States: Ed tech is raising student achievement

This fall, nine states will be presenting their findings after three years of federally funded research into technology’s impact on teaching and learning–and an early look at these findings shows some promising results.

In West Virginia, for example, a program to provide school-based professional development in the use of classroom technologies has led to more widespread use of technology by teachers and students–and that increase, in turn, has been linked with achievement gains in reading and math.

In Texas, a program that gave laptop computers to students and teachers in some middle schools has been shown to improve school communications, reduce discipline referrals, and level the playing field for students from low-income families. At least one of the participating schools has gone from being a “low-performing campus” to meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and parents and staff attribute these gains to the laptop project.

In Iowa, a statewide professional development program that uses peer networking and video conferencing to help change teaching practices has resulted in measurable gains in student achievement. Eighth-grade students reportedly have improved their math scores by an average of 14 points, fourth-graders have improved their reading scores by an average of 13 points, and fourth graders have improved their math scores by 16 points on average.

And in Arkansas, a program in which students use technology to solve real-world problems is having a significant impact. Students involved in the project are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to go on to college than are their peers. Their achievement scores also tend to be higher than the scores of their peers from more traditional classrooms, officials say.

West Virginia, Texas, Iowa, and Arkansas are among the nine states that have received a total of $15 million in “Evaluating State Educational Technology Projects” grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) over the last three years. The other states are Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

The grants funded states’ efforts to provide scientifically based research into the impact of large-scale, technology-based projects on student achievement in elementary and secondary schools. Participating states contracted with local universities or other private evaluators to measure the impact of technology on teaching and learning, and they are expected to submit their final reports from these studies to ED officials this fall.

Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), says an early look at some of these reports offers encouraging results. Wolf’s organization is working with eight of the nine states to disseminate their research findings through a SETDA-run web site.

The grants “have only exceeded expectations in terms of their … potential for improving education,” she said. “States and their research partners addressed important questions [regarding] the [impact] of technology on areas such as student achievement, teacher quality, and instruction, and [they] carefully addressed the context in which technology makes an important difference.”

In comparing the results from demographically similar control and experimental schools, Wolf said, state researchers have found some significant differences in areas such as student engagement, achievement, and discipline.

These differences are especially pronounced when certain factors are in place, she added, such as high-quality, ongoing professional development in the use of technology to support learning; effective school leadership; and a curriculum that personalizes instruction.

Previews of these states’ reports have come just a few months after ED released a major ed-tech research report of its own. That report, which touched off a firestorm of controversy in the ed-tech community when it appeared in April, shows that the use of certain software programs to help teach reading and math in some 439 classrooms did not lead to higher test scores after a year of implementation. (See ED study slams software efficacy.)

Critics of ED’s software study, including Wolf, have noted that many of the factors necessary for ed-tech success appear not to have occurred in the schools involved in ED’s study. As a result, average use of the software programs in that study accounted for only about 10 or 11 percent of the total instructional time for the entire school year–well below what the products were designed for.

What ED’s software study demonstrates, and states’ experiences confirm, is that “without ongoing and sustainable professional development, access to tools and resources, and leadership, technology’s potential [in education] will not be maximized,” Wolf said.

Not all of the results from the state research were definitive. In Texas, where researchers compared the outcomes in 22 experimental and 22 control schools over two years, there were pockets of considerable improvement among laptop-using students–but no statistically significant difference in the overall reading scores of students with laptops and those without.

Through the state’s Technology Immersion Pilot (TIP), each teacher and student in grades six through eight in the 22 treatment schools received a wireless laptop computer loaded with productivity software, and they also had access to online curriculum and assessment tools. In addition, teachers received technology training and ongoing support.

“We’re still looking at the preliminary results on student achievement,” said lead researcher Kelly Shapley of Shapley Research Associates. “There may be some effects, but we need more time to see the results. … We regard these as formative data, not summative outcomes.”

Still, the students in the pilot schools tended to be much more engaged in their lessons, did not have as many discipline problems, and demonstrated more interaction with their peers, Shapley said. And there was a significant increase in the pilot students’ proficiency with technology, which has narrowed the gap considerably between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.

In fact, she said, students in the pilot schools had passed their peers in the control schools in terms of technology proficiency by the end of the second year.

At Brady Middle School in Brady, Texas, students were testing below the state average in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade reading and math before the laptop project and above the state average in all of these areas two years later. As a result, the school has progressed from being a “low-performing campus” to meeting AYP.

“There is no doubt in the minds of our students, teachers, administrators, and parents that this would not have been achieved without TIP,” says Eric Bierman, the school’s principal. “The students have become more responsible for their learning, more active in their participation in the classroom, and much more knowledgeable about the role of technology in problem solving and learning.”

Links:

SETDA’s state research page

Technology Immersion Pilot

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Schools’ emergency plans lag

When it comes to preparing for emergencies, the nation’s schools could be getting better grades, a new report says.

