Private foundations having huge impact on public education

The Christian Science Monitor looks at the role the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has played in helping many struggling urban school districts. Over the past five years, the Gates’ foundation has spent more than half of its $2.3 billion in total education funding on public high schools. But even the Gates foundation has critics who worry that private money can become too influential over a public institution like schools.

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Mozilla takes aim at Microsoft again with Thunderbird release

cNet’s News.com reports that the Mozilla Foundation has followed up the successful release of its Firefox 1.0 web browser by taking another shot at Microsoft’s product line. The new Mozilla Thunderbird 1.0 is an eMail application that could draw users away from Microsoft Outlook.

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SAT critic warned for posting test data

In a dispute that has important implications for education researchers, the nonprofit College Board–which owns the SAT college-entrance exam–is demanding that its chief critic remove from its web site data showing that minority and poor students scored lower than white and upper-class kids.

In a letter to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, also called FairTest, the College Board claims the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit organization violated copyright law by posting the scores without its permission.

FairTest, which opposes what it considers an overreliance on standardized tests, posted the Oct. 27 letter on its web site along with its refusal to comply with the College Board’s demand. FairTest argues that the data are widely available in the public domain and therefore not subject to copyright protection.

The FairTest web posting breaks down the SAT scores of 2004 college-bound seniors by gender, ethnicity, and family income.

It showed that, on average, African-American students scored a combined 857 (math and verbal), Mexican-American and Puerto Rican students 909, other Latino students 929, white students 1,059, and Asian students 1,084. The overall average was 1,026.

Scores also rose steadily as family income rose. Students from families making $10,000 or less scored a combined 872 on average. Students from families making more than $100,000 scored on average a combined 1,115.

More than 1.4 million members of the class of ’04 took the SAT, and 37 percent were minorities, a record.

The SAT, along with the separate ACT, was designed to help predict a prospect’s likely success as a college freshman. Critics have attacked the tests as unfair, chiefly because white students tend to do better than other groups. Many reasons are offered, including family income and education, school quality, courses taken, and access to tutors and test-prep courses.

FairTest estimates the number of schools that have ended or reduced reliance on SAT scores has doubled to 700 in the past few years.

The College Board next spring will administer a revamped SAT. The changes were prompted by colleges’ demands for more ways to evaluate applicants’ writing abilities.

“They’re trying to eliminate criticism at a time when they’re trying to sell product,” said FairTest spokesman Robert A. Schaeffer. “Every newspaper in the country prints charts similar to that. They’ve made no effort to crack down on newspapers and research journals.”

The College Board’s letter, signed by legal affairs assistant director Tasheem Lomax-Plaxico, refers only to copyright issues and doesn’t mention the content of the posting in question.

Lomax-Plaxico and a College Board spokesman did not immediately respond to calls seeking comment.

But College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti told the New York Times there is no effort to hide facts. She said FairTest’s use of the data might not be new–FairTest says it has publicized such data for 20 years–but it’s the first the New York-based organization has heard of it.

“No one ever brought it to our attention before,” Coletti said. “But if it comes to our attention, we have to protect our copyright.”

Links:

The College Board
http://www.collegeboard.com

FairTest
http://www.fairtest.org

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Bus drivers’ union broadsides GPS plan

Charges of racism and Orwellian tactics are flying as the Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union fights a resolution passed by the city council that urges the public school system to install global positioning system (GPS) devices in its entire fleet of school buses as a safety and efficiency strategy.

Referring to the GPS systems as “contentious spy devices,” the drivers’ union maintains the devices’ real purpose will be to track the city’s bus drivers and further advance their portrayal as speeders and scofflaws.

Union President Steve Gillis added that the proposal is an attempt to tear apart the private collective bargaining agreement reached in October between the union and the school-bus-management firm First Student Inc.

“The GPS systems are being posed in Boston by city councilors who have for the last year been trying to do away with school buses and move back to local schools,” Gillis said. At a Nov. 18 press conference, school bus drivers reportedly called several city council members “racists” and “segregationists” because the city’s school-bus system was first adopted to transport minority students to predominantly white schools.

If the city council is really concerned about safety, Gillis told eSchool News in a telephone interview, it should use the money to hire human monitors who can stop fights and make sure students get off at the correct stop. Currently, the city has about 100 human monitors who help on buses with special-needs students. “A global positioning system won’t ever deal with a safety problem on a bus, but a human can,” Gillis said.

The city also could use the money proposed for the GPS systems to fix the city’s aging bus fleet, Gillis said. The city has 720 buses, and between 60 and 70 break down each day, he said.

“I don’t know if [the human-monitor alternative] does the trick. The [human] monitors are for on-board safety,” said Councilor John M. Tobin Jr., who in September introduced the idea of installing GPS devices in Boston school buses.

Tobin said it would cost $200,000 to $300,000 per year to outfit and maintain Boston’s school buses with GPS service. The city currently spends $60 million each year on student transportation.

He lauded the plan as a way to track and document the time, speed, and direction of buses to improve customer service and reduce complaints from parents. The devices also would be wired into the buses’ on-board computers so they could report mechanical problems directly to headquarters, he said.

The idea “goes back to earlier this year, in the spring, [when] the Boston Public Schools’ athletic director came to us and said there is a high number of buses that simply are not picking up students for athletic practice,” Tobin told eSchool News, adding that “in the fall, we had three parents call and say they couldn’t find their kids.”

