Duncan: Schools must improve to get stimulus money

Education Secretary Arne Duncan says schools must make dramatic changes to get money from a special $5 billion "Race to the Top" fund included in the economic stimulus package.

"We’re going to reward those states and those districts that are willing to challenge the status quo and get dramatically better," Duncan said March 16 at the White House.

Those who keep doing the same old thing, however, won’t be eligible for the money, he added.

Schools will be getting tens of billions more dollars through regular channels, such as Title I and IDEA. On top of that, Duncan will have an unprecedented $5 billion to award for lasting reforms.

To get an award, schools and states must show they have been spending their money wisely. They are supposed to find innovative ways to close the achievement gap between black and Latino children who lag behind their white counterparts in more affluent schools.

Specifically, states are supposed to:

• Improve teacher quality and get good teachers into high-poverty schools;
• Set up sophisticated data systems to track student learning;
• Boost the quality of academic standards and tests; and
• Intervene to help struggling schools.

Applications for the special grants will be available later this spring, and money will be awarded beginning in October. The other stimulus dollars for education will be distributed beginning later this month.

Duncan was meeting with urban school leaders who belong to the Council of the Great City Schools.

"This is the home team; they are fighting for the future of our country," Duncan said of the school chiefs and other leaders gathered behind him on the White House grounds.
Duncan was the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools until Obama chose him to run the Education Department.

At the meeting, which was closed to the media, Duncan focused on reform, said New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein.

"He talked a lot about the need to make sure real reform follows the dollars," Klein said afterward.

(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/.)

Links:

U.S. Department of Education (ED)

ED’s stimulus information

Council of the Great City Schools

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New e-Rate blog helps applicants understand the program

The filing window for the 2009-10 e-Rate season might have closed in February, but that doesn’t mean applicants’ work is done. There are still plenty of follow-up forms to file, program deadlines to track, and potential audits to prepare for. To help school leaders make sense of the complex e-Rate application process, e-Rate consulting firm Funds for Learning (FFL) recently launched an e-Rate Blog. A new feature of the company’s redesigned web site, the blog offers information, tips, and commentary from FFL’s compliance experts on the e-Rate, the $2.25 billion-a-year program that provides telecommunications discounts to eligible schools and libraries. “From policy analysis to advice on how to complete an e-Rate form successfully, the e-Rate Blog offers applicants a fresh take on the latest news related to the e-Rate program,” said Scott Weston, the company’s executive director of communications. http://www.fundsforlearning.com/content/blogsection

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Tide turns against schools as foreclosures rise

Across the United States, declining property values and mortgage foreclosures have led to huge losses in property tax revenues, forcing schools to trim budgets, freeze hiring, and in a few cases, make substantial job cuts — raising doubts about the future of a range of education programs, USA Today reports. Already, St. Lucie, Fla., schools have lost $22 million in tax revenue from lower property values, and the district is staring at a 25-percent budget cut in the fall. It has frozen salaries and put central office employees on a four-day workweek. Enrollment is down only slightly, but if things get much worse, schools here may cut athletics, after-school activities, and summer school to the bone–or even consider a four-day week for students. "It’s not something I’d advocate, but if Florida takes a massive hit, we might not flat-out have the money to make payroll," says Superintendent Mike Lannon. "There are no sacred cows." A USA Today analysis has identified St. Lucie and six other school districts–Clark County in Nevada, Lee County in Florida, Murrieta Valley Unified and Temecula Valley Unified in California, and Fowler Elementary and Riverside Elementary in Arizona–as being particularly vulnerable to budget cuts in the coming year. They’re in areas hit by a wave of mortgage delinquencies, foreclosures, and upside-down mortgages, in which borrowers owe more than their homes are worth…

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Software tests patience in Maryland district

A $4.1 million computer program designed to put Prince George’s County, Md., students’ grades, attendance, and discipline data online has been plagued with errors in its first year, leading to botched schedules, an overcount of students, and report cards that were delayed or simply wrong, reports the Washington Post. Since going online Aug. 19, SchoolMax has crashed four times, once for 17 hours, said W. Wesley Watts Jr., the school system’s chief information officer. Errors led to the duplication of 3,600 student identification numbers in the 128,000-student system; nearly 300 were double-enrolled, leading to an inaccurate count of the student population. The delivery of report cards was delayed last semester, and some students have found they’ve gotten E’s instead of A’s. "There are a lot of issues with SchoolMax. Some of them are technical. Some of them are data-related," Watts told the school board. "If there is an issue, we need to know what that issue is. Telling us the grade book doesn’t work, or it stinks, doesn’t help me or our team." Prince George’s County is not alone in experiencing problems with a new system.
Watts said the problems were largely the fault of inadequate training rather than bugs in the system. Only 65 percent of student schedules were entered correctly, leading to delays in getting students’ classes straight, he said, adding: "The training that was provided was not what we needed."