While most school districts have plans for dealing with emergencies such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes, or flu pandemics, those plans often fall short of what is needed, according to an analysis by the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO).

For example, about half of school districts don’t have plans for continuing to educate students in the event of a lengthy school closure; school districts generally are not working with first responders or other community officials on how to implement emergency plans; 28 percent of school districts with emergency plans do not have specific provisions for evacuating students with disabilities in an emergency; and two-thirds of districts reported a lack of expertise and equipment, such as two-way radios and adequate locks for school buildings, as impediments to emergency planning.

Cornelia Ashby, director of education issues for the GAO, summarized the agency’s findings for the House Homeland Security Committee on May 17.

Holly Kuzmich, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), said the department requires school districts to certify that they have emergency-management plans before they can get grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program. But Kuzmich acknowledged the department doesn’t assess the quality of those emergency plans.

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he intends to change that. “I assure you that we will tighten that part of the requirement up, so there is some review of whatever is submitted,” he said.

As school leaders look to shore up their emergency plans, a recent addition to eSchool News Online can help: Earlier this year, eSchool News and the International Society for Technology in Education teamed up to launch the SAFE (School Actions For Emergencies) Center, an organic online resource that includes “best-of-breed” examples of planning documents covering key types of disasters and emergencies.

Under the “Emergencies” tab of the SAFE Center, you’ll find links to resources grouped by disaster type; click on “Shootings,” for example, and you’ll have access to dozens of materials to help you prepare or react. These include links to the National Education Association’s “Crisis Communication Guide & Toolkit,” along with the U.S. Department of Education’s emergency-planning web site. In addition, there are links to model school crisis management plans from the California and Virginia education departments.

The “Shootings” section is just one of more than a dozen resource areas in the SAFE Center. Other sections help school leaders plan for emergencies such as bomb threats, terrorist attacks, and pandemics, as well as natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and floods.

At the May 17 House committee hearing, lawmakers also criticized the Bush administration for planning to cut a program that provides grants to districts to keep schools free of drugs and violence.

The administration wants to cut the Safe and Drug-Free Schools grant program from $300 million to about $100 million and wants to give the money to states to dole out, rather than directly to districts, Kuzmich said.

Lawmakers and witnesses also criticized the quality of data available on school violence.

Generally, such information comes from surveys of principals and students rather than from actual crime data such as police reports, said Ken Trump, a consultant on school safety issues.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., is pushing legislation that would require federal education officials to collect data on crimes that occur at schools from law-enforcement officials. The information then would have to be passed along to states.

“If we don’t have correct data up to date, we don’t know what schools are actually violent,” McCarthy said.

Trump said the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has placed so much pressure on school administrators to boost academic scores that school safety issues have been relegated to the back burner.

The education law includes a provision that allows students in schools labeled “persistently dangerous” to transfer to other schools. However, few schools ever get that designation. The largest state, California, has never had a single school labeled persistently dangerous.

Robert Sica, a special agent in charge at the Threat Assessment Center at the Homeland Security Department, said assailants usually tell other people about attacks before they occur and typically are planning violence in a misguided attempt to solve a problem.

“Despite all of our best efforts, we will never prevent every incident of targeted violence in schools, and I think we have to accept that,” Sica said.

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States: Ed tech is raising student achievement

This fall, nine states will be presenting their findings after three years of federally funded research into technology’s impact on teaching and learning–and an early look at these findings shows some promising results.

In West Virginia, for example, a program to provide school-based professional development in the use of classroom technologies has led to more widespread use of technology by teachers and students–and that increase, in turn, has been linked with achievement gains in reading and math.

In Texas, a program that gave laptop computers to students and teachers in some middle schools has been shown to improve school communications, reduce discipline referrals, and level the playing field for students from low-income families. At least one of the participating schools has gone from being a “low-performing campus” to meeting Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), and parents and staff attribute these gains to the laptop project.

In Iowa, a statewide professional development program that uses peer networking and video conferencing to help change teaching practices has resulted in measurable student achievement gains. Eighth-grade students reportedly have improved their math scores by an average of 14 points, and fourth-graders have improved their reading scores by 13 points and their math scores by 16 points on average.

And in Arkansas, a program in which students use technology to solve real-world problems is having a significant impact. Students involved in the project are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to go on to college than are their peers. Their achievement scores also tend to be higher than the scores of their peers from more traditional classrooms, officials say.

West Virginia, Texas, Iowa, and Arkansas are among the nine states that have received a total of $15 million in “Evaluating State Educational Technology Projects” grants from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) over the last three years. The other states are Maine, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

The grants funded states’ efforts to provide scientifically based research into the impact of large-scale, technology-based projects on student achievement in elementary and secondary schools. Participating states contracted with local universities or other private evaluators to measure the impact of technology on teaching and learning, and they are expected to submit their final reports from these studies to ED officials this fall.

Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), says an early look at these reports offers encouraging results. Wolf’s organization is working with eight of the nine states to disseminate their research findings through a SETDA-run web site.

The grants “have only exceeded expectations in terms of their … potential for improving education,” she said. “States and their research partners addressed important questions [regarding] the [impact] of technology on areas such as student achievement, teacher quality, and instruction, and [they] carefully addressed the context in which technology makes an important difference.”

In comparing the results from demographically similar control and experimental schools, Wolf said, state researchers have found some significant differences in areas such as student engagement, achievement, and discipline.

These differences are especially pronounced when certain factors are in place, she added, such as high-quality, ongoing professional development in the use of technology to support learning; effective school leadership; and a curriculum that personalizes instruction.

Previews of these states’ reports have come just a few months after ED released a major ed-tech research report of its own. That report, which touched off a firestorm of controversy in the ed-tech community when it appeared in April, shows that the use of certain software programs to help teach reading and math in some 439 classrooms did not lead to higher test scores after a year of implementation. (See ED study slams software efficacy: http://www.eschoolnews.com/ news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=7034.)

Critics of ED’s software study, including Wolf, have noted that many of the factors necessary for ed-tech success appear not to have occurred in the schools involved in ED’s study. As a result, average use of the software programs in that study accounted for only about 10 or 11 percent of the total instructional time for the entire school year–well below what the products were designed for.

What ED’s software study demonstrates, and states’ experiences confirm, is that “without ongoing and sustainable professional development, access to tools and resources, and leadership, technology’s potential [in education] will not be maximized,” Wolf said.

Not all of the results from the state research were definitive. In Texas, where researchers compared the outcomes in 22 experimental and 22 control schools over two years, there were pockets of considerable improvement among laptop-using students–but no statistically significant difference in the overall reading scores of students with laptops and those without.

Through the state’s Technology Immersion Pilot (TIP), each teacher and student in grades six through eight in the 22 treatment schools received a wireless laptop with productivity software, and they also had access to online curriculum and assessment tools. In addition, teachers received technology training and ongoing support.

“We’re still looking at the preliminary results on student achievement,” said lead researcher Kelly Shapley of Shapley Research Associates. “There may be some effects, but we need more time to see the results. … We regard these as formative data, not summative outcomes.”

Still, the students in the pilot schools tended to be much more engaged in their lessons, did not have as many discipline problems, and demonstrated more interaction with their peers, Shapley said. And there was a significant increase in the pilot students’ proficiency with technology, which has narrowed the gap considerably between economically disadvantaged students and their peers.

In fact, she said, students in the pilot schools had passed their peers in the control schools in terms of technology proficiency by the end of the second year.

At Brady Middle School in Brady, Texas, students were testing below the state average in sixth, seventh, and eighth grade reading and math before the laptop project, and above the state average two years later. As a result, the school has progressed from being a “low-performing campus” to meeting AYP.

“There is no doubt in the minds of our students, teachers, administrators, and parents that this would not have been achieved without TIP,” says Eric Bierman, the school’s principal. “The students have become more responsible for their learning, more active in their participation in the classroom, and much more knowledgeable about the role of technology in problem solving and learning.”

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Ed-tech funding in focus

Three Democratic lawmakers and one Republican on May 23 introduced legislation designed to ensure no child is left behind when it comes to technology.

Numerous education organizations hailed the new bill–H.R. 2449, the Achievement Through Technology and Innovation (ATTAIN) Act–saying it will make significant improvements to the federal Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) program as part of the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

Introduced by Democratic Reps. Lucille Roybal-Allard of California, Ruben Hinojosa of Texas, and Ron Kind of Wisconsin, as well as Republican Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois, the ATTAIN Act would overhaul EETT, improving support for disadvantaged schools and students and ensuring that teachers are properly equipped to use technology effectively. More specifically, it would focus funds on professional development and systemic reform that leverage 21st-century technologies, prioritize funding to schools in need of improvement, and require states to assess whether students have achieved technological literacy by the eighth grade.

The ATTAIN Act authorizes $1 billion in funding for the revamped EETT program, the same as is currently authorized under EETT, said a spokesman from Roybal-Allard’s office. While $1 billion in funding certainly could boost educational technology, actual funding for EETT has never come close to reaching that mark, ed-tech advocates noted.

The ATTAIN Act is based on input from education stakeholders, including the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), and Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA).

“When schools are properly equipped to meet the technology needs of students, and when they have properly trained teachers, students are engaged, eager to learn, and are ultimately better prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century,” said Roybal-Allard.

“One of the most effective ways we can sharpen America’s competitive edge is by investing in technology in the classroom,” said Hinojosa. “This bill will further the technological prowess of our nation’s schools and students and ultimately will increase our economic prosperity and capacity for innovation.”

