Obama names first Hispanic to High Court

President Barack Obama on May 26 named federal appeals judge Sonia Sotomayor as his choice to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter–making her the first Hispanic in history picked to wear the robes of a High Court justice, and giving some education professionals hope that she will be assertive for education rights.

If confirmed by the Senate, Sotomayor, 54, would join Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the second woman on the current Supreme Court and the third in U.S. history. While she was born in New York, her parents immigrated to the states from Puerto Rico.

Obama and Sotomayor both noted the historic nature of the appointment. The president said a Hispanic on the court would mark another step toward the goal of "equal justice under law."

Sotomayor said she grew up in poor surroundings and never dreamed she would one day be nominated for the nation’s highest court.

"My heart today is bursting with gratitude," Sotomayor said from the White House podium moments after being introduced by Obama.

Brian W. Jones, senior council for with Dow Lohnes PLLC, a Washington, D.C.-based law firm that says it has the nation’s largest and most diverse education practice devoted primarily to the postsecondary sector, said Sotomayor’s nomination is positive on a few different levels.

"Personally, I think it’s a positive step for the country that we would have another female member of the court. From an education standpoint, we have a growingly diverse education system … so it will be a positive thing to have a Hispanic justice," he said.

He noted that, because it is generally accepted that Sotomayor falls on the liberal side of the spectrum, she has a perspective of civil-rights issues that is probably somewhat more assertive than those of the conservative justices on the Supreme Court.

"It’s important for school districts and postsecondary [schools] to have someone who takes a much more firm stance on the rights and responsibilities public institutions have to their students and employees," he said.

Tom Finaly, vice president of administration at the online TUI University, said he believes Sotomayor’s moderate liberal rulings and personal background could make her a big proponent of higher education.

"From what I have read, her parents who moved from Puerto Rico instilled in her and her brother the importance of education," Finaly said. "She went on to be incredibly successful in high school, at Princeton undergrad, and later at Yale Law School. I would imagine she will be a supporter of legislation that creates greater access to higher education for minorities, working parents, and economically disadvantaged people. She will also serve as a great inspiration for Latinas to further their education."

Cynthia Zane, president of Hilbert College in Hamburg, N.Y., said that while she didn’t know of any education-centered decisions Sotomayor has made, she thinks her understanding of the importance to preserve the access and opportunity for students who would not be able to go to college makes her a perfect candidate.
 
"Her life story, from my perspective, is similar to so many students who come to Hilbert. Her mother and father didn’t go to college. She’s a first-generation college student. And she went to Princeton and Yale because of educational scholarships," Zane said. "I think someone whose life was transformed by access to higher education and funding and scholarships will be able to understand the journey that many students today are trying to complete."

Sotomayor might be best known as the judge that "saved baseball," as Obama said in his introduction of his nominee. In 1995, she made a key ruling that brought Major League Baseball back to the nation after a strike.

When Sotomayor was U.S. District Court judge in 2001, she ruled that a dyslexic woman who failed the bar exam to become a lawyer five times should be given special treatment when taking the exam again. Sotomayor said that the Americans with Disabilities Act provided that the woman should be given extra time to take the test, be allowed the use of a computer for the exam, and be given large-print questions.

She is also very involved in the Development School for Youth program, which sponsors workshops for inner-city high school students, according to a press release from the White House. Each semester, about 70 students attend 16 weekly workshops, where Sotomayor is a leader, that are designed to teach them how to function in a work setting.

Obama said Sotomayor has more experience as a judge than any current member of the High Court had when nominated, adding she has earned the "respect of colleagues on the bench," the admiration of lawyers who appear in her court, and the "adoration of her clerks."

Sotomayor spent five years as an assistant district attorney in New York County before joining a private practice in New York City, where she worked for four years. Sotomayor was nominated by George H.W. Bush to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 1992 and was nominated by Bill Clinton to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York in 1997. If confirmed, she will replace Souter as the only justice with experience as a trial judge.

