Stimulus funding brings broadband to rural homes, schools

The stimulus act set aside $7.2 billion for expansion of broadband access, believing it would spur economic growth, boost educational opportunities, and create jobs.

Up in rural northern Vermont, it took until the 1960s to run power lines to some towns—decades after the rest of America got turned on. These days, it’s the digital revolution that remains but a rumor in much of rural America.

Dial-up user Val Houde knows this as well as anybody. After moving to East Burke, Vt., four years ago, the 51-year-old mother of four took a correspondence course for medical transcription, hoping to work from home. She plunked down $800, took the course, then found out the software wasn’t compatible with dial-up internet, the only kind available to her.

Selling items on eBay, watching videos, playing games online? Forget it. The connection from her home computer is so slow, her online life is one of delays, degraded quality, and “buffering” warning messages. So she waits until the day a provider extends broadband to her house.

“I feel like these companies, they don’t care about these little pockets of places,” she said one night recently, showing a visitor her computer’s slow internet service. “And I know we’re not the only ones.”

For Houde and millions of other Americans laboring under slow or no internet service, help is on the way.

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Bolstered by billions in federal stimulus money, an effort to expand broadband internet access to rural areas is under way, an ambitious 21st-century infrastructure project with parallels to the New Deal electrification of the nation’s hinterlands in the 1930s and 1940s—and one with important implications for rural education.

President Barack Obama emphasized the importance of high-speed internet access in his State of the Union address last week.

“To attract new businesses to our shores, we need the fastest, most reliable ways to move people, goods, and information—from high-speed rail to high-speed internet,” Obama said.

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Drive for education reform has teachers unions on the defensive

Are teachers unions the reason America’s schools are failing? According to one increasingly popular narrative, they are, reports the Christian Science Monitor. It’s hard to think of a time in recent decades when teachers unions have been more under attack, not only from those on the right but also from many on the left, including President Obama and Arne Duncan, his Education secretary. The recent documentary “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” by liberal filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, cast unions as the “bad guys,” fighting to help even incompetent teachers retain their jobs. Michelle Rhee, the former District of Columbia schools chancellor and frequent union foe, just launched Students First, an organization that directly opposes the positions of many teachers unions. In numerous cities and states, lawsuits and legislative battles are being fought over tenure, seniority, and teacher evaluations–with the union-backed position often losing.

And in December, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the local teachers union the “one unwavering roadblock to reform”–a statement that would have been unthinkable several years ago coming from a major Democratic politician, himself a former organizer and lobbyist for teachers unions…

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Ivy League case tests Rockefeller drug law change

According to the Associated Press, they were students who juggled an elite education with criminal extracurriculars, dealing an array of drugs from Ivy League dorm rooms and frat houses, prosecutors say. But beneath the surface of academic success, some of the Columbia University students charged in a campus drug takedown struggled with substance abuse, their lawyers say. Attorneys for two of the five students plan to ask a court to prescribe treatment instead of prison–one of the most high-profile tests so far of a recent overhaul of New York’s once-notoriously stringent drug laws. The outcome will be watched closely by opponents and proponents of 2009 changes to mitigate what were known as the Rockefeller drug laws. Backers called the lesser punishments a more effective and humane approach to drug crime; critics said they gave drug peddlers a pass…

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Define gender gap? Look up Wikipedia’s contributor list

In 10 short years, Wikipedia has accomplished some remarkable goals. More than 3.5 million articles in English? Done. More than 250 languages? Sure. But another number has proved to be an intractable obstacle for the online encyclopedia: surveys suggest that less than 15 percent of its hundreds of thousands of contributors are women, reports the New York Times. About a year ago, the Wikimedia Foundation, the organization that runs Wikipedia, collaborated on a study of Wikipedia’s contributor base and discovered that it was barely 13 percent women; the average age of a contributor was in the mid-20s, according to the study by a joint center of the United Nations University and Maastricht University. Sue Gardner, the executive director of the foundation, has set a goal to raise the share of female contributors to 25 percent by 2015, but she is running up against the traditions of the computer world and an obsessive fact-loving realm that is dominated by men and, some say, uncomfortable for women…