The primary source of federal funding for school technology, EETT is a block-grant program in which the federal government doles out funding to the states, which then pass this funding on to local districts. States must distribute half of the funds competitively and half by formula.

The program has seen its funding decline from nearly $700 million in FY 2004 to $496 million in FY 2005 and then to $273 million last year and this year. Advocates of educational technology say this steady erosion of funds has severely curtailed many states’ and school districts’ ed-tech programs–and it makes no sense, they say, given the president’s stated commitment to ensuring the global competitiveness of American students.

Ed-tech groups who helped influence the new bill say they hope it will target these funds more effectively–which also might lead to broader support for educational technology.

“We are ecstatic that this well-crafted refinement of EETT is beginning to move,” said Don Knezek, chief executive officer of ISTE. “Teachers are our nation’s most valuable resources and absolutely crucial to whether educational technology implementations succeed. The ATTAIN Act’s focus on technology professional development will help ensure that our investments in school hardware, software, and infrastructure are leveraged for the benefit of our nation’s students.”

“The introduction of the ATTAIN Act demonstrates that Representatives Roybal-Allard, Hinojosa, Biggert, and Kind understand the important role that educational technology plays in meeting NCLB’s goals and equipping our students with the skills necessary to succeed in the modern workforce,” said Keith Krueger, CEO of CoSN. “We hope that the House will follow their lead and move expeditiously to enact this bill, thereby giving a big shot in the arm to educational technologists, students, and companies across the country.”

The ATTAIN Act would increase the share of state-to-local funding distributed by formula from 50 percent to 60 percent, adding a minimum grant size to ensure that more school districts receive allocations of sufficient size to permit them to operate significant ed-tech programs.

It also would update EETT by strengthening the program’s emphasis on teacher quality and technology skills by raising the portion of formula grants set aside for professional development from 25 percent to 40 percent, while emphasizing the importance of timely and ongoing training.

“For many years, SETDA’s members have provided us with tangible examples of educational technology implementations that yield substantial academic gains; now, we will have the opportunity to bring many of them to scale,” said Mary Ann Wolf, executive director of SETDA. “This legislation’s focus on research-based, systemic reform programs that maximize the benefits of technology is an important opportunity to transform our nation’s schools.”

“We do not want our students to fall behind in this era of innovation and global competition,” said Ken Wasch, SIIA president. “Technology is vital for providing students with a learning environment that prepares them for the world beyond the classroom. The ATTAIN Act will ensure our educational system adopts modern methods to remain effective in the digital, information economy. We thank Representatives Roybal-Allard, Hinojosa, Biggert, and Kind for their leadership on this important legislation.”

Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a national Hispanic civil-rights and advocacy organization, said: “The ATTAIN Act will help ensure that even the most underresourced schools, including those where children who are learning English are concentrated, have the ability to prepare all students to meet the goals of NCLB and the needs of the 21st-century economy.”

In addition to its other functions, the ATTAIN Act would update EETT by more closely aligning the program with NCLB’s core mission by giving priority in competitive grant awards to schools identified as in need of improvement, including those with a large percentage of “limited English proficient” students and students with disabilities, as well as by focusing formula grants on students and subjects where proficiency is most lacking.

The legislation also would draw state, district, and school attention to the age and functionality needs of school technology infrastructure, access, and applications, by requiring states to provide technical assistance and guidance to districts on updating these resources.

On May 16, Roybal-Allard testified before the House Committee on Education and Labor about the importance of using technology in the classroom to help students excel in school.

“Obtaining critical technological skills is of greatest concern to low-income minority students who are falling further behind their higher-income peers in terms of 21st-century college and workplace skills,” said Roybal-Allard, who serves on the Appropriations Education Subcommittee. “An effective federal program that provides access to technology for low-income and minority students will help to close this gap.”

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Teen’s vault to internet fame a cautionary tale

The cautionary story of Allison Stokke, the 18-year-old pole vaulter from Newport Beach, Calif., who recently became the poster child for the dangers of internet media sharing, has led students, parents, and schools across the country to ask, “How can we prevent this from happening?”

It should have been harmless. A five-time national record-holding athlete was competing at a meet, as she had done many times before. A track-and-field journalist snapped her picture and posted it as part of his report on a California track web site–not an uncommon occurrence.

As first reported in the Washington Post, this benign action has catapulted Stokke’s athletic body–not her athletic talent–to unsolicited fame and recognition. Once the journalist’s photo hit the blogosphere, it was reproduced and reposted all across the internet with blinding speed. As a result, Stokke has become the victim of lewd blog discussions, thousands of MySpace messages, a YouTube video, a fake Facebook profile, and an unofficial fan web site.

