Young keyboarders proof of technology’s impact on curricula

The Daily Southtown, a newspaper serving the Southland area of Chicago, reports on how computers are being used by younger children, and that technology is literally a “part of life” which therefore must be a part of the curriculum. An example of this is the approach to keyboarding. This skill, which used to be taught in high schools, is now common in fifth-grade classrooms.

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Schools mull $10B PeopleSoft takeover

A cloud of uncertainty swept through school IT departments and business offices nationwide yesterday as hundreds of administrators wondered what Oracle Corp’s $10.3 billion takeover of rival PeopleSoft Inc. might mean for their schools. Though there is some concern as to how long Oracle will continue to support PeopleSoft’s software, some educators see the merger as an opportunity for the companies to combine their resources in hopes of providing a better business enterprise solution for schools.

Ending 18 months of bad blood, Oracle raised its takeover bid by 10 percent to seal the deal that will create the world’s second largest maker of business applications software, trailing only German software maker SAP. The agreement, announced Dec. 13, ends a rancorous Silicon Valley feud marked by churlish exchanges between the companies’ management teams and colorful courtroom battles.

Redwood Shores, Calif.-based Oracle brought an end to the hostilities by sweetening its all-cash offer to $26.50 per share, up from a $24 bid that PeopleSoft’s board had rejected as inadequate. The final offer represents a 75-percent premium from PeopleSoft’s market value before Oracle launched the takeover battle in June 2003.

The deal leaves hundreds of schools and universities using PeopleSoft products to question the fate of millions of dollars worth of software and service contracts inked with the company. PeopleSoft says more than 650 universities and dozens of large K-12 school systems use its software nationwide.

Michael Casey, educational technology program manager for the San Diego City Schools (SDCS), the nation’s 13th-largest urban school district, said he wasn’t quite sure what to make of the news just yet.

Two years ago, SDCS signed a deal that would pay PeopleSoft in excess of $30 million to help streamline the district’s payroll services, as well as its supply-chain management and other critical procedures. Though the project got off to a rocky start when the technology turnover resulted in late payment for several bills (see “Faulty implementation can derail biggest IT projects“), Casey said the situation has since improved, adding that San Diego had planned to stay with PeopleSoft through the long term.

“Any time a big merger like this takes place, obviously you have some things you want to consider,” he said.

Chief among these is stability. Large clients spend millions of dollars to install proprietary business software–and switching to a new system can become a costly, technical morass.

Despite the problems SDCS initially reported with its software, Casey said he was encouraged by Oracle’s desire to continue to support the PeopleSoft brand.

“I like what I’m hearing so far,” he said. “It looks like we’ll have a couple of years of stability here.”

In a statement on its web site about the merger, Oracle said it will support current PeopleSoft solutions through the release of PeopleSoft 9. Company executives say they hope the merger will provide all existing PeopleSoft customers–including schools–with a more robust enterprise solution going forward.

“Oracle understands that each PeopleSoft customer has made a significant investment in its current software applications and that it is critical these purchases retain their value and usefulness,” the statement said. “We have spent a significant amount of time and resources in the pursuit of PeopleSoft because we believe that the combined companies will provide customers with superior benefits and a stronger long-term alternative. The combination will ensure continued innovation in a rapidly changing market while at the same time preserving customers’ existing IT investments.”

Casey agreed: “I look at this as an opportunity to make the product even better,” he said.

Others were more skeptical. Jeff Weiler, chief financial officer for the 129,000-student Gwinnett County Public Schools in metropolitan Atlanta, questioned whether Oracle would continue to uphold PeopleSoft’s long-standing commitment to its school customers in particular.

“PeopleSoft brought on a lot of talent in the K-12 area to support us,” he said. “From what I know, Oracle doesn’t have near that kind of presence in schools.”

Like San Diego’s Casey, Weiler said he was encouraged by Oracle’s pledge to continue support for the PeopleSoft brand–in the near term. But he wonders whether support will become an issue down the road.

What happens after the release of PeopleSoft 9 is anyone’s guess, Weiler said: “Oracle can decide to do whatever it wants.”

For their part, executives at Oracle spent the day trying to ease customers’ concerns.

“This is a major turning point for the entire enterprise software industry,” Oracle co-president Charles Phillips said during a Dec. 13 conference call with investors.

By picking up 12,750 customers and more than $2 billion in annual revenue, Oracle hopes to mount a more serious challenge to SAP’s leadership in business applications software–the computer coding that automates a wide range of administrative tasks. Oracle plans to complete the takeover next month.

“This merger works because we will have more customers, which increases our ability to invest more in applications development and support,” Oracle CEO Larry Ellison said.