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California technology coordinator wins Google contest

Miramonte High School Technology Coordinator Cheryl Davis was named one of six winners of a Google contest to create a lesson plan using Google Earth’s new ancient Rome layer, reports the San Jose Mercury News. Davis, a former history teacher who is also a technology specialist for the district at large, will get several prizes: an Apple MacBook laptop, digital projector, digital camera, and $500 in gift cards. "When Google Earth for ancient Rome came out, that was so fascinating because you could see the architecture," Davis said. In her winning lesson, "A Roman holiday (with the ancients)," students compare the architecture and geography of ancient Rome with what exists today. Google’s judges were "thrilled" with the quality of the dozens of lessons submitted for the contest said Anna Bishop, a spokeswoman for Google’s geo-education program. Among the six winners nationwide, Davis stands out because she has also completed the company’s one-day teacher training course, Google Academy…

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Report: Online learning a ‘lifeline’ in rural areas

Online learning offers a lifeline–especially for rural schools, according to a recent study that also predicts “blended learning” could be the way most students learn in the future.

The Sloan Consortium (Sloan-C) study, called “K-12 Online Learning,” is a follow-up to the group’s 2007 report, which was one of the first studies to collect data about online and blended learning in K-12 schools. The new study, released in January, is based on information gathered from more than 800 U.S. school systems during the 2007-08 academic year.

According to the study, three-quarters of responding school districts had at least one student enrolled in a fully online or blended course, an increase of about 10 percentage points from the group’s earlier study. (“Blended” courses employ both online and face-to-face instruction.)

The total number of K-12 students taking online or blended courses in 2007-08 was estimated at 1,030,000–up from 700,000 in the earlier study–and two-thirds of respondents said they expect their online enrollments will continue to grow.

Online learning has developed differently in K-12 schools than it has in higher education, the report noted.

At colleges and universities, online learning has grown much more rapidly, as these institutions have invested significant dollars in developing and delivering their own online courses and degree programs.

K-12 schools, on the other hand, have “approached online learning with caution,” the report says. “Rather than investing resources in developing their own delivery support structure, they typically depend on a number of outside online learning providers, including postsecondary institutions, independent vendors, and state virtual schools.”

What’s more, most school districts (83 percent) said they use multiple online-learning providers rather than contracting with a single provider.

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Expert: Internet-mapping bill won’t deter attacks

A California lawmaker’s proposal to require internet mapping services to blur detailed images of schools, colleges, hospitals, and other potential terrorist targets has generated a great deal of attention — much of it criticism.

Many safety experts say the bill would not limit the possibility of an attack, and providers of internet mapping services–such as Google Inc.–say it would be costly for them to implement.

California Assemblyman Joel Anderson, a San Diego-area Republican, said he decided to introduce his bill after reading that terrorists who plotted attacks in Israel and India used popular services such as Google Earth and Microsoft’s Virtual Earth. But Dan O’Neill, president of Boston-based Applied Risk Management, said blurring the images of buildings won’t deter a possible attack.

"Violence on campus is typically committed by a member of the community, and they’re familiar with the campus environment. They probably wouldn’t use [internet mapping services] to plan an attack," O’Neill said. "In my opinion, [the legislation] is almost a complete waste of time."

O’Neill said the mapping systems are likely only one part of the information that terrorists would use to plan an attack.

"Just because it’s blurred out, I don’t think it will deter an attack. They would most likely find another way to get the information they need," he said.

Anderson wants to force internet mapping services to blur detailed images of schools, colleges, hospitals, churches, and all government buildings in California, reviving a debate over whether such images can aid terrorists. The bill also would prohibit internet mapping services from providing street-view photographs or imagery of those buildings and facilities.

If the California Assembly passes the bill, site operators who violate it would be subject to a fine of at least $250,000 for each day the site violates the provisions of the law. An operator who is an executive officer or member of a board of directors who knowingly violates these provisions would be subject to imprisonment in the state prison for one to three years.

But even if the bill becomes law, which experts say is unlikely, it might be difficult to prohibit Google, Microsoft, and other mapping companies from posting such photographs. That’s because those images already are public and often are posted on the institution’s own web site.

"Just taking a picture of a building is not a threat, because these images have been available for decades," said Simon Davies, president of London-based Privacy International, which has been critical of Google for taking photographs without consent.

O’Neill said he thought the bill could be enforced easily, simply by having an entity monitor the internet mapping sites and notify sites that violate the law.

"However, with a $250,000 fine or one to three years in prison, I think people would be sufficiently motivated to obey the law if it passes," he said.

He added that there are many positive uses of the online images.

"The images provide value to prospective students, parents, and other citizens. For example, architects use them for space planning," he said. "And it’s provided for free."

Pam Greenberg, who tracks internet and technology issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said California appears to be the first state to consider restrictions on internet photos of potential terrorist targets.

