Study suggests the ‘Obama effect’ could be real

Educators and policy makers, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, have said in recent days they hope President Obama’s example as a model student could inspire millions of American students, especially blacks, to higher academic performance. Now, researchers say they have documented this so-called Obama effect, reports the New York Times. Their study shows that a performance gap between African-Americans and whites on a 20-question test administered before Obama’s nomination all but disappeared when the exam was administered after his acceptance speech and again after the presidential election. The inspiring role model that Obama projected helped blacks overcome anxieties about racial stereotypes that had been shown, in earlier research, to lower the test-taking proficiency of African-Americans, the researchers conclude in a report summarizing their results. "Obama is obviously inspirational, but we wondered whether he would contribute to an improvement in something as important as black test-taking," said Ray Friedman, a management professor at Vanderbilt University, one of the study’s three authors. "We were skeptical that we would find any effect, but our results surprised us." The study has not yet undergone peer review, and two academics who read it Jan. 22 said they would be interested to see if other researchers would be able to replicate its results…

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Michigan offers video contest for teens

Young people are bombarded by many warnings from adults about the dangers of underage drinking, so an effort by the Michigan Secretary of State’s office aims to have their peers send the messages instead, reports the Detroit Free Press. Now in its second year, the Courageous Persuaders program offers high school students a chance to flex their creativity and videography skills to discourage middle-school kids from drinking and driving through youth-oriented public service announcements. Participants get a chance to win scholarships of up to $3,000.
The 2009 competition is under way, open to high school students interested in creating videos 30 seconds long that will be sent through sheriff’s offices and driver’s education programs and aired statewide. Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said the goal of the program is to produce videos that bypass the admonishment from grownups. "Sometimes it’s just jabber" to kids, Land said at a news conference Jan. 21. "I think this is a time for them to see other kids care what happens on the road." The deadline to submit videos is Feb. 11. Last year’s winner, Daniel Gianino of Lake Orion, figured a good way to reach middle-school kids was to take a cue from one of that age group’s icons: Harry Potter. Gianino’s video features a wizard walking in a neighborhood who senses a bored youngster at a home is about to crack open a beer. The wizard goes to the boy’s house and zaps the beer out of the boy’s hand…

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Technology brings a rising tide of change


It is up to educators to inspire their students to become environmental leaders and help restore and protect the world’s oceans, said Philippe Cousteau, chief ocean correspondent for Animal Planet, at the opening general session of the Florida Education Technology Conference (FETC) in Orlando.

Cousteau, son of Philippe Cousteau Sr. and grandson of Captain Jacques-Yves Cousteau, spoke to educators from 49 states and 17 countries Jan. 22, explaining how education has gotten him to where he is today.

“For three generations, education has been the driving force behind the work of my family,” he said. “I am a product of good teaching.”

It was the spirit of conservation and care for the environment taught by his grandfather that inspired him to work to inform people about the problems in the water.

“Oceans are critical to all life on this planet, and they are in peril,” Cousteau said.

He said the lessons he was taught by his grandfather and others in his life led him to found EarthEcho International, a nonprofit environmental education and conservation organization, with his sister.

Over the past year, Cousteau filmed a series of seven one-hour installments of an ocean documentary program. While he enjoyed the exploration of different oceans around the world, he said he was most impressed by his ability to use technology to further his work–and to share it with students from around the world.

“I could take videos on my cell phone and upload them to [the internet]. Or I could respond to questions from students on my eMail, and they could get the answers right away,” he said.

Cousteau said he is also exploring ways to use documentary filmmaking in classrooms. He produced, co-directed, and wrote a documentary on the Everglades in which five high school students were invited to help during their summer vacation. He said they all planned to finish high school, but none saw the point in going to college.

“When I saw them [later that fall at the documentary premiere], their lives were changed. I could see what the power of teaching could do,” he said. “All five of them had decided to go on to university.”

An FETC advisory board member noted that technology can be both a problem and a solution for teachers.

“How many cell phones and cameras are confiscated instead of used as learning tools?” he asked during the opening session in Orlando.

Ronald Blocker, superintendent of Florida’s Orange County Public Schools, said today’s students crave technology.

“They’ve grown up with it. High school seniors were born in 1991, the same year the World Wide Web launched,” he said. “As teachers, it is our duty to speak in a language that students understand.”

