What do students want from their schools?

Looking for ideas on how to spend federal stimulus dollars to enhance educational technology? Project Tomorrow has a suggestion: Listen to what students say they’d like to see in their schools.

The nonprofit organization is touting the results from its annual Speak Up survey as a means of giving lawmakers–as well as state and local education leaders–some guidance on how stimulus funds can be used to improve teaching and learning.

Project Tomorrow highlighted the results from this year’s survey during a March 24 briefing on Capitol Hill. According to the group’s report, students can be viewed as a digital advance team: They are early adopters and adapters of new technologies, creating new uses for various technology products to meet their sophisticated needs.

"What kinds of technologies are students using, and which are the types of things that students can use in school?" asked Julie Evans, chief executive officer of Project Tomorrow. Those are questions many educators are now asking as well–and the survey’s results provide some answers.

More than 280,000 K-12 students, 28,000 teachers, 21,000 parents, and 3,000 administrators responded to the online Speak Up survey between October and December 2008.

The report focuses on five areas where schools can better incorporate technology: increasing the use of mobile devices, creating different types of spaces for learning, incorporating Web 2.0 tools into daily instruction, expanding access to digital resources in the classroom, and getting beyond the classroom walls to explore careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.

Students say there should be more use of mobile devices in their learning. Students’ access to mobile electronic devices–including cell phones, laptops, MP3 players, and smart phones–has increased dramatically in the past year, and these students are discovering the "computers in their pockets" can play a significant role in all aspects of learning, the report said.

"There’s an acceleration of students’ access to mobile devices, with the largest increase being seen in middle schoolers," Evans said.

Students who took the online survey said they would like to use their mobile devices to communicate with classmates or other students via eMail, instant messaging, or text messaging; work with their classmates on projects at home or school; and play educational games. They also said they would use their mobile devices to do internet research, record lectures to listen to at a later time, receive alerts about upcoming homework and tests, or access their school’s web portal.

Student interest in taking an online class is on the rise, the survey found. Among high school students, interest in taking an online class rose 21 percentage points from 2007 to 2008, with a 46 percentage-point increase seen among middle school students. According to one-third of the sixth- through 12th-grade students surveyed, online classes make it easier for students to succeed, because they are more comfortable asking questions and can review class materials as many times as they want or need.

Students currently use eMail, instant messaging, and text-messaging tools for communications, with nearly one-half of students in sixth through 12th grade using the tools regularly, according to the report. Students also heavily use social networking, online games, blogging, and virtual-reality environments. Evans said schools and districts should find ways to create instruction that runs parallel to how students are using collaborative tools and Web 2.0 technologies outside the classroom.

Student respondents also offered ideas for an ultimate digital textbook. The survey showed students are interested in leveraging a wide range of capabilities to produce a new kind of textbook. "For many students, the idea of using a hard-copy textbook that is out of date as soon as it is printed is as archaic in today’s world as the abacus in a math class," the report states.

Sixth- through 12th-graders listed features they would like to see in their ultimate digital textbook, such as having the ability to personalize their book with electronic highlights and notes and being able to tap into the expertise of an online tutor whenever necessary.

Both parents and students affirmed the importance of science and science careers. More than one-half of parents said they will be likely or very likely to encourage their children to pursue careers in a STEM-related field. Students said they would want to learn about potential and future jobs and careers in STEM fields by talking to professionals in the field, gaining on-the-job experience through part-time jobs, downloading "day in the life" videos and podcasts to their mobile devices, and using authentic tools to solve real-world problems with their peers.

Yet, only 39 percent of the high-school students who were surveyed said they thought their school was doing a good job of preparing them for the jobs of the future.


