Obama urges states to raise academic standards

In order for U.S. to be first in world education, states need to raise their academic standards.

For the U.S. to lead the world in education, states need to raise their academic standards, Obama says.

Saying America’s “primacy in the world” is at stake, President Barack Obama on Feb. 22 prodded states to raise their academic standards by using the best leverage he has: money.

Speaking to governors gathered at the White House, Obama said he won’t “accept second place for the United States of America.” He noted that it continues to lag behind other nations in critical areas, including high school math and science skills.

Obama told the governors he wants a change in the nation’s education law that would allow states to receive federal aid for poor students only if they adopt academic standards that are deemed truly to prepare children for college or careers out of high school.

The move would require a change in the nation’s main elementary and secondary education law, which became known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) during the presidency of George W. Bush.

Traditionally, the federal government is a marginal player in the financing and control of education, but its role has expanded as educators and lawmakers at all levels worry about slipping U.S. competitiveness.

Many schools count on a key source of federal aid, known as Title I, to help out their poorest students. That’s the money Obama wants to make contingent upon the setting of more rigorous standards across the nation. It would remain up to states, not Washington, to choose their specific standards.

Many states already are working on a united effort to coordinate and improve their standards. (See “Another step forward for common standards.”)

Yet Obama took a swipe at how some states responded to setting their own academic standards under NCLB, saying 11 states lowered their standards in math between 2005 and 2007.

“That may make those states look better relative to other states,” Obama said, “but it’s not going to help our students keep up with their global competitors.”

Obama spoke to governors of both parties during their yearly gathering with the president at the White House.

The White House said the governors have been working on the president’s Race to the Top program, which rewards school systems that raise standards and demonstrate commitment through tougher student assessments.

At the same time, the White House said that too many states are churning out graduates who are unprepared either for college or careers.

Besides supporting states’ ongoing efforts to raise their quality of education, the White House said the president will commit an additional $350 million to the Race to the Top challenge to back “state-led partnerships to develop new, state-of-the art assessments aligned to college and career-ready standards.”

In a speech at the American Association of School Administrators conference earlier this month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan outlined the Obama administration’s vision for rewriting the nation’s education law.

The administration wants the revised law to:

• Require states to “adopt and certify that they have college- and career-ready standards in reading and mathematics” to be eligible for federal Title I money.

• Establish a $405 million outlay to help states “align teacher preparation practices and programs to [the] teaching of college- and career-ready standards.”


Schools in China say they weren’t behind hacking

Two prominent schools in China are disputing allegations that hacking attacks on Google and other firms originated from them, reports the Associated Press. The New York Times reported Feb. 18 that security investigators traced the hacking to computers at Shanghai Jiaotong University and Lanxiang Vocational School in China. The official Xinhua News Agency cited an unnamed university spokesperson on Feb. 20 as saying the allegation against it is baseless, and an official at the vocational school said its investigation found no evidence the attacks originated there. Google revealed Jan. 12 that digital thieves had stolen some of its computer code and tried to break into the accounts of human-rights activists opposed to China’s policies. The sophisticated theft also targeted the computers of more than 30 other companies, according to security experts. The digital assault was serious enough to prompt Google to confront China’s government about censorship rules that weed out politically and culturally sensitive topics from search results in the country. Google says it’s prepared to shut down its China-based search engine and the company and the government are still discussing a possible compromise…

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Textbooks that professors can rewrite, digitally

In a kind of Wikipedia of textbooks, Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers of trade books and textbooks, is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes, reports the New York Times. Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures, and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations, or illustrations. While many publishers have offered customized print textbooks for years—allowing instructors to reorder chapters or insert third-party content from other publications or their own writing—DynamicBooks gives instructors the power to alter individual sentences and paragraphs without consulting the original authors or publisher. “Basically they will go online, log on to the authoring tool, have the content right there and make whatever changes they want,” said Brian Napack, president of Macmillan. “And we don’t even look at it.” In August, Macmillan plans to start selling 100 titles through DynamicBooks. Students will be able to buy the eBooks at dynamicbooks.com, in college bookstores, and through CourseSmart, a joint venture among five textbook publishers that sells electronic textbooks…

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Obama to propose new rules for reading and math standards

In a proposed change to the No Child Left Behind law, the Obama administration would require states to adopt new academic standards to qualify for federal money from a $14 billion program that concentrates on impoverished students, reports the New York Times. The proposal, part of the administration’s recommendations for a Congressional overhaul of the law, would require states to adopt “college- and career-ready standards” in reading and math. The current law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, requires states to adopt “challenging academic standards” in reading and math to receive federal money for poor students under the program known as Title I, but leaves it up to states to decide what qualifies as “challenging.” The result was that states set their standards at widely varied levels, some as rigorous as those used in high-performing countries like Japan, but others at far lower levels that lay out mediocre expectations for their students at best…

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Computerized state assessments to save time, money