Her 1997 nomination was held up for months, a delay Democrats attributed to Republican concerns that she might someday become a Supreme Court nominee. Sotomayor was finally confirmed by the Senate on a 68-28 vote. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., voted against her and, as the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, is a key player in shaping how the GOP will handle Sotomayor.

"We must determine if Ms. Sotomayor understands that the proper role of a judge is to act as a neutral umpire of the law, calling balls and strikes fairly without regard to one’s own personal preferences or political views," Sessions said.

Obama has said he hopes Sotomayor can take her place before the justices begin their new term in October. Democrats hold a large majority in the Senate, and barring the unexpected, Sotomayor’s confirmation should be assured.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Links:

Supreme Court of the United States

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Economic woes could reduce technology in K-12 classrooms

A report released by the American Association of School Administrators reveals that many school budgets will be cut during the 2009-10 school year because of reduced funding — and technology is among the key areas expected to be affected, reports the Richmond Distance Learning Examiner. The report "Looking Back, Looking Forward: How the Economic Downturn Continues to Impact School Districts," the fourth in a series of reports, polled 859 school administrators from 48 states in February and March. In spite of additional funding earmarked in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, schools will likely cut budgets and spending because of reduced funding, it found. Seventy-five percent of respondents indicated that their districts were inadequately funded, and 21 percent were using short-term borrowing to meet payroll and accounts payable. School administrators in the survey recognized that technology is a priority, yet budget cuts will force districts to make tough decisions about how much technology stays in the classroom…

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Should teachers, kids be digital ‘friends’?

With online social networks and similar tools rocketing in popularity, some teachers have started using these tools to build rapport, update students on classroom activities, and keep an ear to the ground with the youths they teach. But potential pitfalls remain, reports the Arizona Daily Star — including the appearance of impropriety and other ethical issues. And sometimes it can lead to criminal cases. Police last weekend arrested a 36-year-old eighth-grade teacher at Utterback Magnet Middle School, alleging he had a sexual encounter with a student on school property. The mother of a 15-year-old student had told police she found suspicious chats between the teacher and her daughter on the girl’s Facebook page. And on May 22, a 37-year-old math teacher at a suburban Philadelphia high school was accused of having sex with one of her students and sending sexually explicit internet and phone messages to another. Police say the teacher used Facebook to contact the students. The sexual relationship reportedly began with one student after she sent him a "friend" request to be part of her online social network. School officials say it’s hard to know where to draw the line–although there has been some movement to do just that. The Missouri Legislature is debating a proposal to ban elementary-school teachers from having social-networking friend-ships with their students. And the Lamar County School District board in Mississippi recently passed a policy that bans "fraternization via the internet" between staff members and students. It also prohibits text messages to students except for educational purposes…

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Learn about free eBooks that can supplement or replace classroom texts

"E-Books Directory" is an online resource that contains links to freely downloadable eBooks, technical papers, and documents, as well as user-contributed content, articles, reviews, and comments. Launched in 2008 as a free service to students, educators, researchers, and eBook lovers, the directory is a database-driven web site that uses PHP scripting language and the MySQL relational database. As of press time, it listed 1702 eBooks in 391 categories, including children¹s books, history, humanities, literature, science, and mathematics. Under Classic Literature, for example, users will finds links to such iconic texts as Anna Karenina, Beowulf, Don Quixote, Great Expectations, Little Women, and more. The site says it does not support copyright infringement, nor will it link to web sites that trade copyrighted material. http://www.e-booksdirectory.com

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Bill would fund internet safety education

A federal lawmaker has introduced internet safety legislation that, if passed, would authorize roughly $175 million–$35 million a year for five years–for internet safety education and training to help make children, parents, and educators aware of proper online behavior and the dangers the internet poses.

The School and Family Education about the Internet (SAFE Internet) Act, sponsored by Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., would "create a grant program to support existing and new internet safety programs that meet guidelines based on the cyber safety strategies found to be most effective."