Project Tomorrow


Texas school board set to vote on challenge to evolution

The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation, reports the Wall Street Journal. The proposed curriculum change would prompt teachers to raise doubts that all life on Earth is descended from common ancestry. (See "Anti-evolution forces gain ground in Texas.") Texas is such a huge textbook market that many publishers write to the state’s standards, then market those books nationwide. "This is the most specific assault I’ve seen against evolution and modern science," said Steven Newton, a project director at the National Center for Science Education, which promotes the teaching of evolution. Texas school board chairman Don McLeroy also sees the curriculum as a landmark–but a positive one. Dr. McLeroy believes that God created the earth less than 10,000 years ago. If the new curriculum passes, he says he will insist that high-school biology textbooks point out specific aspects of the fossil record that, in his view, undermine the theory that all life on Earth is descended from primitive scraps of genetic material that first emerged about 3.9 billion years ago…

Click here for the full story


Superintendent resigns in web surfing controversy

The superintendent of Westfall Local Schools in Pickaway County, Ohio, has resigned after admitting to misusing his school computer, reports WBNS 10TV. The school board voted unanimously at a special meeting March 21 to accept Randy Cotner’s resignation. An investigation found Cotner used his district-issued computer to visit inappropriate web sites at least 57 times in the past two years. Three of the visits were to an online store selling lingerie and sex toys, and one site was a sexually explicit adult pornographic site. At the special meeting, some parents supported Cotner, saying the controversy was blown out of proportion and did not give Cotner a chance at redeeming his record. But parents like Cynthia Sheets said the controversy was about holding school officials accountable. "I don’t care what you do at home behind closed doors in your down time," Sheets told 10TV News. "Don’t do it at school in the business office, and frankly on my dime."

Click here for the full story


More ‘fight club’ allegations at Texas school

Nine employees are under investigation over allegations of new fights among mentally disabled residents of the troubled Corpus Christi State School, a state lawmaker said March 21.

State Rep. Abel Herrero said the workers are on leave while officials look into complaints that the staff members did nothing to intervene in the fights involving residents March 18 and March 19.

The new allegations follow six staffers being charged earlier this month with injury to a disabled person over separate fights allegedly organized for the staff’s entertainment. Videos of those fights were found on a cell phone.

"Appalling," said Herrero, a Corpus Christi-area Democrat. "Completely unacceptable. It’s important that the state exhaust every resource to once and for all ensure the safety and well-being of our state’s most vulnerable population."

Herrero had few details involving the new incidents but said one of them involved accusations against six staff members and the other involved three workers. At least one of the incidents was reported in a phone call to state investigators. The workers were accused of having been nearby when fights occurred but not intervening.

Jay Kimbrough, chief of staff for Gov. Rick Perry’s office, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that the recent incidents don’t include allegations that fights were encouraged by employees.

On Friday, video of the earlier fights were shown at a Corpus Christi bond hearing for a former employee accused of staging the bouts. State officials, local police and the FBI are investigating the allegations of staged fights.

The videos from Timothy Dixon’s cell phone included two residents repeatedly punching each other while staff members cheered. The residents tried to choke each other before one threw the other to the floor. An employee then kicked the resident on the floor.

Dixon, 30, is among six facing charges of injury to a disabled person.

Four of the six current and former employees have been arrested. Two others were believed to have moved out of state before the investigation, police said.

Herrero said Friday that at least two staff members were being investigated over the new fight allegations.


GOP governors spurn stimulus funds

A growing chorus of Republican governors say they will not accept a portion of the federal stimulus funding their states are eligible to receive, putting schools in the middle of a heated political squabble that is sure to affect their budgets.

Last week, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin said she would accept only 69 percent of the estimated $930 million that could flow to her state, leaving it up to the Alaska Legislature to request hundreds of millions of dollars from the federal government.

Palin’s rejection of $160 million for education drew a strong rebuke from Anchorage Superintendent of Schools Carol Comeau, who said she was shocked and disappointed.

"We believe that we can make very good use of the funds, not only in job preservation but also in adding new positions to ultimately use these funds to increase student achievement for our neediest children," Comeau said in a news release.

Comeau pointed to money that would have gone into training for special-education teachers and additional support for needy preschool children.

Palin said she would only accept money that is "timely, targeted and temporary" and does not create strings that will bind the state in the future.

"I can’t attest to every fund that’s being offered the state in the stimulus package will be used to create jobs and stimulate the economy, so I’m requesting only those things that I know will," Palin said at a March 19 news conference at the state Capitol. "Public discussion will have to ensue on all those other dollars that some will say ‘you left on the table.’"