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Old technology finds role in Egyptian protests

On 27 January, Egypt fell off the internet as virtually all international connections were cut following an order from the government. But older technologies proved their worth as net activists and protesters used them to get round the block, reports BBC News. Protesters are also circulating information about how to avoid communication controls inside Egypt. Dial-up modems are one of the most popular routes for Egyptians to get back online. Long lists of international numbers that connect to dial-up modems are circulating in Egypt thanks to net activists We Re-Build, Telecomix and others…

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Verizon to acquire Terremark

Verizon Communications said that it was buying Terremark Worldwide, a provider of information technology services, for $1.4 billion, the Associated Press reports. Verizon plans to pay $19 a share for Terremark. That represents a 35 percent premium to Terremark’s closing stock price on Thursday. Terremark provides cloud computing services, which let companies store data and run software on remote servers instead of their own computers. It also provides technology infrastructure services…

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Texas district takes math skills to the next level

A district's dedication to a new math intervention program paid off.

As with so many other school districts around the country, we at Brazosport Independent School District (ISD) in Texas have struggled with ensuring that our ninth-grade students start their high school careers with the foundation in math skills necessary to tackle Algebra and higher level math. Many of our students were entering their freshman year with significant gaps in their skills and had not passed the math portion of the state assessment, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS), for several years.

Recognizing that research shows that students who fail Algebra in ninth grade are at a significantly higher risk of dropping out of school, we knew that we needed a proven intervention program to help students fill the gaps and be on track for success in high school, careers, and higher education.

We turned to Ascend Math, a complete math intervention program. Ascend combines continuous assessment, targeted instruction, prescriptive tutorials, and powerful reporting tools to give students a direct route to improved math performance. Research demonstrates that Ascend Math closes math gaps of up to two grade levels in a semester. And the results realized by our students support and exceed those findings.

Located on the Gulf Coast, our district serves 13,000 students from a number of nearby small communities. South of Houston and just miles from the beach, Brazosport ISD has two high schools, three intermediate schools, two middle schools, and 11 elementary schools. More than 50 percent of our students are minority, and many are English language learners.

While we are proud of our educational excellence – 10 of our elementary schools have been named “exemplary,” as have both of our high schools – our students continued to be weak in math achievement year after year.

Yet, just increasing the amount of time that students were spending practicing math was not producing the improvement that was so critically needed. Our district chose Ascend Math for the intensive instructional math intervention that would put our students back on track to tackle higher level high school math and be prepared for the rigors of college math courses.

When Ascend Math was first introduced, some of our teachers had doubts. As one teacher said, “Administration made me go to the Ascend training in December. I didn’t want to go. I knew I wouldn’t like it.”

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Roughly half of U.S. superintendents to retire soon

A new report examines how the superintendency is changing.

Today’s school superintendents are more likely than they were 10 years ago to be women, and to be older—and nearly half are planning to retire in the next five years, according to a study released by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

“The American School Superintendent: 2010 Decennial Study” is based on a survey of nearly 2,000 superintendents from school districts across the U.S. It examines historical and contemporary perspectives on the superintendency, characteristics and demographics of superintendents and their districts, superintendents’ professional experiences and relationships with school boards, the nature of the school superintendent role itself, and the social and political climate in which a school superintendent works.

The survey suggests that a diverse knowledge of many subjects, including law, finance, and technology, is desirable for today’s superintendents, who face myriad challenges in leading the 21st-century school system.

More recent stories about district superintendents and school administration:

Dan Domenech talks about the future of technology in schools

How to spur more technology use in the classroom

What U.S. schools can learn from abroad

The work is one is a series of similar studies conducted every 10 years since 1923 and provides a national perspective about the roles and responsibilities of the contemporary school superintendent.

AASA Executive Director Dan Domenech said a superintendent can use the report as a benchmark to compare his or her job with other superintendents around the nation.

“The report is a thorough analysis of the work of the superintendent, focusing on issues, challenges, and concerns,” Domenech said.

It details important information such as “how much time is spent on various activities? What are the pluses and minuses of the many community stakeholders a superintendent interacts with? What skills prove most beneficial in getting the job done? How do superintendents relate to school board members?” he added.