The fate of PeopleSoft’s roughly 12,000 employees remains unclear. Oracle at one point drew up plans to fire more than 6,000 PeopleSoft workers, but the company recently has indicated that the purge might not be as dramatic as management originally envisioned.

Pleasanton, Calif.-based PeopleSoft had steadfastly resisted Oracle’s overtures, maintaining that it could do a better job taking care of its customers than its long-time rival.

To get the deal done, Oracle also had to overcome the U.S. Department of Justice, which sought to block the deal because it believed the merger would drive up software prices and diminish product innovation. A federal judge, though, rejected the government’s antitrust claims, removing one of PeopleSoft’s strongest takeover defenses.

Oracle’s bid received another boost when PeopleSoft unexpectedly fired its chief executive, Craig Conway, a former Oracle employee who had spearheaded the company’s defiant resistance. Conway escalated the acrimony by occasionally taunting Oracle.

After Conway’s ouster, PeopleSoft’s board began to focus its efforts on extracting a higher price, while Oracle executives lobbied for a lower price.

PeopleSoft’s board approached Oracle over the weekend as the two sides prepared to give more testimony in a Delaware trial focusing on an anti-takeover defense known as a “poison pill.” The mechanism represented the final obstacle preventing Oracle from completing the takeover after 61 percent of PeopleSoft’s shareholders last month agreed to accept $24 per share.

The Delaware trial and another lawsuit filed by PeopleSoft will be dropped as part of the sale.

“This has been a long, emotional struggle,” said George “Skip” Battle, a PeopleSoft director who oversaw the Oracle negotiations. “The board salutes our employees for their outstanding dedication to PeopleSoft and is grateful to our customers who have continued to buy our products and stand by us during these uncertain times.”

Links:

Oracle Corp.

PeopleSoft Inc.

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Fort Worth school’s tech immersion awes newspaper columnist

Fort Worth Star-Telegram columnist Bob Ray Sanders describes his recent visit to a local public school. Sanders was amazed at all the high-tech devices he encountered in a sixth-grade classroom and notes that “every student and teacher is working with unbelievable technology all day, every day.” (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Donated computers an important gift for Palm Springs schools

The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, Calif., reports on a group of local schools that received donated computers as part of the Technology Training Foundation of America and Time Warner Cable’s Tech Tools for Schools program. The computers are particularly valuable for one of the elementary schools, where many of the students have no access to computers at home.

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Few math studies pass federal scrutiny

Fewer than 2 percent of the studies of software and other curriculum programs that have been evaluated for their effectiveness meet the federal government’s standards for demonstrating clear scientific evidence of success, according to a recent announcement.

Though educators might conclude from this news that better math software is needed in the nation’s classrooms, that’s not necessarily the case: Some observers familiar with the evaluation process say the federal standard for “scientific” proof is too stringent, and what’s worse, the way findings are presented could mislead educators into thinking that certain programs don’t really work when they might be effective after all.

The announcement about math studies came from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC), part of the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Institute of Education Sciences. WWC was founded in 2002 to provide an online repository of reliable education research, giving teachers, administrators, and other school stakeholders scientific proof that the pedagogical approaches tapped for use in their classrooms would help bolster student achievement in accordance with the goals of the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

But since NCLB’s inception, educators have wrestled with the law’s most fundamental principles, including its scientifically based research (SBR) provision, which calls for every educational approach deployed in the nation’s classrooms to be proven effective by way of indisputable scientific evidence. While some have struggled to understand what, exactly, constitutes SBR, others have complained that the body of research currently available doesn’t measure up to the standards proposed under the law.

Their frustrations were confirmed last month when the clearinghouse offered one of its first glimpses into how federal officials would interpret the SBR portion of the law, stating that only a small number of the nation’s middle school mathematics curricula exhibit scientific evidence of effectiveness. After reviewing more than 800 studies conducted by educators on a bevy of educational products for mathematics instruction in grades six through nine, WWC researchers found just 11 studies that met the program’s rigorous criteria.

Though some educators have applauded the WWC for helping to weed out those studies that don’t make the grade, others have criticized the online clearinghouse for its approach, saying it gives stakeholders the wrong impression: Just because a study of a program doesn’t make the grade at the WWC doesn’t mean the program is a failure in the classroom, they say. Instead, what it might mean is that the body of research submitted doesn’t measure up to WWC standards.

Clearinghouse officials don’t deny that distinction. In an interview with eSchool News, WWC project director Rebecca Herman said the clearinghouse is not in the business of endorsing products. Its goal is to determine whether the research exhibits indisputable scientific evidence of a program’s effectiveness in schools. In other words, she said, the WWC doesn’t evaluate the curricula; instead, it looks at the methodology exercised by researchers to test the products.