Kansas is requiring its students to take math, reading, and writing tests on a computer this year, reports the Wichita Eagle. Having all schools use the computerized version of the test saves the state money in printing costs—about $350,000 a year—but the switch is mostly for expediency, said David Bowman of the Kansas Department of Education. With paper tests and the mailing and scanning required to process them, schools didn’t see scores until the beginning of the next school year. Now, Bowman said, they can expect official results in May. “That’s the big advantage,” he said. “Teachers can start planning for next year” before the school year ends. Kansas schools have been able to use the computerized form of the assessment since 2004, and Bowman said three years ago the state told the schools they would need to be able to administer it to all students on the computer by this year. “The big switch for some districts… has been the capacity issue—access to that many computers,” he said. Although the state saves some money, the cost burden of switching to computerized assessments falls on local districts…

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College newspaper warms up its digital iPad press

The student newspaper at Abilene Christian University (ACU) isn’t waiting for iPads to hit the shelves before seizing on the opportunity the device holds for print publications, reports MacNewsWorld:  Instead, the Optimist has developed its own app for the new platform. “We can’t wait until [the iPad] is adopted by a critical mass of people,” Professor Kenneth Pybus said. “We want to be up and running and there when they’re ready for us.” ACU will be among the first colleges to offer editions of its student newspaper designed specifically for the new hardware platform. Adding an iPad edition of the newspaper was a natural move for the publication. It’s already offered in print, on the web, and on the iPhone and iPod Touch, which are issued to students at ACU the way laptops are allocated at other universities. “Making our students comfortable with mobile news delivery just makes good sense academically,” Journalism Department Chair Cheryl Bacon said. “They’re going to be going into work environments where they have to adapt very quickly to technological change, and they have to understand how mobile delivery differs from other types of news delivery.”

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Education goals in National Broadband Plan revealed

Broadband access provides educational opportunities

Broadband access provides countless educational opportunities, FCC officials say.

Upgrading the federal e-Rate program to provide more connectivity to schools and libraries, removing the barriers to online learning so that more students can take advantage, and unlocking the power of data to personalize learning and improve school decision-making are three key recommendations to help education prosper under the National Broadband Plan that will be released next month, Federal Communication Commission (FCC) officials said during a Feb. 18 broadband meeting.

Meanwhile, the FCC took its first step toward changing the e-Rate’s rules to make it a better vehicle for delivering broadband access to all citizens: A Feb. 18 FCC order allows school systems to let members of their community use e-Rate funded infrastructure after school hours for the 2010 program year.

At the agency’s broadband meeting, officials revealed what they called “working recommendations” for the broadband plan in sectors such as education, health care, government, security, and job training.

The recommendations only address the “national purposes” section of the plan, and few details were made available. Still, they provide another glimpse into the agency’s thinking as educators await the release of the full plan next month.

High-speed internet access has integrated students into the digital world and has expanded educational opportunities for students, said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. Yet, while 97 percent of public elementary and secondary schools have internet access, connection speeds are largely insufficient, the FCC noted.

Led by Steve Midgley, the FCC’s director of education, members of the agency’s education team who are working on the National Broadband Plan outlined three key areas of emphasis for the plan.

One is to upgrade the e-Rate to increase its flexibility and improve the program’s efficiency. The FCC hopes to set national goals for school and library connectivity, support more flexibility in the development of infrastructure, and distribute funding for internal connections to more program recipients. (It was unclear from the Feb. 18 meeting how the FCC plans to achieve this last goal.)

The FCC also intends to streamline the e-Rate application process, index the cap to inflation, and foster innovation through pilot programs that would award some e-Rate funding competitively. Many of these changes are proposed in a bill to overhaul the e-Rate introduced by Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., earlier this month.

Community colleges in particular lag in offering high-speed internet connections, the FCC said: Just 16 percent of community college campuses have high-speed broadband connections, compared with more than 90 percent of research universities. Markey’s bill would allow community colleges to benefit from the e-Rate as well.

Another area of focus for the broadband plan is supporting and promoting online learning.

The Florida Virtual School (FLVS) is an example of the potential that broadband offers for students who do not have access to Advanced Placement classes in their brick-and-mortar schools, or for students who want to take a specialized course not often offered.

FLVS simply would not be possible without a robust broadband backbone, the FCC’s education team said.


Notification delay surfaces in Alabama shootings

The UAH shootings could bring more attention to text message alert systems, experts say.

The UAH shootings could bring more attention to text message alert systems, experts say.

Nearly an hour passed before University of Alabama at Huntsville (UAH) officials dispatched emergency notification to students and faculty after fatal shootings allegedly committed by a professor, raising new questions about campus-based alert systems.

University President David Williams sent an eMail to faculty and students Feb. 15—three days after the shootings that killed three people and injured three others—and said campus police responded to the gunfire within minutes, but the university community was not alerted via text message or eMail.

