsuits by parents. It also reaffirms the federal government’s commitment to pay its share of expenses–though it doesn’t lock in mandatory spending as many had hoped. President Bush is expected to sign the bill into law soon.

Getting this far has been a chore. The House passed its version of the bill 19 months ago, and the Senate passed its version in May. House and Senate negotiators have met almost daily for seven weeks in an effort to come to an agreement. Both sides were eager to finish during last week’s lame duck session, knowing they would have to start over in a new Congress.

Key areas of agreement in the new legislation include:

  • Giving schools more flexibility to discipline students with disabilities just like other students, once it is clear that a child’s bad behavior is not caused by a disability.

  • Offering some flexibility to new special-education teachers who handle multiple subjects and must prove they are “highly qualified” to teach all of them.

  • Requiring states to come up with plans for how they will comply with the law. They can get extra help if they don’t meet the targets but could lose money if the problems persist.

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  • Ed funds up $1.4B, ed-tech off $200M

    “The final agreement will be an across-the-board win for teachers, parents, and students with special needs,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the conference committee.

    Yet parent and education groups are expected to take issue with parts of the bill, from the requirements on teachers to funding levels to data collection.

    IDEA, getting its first update since 1997, guarantees a free, appropriate education for all special-needs students.

    The final bill meets four goals, said Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Education Committee: Ensure that all students learn, free teachers from bureaucracy, help parents and schools work together better, and create safer classrooms.

    Under the deal, Congress will renew its long-unfulfilled promise to pay for up to 40 percent of the additional costs of educating children with special needs. Citing the original legislation, lawmakers and educators say the 40-percent mark was supposed to have been reached years ago; instead, the federal contribution currently stands at 18.6 percent.

    The bill calls for Congress to reach the 40 percent federal share by 2011, but the yearly spending increases the bill would establish to get there would be optional, not mandatory as Democrats wanted. Federal spending on special education has increased from $2.1 billion in 1994 to $10.1 billion in 2004.

    Overall, the bill strives to improve the early identification of children with special needs, reducing the number of students who are improperly labeled as disabled. The bill also aims to reduce paperwork for teachers, encourage mediation in disputes between parents and schools, and give the education secretary more power to hold states accountable.

    The National Governors Association (NGA) praised Congress for its bipartisan passage of the IDEA reauthorization–one of the top legislative priorities for governors across the country, the group said.

    “NGA commends leaders on both sides of the aisle for coming together and working to reauthorize this important legislation in the 108th Congress,” said NGA Executive Director Ray Scheppach. “This bill is largely responsive to governors’ concerns. It reduces costly adversarial litigation, lessens the bureaucratic burden of paperwork on teachers and states, and–most importantly–helps states and localities embrace innovation to improve academic achievement and services for students with disabilities.”

    But Mary Kusler, a legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators, called the final reauthorization–and particularly lawmakers’ failure to provide benchmarks for year-over-year increases to the program–proof that “Congress does not take fully funding IDEA seriously.”

    She said the feds are already $1.8 billion below what their target funding originally was for IDEA this year–and the burden will be on the states to make up the difference.

    Related Story:

    Ed funds up $1.4B, ed-tech off $200M


    House Committee on Education and the Workforce

    Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions

    Education Department’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services


    Ed funds up $1.4B, ed-tech off $200M

    Congress on Nov. 20 passed an omnibus spending package for fiscal year 2005 that provides a $1.4 billion overall increase for education–but some $200 million less for the Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) block-grant program, the primary source of federal funding for school technology.

    Though overall education funding will top $57 billion this year, ed-tech advocates who spoke with eSchool News decried the final bill for failing to provide enough money to support the use of technology in the nation’s schools. EETT, which was funded last year at $696 million, will receive around $500 million in 2005.

    Don Knezek, chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), called the news “very disturbing” and said cutting EETT will carry “some very serious implications” for the nation’s schools.

    Congress updates
    special-ed law

    States and school systems should get more money from the federal government to pay for new technologies and other services for students with disabilities, under the final terms of a bill to reauthorize the landmark Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that now serves some 6.7 million children. …

  • In fact, he said, the final cut was much more severe than ed-tech advocates originally had envisioned. In its original budget bill, the House recommended decreasing EETT funding by $91 million, a far cry from the $200 million slash ultimately applied by Congress.

    Knezek said the final cuts fly in the face of everything the federal government has said with regard to its support of technology in schools. He said the current administration has repeatedly tried to justify cuts to smaller technology-specific education programs, such as the now defunct Preparing Tomorrow’s Teachers to Use Technology program and the Star Schools program, by continuing to pump money into EETT and other NCLB-related initiatives.

    But as EETT and other tech-specific education programs continue to suffer major hits, he said, questions abound with regard to the federal government’s true intentions.

    During budget negotiations, lawmakers from both parties traded salvos over just how necessary a tool technology is in helping the nation’s schools meet the provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which took on even greater significance earlier this month when President Bush won reelection. Among the bill’s many requirements, which include an increased emphasis on tracking and reporting student achievement data, is a provision that calls for all students to be technologically proficient by the eighth grade.

