Critics blast ED’s ‘propaganda’ probe

Investigators looking into a massive, multimillion-dollar public relations campaign to support President Bush’s top education priorities acknowledge that taxpayer dollars were used in ways that often were not disclosed to the public, in clear violation of federal rules–but they stopped short of concluding that the government has engaged in any illegal propaganda.

Their report has raised the ire of many Democrats in Congress, who say it doesn’t go far enough in its rebuke. The Bush administration has devoted too much time–and money–to polishing its own public image, and not nearly enough on providing adequate funding to improve the nation’s schools, the president’s critics contend.

The report, from the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) Office of the Inspector General (OIG)–the internal investigation unit responsible for policing ED programs–found that media relations firms, advocacy groups, and other private companies received nearly $5 million in grants to help galvanize public support for the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) without disclosing that they received taxpayer funds to do so, as required by law.

In at least four cases, education officials failed to turn over materials necessary for investigators to conduct a thorough analysis. In one such instance–a $1.7 million public relations effort–ED was unable to provide a complete list of work statements associated with the contract and could not specify what deliverables the investment intended to yield.

Though the report, released by Inspector General John Higgins’ office earlier this month, found no evidence of “covert propaganda” on behalf of education officials, it did say ED needs to do a better job of tracking and monitoring how taxpayer dollars are spent and even suggested that the administration move to recoup some of the monies in those instances where rules governing full disclosure reportedly were broken.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., requested the report in January after it was discovered that ED paid conservative commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote NCLB programs in newspaper columns and as part of his television talk show. Williams’ payment was part of a larger, $1.3 million contract awarded to the Ketchum public relations firm for promotion related to the landmark education law.

Williams was one of several high-profile columnists who reportedly received federal money as part of larger grants or contracts intended to create brand awareness and promote NCLB-related policies, documents have revealed.

Though the government is allowed to hire PR firms and other individuals to advocate for reform, the rule states that these parties must openly disclose their government ties to the public. Failing to disclose such a relationship could be construed as an attempt to sway public opinion unfairly, according to the report.

In all, investigators reviewed some 20 contracts and 15 grants awarded by ED from 1999 through 2004 for evidence of “covert propaganda.”

According to the report, three grants were used to create opinion pieces in newspapers. Each of these failed to disclose that they were produced with the aid of government dollars, though ED officials claim–and investigators agree–the oversight was unintentional.

“While three of the grants resulted in op-ed opinion pieces that did not include the disclaimer language required … we did not find evidence to conclude that the department awarded these grants with an intent to influence public opinion through the undisclosed use of third-party grantees,” wrote investigators.

But that doesn’t mean ED shouldn’t attempt to recoup the funds. “In the absence of the disclaimer language, the funds used to produce a publication may be an improper expenditure, requiring [ED] to initiate appropriate recovery action,” the report stated.

Six other grants used to create brochures, print and radio ads, billboards, and other pro-NCLB materials also did not fully disclose the role of the department, according to the report. One contract, meanwhile, still is under review pending ED’s ability to produce the relevant paperwork, officials said. Because disclosure rules are more lenient for advertisements than for op-ed pieces, investigators recommend that ED seek reimbursement for these materials on a case-by-case basis.

The OIG’s findings weren’t enough to satisfy Miller, who accused the department of attempting to avoid public scrutiny by claiming ignorance. In its defense, ED claims that grantees and contractors simply were not aware of the rules.

“The department is trying to define itself out of trouble by setting the bar very high for what constitutes ‘covert propaganda,'” said Miller. “But on multiple occasions, education groups used taxpayer money–unbeknownst to taxpayers–to promote controversial federal policies.”

He added: “The department allowed this egregious use of taxpayer dollars to continue with such consistency that it cannot now claim that it was ignorant of the practice. Either the department is grossly incompetent when it comes to awarding grants and contracts, or it is misleading investigators and engaging in a cover-up.”

All told, ED spent more than $14 million in grants and contracts through 2004 to promote NCLB to the public.

Though total federal spending on education also rose during this period, state and local education leaders from both political parties contend the increased funding hasn’t been enough to meet NCLB’s strict mandates for student achievement. What’s more, budget cuts are likely across the board in 2006 as Congress weighs spending hundreds of billions in additional aid for the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast region and the war on terror.