(Editor’s note: Watch for more live coverage of this year’s FETC at our online FETC Conference Information Center page)


Gates Foundation to give $22M for education

In its efforts to ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college and success in the future workplace, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has announced more than $22 million in new grants to support the development of data systems and research initiatives in K-12 education.

The grants, which were announced Jan. 22, are intended to help schools, districts, and state education departments gather and use data effectively to improve teaching and learning.

"As a country, we need to build an evidence base that will inform decision making at all levels in the system and lead to dramatic improvement in student achievement," said Vicki L. Phillips, director of education for the Gates Foundation, during a news conference at W.T. White High School in Dallas.

"Useful data and solid research about what works will help empower teachers, schools, and districts to more effectively keep students on the path to success in college and beyond. Our education system must be grounded in reliable [information] that assesses what works best in the classroom and serves the interests of all students."

The Dallas Independent School District will receive $3.8 million to improve on a data system that gives educators instant access to student information from preschool to graduation. Information from this data system is available to the city’s teachers and principals in an online dashboard that allows them to see patterns and alerts them when individual students or groups of students are falling behind. The data system was launched last year with the help of a $5 million grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation.

"Educators in [Dallas] are committed to using data and research to inform and improve their work with students, but without a reliable way to track their progress, even the best intentions can miss the mark," said Michael Hinojosa, superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District.

Altogether, more than $8 million in Gates funding will go to organizations in Texas, the foundation said, including the Communities Foundation of Texas, the College for All Texans Foundation, and the E3 Alliance. Texas has been a national leader in developing effective educational data systems, officials said, with the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation playing a critical role in funding the development of performance-management tools across 10 Texas districts in all–including Houston and Austin as well as Dallas.

Grants to support the use of longitudinal data systems to raise student achievement also will go to the National Student Clearinghouse, the National School Boards Foundation, and the National Center for Educational Achievement’s Data Quality Campaign.

The National Student Clearinghouse will get $2.9 million over two years to develop a national secondary education research and reporting system that will give participating high schools across all 50 states reliable information about their graduates’ college access and success rates.

The National School Boards Foundation will get $755,603 over two years to promote the effective use of data-driven decision making by local school board members through the development of training modules, online materials, and easy-to-use data tools that will be piloted in six districts over a 15-month period and then rolled out across the National School Boards Association’s network.

And the Data Quality Campaign will get $600,000 over three years to expand its focus to include postsecondary education. Working with national postsecondary organizations, the group will facilitate states’ efforts to share data between K-12 and postsecondary education systems.

The Gates Foundation also announced grants to ACT Inc. and Teach For America to support research into the impact of teacher characteristics on student achievement, as well as to the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to develop robust teaching evaluation systems by 2012. ETS will team up with the RAND Corp. and the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research on this effort.

The foundation’s emphasis on data and research is reflected in its recent appointment of Thomas J. Kane, Ph.D., as deputy director of education for data and research. Kane is a nationally recognized education policy expert and professor of education and economics at Harvard University, where he and his colleagues have been working with school districts around the country in using data to evaluate hiring and certification policies for teachers, public school choice systems, and the effect of charter and pilot schools on student outcomes.

Since 2000, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has invested more than $2 billion to ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and the workplace, supporting more than 2,600 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia.


Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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Don’t forget to visit the Measuring 21st-century skills resource center. Graduates who enter the workplace with a solid grasp of 21st-century skills bring value to both the workplace and global marketplace. Go to: Measuring 21st-century skills


West Point will tell soldiers’ stories on the web

Lt. Col. Paul Owen, West Point Class of ’90, came back to the academy to tell his story about Iraq. Sitting before a video camera in his dress uniform, Owen described the oppressive heat, the "moon dust" sand, and a string of some 300 night raids in search of insurgents.

"We were quick," he said. "If they heard us coming, they’d flee."

Owen’s recorded recollections will be transcribed and posted on the web as part of an ambitious oral history project under way at the U.S. Military Academy’s new Center for Oral History. He is among some 150 soldiers–mostly West Point graduates–who have so far taped interviews destined for the web before year’s end.

Stories are being solicited from old soldiers and those just back from deployments. They are being asked about not only what happened on the battlefield, but what was going on under their helmets, too.