"The way to meet the challenges and opportunities the internet presents isn’t to deny our children access to this great resource, but to make sure they know how to use it wisely," Menendez said.

"Just as we make sure our children know not to talk to strangers, not to bully kids on the playground, and not to give out their personal information, we have the same responsibility to teach them to apply these values online. That’s why I’m introducing this bill to make internet safety the strong federal priority it should be."

The bill would fund research to determine best practices in internet safety education and then create guidelines for the grants.

Using those guidelines, grants would be awarded to eligible recipients, including state educational agencies, nonprofit organizations, and school-nonprofit partnerships.

Recipients would use the funds to develop internet safety education programs, train teachers and administrators, maintain media campaigns to promote awareness of the risks children face online, and educate parents about identifying and protecting their children from those risks.

Researchers and heads of administering government agencies will evaluate current internet safety education programs, gather findings regarding at-risk children, and examine any other area of interest. The research group also would identify gaps in internet safety education. A final report from the group will be used to further identify and refine best practices in internet safety.

The Broadband Data Improvement Act, signed into law in October 2008 by President Bush, requires schools receiving federal eRate discounts on their telecommunications services and internet access to have internet safety programs in place, but designated no funding toward that end. 

"We’ve waited years for this," said Parry Aftab, the executive director of WiredSafety.  The law will bring together stakeholders, including industry leaders, parents, educators, informed students, policy makers, and law enforcement officials, and will encourage them to collaborate to keep children safe online, she added.

Aftab noted in a May 14 blog entry that adults "need to help to protect our kids and give them cyber literacy skills."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., has expressed her support for the SAFE Internet Act. Wasserman Schultz plans to make a few technical changes to the bill and is in discussions to secure a Republican co-sponsor, which will make it more likely to move in the House of Representatives, a spokesman said.

She plans to introduce her version of the bill in the House in early June, the spokesman said.

"Educating children must be our first line of defense to keep them safe from the dangers of online predators, cyber bullies, sexting, and other online dangers," said Wasserman Schultz.

Cynthia Logan, mother of Jessie Logan, the high school senior who committed suicide after a nude photo she text-messaged was made public, voiced her support for the proposed law and said it would help schools learn how to respond when a student is victimized online.

Web Wise Kids CEO Judi Westberg Warren said the organization supports passage of the law, which could help prevent millions of children from being victimized online.

"Today’s digital world presents a tremendous opportunity for innovation, but also significant challenges to keep children safe. Our kids’ futures depend on their understanding and leveraging technology in a smart way," she said.

The bill is S.1047.

Links:

Sen. Robert Menendez

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz

Parry Aftab’s blog

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New iPod rules touch off heated debate

A new policy by the University of Missouri School of Journalism requiring incoming students to have an iPhone, iPod Touch, or similar device has touched off a heated debate about the limits and possibilities of technology — as well as corporate influence — in academia.

Gadgets such as the Apple iPhone and the iPod Touch are mainstays on college campuses, largely for their ability to help students escape the pressures of the classroom–although a growing number of institutions also use the devices for academic purposes.

Now the nation’s oldest journalism school is asking students to buy those or similar devices, so students can download classroom lectures or confirm facts on the web while reporting from the scene of a plane crash or town council meeting.

The new rule appears to mark one of the first times an American university is requiring undergraduates to buy such devices themselves.

Skeptics say the school is getting too cozy with Apple Inc., though administrators point out that they earn no financial benefit from the new policy. The university gets a 10-percent discount on Apple computers it buys, but other vendors such as Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. offer the same deal.

"It’s like asking an engineer to buy a calculator," said Brian Brooks, associate dean for undergraduate studies. "We are doing this requirement solely to benefit our students’ learning."

A description about the program on the school’s web site notes that "at least 50 colleges and universities nationwide make use of iPods in their programs." But it’s not clear whether any of those schools make it mandatory–and at the students’ expense. Private institutions such as Duke and Abilene Christian University have given the devices out for free.