    But the final 2005 education budget is weighted heavily in favor of other NCLB priorities, such as the president’s Reading First and Early Reading First initiatives, which reportedly received a $62 million boost this year.

    Without strong federal leadership on educational technology, Knezek said, preparing today’s students for success in tomorrow’s technology-driven workforce will become increasingly difficult. A stronger federal commitment is necessary to demonstrate the correlation between technology and improved student achievement, he said.

    And Knezek’s not the only one. The fate of technology-specific education programs has been a source of much debate on Capitol Hill. In September, ed-tech advocates from across the country–including members of ISTE, the nonprofit Consortium for School Networking, and the Software and Information Industry Association–held a rally in Washington to protest the proposed budget cuts. (See “Ed-tech advocates protest budget cuts.”)

    Mary Kusler, senior legislative specialist for the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), echoed Knezek’s sentiments, adding that her organization was “really concerned about funding levels this year.” By decreasing federal funding for ed-tech programs in particular, she said, the federal government essentially has put the onus on state legislatures to come up with the money for many of these programs–not an easy task, considering the majority of states are just beginning to emerge from one of the worst fiscal shortages in recent history.

    “This has to be very disappointing for educators across the country,” Kusler said. “They’re just not going to see the dollars flowing from Washington that they had expected to see.”

    Two other significant ed-tech programs survived in the final budget. The Star Schools program, which received $20.5 million in 2004 to help underserved schools deploy advanced telecommunications services, will get $21 million in 2005. And the Community Technology Centers (CTC) program, which got $10 million last year to provide federally subsidized computer centers for students in low-income areas, will receive just $5 million this year.

    CTC and Star Schools have been on the chopping block for the last four years, as the Bush administration has adopted the goal of consolidating federal education programs that are considered “duplicative.” In each year, the Senate has voted to preserve these programs, and they ultimately have survived.

    Several ed-tech advocates decried the news out of Capitol Hill this weekend, but the news wasn’t all bad for schools.

    Title 1, which provides financial assistance to underprivileged students, received a $500,000 boost compared with fiscal year ’04, pushing federal spending on that program to a record $12.8 billion. Bush had asked for even more, requesting that lawmakers fund the program at $13.3 billion. The Pell grants, intended to help low-income students afford college, received $458 million more than last year, for a total of nearly $12.5 billion. Again, Bush had requested more money, asking Congress to provide $12.8 billion for the program.

    Though technology-specific programs seemed to suffer most this year, spending on NCLB-related initiatives increased overall. For instance, the Improving Teacher Quality program, which provides federal funding for teacher professional development, will receive a $10 million increase compared with last year, bringing that program to nearly $3 billion.

    Driven by Bush’s commitment that all students learn to read by the end of third grade, spending on federal reading programs will reach $1.2 billion in 2005, a jump of more than $62 million compared with last year. Lawmakers say they hope the money will help fund initiatives devoted to integrating proven strategies based on scientific research.

    NCLB is also fueling a call for better statewide assessments to measure student progress. With an eye toward data-driven decision making, Congress this year approved $415 million to help cover the cost of implementing statewide assessment programs used to measure students’ reading and math skills. The current figure marks a $25 million increase compared with the previous year.

    Funds for 21st Century Community Learning Centers will remain flat compared with last year, at just under $1 billion.

    Lawmakers also agreed to increase funding for Head Start, the nation’s early learning program, by $124 million over last year’s level, bringing total spending on that front to $6.9 billion and putting an end to widespread speculation that Head Start might be eliminated–at least for another year.

    At press time, ed-tech advocates were still struggling to grasp all the figures, though both Knezek and Kulser labeled the news “disturbing.” Though the cuts were bad, Knezek said, they provide just one more reason educators at all levels should speak out and get more involved in the decisions being made in Washington.

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    Congress updates special-ed law


    House Appropriations Committee

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    U.S. Senate

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    International Society for Technology in Education

    American Association of School Administrators


    Latest ED study a setback for charter-school movement

    The New York Times reports that a new U.S. Department of Education study finds students from charter schools are less likely to meet state assessment standards than those who attend traditional public schools. Even when the results are adjusted for race and socioeconomic status, charter schools still don’t measure up to mainstream schools. The study was criticized by the Charter School Leadership Council for failing to measure the impact charter schools have in raising overall student achievement. (Note: This site requires registration.)


    Videoconference with a rock star opens high-schoolers’ eyes

    The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports on some Manatee County high school students who participated in a live teleconference with the rock star Sting’s band. Band members were helping the school promote its efforts to give every student a laptop. Sting, a former teacher, was not part of the teleconference, but he did stop by to say hello to the students. Needless to say, the experiment got these students very excited about technology. Band members, meanwhile, said it was the first time they ever visited a school without actually being there.


    Matchmaking tech IDs ‘perfect school’

    Finding the perfect college–it’s a dilemma faced by millions of high school seniors every year. Now, the same matchmaking technology behind one of the internet’s leading dating services aims to help college-bound students land the school of their dreams.

    Like the popular internet dating service E-Harmony, Destination-U combines personal surveys with personality traits “to find the right match”–not for love, but for learning.