For advocates of educational technology, the budget picture has been even bleaker. While ED was spending $14 million to promote NCLB, funding for the Enhancing Education Through Technology block-grant program–the main source of federal funding for educational technology–dropped from $700.5 million in 2002 to $496 million last year.

Still, the practice of spinning pre-packaged marketing as legitimate news is nothing new to Washington politics. Former President Clinton used similar strategies to get some of his messages out to the public. In March, an investigation by The New York Times found that Clinton, like Bush, also had a habit of paying public relations firms to produce canned news reports written and reported by supposedly objective journalists.

But the line between true journalism and recycled PR-speak has been blurred even more since Bush took office, critics say.

“Under the Bush administration, federal agencies appear to be producing more releases, and on a broader array of topics,” the Times pointed out.

Though it’s nearly impossible to track every piece of government-produced news that appears on television or in the pages of major newspapers, estimates say Bush spent close to $254 million on public relations contracts during his first term in office, nearly twice what Clinton spent, according to the paper.

To ED’s credit, investigators looking into the department’s PR efforts said a majority of the grants and contracts used to promote NCLB and other initiatives–about $8 million worth–either properly disclosed the government’s involvement or were not required to because they were never intended for public consumption.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings did not concede any fault on behalf of the department, but agreed that there is room for improvement. The findings “will be very helpful to the department in our continuing efforts to improve our processes in awarding and monitoring grants and contracts,” wrote Spellings in response to the report.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, ED refused to comment further, saying that “apart from Secretary Spellings’ letter addressing this, we haven’t provided any further responses.”

ED also refused to say why it failed to provide investigators with requested information pertaining to four contracts and at least one grant.

In her letter, Spellings said officials would try to locate the missing documents and eventually turn them over for review. In the event of any violation of law, Spellings said, “the department will take appropriate remedial action.”

In the meantime, OIG made several recommendations for ED as it seeks to improve its overall handling of public relations campaigns–improvements Spellings says the department either is working on already or intends to implement in the not-too-distant future.

For starters, investigators recommended that ED devise a more efficient means of helping internal personnel and grantees understand rules and policies to ensure that contracts and grants are handled appropriately.

The OIG also said ED should make a more concerted effort to track and monitor grants and contracts, so officials can better understand how well projects help the department meet its long-term goals.

Spellings’ pledge to tighten the bolts on ED’s PR machine notwithstanding, Miller and other critics contend the damage already has been done.

“This was an irresponsible use of taxpayer dollars, and the taxpayers ought to be made whole again,” said Miller. “But that’s only part of the story. People looking at advertisements or reading their local newspapers would have had no idea that what they were reading was bought and paid for with their tax dollars. No matter which way you slice it, that is propaganda.”

Links:

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

Office of the Inspector General
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/index.html?src=oc

OIG’s “Review of Department-Identified Contracts and Grants for Public Relations Services”
http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oig/aireports/i13f0012.pdf

Rep. George Miller
http://www.house.gov/georgemiller/

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Maine district banking on energy efficiency

The Morning Sentinel of Waterville, Maine, reports on the local school district’s efforts to reduce rising energy bills by putting its focus on more efficient energy use. Honeywell is conducting an energy audit at the district’s schools to determine ways to offer more efficient lighting, refrigeration, insulation and heating. The district’s superintendent said he expects this emphasis on efficiency will make up for energy costs that could rise as much as 100 percent.

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Online learning pays off for Minn. district

The Caledonia Argus of Caledonia, Minn., reports that the local district is enrolling students in two online schools — the Minnesota Virtual Academy for K-8 and the Minnesota Center of Online Learning for high school students. The district has offered online classes for several years, and during this time it has seen its enrollment go from 480 students in 2000 to 1,134 students in 2005.

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Michigan dental students bite into podcasts

The Ann Arbor News of Ann Arbor, Mich., reports that students at the University of Michigan’s dental school are storing podcasts of professors’ lectures in Apple’s iTunes Music store. Apple has given the university permission to use iTunes as a storage mechanism because it is eager to grow its consumer base among college and university students.

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Argentine school tests WiMax technology

Thanks to an emerging wireless technology known as WiMax, students at the Instituto Agropecuario de Monte in Buenos Aires, Argentina, now can use the internet for research in their classrooms–and from locations in the countryside several miles away.