“… Some of you are understandably troubled about the speed with which a text message alert was sent following the shootings,” Williams said in his open letter to UAH students and faculty. “As any institution would do after an incident like this, our university will conduct a complete examination of the emergency response. How to more effectively use the university’s text message system in the midst of a fast-moving, life-threatening situation will certainly be part of that review.”

Colleges nationwide have improved notification systems in the wake of the April 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech University, using a variety of electronic messaging to warn students and their professors about on-campus violence or oncoming extreme weather.

The need for immediate notification was evident in September 2007, when two Delaware State University students were shot near a campus dining hall, and authorities scrambled to keep students in their dorms and tell the campus community exactly what had transpired. Updates were posted on the school’s web site, but only a sliver of the student body got the message.

Williams stressed that the shootings allegedly committed by Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated neurobiologist hired by UAH in 2003, were confined to one building, so students and faculty members were not in danger.

“The communication delay didn’t endanger anyone on campus in this instance,” Williams said in his letter. “The tragic incident was over quickly and contained to a single building. But we will learn from this situation and be better for it should we need to use this system in a future crisis.”

Emergency notification experts said colleges and universities are still getting acquainted with text and eMail alert systems, and campus leaders are wary that frequent alerts might dilute the importance of emergency messaging.


Official: FBI probing school webcam spying case

The FBI reportedly is probing whether any federal wiretap laws were violated.

The FBI reportedly is probing whether any federal wiretap laws were violated.

A Pennsylvania school district accused of secretly switching on laptop computer webcams inside students’ homes is under investigation by federal authorities, a law-enforcement official with knowledge of the case told the Associated Press (AP).

For its part, the district says it never used webcam images to monitor or discipline students and believes one of its administrators has been “unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation will look into whether any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws were violated by Lower Merion School District officials, the official—who spoke on condition of anonymity—told the AP on Feb. 19.

Days after a student filed suit over the practice, Lower Merion officials acknowledged Feb. 19 that they remotely activated webcams 42 times in the past 14 months, but only to find missing student laptops—which they noted might include “a loaner computer that, against regulations, might be taken off campus.” They insist they never did so to spy on students, as the student’s family claimed in the federal lawsuit.

“Despite some reports to the contrary, be assured that the security-tracking software has been completely disabled,” Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley said in a statement on the district’s web site. Officials vowed a comprehensive review that McGinley said should result in stronger privacy policies.

Families were not informed of the possibility the webcams might be activated in their homes without their permission in the paperwork students sign when they get the computers, district spokesman Doug Young said.

“It’s clear what was in place was insufficient, and that’s unacceptable,” Young said.

The district has suspended the practice amid the lawsuit and the accompanying uproar from students, the community, and privacy advocates. District officials have hired outside counsel to review the past webcam activations and advise the district on related issues, Young said.

Remote-activation software can be used to capture keystrokes, send commands over the internet, or turn computers into listening devices by turning on built-in microphones. People often use it for legitimate purposes—to access computers from remote locations, for example. But hackers can use it to steal passwords, and spouses to track the whereabouts of partners or lovers.

The Pennsylvania case shows how even well-intentioned plans can go awry if officials fail to understand the technology and its potential consequences, privacy experts said. Compromising images from inside a student’s bedroom could fall into the hands of rogue school staff or otherwise be spread across the internet, they said.

“What about the [potential] abuse of power from higher-ups, trying to find out more information about the head of the PTA?” wondered Ari Schwartz, vice president at the Center for Democracy and Technology. “If you don’t think about the privacy and security consequences of using this kind of technology, you run into problems.”

The FBI opened its investigation after news of the suit broke on Feb. 18, the law-enforcement official said. Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman also might investigate, she said Feb. 19.

Lower Merion, an affluent district in Philadelphia’s suburbs, issues Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools. Only two employees in the technology department were authorized to activate the cameras—and only to locate missing laptops, Young said. The remote activations captured images but never recorded sound, he said.

No one had complained before Harriton High School student Blake Robbins and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, filed their lawsuit on Feb. 16, he said.

According to the suit, Harriton vice principal Lindy Matsko told Blake on Nov. 11 that the school thought he was “engaged in improper behavior in his home.” She allegedly cited as evidence a photograph “embedded” in his school-issued laptop.


More Americans skeptical of higher education

Americans believe higher education can trim budgetary 'fat,' according to a survey.

Americans believe higher education can trim budgetary 'fat,' according to a survey.

An increasing percentage of Americans believe colleges and universities prioritize profit margin over educational quality, a claim educators refute as misguided and unfair, especially during the current economic downturn.

The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, along with Public Agenda, released a report Feb. 17 that highlights respondents’ discontent with the rising costs of college education. The survey, titled, “Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges are Run,” shows that six out of 10 Americans now say “colleges today operate more like a business,” taking focus away from academics.

In 2008, 55 percent of respondents said universities were more concerned about the bottom line, an increase from 52 percent in 2007.

Read the full story at eCampus News