Google spokeswoman Elaine Filadelfo told the Associated Press that the company was studying Anderson’s bill but noted that it listens to complaints from the public. A Microsoft representative declined to comment.

Google and Microsoft do voluntarily limit online images to some extent.

The White House, the U.S. Capitol, and military bases are found on internet maps but cannot be viewed as clearly as the buildings on the streets that surround them. In most cases, Google and other mapping web sites have removed those sensitive sites by request.

Google also removed shelters for battered women before it unveiled panoramic street-level photographs that show buildings in much closer detail, including possibly who’s coming and leaving.

In addition, the company removed detailed Israeli street images from its Google Earth software after the government there raised concerns that Hamas used online satellite photos to aim rockets.

Anderson’s bill does not target images of homes posted online, an aspect of internet mapping that has led to privacy concerns–including a Pennsylvania lawsuit by a suburban Pittsburgh couple that recently was dismissed by a federal judge.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Internet security: Virtual globe technology

California State Assembly

Google Earth

 

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Parent voting for school councils is moving online

Next month, New York City’s education department will conduct what election officials are billing as the first exclusively online public election in the United States, reports the New York Times. The department is conducting an experiment in participatory democracy. Nearly a million public school parents will be able to cast advisory votes for members of their community education councils. The council members, who are unpaid, play a role in school rezoning, helping schools develop their budgets, and advising the department on the need for new schools. Parents can vote on a secure web site from home, work, or any place with internet access, 24 hours a day, from April 6 to 12. But if the past is any guide, it’s not clear how many parents will bother to vote, however convenient the process. School board elections have historically produced dismally low turnouts, and a number of critics have expressed skepticism that the latest campaign will galvanize voters…

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Funding for cyber charter schools at issue

A March 12 hearing before Pennsylvania’s Senate Education Committee was dominated by debate over funding for the state’s cyber charter schools, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer. As expected, Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak’s proposals to set a statewide tuition rate for cyber charter schools was sharply criticized by charter operators and parents. Several warned that the changes would reduce funding for cyber charters and could threaten their viability. Under the current law, school districts pay the same amount for a student of a cyber school as for one at a regular charter school. The rates vary widely and are based on how much a district spends to educate students in its own schools. But because cyber schools enroll students from across the state, their districts pay different amounts for students receiving the same instruction. For example, Jenkintown paid $15,076 per student last year and Reading $5,380. Zahorchak said he and Gov. Ed Rendell favored a statewide funding rate for cyber schools based on the "most efficient, effective cyber charters" that have met No Child Left Behind standards. For the 2009-10 academic year, the rate would be a maximum of $8,856, but no more than what a district pays for a student at a regular charter school. Joanne Jones Barnett, chief executive of the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, said cyber rates reflected the state’s inequities in funding public education in general. She said one rate would not cover all cyber charter schools, noting that the state’s 11 cyber charters offer different grades and have students with differing needs…

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Maine to expand its school laptop program

Despite the economic turmoil, Maine is expanding its program to provide laptop computers to students.

Maine started its first-in-the-nation program by distributing more than 30,000 computers to each seventh- and eighth-grader in all of the state’s public schools in 2002 and 2003. Now the goal is to provide a laptop to every public school student in grades 7-12 by the fall.

About 30 high schools already have laptops that they obtained outside the scope of the original program. But now all 120 of Maine’s high schools, along with 241 middle schools, will have new laptops under the same program, at a cost of about $242 per computer per year, said Education Commissioner Susan Gendron.

State education officials announced last week that they’re negotiating a four-year lease with Apple Inc. for 100,000 Apple MacBook laptops.

Gov. John Baldacci said in his State of the State address March 10 that revamping the laptop computer program would turn it "into a powerful tool for the entire family."

"Every night when students in seventh through 12th grade bring those computers home, they’ll connect the whole family to new opportunities and new resources," Baldacci said. The computers would come with software to connect to the state’s career centers, he added.

The state hasn’t yet completed its negotiations with Apple, but it’s expected that the new lease will cost the state about $25 million per year, said David Connerty-Marin, an Education Department spokesman.

An Apple spokesman in Cupertino, Calif., referred questions to the governor’s office.

The state currently pays about $13 million per year to provide Apple laptops to 37,000 middle-schoolers and about 10,000 middle school and high school teachers and administrators. The expansion would add 53,000 high schoolers to the program.

At a time when state lawmakers are facing a two-year budget shortfall of more than $800 million, Baldacci pointed out that the program expansion is being done within existing resources and won’t require additional taxes.

School administrators say the laptop program, aimed at eliminating the so-called "digital divide" between wealthy and poor students, has been a success. A study released in 2007 by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute at the University of Southern Maine indicated writing scores improved after laptops were introduced.

Links:

Maine Learning Technology Initiative

Maine Education Policy Research Institute

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