Obama calls for more STEM teachers, longer school year

Obama: “Strengthening STEM education is vital to preparing our students

Obama: “Strengthening STEM education is vital to preparing our students" for the 21st-century economy. (AP photo)

Barely into the new school year, President Barack Obama issued a tough-love message to students and teachers on Sept. 27: Their year in the classroom should be longer, and poorly performing teachers should get out. Separately, the president also announced a goal of recruiting 10,000 teachers over the next two years in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

American students are falling behind some of their foreign counterparts, especially in math and science, and that’s got to change, Obama said. Seeking to revive a sense of urgency that education reform might have lost amid the recession’s focus on the economy, Obama declared that the future of the country is at stake.

“Whether jobs are created here, high-end jobs that support families and support the future of the American people, is going to depend on whether or not we can do something about these schools,” the president said in an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

U.S. schools through high school offer an average of 180 instruction days per year, according to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), compared with an average of 197 days for lower grades and 196 days for upper grades in countries with the best student achievement levels, such as Japan, South Korea, Germany, and New Zealand.

“That month makes a difference,” the president said. “It means that kids are losing a lot of what they learn during the school year during the summer. It’s especially severe for poorer kids who may not see as many books in the house during the summers, [and] aren’t getting as many educational opportunities.”

Obama said teachers and their profession should be more highly honored—as in China and some other countries, he said—and he said he wants to work with the teachers’ unions. But he also said that unions should not defend a status quo in which one-third of children are dropping out. He challenged them not to be resistant to change.

And the president endorsed the firing of teachers who, once given the chance and the help to improve, are still falling short.

“We have got to identify teachers who are doing well. Teachers who are not doing well, we have got to give them the support and the training to do well. And if some teachers [still] aren’t doing a good job, they’ve got to go,” Obama said.

They’re goals the president has articulated in the past, but his ability to see them realized is limited. States set the minimum length of school years, and although there has been experimentation in some places, there’s not been wholesale change since Obama issued the same challenge for more classroom time at the start of the past school year.

One issue is money, and although the president said that lengthening school years would be “money well spent,” that doesn’t mean cash-strapped states and districts can afford it.


ASBO conference helps schools save money

New technologies that can save schools money were featured at ASBO's annual conference.

New technologies that can save schools money were featured at ASBO’s annual conference.

New technologies that can help schools save money and improve efficiency were on display during the Association for School Business Officials’ annual conference in Orlando Sept. 24-26.

Among the many products featured during the ASBO conference were systems designed to keep better track of the hours worked by school bus drivers, recover the costs associated with opening schools for community use, and even dry students’ hands more efficiently than by using paper towels or traditional warm-air blowers.

Missoula, Mont.-based Education Logistics Inc. (EDULOG) said its eDPS electronic driver payroll system saved the Clayton County, Ga., school system an estimated $1 million in driver payroll expenses last year.

“With the EDULOG payroll system, we’ve taken care of two of our district’s goals: reducing payroll costs while keeping busing services the same, and ensuring that all labor records are fair and accurate in order to reduce lawsuits and claims against the district,” said John Lyles, the district’s transportation director, in a press release.

eDPS is a mobile smart-phone application that bus drivers use to record when their shift begins and ends. The software exists on a phone that stays on the bus at all times, and information from the application is sent to EDULOG’s servers, where it is uploaded to the district’s payroll system automatically.

Bus drivers use the phone’s keypad to enter their ID numbers, “and the system … take[s] care of the rest,” Lyles said. “That way, there is no need for all the drivers to go to one place and punch into a time clock, there can be no fudging of the time, and there’s no need to collect, store, and transcribe paper cards. That in itself saves time and money, and EDULOG’s electronic system keeps accurate records down to the minute.”

That can be important, Lyles noted: With more than 500 drivers being paid an average of $19 per hour, an extra 15 minutes per driver can really add up if the drivers are estimating their time worked each day.

Plus, having an automated system helps the district keep track of which drivers might be approaching 40 hours worked in a given week—allowing officials to assign other drivers for tasks such as transporting students to field trips or athletic events to keep from having to pay overtime wages.

EDULOG isn’t the only company that offers this capability; Indianapolis-based Synovia Corp. offers three different types of products for automating bus driver payroll.