Brooks points out that an estimated 85 to 90 percent of the university’s 30,200 undergraduates already own portable music players, with 85 percent of those devices being iPods.

Even so, graduating senior Maureen Scarpelli–an admitted Apple disciple–questions the school’s endorsement of a particular product.

After similar complaints, the school clarified that it is requiring any web-enabled, audio-video player like the iPhone or the iPod Touch, which is like an iPhone without the phone. So portable devices such as a Microsoft Zune or smart phones such as BlackBerrys can be acceptable … just not preferred.

"There are alternatives to the iPod Touch, but none that we consider equally capable," the online program description concludes.

Among the uses envisioned by Brooks and other professors: students listening to lectures while at the gym or walking to class; using wireless internet access to verify information while reporting stories; and watching instructional videos that otherwise would take up valuable classroom time.

Clyde Bentley was one of nine journalism professors who voted against the new policy (with 40 in support) at a recent faculty meeting. His primary concern was saddling students with an additional expense. He also questioned whether students who rely on portable devices to listen to Vampire Weekend or watch The Colbert Report will embrace the journalism school’s intended uses.

"I had a student say that he used his iPod to get away from me," Bentley said, recalling previous attempts to offer podcasts of his lectures.

Brooks pointed out that by requiring portable electronic devices, the university can include those costs in its financial aid packages. And the $229 student price of an iPod Touch is comparable to two or three textbooks, he said.

Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at the University of Southern California, calls the new Missouri requirement "not only reasonable but admirable." He likened the debate to discussions several years ago over whether colleges should ask incoming students to buy PCs or laptop computers–by now a largely moot point.

"Schools are usually far behind their students in embracing new technology. And faculty are usually behind the schools," Cole said.

"It really shows how both journalism and education are changing in transformational ways," he added. "The biggest effect the internet will have is not how we play or communicate, but how we learn."

Links:

University of Missouri School of Journalism

Center for the Digital Future

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Microsoft’s DigiGirlz Day helps girls tackle tech

During DigiGirlz Day at Microsoft’s New England Research and Development (NERD) site in Cambridge, Mass., 177 high school girls recently programmed miniature robots, made musical Play-Doh, learned about internet safety, and discovered how architects used math to gut two floors of the research center without compromising the building’s structural integrity. The day’s activities were part of 25 free one-day events happening around the world, designed to keep girls interested in science and math, reports Mass High Tech. "We just don’t have young girls going into technology," said Jennifer Tour Chayes, NERD’s managing director. "The perception of technology is that it is not creative." In a society that discourages females in technology, said Chayes, many girls are missing out on great careers. The industry is also missing out on fantastic technology, she said. Science is losing girls in their early teens, said Chayes. The reason, she said, is that science is not considered attractive. She was teased when she was 12 years old for being good at math, and now says that same type of social response is still going on…

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UI center provides software to help those with reading difficulties

Thanks to a free new software program, University of Iowa students, faculty, and staff who have difficulty reading online will now have help with BrowseAloud, reports Media-Newswire.com. The Iowa Center for Assistive Technology Education and Research (ICATER) in the UI College of Education has partnered with BrowseAloud to provide a free software program that reads all uiowa.edu web pages out loud. BrowseAloud will not work with the UI Health Care or athletic web sites, however, because they have different web addresses. The software can help anyone who has difficulty reading online, including people with visual impairments, low literacy, English-language learners, or those with learning disabilities, such as dyslexia, said Jim Stachowiak, ICATER coordinator. Once a user has downloaded BrowseAloud, the BrowseAloud icon will appear in the system tray. By placing the cursor over the text, the relevant sentence will be read aloud and simultaneously highlighted. The user can choose to listen to selected sections of text or the entire page from where their cursor is pointed…

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Researchers: Invest more in community colleges

For higher education in the United States to match the education levels of other countries, more federal funding should be spent on nurturing community colleges, said speakers at a May 20 webinar.