“A lack of scientific evidence does not mean that the product itself is ineffective,” Herman explained.

As a general rule, the organization favors studies based on experimental design, meaning the programs submitted stand the best chance of being approved if their corresponding evaluations include evidence of randomized field trials, where students are placed into control and experimental groups. One group is subject to the intervention, while the other is not. Researchers say experimental design is one of the best ways to eliminate variables in the test pool.

Steve Ritter, vice president and senior cognitive scientist for Pittsburgh-based Carnegie Learning, is among a select few whose research studies have been deemed effective by the clearinghouse so far.

Ritter’s study, which evaluates the effectiveness of Carnegie Learning’s Cognitive Tutor, a combination software and hands-on problem-solving tool, is the sixth such analysis performed and submitted by researchers in support of the product. So far, it’s the only one to have received WWC’s stamp of approval, represented on its web site by a double checkmark.

Stephane Baldi, project coordinator for WWC’s Middle School Math Review and principal research scientist at the American Institutes of Research, said there is good reason these checkmarks are so hard to come by.

According to Baldi, every research-based study submitted to the WWC is subjected to a rigorous approval process consisting of three separate reports. The first involves several hours of coding performed by WWC research consultants to determine if the product meets the clearinghouse’s evidenced-based protocol, as well as a written summary detailing the study’s findings, the study’s rating in relation to the standards, and a list of the program’s strengths and weaknesses as determined by researchers. The time frame for this initial acceptance process is two days or more, depending on the size of the report, he said.

If the study is deemed thorough enough and its results indicate a pattern of effectiveness that can be attributed solely to the intervention, the WWC review team also must create what’s known as an intervention report. This report, intended for educators who visit the clearinghouse in hopes of finding a possible solution for their schools, provides key findings from the study, including a description of the intervention, as well as program details and information about the educational philosophy behind the product. Each intervention study also is linked to the other reports completed by the WWC research team during the initial evaluation phase.

The last phase of the reporting process involves the creation of a topic report, which describes the type of skill the intervention is intended to improve–math, reading, character education, and so on–and the means by which each product accomplishes that goal. Each report contains a compilation of the various intervention reports already completed, as well as a description of the evaluation process performed by the WWC and a list of features available as part of the intervention.

Considering the process that’s involved, Ritter said the WWC has set its standards high–higher, probably, than most people had anticipated. But, he added, there’s a reason for this.

The studies, he explained, have to be of such high quality there can be no question in educators’ minds whether the intervention is responsible for demonstrated gains in student achievement. The idea is to eliminate any variables to whatever extent possible, until all that’s left is the program itself and its effect on learning.

Ritter compared the work just now beginning at the WWC to the type of research that has been conducted for years in the medical field. Instead of relying on theories to produce results, he said, doctors rely on testing and scientific evidence as means to prescribe medicinal cures. With the advent of SBR, he said, teachers will have that ability, too.

But not everyone agrees with the strict criteria the WWC uses to evaluate the submissions it receives.

This past summer, Michael Pressley, director of doctoral programs in education at Michigan State University, criticized the clearinghouse even after it approved a study he co-wrote on the practice of reciprocal teaching.

In an article in Education Week, Pressley said he was unhappy with the way researchers at the WWC categorized his study. Researchers reportedly classified it as a peer-tutoring evaluation instead of its intended focus: reciprocal teaching. Though tutoring represented a small portion of the overall approach, he said, it wasn’t the only aspect of the study.

Pressley also told the newspaper he was unhappy with the WWC’s rejection process. While it lists those interventions that were roundly rejected, he said, it doesn’t provide any explanation for why certain evaluations failed to pass muster.

Carnegie Learning’s Ritter said he agrees with WWC’s critics that the presentation of the research studies listed on the site is somewhat misleading.

Chief among Ritter’s concerns is the way the WWC labels the different studies. For instance, interventions deemed evidence-based are listed on the web site with two checkmarks, while interventions deemed effective with reservations receive a single check. Conversely, interventions that fail to meet the criteria are labeled with a red X.

The problem, says Ritter, is that when educators visit the site, the X will likely be seen as an indication that the intervention, or product, featured does not improve student achievement.

But that’s not always the case, he said. Again, just because the research submitted on the intervention falls short of WWC standards doesn’t mean the product itself is ineffective–though at first glance it might appear that way.

“Some aspects of the presentation are going to be confusing to educators,” said Ritter, who said he has raised his concerns to administrators at the clearinghouse before.