The most basic system from Synovia is a simple key fob that drivers must insert into a device on the bus that tracks their hours; as long as their fob is inserted, the drivers are considered on the clock. The company’s middle-range solution allows drivers to scroll through a menu to designate a specific job code for the task they are performing—so if a district pays different rates for different kinds of driving jobs (such as regular bus routes, field trips, or after-school activities), the system can recognize these differences and report the correct payment accordingly.

The top-of-the-line system from Synovia is a mobile terminal that also lets drivers send and receive automated messages to a dispatcher. The terminal includes an emergency button that will summon emergency-response personnel if pressed.

According to Synovia, the Rutherford County, N.C., school district saved about $260,000 last year by using its driver payroll system on the district’s 150 buses.

“It only takes drivers overestimating their time by a few minutes each day” to add up to a huge expense for a school system, said Woody Fitzmaurice, the company’s vice president of business development.

Cary, N.C.-based SchoolDude is best known for its online software that helps school district IT managers with help-desk support and inventory management, but the company also offers a program that can help schools recover the costs associated with opening their buildings to the community after normal hours.

SchoolDude’s FSDirect is a facility scheduling software program for managing usage requests, tracking event schedules, and accounting for expenses related to facility use.

According to SchoolDude’s research, about 97 percent of schools say they’re losing money on community use of facilities. Additional expenses for lighting, heat, custodial service (including overtime charges), and building wear and tear can be a major drain on already overstretched budgets—but schools that invoice for after-hours use of their facilities are recovering costs equivalent to $17.91 per student, per year, using FSDirect, the company says.

The costs incurred when students and staff members wash and dry their hands throughout the school day might not rank high on the list of what keeps most school business officials awake at night, but Chicago-based Dyson Inc. believes it can save schools handfuls of money.


Students: Social media blackout eye-opening, ‘annoying’

Harrisburg students admit to finding ways around the school's social media ban.

Harrisburg students admit to finding ways around the school's social media ban.

Students at Harrisburg University, where technology officials recently deprived students of social media access for one week, said the restriction was a minor inconvenience for many on campus, and showed some students just how tethered to popular social sites they had become.

IT decision makers at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Pennsylvania–a campus of about 600 students established in 2001–banned access to Facebook, Twitter, AOL Instant Messenger, and MySpace through the school’s network during the week of Sept. 13 as a way of showing students how ingrained the technology has become in their everyday lives.

Harrisburg also hosted a panel of social media experts during the experimental week who discussed privacy and security issues in social media, how the technology is used to communicate with mass audiences, and how the professional world has adapted to the exponential popularity of sites like Facebook.

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Anger as a private company takes over libraries

A private company in Maryland has taken over public libraries in ailing cities in California, Oregon, Tennessee, and Texas, growing into the country’s fifth-largest library system. Now the company has been hired for the first time to run a system in a relatively healthy city, setting off an intense and often acrimonious debate about the role of outsourcing in a ravaged economy, reports the New York Times. A $4 million deal to run the three libraries in Santa Clarita, Calif., is a chance for the company, Library Systems & Services, to demonstrate that a dose of private management can be good for communities, whatever their financial situation. But in an era when outsourcing is most often an act of budget desperation, the contract in Santa Clarita has touched a deep nerve and begun a round of second-guessing. Can a municipal service like a library hold so central a place that it should be entrusted to a profit-driven contractor only as a last resort—and maybe not even then? “There’s this American flag, apple pie thing about libraries,” said Frank A. Pezzanite, the outsourcing company’s chief executive. He has pledged to save $1 million a year in Santa Clarita, mainly by cutting overhead and replacing unionized employees. “Somehow they have been put in the category of a sacred organization.” The company, known as LSSI, runs 14 library systems operating 63 locations. Its basic pitch to cities is that it fixes broken libraries—more often than not by cleaning house. Library employees are furious about the contract, but the reaction has been mostly led by patrons who say they cannot imagine Santa Clarita with libraries run for profit. “A library is the heart of the community,” said one opponent, Jane Hanson. “I’m in favor of private enterprise, but I can’t feel comfortable with what the city is doing here…”

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Gates Foundation focuses on college graduation

For many years, diversity in higher education has been measured by how many low-income students and students of color enroll in college. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation wants to make a dramatic change in that definition by focusing instead on college graduation rates, reports the Associated Press. The foundation, along with the National League of Cities, announced Sept. 27 that New York City; San Francisco; Mesa, Ariz.; and Riverside, Calif., each will receive $3 million over the next three years for work designed to boost college graduation. The foundation says its long-term goal is to double the number of low-income adults who earn a college degree or credential that meets job-market demands by age 26. The grants announced Sept. 27 are for aligning academic standards between high school and college, strengthening data systems, implementing early assessment and college prep strategies, and creating support systems to help students get through school. “We know that in today’s economic climate and labor market, a high school diploma is no longer enough,” said Allan Golston, president of the U.S. Program at the Gates Foundation. “We must not only ensure that young people have access to college; we must ensure that they go on to complete college and earn a degree or certificate with value in the workplace.”