Some other Republican governors also have announced reservations about accepting the federal money, particularly when it comes to expanding jobless benefits.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry last week announced that he turned down $555 million of federal stimulus funding that would expand the state’s unemployment benefits. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal has said he would not accept nearly $100 million to expand unemployment benefits. And South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has said he only wants to use the federal money to pay down debt.

The White House has rejected Sanford’s bid to use $700 million in federal stimulus cash to pay down his state’s school construction debt. White House Budget Director Peter Orszag sent Sanford a letter March 20 saying the federal cash should be used on new education programs, not to pay off debt.

In all, South Carolina is eligible to receive $2.8 billion in federal help. Sanford has said he would reject part of the money if President Barack Obama doesn’t give him flexibility in spending it. State lawmakers have said they’ll request the money if Sanford doesn’t.

Other Republican governors, including Charlie Crist of Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, have welcomed the stimulus bounty.

Overall, Palin rejected nearly $288 million in federal aid–and many, such as Senate Finance Committee Co-Chairman Bert Stedman, were surprised.

"I think the Legislature will take a good hard look at the impact on Alaska," said Stedman, a Republican. "The governor might have a broader view."

With so little time left before the April 3 deadline to formally request funds from the stimulus package, Stedman expects the state Legislature will ask for the full amount, and if lawmakers determine later that some of the money would have adverse long-term effects on the state, to decline it then.

Alaska has been somewhat cushioned from the effects of the global recession, but the state faces a $2.6 billion deficit over this year and next from low oil prices and declining oil production on the North Slope. Oil makes up about 90 percent of state revenues.

Sen. Hollis French, a Democrat, said the governor was breaking with a long tradition in Alaska.

"The state has made its business to get as many federal dollars as possible to help us create an infrastructure and build our state," he said. "I just really think the governor made a mistake here."

The five-member conservative Republican minority in the Alaska Senate supported Palin’s decision. Sen. Con Bunde, a Republican, compared the package to having too much to drink.

"A good time may be had by all, but the hangover the next day, and the consequences of what you did while you were drunk, may be with you for a long, long time," Bunde said.

Palin said she was acting in the best interests of Alaskans, but Democratic Rep. Les Gara questioned the motives of the former Republican vice presidential candidate.

"I read it that she’s going to be running for national office and has a campaign position that unfortunately conflicts with the state’s interests," he said.

(Editor’s note: For more information about the federal stimulus package and its implications for schools, see our special Educator Resource Center on the topic at http://www.eschoolnews.com/resources/stimulating-achievement/.)


Warner Bros. brings film vault into digital age

Film historians and film-studies teachers might appreciate the latest announcement from Warner Bros.: The studio is reaching into its film vaults so it can sell old movies on made-to-order DVDs, in a move it hopes will boost sales of a vital product in an economic downturn.

Warner Bros. says it will sell copies of 155 films–from the silent era classic Exit Smiling, released in 1926, to Brat Pack favorites such as The Outsiders, released in 1983–that have never before been offered on DVD. Prices vary, but internet downloads of the movies typically will cost $14.95, while DVDs sent in the mail are $19.95. (In the case of The Outsiders, however, the asking price for a DVD is $7.96.) Both can be ordered at www.warnerarchive.com.

The initiative, which Warner claims is the first of its kind for a major studio, is an effort by the Time Warner Inc. subsidiary to combat what could be a fundamental decline in demand for DVD purchases–a falloff that can be blamed on market saturation as much as the recession.

Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Iger warned of this shift last month when he noted that most U.S. households own 80 DVDs already, leading people to become "more selective" about what discs they buy.

U.S. DVD spending fell 7 percent last year, to $21.6 billion, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, an industry consortium. Although high-definition Blu-ray disc spending nearly tripled, it represented a small slice of the market, at $750 million.

Now retailers are cutting back shelf space for DVDs. And digital downloads have come nowhere near to making up the difference, said Tom Adams, president of Adams Media Research, who doesn’t predict overall growth in home video until 2010.

Home video revenues are a key profit driver for the studios–in some cases, accounting for 60 percent more money than what a studio collects at the box office. So the recent decline has forced studios to do everything from lay off staff to pare back their movie making.