Ritter also criticized the WWC for contributing to a false notion that scientific research is only valuable if it meets the most rigorous standards.

Just as there is a place in education for large, randomized field tests, he said, there also is a place for more acute studies. Though randomized field tests might be the metric of choice when deciding whether a particular intervention stands a chance of bolstering student achievement across an entire grade level, Ritter said, lesser studies can be used to answer less ambitious questions.

Unlike evidence in the medical field, the majority of research performed in education is inherently theoretical in nature. Despite NCLB’s affinity for scientific evidence, Ritter contends, there is still a place for more exploratory kinds of thinking in schools.

“The pendulum has swung too far in one direction,” said Ritter, who compared the studies approved by WWC to those that appear in The New England Journal of Medicine, long considered a leader among medical journals. If the WWC’s intention is to champion only the highest quality research, he said, then there should be a place where lesser studies also can be published. Because of the cost and time it takes to complete most randomized field tests–more than a year, in most cases–“it’s unreasonable to expect every study to be that way,” he said.

Instead of simply accepting or denying the various studies outright, Ritter suggested the WWC should provide some type of guidance to independent researchers as to how they might improve their individual studies and resubmit them for acceptance.

Clearinghouse officials, meanwhile, say they have no immediate plans to change their process for reviewing submissions–though they reportedly are working on ways to make the experience easier on researchers and educators who seek the WWC’s coveted stamp of approval.

Additional resources now under development include an evaluation registry, where educators and service providers can turn to find qualified researchers who can help them evaluate their different programs and prepare them for submission to the clearinghouse.

WWC administrators also plan to set up a help desk that stakeholders can contact to submit any questions they have about the SBR provision or ED’s evaluation process in general.

Like the math study released in November, WWC plans to release similar reports in the future dealing with the status of SBR for reading and character-education programs.

Links:

What Works Clearinghouse
http://www.whatworks.ed.gov

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Mass. district OKs five-year, $750,000 tech spending plan

The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, Mass., reports that school officials in Southborough have approved a new five-year technology plan that will bring it in line with ED guidelines for technology upgrades. The plan calls for more than $750,000 to be spent over the next six years.

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Pilot tech program a golden opportunity for 23 Texas schools

The Houston Chronicle reports on students at a local middle school who are receiving wireless laptops as part of a technology immersion program rooted in a $650,000 grant from the Texas Education Agency. Only 23 Texas schools are part of the pilot program, which features a significant percentage of funding for staff development as well as equipment purchases.

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Schools to receive 2004 eRate letters

eRate funding commitments for the 2004 program year will begin flowing again as soon as President Bush signs a bill passed unanimously by the Senate on Dec. 8 that exempts the eRate from the Anti-Deficiency Act (ADA) for a period of one year, program officials told eSchool News.

Decisions on several thousand school and library applications–worth about $400 million total–had been held up since August because the Universal Service Administrative Co. (USAC), which administers the eRate, was forced in mid-stream to adhere to the ADA, a federal law requiring government entities to have the money in hand before promising it. (See “eRate chaos looms for schools.”

The suspension of funding has had enormous repercussions for schools and libraries from coast to coast, which have come to rely on the $2.25 billion a year in telecommunications discounts the eRate provides to help pay for their telephone service and internet access.

The House already had passed a bill–the Universal Service Anti-Deficiency Temporary Suspension Act (H.R. 5419)– that would allow funds to flow again but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., reportedly held up the bill in the Senate because he wanted the House to pass his legislation to regulate the sport of boxing.

The ADA exemption “was used as a wedge to force action on other issues,” the telecommunications newspaper Communications Daily reported Dec. 9. According to the newspaper, McCain finally released his hold on S-2994, a stand-alone ADA exemption introduced by Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, to “save face” and not be held responsible for withholding funds from children and increasing telephone rates.

eRate advocates vigorously lobbied Congress to pass the waiver before it adjourned for the holidays. Had the Senate not passed the bill Dec. 8, funding to eRate applicants and payments to service providers who participate in the program would have been delayed for at least another month, when Congress reconvenes Jan. 4.

In a joint statement issued Dec. 9, Don Knezek, CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and Keith Krueger, CEO for the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), expressed their gratitude for the senators’ hard work on this issue.

“Rather than adjourning for the year after passing major intelligence reform legislation, the Senate remained in session late last night to negotiate and, ultimately, pass legislation that will ensure that desperately needed eRate discounts, many of which have been on hold since early August, reach schools and libraries expeditiously,” they said, adding that “this win is especially significant because it demonstrates that Congress and the [Bush] administration recognize the value of providing internet access to K-12 students and communities around the country.”