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‘Waiting for Superman’: A simplistic view of education reform?

“Waiting for ‘Superman,’” which opened Sept. 24 in New York and Los Angeles, has generated buzz for months in education circles. The film also offers a broad-brush indictment of America’s school system and teachers unions, prompting praise from reform advocates. Yet, in the eyes of some education observers, the movie oversimplifies the problems facing U.S. students and implies a silver-bullet fix for struggling public schools, reports the Christian Science Monitor. “It gives the reform community something to rally around … but I do worry that … it makes [the issues] more about sentiment than about understanding,” says Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. “I don’t just want people to like charters or support merit pay. I want them to understand what problems we’re trying to solve and how we can do charter schooling or merit pay in smart ways.” The documentary’s title comes from a story told by Geoffrey Canada, who founded the Harlem Children’s Zone to offer cradle-to-college services and charter schools to some of New York’s most disadvantaged kids. When his mother told him as a kid that his beloved Superman hero wasn’t real, he was devastated to think that no one was strong enough to save him and his friends from their Bronx ghetto. But many observers criticize the film’s focus on charter schools, and they say it paints a black-and-white picture of reformers such as Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee (hero) and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten (villain)…

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Texas sues feds over $830M in education aid

Texas officials filed a lawsuit Sept. 23 against the U.S. Department of Education, seeking to overturn the federal agency’s rejection of the state’s application for more than $830 million in aid that has been tied up in political wrangling, reports the Associated Press. A state-specific provision inserted into a federal law by a Democratic Texas congressman requires that Republican Gov. Rick Perry promise Texas will maintain certain education spending levels through 2013 in order to get the funds. Perry has called the requirement unconstitutional because the Texas Constitution prohibits him from committing future state spending. Texas applied for the money anyway, but was rejected because its application included a caveat saying the state would not violate its own constitution. Federal officials urged the state to reapply without the caveat. President Barack Obama last month signed a $26 billion jobs bill intended to protected 300,000 teachers and other nonfederal government workers from layoffs. Perry said Texas is the only state whose funds application was rejected. “Texas taxpayers are footing the bill for the education jobs fund, and Texas’ hardworking teachers deserve their share of that money,” Perry said. “Had the Congressional majority chosen to work for Texas schoolchildren and teachers, instead of playing partisan politics, this money could already be on its way to our school districts.” The Texas-specific amendment was added to the legislation by U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, an Austin Democrat, who said the measure was an effort to prevent the state from using the federal money to divert state education dollars to other parts of the budget. Doggett and other Democrats say the provision isn’t unconstitutional, and Perry should simply agree to the terms…

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Obama: Money alone can’t solve school predicament

President Barack Obama started the school week Sept. 27 with a call for a longer school year, and he said the worst-performing teachers have “got to go” if they don’t improve quickly, reports the Associated Press. Bemoaning America’s decreasing global educational competitiveness, Obama sought in a nationally broadcast interview to reinvigorate his education agenda. At the same time, the president acknowledged that many poor schools don’t have the money they need, and he defended federal aid for them. But Obama also said that money alone won’t fix the problems in public schools, saying higher standards must be set and achieved by students and teachers alike. Asked in an interview if he supported a year-round school year, Obama said: “The idea of a longer school year, I think, makes sense.” He did not specify how long that school year should be but said U.S. students attend classes, on average, about a month less than children in most other advanced countries. The president admitted that his own daughters, Malia and Sasha, couldn’t get the same quality education at a Washington, D.C., public school that they currently get at their private school. The Obama girls attend Sidwell Friends School, an elite private school in the Washington area. “The DC public schools systems are struggling,” Obama said, though he added that the school district has “made some important strides over the last several years to move in the direction of reform.” Separately on Sept. 27, Obama announced a goal of recruiting 10,000 teachers who work in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math over the next two years. In a statement, Obama said such education is vital to allowing students to compete against their peers in today’s economy…

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A comprehensive approach to math reform pays off

Officials in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District knew they needed a change when the annual number of students performing at grade level on state mathematics tests grew by just 3 percent.