To prevent this sort of thing from happening to others, Parry Aftab, executive director of wiredsafety.org, recommends taking action as soon as possible. “Google your name, see what information is provided about you, then set alerts,” Aftab advises. Using alerts (located under Google Services and Tools), Google will send an eMail message every time a keyword–in this case, someone’s name–is mentioned in a web site. This way, at least individuals can contact those web sites and have a chance to fight back.

Legally, under the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, no web site can post information about children who are under the age of 13 without parental consent. Yet Stokke is 18.

“Perhaps, and only perhaps,” Aftab says, “she can be covered under the Rights of Privacy and Publicity in Interactive Media in the state of California,” which states that any use of pictures or media cannot be used for commercial profit; however, these rights pertain mainly to celebrities. For his part, the track-and-field journalist has threatened to file suit against the blog site under standard copyright infringement laws.

Many school leaders are wondering how to stop such cases of internet frenzy and new-media sensationalism before they even begin. Jennifer Krell, head of the information technology department for Virginia’s Fairfax County Public Schools, explains that her district is implementing an internet safety curriculum in accordance with a 2006 Virginia state law directing public schools to teach online safety to their students, employees, and communities. Along with the basic curriculum, Fairfax County will integrate classroom instruction, group discussions, instructional videos, and guest speakers.

“We’re starting as early as kindergarten, teaching tips like ‘watch your internet profile’ and ‘be careful what you let others see about you,'” Krell states.

Fairfax County also has specific policies for its web sites, such an opt-out form, with which “parents can request that their child’s photos not be used on any web site or print publication. If a child in a photo is identified, it is by first name only,” says Krell.

Aftab advises that schools go one step further, requiring all event attendees with a camera to register with the school, which “includes parents, too,” she says. “Give them passes saying it’s OK and that they’ve registered with the school.” By requiring such registration, administrators can set stricter guidelines regarding the use of online photos.

As of press time, some sites featuring Stokke have made amends. Matt Ufford’s WithLeather.com, the first blog that featured Stokke’s photos, has agreed to take down the photos as soon as Stokke or her parents contact him. The unofficial fan web site, www.allisonstokke.com, has shut down, stating, “Sorry for having contributed to the unwanted attention, Allison.” The fake Facebook profile has been deleted by Facebook staff, and MySpace users seem to be restricting their messages to a designated fan page.

Yet Aftab acknowledges that as long as there are photographers, there are going to be “innocent [pictures used] for non-innocent purposes.”

There is hope, however. More schools are learning and teaching about internet safety, more parents are keeping track of their children’s internet activities, and more students are becoming aware of internet risks. For example, a recent survey commissioned by Cox Communications and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children found that 58 percent of parents say they review text content of teen chatrooms and instant messages; and, according to a report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 66 percent of teens who have online profiles restrict access to these profiles, while 46 percent post fake information to counter predators.

Even with students more guarded, parents on alert, and schools implementing new guidelines, perhaps internet community decency will prove to be the vital difference-maker.

“Even if none of it is illegal, it just all feels really demeaning,” Stokke, who was awarded an athletic scholarship to the University of California, told the Post. “I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter. Nobody sees that. Nobody really sees me.”

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Teacher gets new trial in web-porn case

A judge has granted a new trial for a former Connecticut substitute teacher convicted of allowing students to view pornography on a classroom computer.

Prosecutors did not oppose the defense motion for a new trial for Julie Amero, 40, who had faced up to 40 years in prison after her January conviction.

The school computer in question was sent to a state laboratory after the trial, and the judge said in his June 6 decision that those findings might contradict evidence presented by the state computer expert.

“The jury may have relied, at least in part, on that faulty information,” said Judge Hillary B. Strackbein, who granted the request for a new trial.

Amero has adamantly denied clicking on pornographic web sites that appeared on her classroom’s computer screen in October 2004 while she was teaching seventh-graders at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, Conn.

Some technology experts believe unseen spyware and adware programs might have generated the pop-up ads for pornographic web sites. Amero and her supporters say the old computer, which she was ordered to leave on, lacked firewall or anti-spyware protections to prevent inappropriate pop-ups.

Several students testified that they saw pictures of naked men and women on the computer screen, including at least one image of a couple having oral sex.

Amero was to have been sentenced June 6 but instead pleaded not guilty to the same charges, four counts of risk of injury to a minor. A date for the new trial had not been set as of press time.

“I had a great team behind me, and I feel comfortable with the decision today,” she said after the hearing.

Her attorney, William F. Dow, commended prosecutors, saying they acted responsibly.

“The lesson from this is all of us are subject to the whims of these computers,” he said after the hearing.

Amero’s case has become a cause célèbre among many technology experts, who say what happened to her could happen to anyone.

It all began in October 2004, when Amero was assigned to a class at Kelly Middle School in Norwich, a city of around 37,000 people about 40 miles east of Hartford.