Education researchers spoke of ways to improve the country’s weaknesses in higher education during a Hechinger Institute webinar, and all three cited the importance of community colleges as a way to meet President Barack Obama’s vow that the U.S. will lead the world in college graduation rates by 2020.

Arthur Hauptman, who authored the report "Cost, Commitment, and Attainment in Higher Education" with Young Kim, said that one of the strategies the U.S. should consider to achieve higher attainment of a college degree at sustainable levels of cost and commitment is to focus more resources and attention on community colleges.

"One effective way for the United States to economize in higher education, while at the same time becoming more productive, is to shift public resources toward less costly sub-bachelors programs in community colleges, while ensuring that these programs lead more students to successful outcomes, including credentials and degrees of value in the labor market," Hauptman and Kim wrote in the report.

The objective of Hauptman’s and Kim’s report was to examine the extent to which a country’s attainment rates correlate with high cost levels and/or financial commitment to higher education.

The report found that while the amount of money the U.S. spends on tertiary education per student ranked first out of the 30 countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the country ranked 15th on the amount of money spent on research. The share of gross domestic product spent on public schools ranked 15th, though it ranked first for private schools. Rankings were determined by data from 2005. U.S. attainment rates ranked third overall for workers ages 25 to 34, ranking second for bachelors degrees and ninth for sub-bachelors degrees.

"If we’re going to reach the president’s goal of increasing the number of folks who have a year or maybe two years of college, we’re going to have to focus on community colleges. They are absolutely the key to increasing attainment in the United States in a cost effective and inclusive manner," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin. She co-authored the recent report, "Transforming America’s Community Colleges: A Federal Policy Proposal to Expand Opportunity and Promote Economic Prosperity."

She noted that community colleges are already available and accessible to the vast majority of Americans and serve a very high share of minority and lower-income people.

"If we want to encourage inclusive growth, which is important for diminishing economic inequality and pulling ourselves out of this recession, then we need to target a sector that serves these communities very well," Goldrick-Rab said.

While community college enrollment has increased 46 percent from 1987 to 2006–enrollment at four-year institutions has only grown 24 percent–Goldrick-Rab said community colleges face serious challenges. For example, dropout rates are close to 50 percent, and only one-third of students complete a degree or certificate within six years.

Goldrick-Rab said that to increase attainment, the federal government needs to double the amount of money it spends on community colleges.

"Right now, most community colleges depend extremely heavily on states and local communities for their budgets, and federal spending–including all of student aid–supplies only 15 percent of their revenue … [and] that makes them very, very vulnerable during an economic downturn," she said.

Links:

"Cost, Commitment, and Attainment in Higher Education"

"Transforming America’s Community Colleges"

Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media

 

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Duncan outlines school reform agenda

Rewarding effective teaching, expanding the learning time, collecting meaningful data, and transforming underperforming high schools are the four key areas the U.S. Department of Education (ED) plans to target in the next year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told school stakeholders at the Center for American Progress’s "Resource, Allocation, Reinvestment, and Education Reform" conference May 18.

School administrators and education policy leaders packed into the Grand Hyatt ballroom in Washington, D.C., to hear Duncan’s plan and learn from experts who are ahead of the curve.

"Our flawed public education system fails to prepare all of America’s students to meet the world’s demanding educational benchmarks," said John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center. "Our high school students consistently fare poorly on international comparisons of student achievement, while our domestic achievement gaps remain wide. We have inadequate human capital policies, we fund schools inequitably, and we do not have the rigorous standards, assessments, and accountability systems that we need to ensure a high-quality education for all of our students."

Podesta said he believes the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) can help spur needed changes. Duncan agreed, noting the stimulus provides $100 billion in new money for education–and even though money alone won’t solve every problem, unprecedented resources do, he said, "call for unprecedented reforms."