At least schools and districts nationwide, they added, can be assured they will receive funding for their telephone and internet service when, at the same time, nearly $200 million has been cut from federal educational technology programs for 2005. (See “Ed funds up $1.4B, ed-tech off $200M.”

“This is good news,” said Della Matthis, Alaska’s state eRate coordinator, of the 11th-hour exemption. “Even after the [funding] wave [issued] Nov. 25, we still had 15 of 50 applicants who hadn’t received funding notices. Right now, they are all accruing debt.”

Schools and libraries will begin receiving 2004 funding commitment letters again as early as this month, said Mel Blackwell, a spokesman for USAC’s Schools and Libraries Division (SLD). “It will not be very long–as soon as the president signs [the bill],” Blackwell said.

Though the exemption was passed, Congress, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), and the Bush administration still have more work to do, because the exemption is temporary and only lasts until Dec. 31, 2005.

The SLD doesn’t have any possible solutions yet for subsequent years. “We’re just getting in the swing of what [the ADA] means for us this year,” Blackwell said. “I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there.”

FCC spokesman Mark Wigfield didn’t know of any possible solutions, either. “This buys us some additional time for the schools, for us, and for USAC to come up with something,” he said.

The eRate is paid for by contributions to the Universal Service Fund by telecommunications carriers (telcos), which pass the cost of these contributions on to consumers as line-item surcharges on their telephone bills.

USAC collects the contributions from telcos on a monthly basis, but to keep the surcharges on consumers’ telephone bills from getting too high, the agency collects only as much as it needs for the following quarter.

Until now, however, the eRate has operated on a different schedule. Schools and libraries apply all at once, on a yearly basis, about six months before the start of the next program year (July 1). Knowing that invoices for eRate-eligible services won’t need to be paid for several months, the SLD issues funding commitments in waves leading up to this July 1 start date, which helps eRate recipients plan and budget for their needs in the coming school year.

Either Congress will need to make the ADA exemption permanent, or the eRate will need to be completely overhauled to come into line with federal accounting standards.

“Until there is a broader-based effort to completely reform universal service, which is possible, a permanent legislation is the best solution,” said Jon Bernstein, vice president of Leslie Harris and Associates, a legislative specialist for ISTE, CoSN, and other education groups.

It is likely the Telecommunications Act of 1996–which governs universal service, among other things–will be rewritten in 2005, he said.

Knowing this, Matthis said, any solution developed over the next year might ultimately be irrelevant. “Whatever happens in the Telecom Act is going to supercede any Band-Aids that we slap on,” she said.

Matthis is urging folks from the education and library communities to work together to help shape what the new universal service legislation should look like. “We need to come up with a [Universal Service Fund] agenda before Congress opens up hearings on this,” she said. “We need to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Greg Weisiger, Virginia’s state eRate coordinator, suggested to the FCC on Nov. 15 that it look into the feasibility of changing the language used in eRate funding commitment letters to obligate funds for one month at a time instead of a whole year. Because the bulk of these commitments represent monthly recurring charges, he explained, the SLD could issue commitment letters covering just a single month of covered services.

“This idea gets many applicants funded much sooner,” Weisiger said. “It’s not a panacea, but it would work. A legislative exemption would be the best option–but this [also] would work.”

Many people attribute the passage of the ADA exemption to the aggressive lobbying efforts of librarians and the ed-tech community.

“Educational technology supporters reached out to Congress and members of the FCC to let them know how important this issue is,” Bernstein said.

The American Library Association’s Legislative Action Center said its members sent 516 eMail messages and 118 faxes to their members of Congress, as well as 72 eMails to the Federal Communications Commission.

FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell–who, after consulting with the White House Office of Management and Budget, ordered USAC to stop sending out eRate commitment letters earlier this year until it could comply with ADA–issued a statement on Dec. 6 saying an exemption “is necessary to mitigate unnecessary increases to our contribution factor, as well as to ensure our schoolchildren have continued access to computer resources.”

Other eRate news

An Arizona-based telecommunications company pleaded guilty Dec. 8 in San Francisco federal court for defrauding the eRate program. Inter-Tel Technologies Inc., charged with two felonies, agreed to pay the federal government $7 million in fines. The San Francisco Unified School District, which alerted prosecutors to the scheme, will receive 21 percent of the money.

In addition, the company will be placed on three years’ probation, which requires company officials to hire an eRate compliance officer to conduct audits and implement an eRate code of conduct.

The settlement has been delayed by U.S. District Judge Charles Breyer because he wants to investigate who is further responsible at a Jan. 5 hearing, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

Links:

Federal Communications Commission

FCC Order on Reconsideration, issued Nov. 29

Schools and Libraries Division

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