Warner’s decision to open up its vault "sounds like it’s a risk-free way for them to generate a little money on some very old content," Adams said. By making the DVDs only when customers order the movies, Warner doesn’t have to worry about filling up a warehouse with inventory that struggles to sell.

Many of the titles Warner is releasing in the new venture have made the rounds on another Time Warner subsidiary, the Turner Classic Movies cable channel, and on VHS. But the studio will keep mining a 6,800-feature film library, amassed when Ted Turner bought Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s archive in 1986, which in turn was bought by Time Warner a decade later.

Twenty more films or TV shows will be added to the program of re-releases each month, with 300 expected by year’s end. To put it in perspective, the studio has released only about 1,100 movies on DVD since the technology was spawned 12 years ago.

"There are still thousands of movies that we own that consumers haven’t been able to get," said George Feltenstein, senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing for Warner Home Video. "I expect that we’ll be selling thousands of copies of every title over a period of time, and making a lot of people really happy."

Titles include "The Mating Game" (1959), starring Debbie Reynolds, and a string of Cary Grant flicks from "Mr. Lucky" (1943) to "Once Upon a Honeymoon" (1942). There’s also "Wisdom," a modern-day Robin Hood tale from 1986 starring Emilio Estevez and Demi Moore.

Reynolds noted that in the past, the only way to watch some old films was to have a projector at home and obtain a bootleg copy. She said fans have been asking her to get some of her films on DVD, like "The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady" (1950), which is expected in a later batch of releases.

"I was a girl [who] was raised with radio, and I had to go to the theater to see movies," said Reynolds, 76, during an interview in a screening room on the Warner lot. "Now you get to see everything at home on a DVD. It just seems like a miracle that it can be done this way."

Robert Crawford, a 53-year-old auto worker in Saginaw, Mich., expects to use the new Warner program to add to his 5,000-disc collection, a mix of Blu-ray discs and DVDs.

He bubbled at hearing of upcoming releases such as "Beast of the City" (1932) starring Walter Huston and Jean Harlow, or "Rasputin and the Empress" (1932), which features three Barrymore siblings, including modern "Charlie’s Angels" actress Drew Barrymore’s grandfather, John.

"Some of these films I’ve been waiting on for years," said Crawford. "Let’s face it, Best Buy doesn’t carry every title, neither does Wal-Mart. They don’t have the shelf room."


Warner Archive

Digital Entertainment Group


ED: Prepare for ‘new era’ in science teaching

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said he wants to launch a "new era" of science education in the United States–one that encourages students to ask tough, challenging questions and brings more specially trained science and math teachers into the classroom.

Speaking at the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) conference in New Orleans on March 20, Duncan said President Barack Obama sees a need for inventors and engineers along with poets and scholars and "will not allow scientific research to be held hostage to a political agenda."

"Whether it’s global warming, evolution, or stem-cell research, science will be honored. It will be respected and supported by this administration," he said.

The federal stimulus bill includes more than $100 billion in new education funding, with $650 million set aside for technology grants, he said. Duncan couldn’t say how much money would go specifically into science but pledged funds would be available to modernize labs.

He also said many of the teaching jobs saved with stimulus dollars would be in science classrooms. But the money must be used wisely, he said, not just on saving jobs but also on driving strong reforms.

"The stimulus bill is a historic opportunity to lay the groundwork for a generation of educational reform," Duncan said. While the U.S. is facing a "historic educational crisis," he said, it is also in the midst of a unique opportunity to achieve an ambitious set of reforms.

Raising standards, establishing comprehensive data systems, increasing teacher quality, and helping underperforming schools are all at the top of the federal Education Department’s to-do list, Duncan said.

The nation’s students are no longer competing with other U.S. students for jobs, but instead are up against students from India and China, he said. Science education is critical in helping U.S. students compete worldwide.

"America won the space race, but in many ways American education [is losing] the science race," Duncan said.

He also cited a $5 billion "Race to the Top fund" to provide incentives to states already doing innovative, reform-minded work. He said there’s been a "dumbing down of standards for political reasons" under the current system of states with their own benchmarks and standards. That system doesn’t make much sense, he said, drawing applause–and it isn’t doing students any favors in the global economy.