Before her class started, Amero says, a teacher allowed her to eMail her husband. She says she used the computer and went to the bathroom, returning to find the permanent teacher gone and two students viewing a web site on hair styles.

Amero says she chased the students away and started class. But later, she says, pornographic images started popping up on the computer screen by themselves. She says she tried to click the images off, but they kept returning, and she was under strict orders not to shut the computer off.

“I did everything I possibly could to keep them from seeing anything,” she says.

Prosecutor David Smith contended at Amero’s three-day trial that she actually clicked on graphic web sites.

Computer consultant Herb Horner testified for the defense that the children had gone to an innocent web site on hair styles and were redirected to another hairstyle site that had pornographic links. “It can happen to anybody,” Horner said.

But many were skeptical, including Mark Steinmetz, who served on Amero’s jury.

“So many kids noticed this going on,” Steinmetz said. “It was truly uncalled for. I would not want my child in her classroom. All she had to do was throw a coat over [the computer] or unplug it. We figured even if there were pop-ups, would you sit there?”

In an online forum for submitting comments about the case, eSchool News readers overwhelmingly expressed shock and dismay at Amero’s plight. While many readers said she could have done more to prevent students from viewing the images, nearly all agreed she has gotten a bad rap–and many also said the school bears much of the blame.

“Not only is Amero’s experience plausible, but almost anyone who has used the internet has been the recipient of unwanted and unasked-for pornographic content,” one reader wrote. “I suspect a regular classroom teacher would have disobeyed orders and pulled the plug. … At the very most, she is guilty of poor judgment, and that is all.”

“What is really tragic about this case is … there is no evidence to indicate that the teacher, in fact, visited a porn web site,” wrote another. “Shame on the narrow-minded people who convicted her for failing to take the time to understand the nature of this very serious problem.”

A third reader had this to say: “Using this substitute teacher as the scapegoat for the school’s lack of action for internet safety is more of a criminal act than having the pop-ups on the screen.”

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Indianapolis schools post confidential data online

In one of the worst security breaches ever in a public K-12 school system, confidential data for thousands of Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) students–including, in some cases, medical information and Social Security numbers–were accidentally posted online.

The Indianapolis Star, which discovered the error and reported it May 16 to the district, said it appeared the problem had been going on for at least two years.

Officials were working to correct the problem, but they said some of the information still could be accessed through the popular search engine Google as of press time. The school district was contacting Google and other search-engine providers asking that information with Social Security numbers be erased, it said in a news release.

The Star reported that at least 7,500 students were affected. The nature of the information posted to the internet varied.

Among the files that were accessible were special-education diagnoses, students’ names and addresses, and essays in which some students revealed personal details such as experiences with abuse.

Details about the IPS computer system, employee job reviews, and other personnel files also were posted.

Beth Givens, an identity-theft expert with the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said the most dangerous data consisted of Social Security numbers for about 20 students and five staff members.

“That’s horrendous–the entire family has been victimized,” she said.

Internet security expert Roger Thompson, who reviewed the IPS web site at the Star’s request, said the error appeared to have resulted from improper settings on the district’s server or from a software flaw.

“It looks like it’s a really poorly configured system, and a lot of people are going to be really embarrassed and a lot of people are going to be really upset,” said Thompson, the chief technology officer at www.LinkScanner.com. “It looks like somebody has made a mistake.”

IPS said the information apparently was posted by individual users uploading content to certain areas of IPS Online. The district’s information technology division took steps about six weeks ago to block Google from being able to search its web site, IPS said in a news release. A disclaimer warning users not to post confidential information to IPS Online also appears.

District officials said grades, discipline, and other confidential student information now is stored in a password-protected database.

However, IPS Online is not private and can be accessed by persons outside the district, the release warns.

IPS officials reportedly began working to fix the problem within an hour of being told about it by the Star, and they notified staff and media the same day. Parents were notified that evening by telephone message, the Star reports.

Since then, some teachers and parents have expressed frustration at what they say is the lack of clear information from the district. A searchable list available on www.IndyStar.com lets users check whether a student’s records might have been exposed–information that parents reportedly have struggled to get from the district itself.

School board members said they want a full report once the district is done with its internal review.

“We’re going to look at the problem, and I’ll ask a whole lot of questions until they get tired of me,” board member Olgen Williams told the Star. “They’re going to have to reassure me and the board to the best of their ability” that such a problem can’t happen again.

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Study reveals large disparities in state standards

As lawmakers begin the process of renewing the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a report released June 7 by the Education Department (ED) is sure to fuel debate about whether the federal education law should be overhauled to make standards more uniform from state to state.

The federal government’s first-ever comparison of how states test for student progress in school shows large variations across the nation. For example, a reading score that rates a fourth-grader “proficient” in Mississippi would be a failing score in Massachusetts.