This rural agricultural school–90 miles outside the Argentine capital–is one of the first active test sites for WiMax, a wireless broadband technology that reportedly can broadcast a wireless internet signal over several miles without needing a clear line of sight. Proponents of the technology say it will be instrumental in helping communities realize their vision of ubiquitous wireless connectivity–but skeptics point out there’s a long way to go before that happens.

“WiMax is definitely changing how we do education,” said Maria del Carmen Villar, the school’s director, during a demonstration of the technology last month. For the demonstration, del Carmen Villar’s image was streamed over the internet to attendees of the Intel Developer Forum conference in San Francisco.

The demonstration showed WiMax can fulfill at least some of the many promises made over the years.

It’s been hyped as an affordable way to bring the internet to poorer and rural regions around the world, break the broadband duopoly of cable and telephone companies, and eventually cover entire countries with seamless, high-speed internet access for viewing video, making phone calls, and completing other data-intensive tasks.

Trouble is, despite years of promises, WiMax has yet to move beyond trials and carefully scripted demonstrations, including those at the Intel Developer Forum.

Skeptics question whether all the promises can be fulfilled and suggest that other technologies can solve the same problems sooner.

“Any new technology that comes out takes a while before it either fails or becomes broadly established. In that period, people can say it’s been overblown,” said Sean Maloney, general manager of the mobility group at Intel Corp., one of WiMax’s biggest cheerleaders. “I don’t think that applies to WiMax.”

WiMax–short for Worldwide Interoperability for Microwave Access–is expected in two flavors. The first, known as fixed wireless, is similar to the wireless standard known as Wi-Fi, but on a much larger scale and at faster speeds. A nomadic version would keep WiMax-enabled devices connected over large areas, much like today’s cell phones.

Supporters say WiMax would complement and not compete with existing technologies such as Wi-Fi, the wireless networking technology now available through countless hotspots in schools, parks, coffee shops, airports, and other locales around the world.

While Wi-Fi typically provides local network access for a few hundred feet with speeds of up to 54 megabits per second (Mbps), a single WiMax antenna is expected to have a range of up to 40 miles with speeds of 70 Mbps or more.

As such, WiMax can bring the underlying internet connection needed to service local Wi-Fi networks.

The fixed wireless thrust of WiMax allows some portability within hotspots, but its main focus is on bypassing the last mile of wires that’s been critical in connecting people to the internet. Today, that has mostly been the domain of telephone and cable companies that have existing connections to homes, businesses, and schools.

Still, even its supporters say WiMax isn’t likely to displace DSL or cable broadband services anytime soon. Rather, Maloney said, its biggest impact is where that infrastructure does not yet exist.

That was the case at the Argentine school, which was simply too remote for regular broadband. In fact, the country has been far behind the rest of the world in high-speed internet access, said Ignacio Nores, marketing manager at Ertach, the Argentine service provider running the WiMax trial.

Maloney said the initial deployments of WiMax will largely be in fast-growing, emerging market economies.

Progress is being made. Late last year, a standard was approved. Now, the WiMax Forum, which will certify various vendors’ offerings for interoperability, counts 343 companies as members and has started testing products expected for release next year.

By standardizing the technology, supporters hope to create a flurry of competition among vendors, driving down prices and preventing a single company from dominating, said Charles Golvin, a Forrester Research analyst.

The number of trials has ballooned to more than 100, up from 50 just months ago.

One of these trials, in Georgia’s Houston County (see story: “Schools could thrive in completely wireless county“), proved promising–but local officials say the project is on hold while they look for the funding needed to continue it.

“We conducted a feasibility study and deployed a pilot network that was up for a very short period,” said Matt Stone, chief architect of the initiative, which Houston County officials undertook in partnership with Intel Corp. and Siemens AG.

“We were able to transmit service 11.5 miles and receive 6.8 megabits [per second] of throughput,” Stone said. “It worked very well.”

But Stone said the feasibility study also found it would be impossible for the local government to raise the $700,000 to $800,000 necessary to fund the project itself.

When eSchool News first reported on the county’s WiMax project back in 2003, it was projected to have a total cost of $2 million. But the cost of the technology has come down since then, according to Stone.

Other roadblocks remain, however, including the lack of international agreement on what part of the wireless spectrum to use. For now, some WiMax trials have been using unlicensed frequencies, but interference could downgrade performance–a big turnoff for major companies running critical applications.