"Getting more young people into science isn’t something we can successfully implement just from Washington," he said. "That falls on you, and your colleagues and classrooms all around the country," he told the audience.

Science teachers should challenge each other to expand their science curriculum and further engage students, he said–encouraging them to explore the possibility of science-related careers.

He said there’s a need for common, high standards that prepare students for college and the work force and for international benchmarks to compare U.S. students with their counterparts around the world. He said he’s working with state leaders who are pursuing school reforms and hopes to come up with a better system.

"I think in far too many states, meeting standards means you are at best barely qualified to graduate from high school, and you are woefully unprepared to go to college," he said. "We have been lying to children, and we are setting them up for long-term failure. That has to stop."

He said the country has a long way to go to improve science education. Sectors such as engineering, health care, technology, and green energy need more workers, and "a generalist," too often, is teaching middle school kids, he said.

He addressed the "extreme inequity" in science education, saying it has repercussions in the workforce, where science workers are desperately needed. In particular, women and minorities are underrepresented in science fields, and math and science teachers leave the profession in greater numbers because better-paying opportunities exist elsewhere.

That’s been a problem for years, and the market needs to pay science and math teachers more, he said.


Duncan’s speech

NSTA conference coverage


Free multimedia activities aim to boost middle school literacy

Teachers’ Domain, a library of free digital resources and fee-based professional development courses developed by Boston public television station WGBH, has added a new section called “Inspiring Middle School Literacy: Reading and Writing in Science and History.” These self-paced classroom activities are designed to enhance the literacy skills of struggling readers in grades 5-12. Teachers choose a science or history topic, then have students proceed through reading passages, videos, and interactive activities, using a glossary to build vocabulary and a note-taking area to submit writing assignments. Science topics include continental drift, transitional fossils, and behavioral adaptations for surviving winter; history topics include Mayan civilization, resisting slavery, and building the Eerie Canal. Teachers can use these standards-based activities to supplement their science, social studies, or language-arts curriculum. “I am greatly impressed with these resources,” said Donna Alvermann of the University of Georgia’s Department of Language and Literacy Education. “Teachers and students can work with images and video to make print come alive. Interactive texts draw students into the subject matter in ways that print alone cannot do. Most importantly, the resources encourage students to think like historians and scientists.” http://www.teachersdomain.org/special/adlit


Some rich districts get richer as aid is rushed to schools

In pouring cash into school districts, Washington is using a tangle of well-worn federal formulas that seem to take little account of who needs the money most, reports the New York Times. Some of these formulas benefit states that spend more per pupil, while others help states with large concentrations of poor students or simply channel money based on population. As a result, some districts that are well off will find themselves swimming in cash, while some that are struggling might get too little to avoid cutbacks. Still, educators are accepting the disparities without challenge. Utah, which stands to get about $400 less per student than Wyoming, a state awash in oil and gas money, says it is grateful for the money and has no complaint. There is widespread recognition that the federal money is helping to avert what could have been an educational disaster in some places.
Democrats in Congress decided to use the formulas to save time, knowing that devising new ones tailored to current conditions could require months of negotiations…

Click here for the full story


Madison, Ala., schools showcase educational technology

The Madison, Ala., City Schools’ technology programs will be on display for educational leaders from across the country this week as part of a technology site visit by the National School Boards Association, reports the Huntsville Times. School leaders will start arriving March 24 for the March 25-27 event. "We’re just so honored to be selected to showcase our technology offerings," said Kathy Rains, director of technology for the system. "I think many people probably think we have nothing to offer in Alabama, but when this crowd gets here they’ll see Alabama has got it going on." Rains said the state’s virtual library and distance learning efforts are role models for other states. Madison School Board President Sue Helms said having Madison chosen for the site visit is a confirmation that the system is headed in the right direction. "We are doing the right things, setting trends, and we are the first ones out there doing a lot of things and that’s a good thing for us," Helms said. "Now the whole country is coming to see what we do." The Madison school system’s Teacher Resource Center at the central office location is one of three regional training centers for the statewide distance learning initiative. The training centers are part of a state education department program called Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators, and Students Statewide, or ACCESS…

Click here for the full story