The study compared what it takes to be rated “proficient” on elementary- and

middle-school state reading and math tests to what it means to hit that mark on national tests. It found most of the scores that would label a student proficient on state tests don’t yield that grade on the national tests.

There also are huge differences in where states set their benchmarks. Massachusetts sets the proficiency score on its fourth-grade reading test at a point just below the proficiency mark on the national test. But a fourth-grader in Mississippi can be rated proficient with a state test score that is nearly 70 points lower. Proficiency is defined as working at the level expected for that grade.

ED’s report on the wide discrepancy in state proficiency standards casts the findings of another recent report in a new light. That report, released by the nonprofit Center on Education Policy (CEP) on June 5, indicated that students are doing better on state reading and math tests since NCLB was enacted five years ago, though the report said it’s too early to attribute these gains to the law itself.

Students made the most progress on elementary-school math tests, according to the CEP report, which focused on states where trend data are available. Some states have changed tests in recent years, making it impossible to compare year-to-year results.

Moderate to large gains were found in 37 of the 41 states with trend data on the percentage of kids hitting the proficient mark on elementary math tests. None of the states showed comparable declines.

A goal of NCLB is for all kids to be proficient in reading and math by 2014.

Another goal is to narrow achievement gaps between children from low-income families and wealthier ones and between minorities and white students. The CEP report found achievement gaps have narrowed since the law was passed.

Specifically, the study found that in 14 of 38 states with relevant trend data, gaps narrowed on the reading tests between black and white students at the elementary and secondary levels. No state reported a comparable widening of the gap.

In math, a dozen states showed a narrowing of the racial achievement gap at the elementary and secondary grade levels. Only Washington state showed a widening of that gap.

Results were generally similar for Hispanic and low-income groups, according to the report.

Just 13 states had enough data to examine whether the pace at which students improved has quickened since NCLB was enacted. In nine of those states, students improved at a greater rate after 2002 than before: Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wyoming.

In the other four states–Delaware, Massachusetts, Oregon and Virginia,–gains were greater before 2002 than afterward. One possible explanation is that more students, such as those with disabilities or immigrants, were included in NCLB-era tests but not in the earlier ones, according to researchers.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the CEP study shows NCLB is working, but the report itself doesn’t assign credit to the law for the improvements made. It notes that other state and local initiatives have taken place during the same period that might deserve some of the credit.

“You can’t tease out the effects of any one of the reform efforts, because they all overlap on one another,” said Jack Jennings, CEP president.

Also, as ED’s report shows, the rigor of tests varies widely from state to state, said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

He said states generally set the proficiency bar low, because schools face tough consequences if their students do poorly on the tests. He also noted that some of the gains might reflect what teachers are focusing on in their classrooms.

“The teachers teach to the test, and that’s a rational response by classroom teachers under pressure to raise scores,” Fuller said.

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New primer offers lessons in online learning

Educators and education stakeholders interested in online learning have a brand-new resource at their disposal. The North American Council for Online Learning.

(NACOL) has released a free, comprehensive guide to online learning intended to help school leaders implement virtual education programs of their own and help parents understand how online instruction works.

“A National Primer on K-12 Online Learning” answers questions such as what an online course looks like, how students will interact with their teacher, and whether online instruction really works. (The short answer: Yes, if done correctly.) It also addresses issues for educators and policy makers who are considering developing their own online learning initiatives, such as what courses can be taught online effectively, what qualifications and training teachers will need, and what policies states or school districts should have in place before starting an online learning program.

“More than 700,000 K-12 students are already learning online. Educators, policy makers, and parents recognize the benefits of providing new opportunities through high-quality online courses that students can access from anywhere, 24-7,” said Susan Patrick, NACOL’s president and chief executive. “Yet, despite this growing interest, there are few resources for parents or educators to answer basic questions about online learning. The ‘Primer’ will serve as a tool for parents seeking the best educational opportunities for their children, and for school leaders and policy makers who must understand the essential elements of online learning in order to make informed decisions about implementing these programs.”

Patrick explained: “We get so many phone calls every day from legislators, school board members, parents, and teachers, asking the same questions. … We thought we should put this in writing, so we can help people understand [online learning] a little bit better.”

One key feature of the report, Patrick said, is that it lays out different models for online instruction. For example, some teachers might teach online classes full-time, whereas others might teach in a classroom and use free periods to teach an online course.

Online learning can help meet the demand for teachers in high-need subject areas, she said, noting the shortage of highly qualified math and science teachers who are needed to help today’s students succeed in a global economy.

By the end of 2006, 38 states had established state-led online learning programs, policies regulating online learning, or both, according to NACOL. Of these, 25 states have state-led online learning programs.

Recommendations contained in NACOL’s new primer include funding online learning programs based on educational attainment instead of seat time; progressing students based on outcomes instead of social promotion; and enhancing the use of data throughout education.