“You don’t have any legal recourse against people who are essentially interfering with your service,” Golvin said.

WiMax’s roaming thrust faces even greater challenges. Ratification of the standard isn’t expected for up to two months, and testing of equipment isn’t expected until at least 2007.

To seamlessly cover large areas, WiMax has to gain the support of large carriers–including cellular phone operators that have invested billions of dollars in other technologies known as 3G, or third generation.

“It’s a wonderful technology on paper, but in reality you need the service providers–the Vodafones, the Cingulars around the world–to do something,” said Michel Mayer, chief executive of Freescale Semiconductor Inc., which was spun off last year from cell phone maker Motorola Inc.

For either flavor of WiMax, Golvin said, there’s still the question of how far is the gap between the promise and the real-world delivery.

But carriers are careful not to completely discount WiMax.

“We do think it’s an interesting technology and concept, but there are no plans to deploy,” said Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless. “WiMax is the step beyond a twinkle in an engineer’s eye.”

Links:

WiMax Forum
http://www.wimaxforum.org

Intel WiMax
http://www.intel.com/netcomms/technologies/wimax

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Tech having big impact at Hawaiian school

The Honolulu Star-Bulletin features a student-written piece on the technology boom at a local Catholic school, where computers have helped to “raise the quality of teaching and the level of student understanding and achievement,” according to the school’s visual arts chairman. The school boasts a $75,000 computer lab with 20 iMac G5 machines and offers courses in digital imaging, computer animation and digital photography.

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UGA freshmen struggle with web-based tools

Red and Black, an independent student newspaper at the University of Georgia, reports that many of the school’s freshmen are struggling to adjust to new technology used in their classes. This includes web-based software that allows students to have off-hours discussions online, take tests online, and deliver papers to their professors. Some students who arrived on campus with limited exposure to computers have also had difficulty registering for their parking and football tickets.

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When are kids too young to be keyboarding?

The Missoulian of Missoula, Mont., reports on the debate at a local elementary school over when is the best time to teach keyboarding skills. Missoula County Public Schools is currently in the process of reviewing its practical arts curriculum, which includes a nine-week keyboarding class for sixth-graders and another class for seventh-graders. But with younger students now learning to type, the district must determine if it needs to introduce keyboarding in its elementary schools, and if this happens, will students be denied a chance to learn sound handwriting skills before they start typing.

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Initiatives target math, science instruction

The call for better math, science, and technology education in U.S. schools intensified last week with the announcement of two new initiatives–one from the private sector, one from the federal government–aimed at bolstering instruction in these areas.

International Business Machines (IBM) Corp., worried the United States is losing its competitive edge, will financially back employees who want to leave the company to become math and science teachers, the company said on Sept. 16. And the U.S. Department of Education (ED) is forming a partnership with TechNet, a group of technology companies, to create workshops for math, science, and technology teachers in urban areas.

IBM’s new program, announced in concert with New York City and state education officials, reflects technology industry fears that U.S. students are falling behind their peers from Bangalore to Beijing in the sciences.

Up to 100 IBM employees will be eligible for the program in its trial phase. Eventually, Big Blue hopes many more of its tech-savvy employees–and those in other companies–will follow suit.

The goal is to help fill shortfalls in the nation’s teaching ranks, a problem expected to grow with the retirement of today’s educators.

Forty percent of public school teachers plan to exit the profession within five years, the highest rate since at least 1990, according to a study released in August by the National Center for Education Information. The rate is expected to be even greater among high school teachers, half of whom plan to be out of teaching by 2010.

The projected turnover rate will deprive school districts of an enormous amount of teaching experience just as the U.S. pushes to get a top instructor in every class.

Math and science are of particular concern to companies in many U.S. industries that expect to need technical workers but see low test scores in those subjects and waning interest in science careers.

“Over a quarter-million math and science teachers are needed, and it’s hard to tell where the pipeline is,” said Stanley Litow, head of the IBM Foundation, the Armonk, N.Y.-based company’s community service wing. “That is like a ticking time bomb not just for technology companies, but for business and the U.S. economy.”

While many companies encourage their employees to tutor schoolchildren or do other things to get involved in education, IBM believes it is the first to guide workers toward switching into a teaching career.

The company expects older workers nearing retirement to be the most likely candidates, partly because they would have more financial wherewithal to take the pay cut that becoming a teacher likely would entail.