"What we’re talking about is the humanity of war and fighting," said Patrick Jennings, the center’s deputy director. "I know it sounds like an odd term, but that’s what it is."

The oral histories will be available to anyone, but a key constituency are the cadets at the history-drenched academy on the Hudson River in New York. Contemporary cadets used to YouTube will be able to call up searchable video testimonies from officers who once drilled on the same grassy fields. Cadets also will be able to hear vivid descriptions of what might await them in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The interviewees include some retired military big guns like Barry McCaffrey and Brent Scowcroft, but most so far are simply soldiers and veterans with something to say.

Center director Todd Brewster said the videos will present more than war stories. Users will be able to search not just for terms like "Operation Anaconda" and "Hamburger Hill" but "religion" or "plebe." Type in "Douglas MacArthur" and you could listen to McCaffrey talk about how as a young cadet in 1962 he witnessed the old general give his famous "duty, honor, country" speech at West Point’s mess hall.

Brewster and Jennings are stockpiling interviews with an eye toward a web debut in the latter part of the year. The center, though housed in West Point’s history department, is not funded by the academy. So, with the help of the alumni association, they are trying to raise a $15 million endowment.

Soldiers can be a tough interview. Some old war stories have been trotted out so often to buddies and grandchildren that they’ve have become buffed and immutable. More commonly, veterans will guard details of their combat experience. Old-school stoicism plays a part. Jennings, a former Marine, says many veterans also believe that by telling their stories, "they’re cheating the other guys." Then there’s a perception that non-veterans would be too quick to judge actions made under extreme duress.

Brewster, as a former journalist with Time and ABC News, is used to soliciting information from subjects. Jennings, who was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a National Guard combat historian, has the authority to tell potential subjects: "No one is going to know this story unless you tell it."

Brewster said they have had no problems finding people to interview.

The pair has conducted relatively few interviews with the diminishing pool of surviving World War II veterans. Brewster noted their story has been told often and well, so the center is focusing on less traveled areas.

A top priority is interviewing soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, so they can record stories while they’re still "genuine and raw."

"One of the odd things about oral histories is that they’re somewhat of a perishable object," Brewster said.

They also are focusing on the Class of ’67. This group came to West Point just months before JFK’s New Frontier was abruptly ended, served during the height of the Vietnam War and later directed the 1991 war in Iraq.

"My experience of [many] Vietnam veterans is that they waited so long to tell their stories," Jennings said, "they want to tell it now."


Center for Oral History


Colleges convert cooking oil into biodiesel fuel

Forgive the students at Sinclair Community College if they get the munchies when they pass the tractors that cut grass, blow leaves, or sweep snow on campus: Oil that once cooked French fries and onion rings is being used to power the vehicles.

Students have begun making biodiesel fuel by converting used cooking oil from the dining hall. Biodiesel saves the school a little money on gasoline, gives the students lessons in engineering and chemistry, and removes oil from the waste stream.

"It ends up as a product that is more friendly to the environment. And we’re teaching with it," said Woody Woodruff, director of facilities at the 65-acre campus.

Sinclair is among a growing number of colleges nationwide making their own biodiesel, an alternative fuel produced from renewable oilseed crops, such as canola or soybean, or from used vegetable oil and other fats. The concept is being driven by greater environmental awareness among students.

The State University of New York melted down a 900-pound butter sculpture from the state fair last summer to help power its vehicles. Biodiesel accounts for about 8 percent of the fuel used on campus.

Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., produces 50 to 150 gallons of biodiesel each week to power campus lawn mowers, a garbage truck, and farm equipment. The school has more than doubled its capacity of biodiesel, growing from 20-gallon to 54-gallon batches, while biodiesel byproducts are being used in a composting research project at the school’s organic farm and to make soap sold in the campus bookstore.

At the University of Kansas, biodiesel fuels lawn mowers, backhoes, front-end loaders, and other construction equipment. It is also used as a solvent to clean parts and tools and to heat a motor-pool building.

When the school began making biodiesel in September 2007, two people were involved. Now, there are 25.

Neil Steiner, an architectural engineering student, volunteered to work on the project last year and is now a paid lab employee.

"I’m really into green buildings, and it was the greenest thing I could get my hands on," said Steiner, 22, of Tulsa, Okla.