"This is a time when we need progressive action," said Duncan. "There is a sense of urgency to improve education. And it’s not just in the numbers–the poor international test scores and the number of failing schools. I’ve seen firsthand what failing education can do to a community. We can’t afford to be passive any longer."

Duncan said there are a lot of areas in education that need improvement, but four areas specifically need to be targeted:

1. Data-driven decision making. Duncan explained that without numbers and data, school leaders and ED officials are just "shooting in the dark." Every state and district needs real data, he said, including student tracking from preschool through higher education, teacher tracking from schools of education throughout their career, and better tracking of individual school progress.
2. Raising state and national standards. Duncan said most states are not preparing students adequately for the 21st-century workforce.
3. Rewarding excellence. Duncan believes in offering incentives for the best teachers and principals to serve in problem or underserved schools and districts. He also believes that math and science teachers should be paid more and given rewards for staying in that subject for a long period of time.
4. Reforming low-performing schools. Within the next two years, Duncan would like to see the 2,000 lowest-performing high schools that account for 50 percent of the country’s high school dropouts change. Some of the reforms he’d like to see include prolonging the school day, week, and year; providing more after-school opportunities for students; and replacing ineffective teachers with teachers who have high expectations for their students.

Before states and school systems can undergo these extensive transformations, conference speakers warned, it will take much more than surface fixes to ensure sustainable progress.

"There is a disconnect between the all-too-common industrial-based foundation of our schools and the technological age we are living in today," said Raegen Miller, associate director for education research at the Center.

To help schools take basic steps towards change, Karen Hawley Miles, executive director of Education Resource Strategies, suggested that a shift needs to occur in how resources are used to change the underlying system.

"Here’s an example of how most schools work today," said Miles. "There is a girl named Tameka. She is in sixth grade and loves school, but she has low scores in math and a basic reading level. She now has to change schools to go to seventh grade. Two out of her five teachers are new. No one knows Tameka, her scores, or how she learns as a student, because there [are] no data for Tameka and there’s no system in place to track, or even assess, Tameka properly. Now Tameka is failing math and can’t progress to a better reading level. Tameka doesn’t like school anymore."

Miles went on to describe how it’s not a teacher’s fault, either: "You have these new teachers, they have no way to track their students; they have too many students; there’s no way to talk to the resident teachers because your schedules don’t align; and any free time you have is caught up in paperwork. You wish there was a school forum, but there are none. You are stressed and overworked."

Miles’ point was clear: Schools and districts "can’t throw new money on top of old structures that don’t work."

In her newly published paper, "Using Stimulus Funds to Build a Bridge to Better Practice," Miles said she outlines seven steps to help schools redesign their systems–steps that Miles said are based on the scalable practices of high-performing schools:

1. Clarify high-level priorities in the improvement agenda;
2. Map current spending and, if possible, compare spending with similar districts;
3. Quantify large opportunities for reallocation consistent with this vision;
4. Focus leadership discussion on high-return actions;
5. Weigh political concerns in the context of potential impact and complete vision for actions;
6. Conduct line-item reviews by department to determine both cuts and investments; and
7. Ensure that new investments (including new stimulus funds in Title I and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) are managed by staff members who can advance the strategic priorities.

Other helpful tips for schools that Miles encouraged were to limit class sizes to no more than 17 students, move from remediation to early prevention, move from autonomy to collaboration, move from teachers as the sole authority to using outside resources and experts, build enhanced student information systems, revamp human resources to help place teachers in the best positions possible for them, establish sturdy teacher evaluation systems, and renegotiate bad bargains.

Two districts that credit their current success to Miles and her leadership are Maryland’s Baltimore County Public Schools and North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"One of the hardest things to do is going to be to scrap the bad teachers, the bad schools, [and] to figure out what to cut and what to keep," said Miles.

(Editor’s note: For more information on how ARRA funds can help spur education reform, see our Educator Resource Center on "Stimulating Achievement.")

Links:

U.S. Department of Education

Center for American Progress

Education Resource Strategies

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