After exploring their options, Cindy Moss, the district’s STEM director, and her team chose to implement Texas Instruments’ MathForward initiative to increase algebra readiness and math performance in the district’s middle schools.

MathForward is a comprehensive approach to math reform, built on eight research-based components: increased instructional time, increased teacher content knowledge, common aligned assessments, common planning times, continuous coaching and professional development, using technology to motivate students, curriculum integration, and administrator and parental support.

Moss noted that when students have problems with algebra, those difficulties often can be traced back to the student’s early days of math.

The program was offered to eight Title I middle schools on the condition that each school’s principal attend a day of training the summer before implementation.

“I knew that if the principal didn’t support it, we wouldn’t have a change—and it wouldn’t be lasting,” she said.

Out of the eight middle schools, six principals agreed to attend training, and 23 teachers incorporated MathForward strategies into classrooms with nearly 500 eighth grade students in all. Teachers used the TI-Navigator classroom system with TI-84 Plus graphing calculators.

In the program’s first year, Moss said the district’s eighth grade math scores on the North Carolina state assessment increased by 10 percentage points overall—but MathForward schools increased by 25 percentage points on average. During the second year, MathForward schools’ state math scores increased by roughly 35 percentage points.

“Kids in high-poverty schools were having 2.5 years of growth compared to their wealthy peers. … English as a Second Language and special-education students had four, five, even six years of growth in one year,” Moss said.

District averages for Title I students, which started at 63 percent proficiency for seventh-graders, increased to nearly 80 percent proficiency when those same students moved on to eighth grade.

And the program’s success is not limited to test scores.

“Discipline issues and classroom management issues have disappeared, because now the kids are engaged,” Moss said. “Teachers share and collaborate with teaching tips.”

The district soon will add another 40 algebra teachers to the program, so 77 of the district’s 110 algebra teachers will have access to MathForward strategies in their classrooms. During the program’s first year, Moss said, 65 percent of eighth graders were at grade level in mathematics, and that number has since jumped to 85 percent.

Some school leaders worried about replacing calculators if students mistreated the equipment. The program is in its third year, and Moss said not a single calculator has been broken or stolen.


Evidence suggests that the interactive classroom model works

A four-year, $3 million study funded by the Institute of Education Sciences and the U.S. Department of Education found that Algebra I students whose teachers used TI-Navigator networked classroom technology achieved higher math test scores and were more confident in their math abilities.

Researchers gathered data on 127 Algebra I teachers and 1,128 students from 28 states. Students whose teachers used the Navigator system scored 14 percentage points higher on a custom Algebra I test on average, compared with students whose teachers did not use the system.

Another research project—the Classroom Connectivity in Mathematics and Science Project, based at Ohio State University (OSU)—focused on the impact of technology, accompanied by strong professional development, on student achievement.

Researchers hypothesized that with the help of technology integration supported by teacher professional development, students in a classroom where the teacher used a TI-Navigator system would perform better on a post-test than students in a control classroom.

The longitudinal study included more than 4,000 students over four years, said Douglas Owens, an OSU professor and principal investigator on the project. Teachers were randomly assigned to either a TI-Navigator classroom or to a control classroom.

A large part of formative assessment is revealing student thinking and making instructional decisions based on that thinking, said Steven Pape, co-principal investigator and a University of Florida professor.

The classroom connectivity afforded by the Navigator system allows teachers to make better, more informed decisions about the instructional strategies they should use, he added.

A connected classroom also has fewer students who drift off and become disengaged in the lesson, said Owens. Students using the handhelds are “engaged with their handheld and the activities going on in the classroom.”

“In a normal mathematics classroom, students say, ‘This is math, I have to do it,’” explained Owens. “In a connected classroom, students say, ‘This is math, and I understand it. I can do it.’ Students are engaged with the activities in the classroom and with the tasks the teacher has set.”

“The most exciting thing about connected classroom technology is that teachers get this accurate information about student learning while the class is unfolding, while  they still have a chance to make adjustments,” said Karen Irving, an OSU professor and co-principal investigator.

Irving said that, although the images of student handhelds projected onto a screen or whiteboard for the entire class to see are anonymous, some educators reported that students voluntarily pointed out their incorrect graphs or mathematical equations in an attempt to fully understand the math concept.