Most colleges make biodiesel by chemically converting used cooking oil from campus dining halls. The oil is transformed through a process called transesterification, which removes glycerine and adds methanol, leaving a thinner product that can power a diesel engine. Biodiesel can also be blended with petroleum diesel.

When a question was posted in November on the online discussion board of the National Association of College & University Food Services asking what dining halls were doing with their fryer oil waste, the board was quickly flooded with responses. Schools said they were either using the oil to make biodiesel or selling it to companies for that purpose.

Estimated U.S. sales of biodiesel have jumped from 75 million gallons in 2005 to 700 million gallons last year.

Sinclair students turn out two batches of biodiesel a week. As of December, they had produced about 100 gallons. With the price of diesel fuel hovering around $2.50 a gallon and the cost of making biodiesel $1 a gallon, the students saved the school a modest $150.

"It’s a gesture," said Bob Gilbert, head of Sinclair’s center for energy education. "Our first goal is education."

Sam Spofforth, executive director of Clean Fuels Ohio, a statewide group that promotes the use of renewable fuels, said the interest in biofuels among college students should create a pipeline of talent and energy for commercial biodiesel production.

"They realize this is the wave of the future," Spofforth said. "There is going to be a tremendous need for educated people to move into these industries."

Steiner estimates he spends 20 hours a week on the University of Kansas biodiesel project, which he works on between classes. He hopes to use his experience after he graduates, perhaps as a consultant helping biodiesel companies obtain materials and funding.

"We make it, we test it, and we distribute it to different places on campus," Steiner said. "We really get our hands on all of it. It really puts you in a practical situation."


National Biodiesel Board


Feds expand list of salmonella-tainted peanut products

Federal health officials on Jan. 21 expanded their list of foods contaminated with salmonella-tainted peanut butter or paste, urging the public to check their pantries and trash for any one of the more than 125 products now at risk of carrying the bacteria, Newsday reports. Numerous well-known companies and brands–including General Mills, Kellogg, and Kroger Co.–have voluntarily recalled products. Yesterday, NutriSystem Inc., a leading provider of weight-loss products, announced a voluntary recall of its 1.41-ounce peanut butter granola bars because the product contains peanut butter supplied by the Peanut Corp. of America (PCA). The company’s plant in Blakely, Ga., is the source of bulk peanut butter or peanut paste for companies that might have added tainted product to cookies, crackers, health bars, ice cream, and pet food. Though PCA is a small company, it lists more than 70 food companies as its customers. An estimated 486 people in 43 states and one Canadian province have been sickened since September, and six people have died. Health inspectors in West Haven, Conn., announced yesterday they had identified a container of King Nut peanut butter containing the outbreak strain. School officials in that state have begun removing peanut-butter products from cafeterias and vending machines…

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$3.77M from Gates Foundation to help fund Dallas ISD academic database

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will announce a nearly $3.8 million grant today to help fund a mega-database that gives Dallas school educators instant access to student information from preschool to graduation, reports the Dallas Morning News. The Dallas Independent School District began testing the database last year. It allows educators to access "real-time" student academic information and helps them watch for learning patterns. The system also holds other district-related data, such as student and teacher absences. The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation got the data system off the ground last year with a $5 million donation to the Dallas Education Foundation, a nonprofit group created in 2006 to raise money to benefit DISD. Today’s grant of $3.77 million will be distributed over three years to DISD to help build onto the current system. The donation is among more than $22 million in grants that the Gates Foundation is announcing today for research and data systems for schools and a number of education organizations. Information from DISD’s data system is available to principals in an online format called a dashboard. The dashboards are being tested in 20 DISD schools, with the goal of expanding them to all campuses next school year…

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COPA dies quietly in Supreme Court

A federal law intended to restrict children’s access to internet pornography died quietly Jan. 21 at the U.S. Supreme Court, more than 10 years after Congress overwhelmingly approved it.

The Child Online Protection Act (COPA) would have barred web sites from making harmful content available to minors over the internet. The law had been embroiled in challenges to its constitutionality since it passed in 1998 and never took effect.

Also on Jan. 21, the court ruled unanimously in favor of a Massachusetts schoolgirl and her parents in their effort to sue a local school district under both a 1972 law against sex discrimination in education and a post-Civil War civil rights law.

Federal courts had said that the newer law, Title IX, which bars sex discrimination at schools that receive federal money, was the only avenue open to the parents.