The workers would have to get approval from their managers to participate. If selected, the employees would be allowed to take a leave of absence from the company, which includes full benefits and up to half their salary, depending on length of service.

In addition, the employees could get up to $15,000 in tuition reimbursements and stipends while they seek teaching credentials and begin student-teaching.

From then on, the IBM people would become school employees–the program will encourage them to work in public schools, but they can go private if they wish–and leave Big Blue’s payroll. But IBM plans to offer a mentoring program that would give its former workers guidance and teaching materials over the internet.

New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills, left, Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools Joel Klein, center, and IBM International Foundation president Stanley Litow talk to first grade students in New York at the announcement of the IBM “Transition to Teaching” Program. (Associated Press photo)
CLICK PHOTO TO ENLARGE

“It’s not an easy transition to make,” said Litow, a former deputy schools chancellor in New York City.

IBM’s announcement reflects a growing trend in which math, science, and technology experts are being trained to teach, as school systems expand their recruitment beyond colleges of education to other career fields.

Broadening this pool of prospective teachers will help fill the void of retiring teachers, said Michelle Rhee, president of The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps some of the largest school districts recruit teachers.

Teacher-to-Teacher additions

In contrast, ED’s announcement–which aims to promote strong technology skills among teachers–focuses on training the current educator workforce.

“TechNet believes one of the most significant threats America faces today is our declining commitment to math, science, and technology education,” said Jim Hock, a TechNet spokesman. “As such, we must make improving our young people’s ability in these disciplines a national priority.”

Having teachers better trained in math and science will allow these teachers to reach out and educate others, Hock added.

“Our goal is to train 100,000 teachers during the 2005-2006 school year in math, science, and technology, and to amplify the skills of elementary and secondary school teachers,” he said. TechNet is lending its expertise, as well as financial support, to these efforts.

TechNet is a bipartisan political network of chief executive officers that promotes the growth of technology and innovation.

ED’s partnership with TechNet is one of several new additions to its Teacher-to-Teacher initiative, a program that offers educators professional development and research-based strategies.

Another new addition to the program is a Teacher-to-Teacher Training Corps, made up of teachers who will provide on-site technical assistance to school districts.

Teachers and school leaders who use scientifically-based research strategies and who have data to demonstrate effectiveness may apply for membership in the corps. Corps members also will host regional workshops and will lead presentations at ED’s 2006 Teacher-to-Teacher workshops.

In addition, a new department web site will feature information for teachers, along with a place to submit questions directly to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. “Ask the Secretary” is a new web page that gives teachers the opportunity to ask the secretary questions and learn information about a range of subjects, including teacher quality, professional development, and state academic standards.

The Teacher-to-Teacher initiative offers workshops for teachers, teacher and principal roundtable discussions, regular eMail updates, and free online professional development. More than 4,500 teachers have participated in these workshops and roundtable discussions, and the Teacher-to-Teacher initiative in general has helped more than 200,000 teachers to date, according to ED.

All 50 states and the District of Columbia accept ED’s Teacher-to-Teacher summer workshops and online professional development courses for credit. The free digital workshops have been expanded to include 32 courses and are available to teachers around the world.

The next round of Teacher-to-Teacher workshops is scheduled for summer 2006 in Atlanta.

“Highly skilled teachers are the key to closing the achievement gap,” Spellings said. “The U.S. Department of Education’s Teacher-to-Teacher initiative is helping teachers strengthen their skills by increasing their opportunities to engage in frequent professional development.”

Links:

IBM Corp.
http://www.ibm.com

National Center for Education Information
http://www.ncei.com

The New Teacher Project
http://www.tntp.org

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

Teacher-to-Teacher initiative
http://www.ed.gov/teachers/how/tools/initiative/index.html

TechNet
http://www.technet.org

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Futurist urges Mont. district to embrace tech

The Daily Interlake of Kalispell, Mont., reports on a lecture by consultant and futurist Ed Barlow, who spoke to local educators and business leaders about the importance of exposing students to technology if they are going to be ready for 21st-century economic demands. “We need to move from a system of education to a system of learning,” said Barlow, who sees the internet as the center of an entirely information-based world that is still in its developmental stages. In that sense, information literacy is a crucial skill students must develop in order to be prepared for the future.

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