    It’s estimated that more than 1.5 million students will apply for acceptance to a four-year college this year. For most of them, the search begins in the school guidance office, often wading through stockpiles of brochures to get a sense for where they might like to spend the first four years of their long-awaited independence.

    Unfortunately for many students, that’s about as much “guidance” as they’re likely to get, says Destination-U co-creator and independent college counselor Toby Waldorf. With student-to-counselor ratios nationwide ballooning to 477 to 1, most high school guidance counselors don’t have time to sit down with every college-bound senior and walk the student step by step through the murky application process.

    But that doesn’t mean students have to go at it alone, either, says Waldorf–who, along with her son, Greg, invented Destination-U as a sort of virtual counselor.

    “We’re very passionate about helping kids find the best possible fit,” said Waldorf, who recommends students pick schools that offer opportunities for both social and academic growth.

    But finding the right school isn’t easy, she acknowledges. For students, she said, “it really is their first real adult decision.”

    When it comes to applying for college, every parent and student has heard the horror stories–from increasingly expensive application procedures to the oft-dreaded personal essay and, of course, the weeks and sometimes months of waiting, asking: Will they accept me? Am I good enough? Or, should I start thinking about my safety school?

    The Waldorfs believe Destination-U will help ease some of that anxiety. “Kids and their families really want this,” said Greg Waldorf. More than anything, he said, parents and students need a research tool that will allow them to decide whether a school is worth applying to or not.

    The idea is to help students “eliminate the schools that aren’t a good fit,” so they can put their time and money into applying to schools at which they are most likely to thrive, suggested Greg Waldorf, who said he was surprised “that no one had developed a web-based tool” to help solve some of the fundamental issues surrounding the college decision process.

    Destination-U begins with a simple philosophy. Instead of asking students what schools they want to attend, students are asked to talk about themselves, said the younger Waldorf. Rather than fit kids into a predetermined mold, the idea behind Destination-U is to build the school around the student and work from there.

    At the heart of the Waldorfs’ academic matchmaker lies the research. Unlike a number of college match services, which tend to rely almost solely on data provided through the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)–including such information as school size and the number of students enrolled in university-sponsored meal plans–Destination-U offers a hybrid approach that combines the raw data from NCES with a survey of more than 18,000 full-time college students. The survey, which asks about everything from personal tastes to individual academic needs and overall social behavior, is intended to represent a cross-section of the school’s academic community, thus providing a blueprint from which to recommend schools based on students’ individual responses.

    The technology is based on students’ use of two primary tools. The first tool, called U-Finder, is a free survey, or personality assessment, that asks students to explain what type of person they are–from social tendencies and personal interests to study habits. Upon completion of the questionnaire, Destination-U users are given a customized report, called a U-Factor, that provides information regarding their survey responses and helps them understand what types of colleges might be best suited to their needs and academic interests.

    During the survey, students are asked a variety of questions–from whether they’d prefer going to school in a big city versus a rural setting to how open they are to meeting new people as opposed to associating with the same groups of friends they knew in high school.

    At this point, students also receive free access to Destination-U’s College Application Planner. Designed to help students stay on track during the application process, the web-based planner sends out deadline reminders via eMail in hopes of encouraging students to get their materials handed in on time. Like teachers, Toby Waldorf said, most college admissions offices are sticklers for due dates. Miss the application deadline, and you might as well move on to the next school on your list, she said.

    Once a student completes the questionnaire and receives a U-Factor report, he or she can decide to purchase a Fit List–a selection of potential colleges based on the results of their personal U-Factor assessments. The price: under $50, according to Greg Waldorf. From now until the end of December 2004, students can receive the service–which lasts until they graduate high school–for an introductory price of $29.95.

    So how can you tell which school is “the one?” It’s different for every student, contends Toby Waldorf. “What we try to do is to get to the heart of students’ preferences,” she said. Destination-U isn’t intended to be the sole factor in a student’s final decision, but at the very least, it should help narrow the field.

    The Waldorfs estimate more than 60,000 people have visited the site since it went live in September. So far, Greg Waldorf said, at least 6,000 people have registered for the service.




    New software giving computers the power to write decent fiction

    In an essay written for The New York Times, novelist Daniel Akst discusses a technology trend that threatens the existence of writers like himself — computers capable of writing both fiction and non-fiction. Akst worries about “rapid advances in computing power and the rise of ‘narratology’ (how stories are told) as an academic field of study, among other unwholesome trends that are making the novelist’s life ever more perilous.” (Note: This site requires registration.)


    Tech-savvy Texas district setting its sights on fiber optics

    The Daily Times of Kerrville, Texas, reports the local school district is pursuing a plan that would enable it to have fiber optic technology–connecting all buildings to a central IT department. The move to fiber optics is even more appealing because every classroom in the district is now equipped with a computer.


    Local foundation helps Mass. district pay for its technology

    The Reading Advocate of Reading, Mass., reports that a local foundation has received applications for a total of $61,708 in school technology grants. The foundation gave out $14,000 to help fund the grants, including money to buy a digital microscope, additional computers and web-publishing software.