The high court disagreed, although several justices commented when they heard arguments in December that the family probably would lose their lawsuit, even if they won the right to pursue it.

Their daughter was a 5-year-old kindergarten student when she told them she was subjected to repeated harassment by a third-grade boy on their school bus.

The internet blocking law did not make it as far as a high court hearing. The justices rejected the government’s final attempt to revive the law, turning away the appeal without comment.

The American Civil Liberties Union led the challenge to the law on behalf of writers, artists, and health educators.

"For over a decade, the government has been trying to thwart freedom of speech on the internet, and for years the courts have been finding the attempts unconstitutional," said Chris Hansen, the ACLU’s lead attorney on the case. "It is not the role of the government to decide what people can see and do on the internet. Those are personal decisions that should be made by individuals and their families."

A federal appeals court in Philadelphia earlier ruled that the law would violate the First Amendment, saying filtering technologies and other parental-control tools are a less restrictive way to protect children from inappropriate content online.

The act was passed the year after the Supreme Court ruled that another law intended to protect children from explicit material online–the Communications Decency Act–was unconstitutional.

The Bush administration had fought hard to have the law take effect.

In 2006, the Justice Department subpoenaed internal files from dozens of internet service providers and other technology firms, including AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Cox Communications Inc., EarthLink Inc., Symantec Corp., and Verizon Communications Inc. as part of its defense of the law.

But senior U.S. District Judge Lowell Reed Jr. ruled in 2007 that software filters work much better than the law would. Reed also said the law failed to address threats that have emerged since it was written–including online predators on social-networking sites–because it targets only commercial web publishers.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld Reed’s ruling.

Critics also said that pornographers and others simply could base their operations offshore, beyond the reach of U.S. authorities.

In an earlier test of the law, the Supreme Court in 2004 upheld an order blocking its enforcement on the grounds that the law probably was unconstitutional. The five justices who made that ruling remain on the court.

Still, it was unusual for the court to kill a major federal law that had an administration’s backing, without a hearing.

The case is Mukasey v. ACLU, 08-565.


Supreme Court of the United States

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Report details upcoming ed-tech trends

A higher-education study released this week highlighted six technologies that soon could change college campuses–including mobile devices with abundant applications, cloud computing that bolsters data accessibility, and web tools that could make campus-based research faster and more thorough.

The sixth annual Horizon Report, created and published by the New Media Consortium and the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative, profiles six technologies that will have a prominent role on college campuses in the next one to five years.

The six trends outlined in the 32-page 2009 report are smart objects, semantic-aware software, mobile devices, geotagging, the personal web, and cloud computing. Last year’s emerging trends included data mashups, mobile broadband, collective intelligence, and social operating systems.

Identifying trends that could alter campus policy in the coming decade stimulates conversation among IT administrators and decision makers who control universities’ purse strings, said officials responsible for the report.

“Campus leaders and practitioners alike use the report as a springboard for discussion around emerging technology,” said Larry Johnson, CEO of the New Media Consortium, an international nonprofit consisting of about 300 education organizations that focus on educational technology.

Mobile devices have become ubiquitous on college campuses, and the authors of the Horizon Report say IT departments should take advantage of this trend by making more varied applications available. For instance, math programs–such as QuickGraph or SpaceTime–for devices such as iPhones transform the phones into advanced calculators. These applications let students see graphs in three dimensions and allow for customized computation.

New musical instrument simulators also are available for students’ mobile devices. These programs allow users to play guitar, drums, and other instruments virtually while composing musical arrangements. Music students can also mix and record tracks using loops and voice recordings, making the technology available outside of computer labs that were once the only place to use such software.

The Horizon Reports says mobile devices can be a critical tool for language learners, who can “practice listening, speaking, and writing” and comparing pronunciations of foreign languages. The report says this trend should become commonplace in the next year.

Applications for mobile devices also can help students become acquainted with their new surroundings. Programs focused on campus life often include suggestions for restaurants, movie theatres, and other nearby attractions where students can spend their free time. Abilene Christian University in Texas gave iPhones and iPods to 900 freshmen last fall, and a university official said a campus life application has helped new students adapt to life away from home.

“It definitely has helped them feel more comfortable,” said Bill Rankin, Abilene’s director of educational innovation. “It’s been a help for them.”