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Readers sound off on value-added model, district efficiency

While reader response was mixed, many readers were skeptical of these new measures.

In recent eSchool News stories, we asked readers if teachers should be evaluated using the value-added model, which uses a student’s past performance on high-stakes tests to determine how much “value” a teacher has added in a given year, and whether school districts should be judged based on their efficiency—that is, how well their students achieve in comparison to how much the district spends on each child. The results are in, and our readers were largely skeptical of these controversial measures.

In Contributing Editor Cara Erenben’s story, “Should student test scores be used to evaluate teachers?” Erenben reports on the early results from a Gates Foundation study suggesting that researchers have found some validity in the value-added model. But when asked, “Should the value-added model be used to evaluate teachers?” only four percent of readers said this was a “valid and objective tool for measuring effectiveness.”

Fifty-four percent of readers said the model should be used, “but only in conjunction with other measures of teacher performance.” Forty-two percent of readers said they think the model is “unreliable.”

“This article [noted,] ‘Reasons for instability from year to year could include factors such as significant differences in class size from year to year, an influenza outbreak, a group of disruptive students, construction noise during testing, and so on.’ The ‘and so on’ is what concerns me,” said a reader identified as the_hill 1962. “There are so many reasons. Most often, a teacher has no control over what his/her schedule is going to be. Sure, this is true for most professions. Probably the worst case is that of an emergency room doctor. I wonder if they evaluate E.R. doctors with a similar value-added model concept?”

See what readers had to say on other hot topics:

Readers: Here are our favorite apps for education

Readers: ‘Bad’ teachers aren’t the problem

Many readers said that using test scores alone is unreliable, because there are too many factors outside of the classroom that can affect student achievement.

“The assumption seems to be that student success or failure is based on a given set of tests, and that the teacher just needs to teach the ‘stuff.’ This assumption is flawed, because student success is based on many facets both in and out of school,” said Judith Naylor.

“The teacher alone cannot change the home that the students are coming from. The teacher alone cannot change administrative decisions which negatively impact what goes on in the classroom. Using statistics is essential to improving education. But the statement that value-added testing ‘compares students to themselves over time and largely controls for influences outside teachers’ control, such as poverty and parental involvement’ is ludicrous. A student who does poorly in a first test and comes from a non-supportive home and school is not going to show improvement on a subsequent test, no matter how much work a teacher puts in with that child. Don’t use the data to punish. Use the data to examine all circumstances and work as a community to focus on the problems the student is facing.”

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Teen software whiz shows challenges facing schools

Alex has earned more than $50,000 from the iPhone apps he's developed.

Ninth-grader Alex Britton, and the friends he has made throughout North America with the help of Skype, offer insight into the challenges schools face in educating members of the so-called iGeneration.

A software entrepreneur at age 14, Alex learned how to develop iPhone apps by watching YouTube videos posted by other teens. He and his friends are living examples of the themes often spouted at ed-tech conferences and highlighted in research such as Project Tomorrow’s annual Speak Up survey: Many of today’s students are taking ownership of their own learning outside of school and are teaching each other through digital media … and educators will have to change their approach to instruction if they hope to engage this generation of youth.

Alex is now trying to put his most professional foot forward, so the teen recently took his Whoopee Cushion iPhone application off the market.

“I just want to be more professional, and be taken seriously,” said the Darien, Conn., teen, who spends his spare time creating programs for Apple products.

For more on teaching the iGeneration:

eSN Special Report: Empowering the iGeneration

Author: ‘iGeneration’ requires a different approach to instruction

Report: Digital access, collaboration a must for students

Alex created his first app—the Whoopee Cushion—a year-and-a-half ago.

“I started out making YouTube videos, reviewing apps,” Alex said as he sat in front of a desk holding two Apple computers, an iPad, and an iPhone in his bedroom, which also serves as his office. “Then I started seeing videos of 14-year-olds—tutorials they made about how to make apps.”

“Thank God for YouTube,” said Alex’s father, Tony. “They just post these tutorials on there. It’s great. Some people learn with books, and some people learn this way.”

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