The guidebook also addresses some misconceptions that the public might have about online learning, such as the idea that online learning is essentially “teacherless” and that students are isolated and lose out on important social skills.

Other misconceptions include the myth that online teaching and learning is easier.

“It’s a lot of work, and students who take online courses are often surprised to find out how much harder and rigorous they are,” Patrick said. For example, online courses put a heavy emphasis on writing skills; if students turn in less-than-satisfactory written work, online instructors often will work with them on draft after draft until they have truly learned how to improve their skills.

Another misconception is that online courses are easy to pass and make it easy for students to cheat.

Online teachers get a better sense of each student’s voice through all the written assignments, and that helps to counteract academic dishonesty, according to the primer.

The resource includes a case study of Ohio’s online learning program, called eCommunity Schools, and discusses the state legislature’s efforts to put in place measures to ensure academic quality in the eCommunity Schools.

The guidebook was written by Evergreen Consulting Associates. Financial support was provided by grants from NACOL and Connections Academy, a national provider of K-12 virtual public schools.

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Poll: Many schools confused about data-storage rules

Six months after the federal government issued new rules governing the preservation of electronic communications that might become involved in legal disputes, an informal survey of K-12 school districts suggests that most schools remain unprepared to meet the requirements.

The survey, by the data-management company CommVault, found that 80 percent of those questioned were unclear about their district’s policies for retaining electronically stored information, including eMail and instant messages.

And while two-thirds of IT administrators responsible for managing backup data and archived messages in their districts said they were aware of the relevant Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (FRCP), which took effect in amended form on Dec. 1 (see Ruling: Schools must archive eMail), 90 percent said they had yet to initiate an FRCP compliance preparedness plan.

The rules state that any entity involved in litigation must be able to produce certain “electronically stored information” (ESI) during discovery–a process in which opposing sides of a legal dispute share evidence before a trial. In school technology departments, especially where technicians routinely copy data over backup disks and other information housed on school servers, the rules may call for a reassessment of policies and procedures.

While many state and local policies have long made clear which printed documents must be retained, under what circumstances, and for how long, schools now must consider what to do with electronic information that might be required in court cases.

Based on its informal poll, CommVault sees a marked disconnect between school leaders’ awareness of the issues surrounding FRCP compliance and their preparedness for potential lawsuits. The company says school districts could be exposed to costly legal actions if they fail to manage electronically stored information appropriately under the new federal requirements.

The amended rules amount to “an urgent call to action for educators and school information technology officers to understand how information that is sent and received on school-owned equipment might be used in litigation,” said Mike Ivanov, senior director and head of CommVault’s Archive Center of Excellence.

“The cost of litigation can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially draining public school districts of valuable education funds,” he asserted. “To reduce the impact of such threats, school technology leaders need to become students of these new rules themselves and take stock of their eMail policies and existing technologies to ensure compliance.”

To keep tabs on eMail, instant messages, and other digital communications produced by employees and students, school leaders should reevaluate their digital storage technologies and how they search through and retrieve information, he said.

“What makes it more challenging for schools is their budgets,” Ivanov added. “Budgets are so slim in the first place that it’s hard to carve out significant dollars.” Still, he said, money invested in a storage solution likely would be less than the money spent if a school district did not have a solution and had to address a legal issue.

Although CommVault’s survey showed an increased awareness of the need for compliance policies and solutions, school leaders appeared to be unsure how to comply and where to place emphasis when developing a strategy for legal discovery.

The resulting confusion has left some school officials wondering whether they must now retain a lot more information in digital form than they have in the past, when only printed documents were saved in certain circumstances. The costs involved in wholesale retention could be prohibitive, they say.

But according to Lisa Soronen, senior staff attorney at the National School Boards Association, the new federal rules do not mean categorically that every last bit of electronic material must be retained. A key point, she said, is that school districts need policies that make clear what documents must be saved and when they can be safely discarded.

But if schools are facing the prospect of litigation, Soronen added, the rule of thumb ought to be: Save it. Generally speaking, she said, “everyone has an obligation not to destroy information” involving official school business, at least for a specified period of time. She suggested that well-crafted policies could go a long way toward helping school IT administrators know what they should and should not do.

“After the FRCP amendments went into effect, we realized that we needed to better track the eMails between faculty, parents, and the administration within our district,” said Jay Attiya, network manager of Middletown Township School District in New Jersey. Attiya said his district’s attorney told him that Middletown Township needed to begin archiving electronic information.

The district is using CommVault’s Archive solutions to address FRCP compliance. Besides archival software, which can help organize and retrieve electronically stored information, Attiya said districts should consider what hardware they might need for storage.

“The confusion sometimes is understanding the technology of doing it, and the best thing [school leaders] can do is talk to peers who are doing it or who have investigated it,” he said.

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