The city council held a hearing Nov. 8 to explore the accountability, efficiency, and safety benefits of installing GPS systems in the city’s school-bus fleet. Tobin said the evening was overshadowed by the union leader’s claims of racism and Big Brother.

“I think it’s a tired old argument by the leader of the bus drivers’ union, and they are doing a grave disservice to their members,” Tobin said. “I support them on the bus-monitor situation, but I don’t think it solves the problem.”

Since he asked the athletic director to track problems with the city’s bus service, the school system reportedly has had 27 cases where the bus was more than a half-hour late or didn’t show up at all, Tobin said.

“The union is claiming ‘Big Brother,’ but this is not futuristic stuff,” Tobin said, noting that GPS devices are used by Federal Express, UPS, the Boston Transit Authority, and even in golf carts. “We’re talking here about kids. If you can’t find your kid for 45 minutes to an hour, it takes years off your life,” he said.

Boston Public Schools spokesman Jonathan Palumbo said the GPS devices would give district officials a tremendous opportunity to offer better bus service. In fact, a growing number of school districts nationwide are purchasing school buses equipped with GPS devices to increase student safety and help dispatch maintenance crews faster.

“The unit just sits there and gives me a lot of information. But No. 1, we bought it for safety,” said Jim White, director of transportation for Hamilton Southeastern Schools in Fishers, Ind., which has been phasing in buses equipped with GPS technology as it retires old buses over the past year.

“We had two bomb scares, and [there have been] three instances nationwide where drivers have taken off with kids,” White said. Although security concerns like those are rare, the devices’ greatest help has been corroborating parental complaints, such as reports of school buses speeding through neighborhoods or arriving early or late.

“I can go back at any point and get historical data, or I can get real-time data,” White said.

Commenting on Boston’s controversy, White said part of the problem is that bus drivers there are paid an hourly wage instead of per day. “I don’t have much sympathy for those drivers, but in school districts that pay by the hour, [GPS technology] allows [officials] to see what is going on,” he said.

In California’s Ontario-Montclair School District, school officials have installed a GPS device combined with a fingerprint scanner that tracks the bus and the students riding on it on each vehicle.

“If there’s a hijacking or bus accident, we know exactly where that bus is and who is on that bus,” said Stefanie P. Phillips, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services.

“We foresee great benefits when it comes to field trips. We know who got back on that bus,” Phillips said. “It’s far more accurate than a head count and gives us a far better handle on our precious cargo.”

Robin Leeds, an industry specialist for the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), said GPS technology is still a fairly new concept on school buses, and there are bound to be some problems or issues that need to be resolved.

“It’s not an inexpensive technology,” she said. “One concern is that it’s not totally reliable, depending on what system you have.”

The NSTA has received reports of the devices failing when they can’t get a signal, similar to cell-phone “dead spots.” But, Leeds added, the devices do promise many benefits, including the tracking of maintenance needs, fuel usage, and drivers’ speed.

“It could be looked at as a way of keeping tabs on drivers,” Leeds said. “But drivers who are doing their job the way they’ve been trained and are expected to should have nothing to worry about.”

Links:

Boston School Bus Drivers’ Union
http://www.bostonschoolbusunion.org

Boston City Council
http://www.cityofboston.gov/citycouncil

Boston Public Schools
http://boston.k12.ma.us

First Student Inc.
http://www.firststudentinc.com

Hamilton Southeastern Schools
http://www.hse.k12.in.us

Ontario-Montclair School District
http://www.omsd.k12.ca.us

National School Transportation Association
http://www.schooltrans.com

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Teacher wonders if video games will be the death of literature

In an opinion column for The Washington Post, high school English teacher Patrick Welsh describes the passion his male students have for video games. Welsh wonders whether the sort of literature he teaches will ever be able to compete with high-tech toys for students’ attention. He also notes some of the problems that video games have caused for educators, particularly at the college level, where many freshmen would rather play video games than attend class. (Note: This site requires registration.)

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Students take part in upgrading Miss. district’s hardware

The Natchez Democrat of Natchez, Miss., reports that students in a local computer systems technology class are earning credit and helping the district at the same time by upgrading the district’s computers. The students’ assistance has enabled a “swamped” technology department to service more computers than it otherwise could have.

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Elementary school’s students hooked on videoconferencing

The North Adams Transcript of North Adams, Mass., reports on a local elementary school’s experience with its new videoconferencing equipment. The equipment has enabling students to interact with children as far away as Texas and Missouri. In one exercise, teams of students from various schools competed in a game to guess the “mystery cities” that other students were describing.

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Maine high school’s ninth-graders get to join laptop program

The Times Record News of Brunswick, Maine, reports that Freeport High School gave out new laptop computers to all of its ninth-graders on Dec. 1. Freeport is one of just two midcoast Maine schools that has extended the state’s laptop program beyond the seventh and eighth grades.

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Ex-employee accused of putting child porn on district computers

The Asbury Park Press of Asbury Park, N.J., reports that a former employee of the local school district has been charged with loading child pornography onto the district’s computer system. The 27-year-old man is accused of uploading five pictures of children under the age of 16 engaging in sexual activity. The former employee, who worked for the district for six years, left for Florida last summer before any of these allegations arose.

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