Report: Half trillion needed to update schools

Horror stories abound about schools with roofs that leak, plumbing that backs up and windows that do little to stop winds.

America’s schools are in such disrepair that it would cost more than $270 billion just to get elementary and secondary buildings back to their original conditions and twice that to get them up to date, a report released Tuesday estimated. In a foreword to the report, former President Bill Clinton said “we are still struggling to provide equal opportunity” to children and urged the first federal study of school buildings in almost two decades.

Clinton and the Center for Green Schools urged a Government Accountability Office assessment on what it would take to get school buildings up to date to help students learn, keep teachers healthy and put workers back on the jobs. The last such report, issued in 1995 during the Clinton administration, estimated it would take $112 billion to bring the schools into good repair and did not include the need for new buildings to accommodate the growing number of students.

The Center for Green Schools’ researchers reviewed spending and estimates schools spent $211 billion on upkeep between 1995 and 2008. During that same time, schools should have spent some $482 billion, the group calculated based on a formula included in the most recent GAO study.

That left a $271 billion gap between what should have been spent on upkeep and what was, the group reported. Each student’s share? Some $5,450.

To update and modernize the buildings, the figure doubles, to $542 billion over the next decade.

“We have a moral obligation,” said Rachel Gutter, director of the group affiliated with the U.S. Green Building Council. “When we talk about a quality education, we talk about the “who” and the “what” — teachers and curriculum — but we don’t talk about the “where.” That needs to change.”

Her organization is urging the Education Department to collect annual data on school buildings’ sizes and ages, as well as property holdings. The group also wants the Education Department’s statistics branch to keep tabs on utility and maintenance bills.

“It’s a secret that we’re keeping because it’s shameful and embarrassing to us as a country,” Gutter said.

Horror stories abound about schools with roofs that leak, plumbing that backs up and windows that do little to stop winds.

“Would you send your kids or grandkids to one of these schools?” asked National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, who supported the report along with the 21st Century School Fund, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Lung Association and the National PTA.

Schools’ appearances alone, of course, do not guarantee students’ success but it is certainly more difficult to teach and learn when water is coming in through the ceiling, pipes are growling or rooms are frigid.

(Next page: Green schools and poverty)


How I turned my classroom into a ‘living video game’—and saw achievement soar

In this innovative environment, students are active players in their own educational game.

The notion that struggling and failing is important to learning runs counter to traditional approaches to U.S. education. In fact, failure and its accompanying “F” grade stigmatizes a student as unprepared or “challenged” and is usually seen as a predictor of failure in future grades.

In the world of gaming, however, the very elements of struggle, challenge, and failure that discourage kids in the classroom become the primary drivers of engagement and achievement.

In 2011, after 14 years of teaching, I decided to transform my second grade classroom into a living video game. The inspiration for this was the book, Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal. McGonigal’s message is that the monotony of classroom routines can be deadening to kids, that individuals are wired to need brain stimulation, and that even the most straightforward games can provide that.

How to keep the attention of students is an ongoing topic of conversation among educators. But as McGonigal points out, when they’re interested in something, kids demonstrate a powerful ability to maintain focus on even the most challenging tasks. Case in point: video games, which are so challenging that players fail 80 percent of the time—and yet are still motivated to persevere. If we can tap into even a fraction of this energy and enthusiasm, I thought, then we can effect the kind of educational transformation called for in the 21st century.

I began the transformation of my classroom by looking at the curriculum and writing storylines that would challenge students to solve science, technology, engineering, and math-related scenarios. For example, one such storyline under the reading content area is, “Explain how two given scientific conclusions are similar, and identify which of the scientists we’ve studied might have written these conclusions based on textual evidence.”  A math example storyline is, “How are fractions connected to the concept of multiplication?”

I use QR codes and augmented reality codes to help students move independently from one activity to the next. Kids use cell phones or tablets to scan the barcodes, which take them to websites or instruction pages with directions for the next activity, or to “cheat codes,” with strategies to help them solve the “boss-level problem.” I even decided to forgo the usual grading system in my classroom, so that as far as the students knew, they were either “Leveling Up!” (proficient) or they needed more practice with “Game Over: Try Again.” They stopped defining themselves by grades and saw “try again” as an opportunity to do just that.


Philly coming to grips with mass school closings

When ninth-grader Zach Kaufmann found out his school was one of 27 targeted for closure in Philadelphia, he fought back, the Associated Press reports. He joined a youth activist group, attended numerous community gatherings and even addressed district leaders at a public meeting. But his passion for Carroll High School was no match for the district’s dire financial situation. The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to shut Carroll and 22 other public schools at the end of this academic year. Four buildings were spared.

“I’ve really done a lot to show them how much I love Carroll,” Kaufmann said Friday. “I guess it didn’t really get through to them.”

Philadelphia has now joined a string of urban districts — including Pittsburgh, Detroit and Washington, D.C. — that have sought to offset huge enrollment drops and increasing maintenance costs through mass closings…

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SD gov signs into law that teachers can be armed

South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into law Friday a measure allowing the state’s school districts to arm teachers and other personnel with guns, the first of its kind since the Connecticut school shooting, the Associated Press reports. Supporters say the so-called sentinels could help prevent tragedies such as December’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in which 20 students and six teachers died. The law will go into effect July 1. The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Scott Craig, R-Rapid City, said he started working with federal law enforcement officials on the measure in early November, and the Connecticut tragedy weeks later “only affirmed the rightness of this bill.” He said the measure does not force a district to arm its teachers or force teachers to carry a gun…

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Opinion: Arguing about school reforms that go nowhere

In the 1990s, Las Montanas High School (a fictional name for a real place) throbbed with excitement over technological advances in California’s Silicon Valley where it was located, the Washington Post reports. Forty-four percent of the students were low-income but the school’s administrators and teachers vowed to override that handicap by turning it into a high tech magnet with a strong interdisciplinary focus. They envisioned students learning by doing projects, and thus understanding more than ever before. Ten computer labs were scattered throughout the campus. When Stanford University scholar Larry Cuban and two of his graduate students spent the 1998-1999 school year there, the desire for change was evident. Cuban is a former Arlington County school superintendent who defected to academia. He has spent decades examining the allegedly game-changing reforms that have swept classrooms over the 150 years. In nearly every case their effects have proven to be as ephemeral as the frequent solutions given me for my horrid slice in golf…

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Arizona House passes anti-federal education bill

Dozens of public schools would be able to throw out federal education policy regulating academic standards, teacher evaluation requirements and student tracking systems under a measure approved by the Arizona House on Thursday, the Associated Press reports. The Republican-led House voted 36-23 along party lines to advance the measure to the Senate after heated debate over the value of federal education dollars. The proposed law would allow roughly 130 district and charter schools that don’t receive federal money to ignore federal and state mandates. The exempted schools would still need to follow any health, safety, civil rights and insurance mandates. Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, the bill’s sponsor, said schools that don’t benefit from federal dollars shouldn’t be forced to meet federal standards. Farnsworth is president of the Benjamin Franklin Charter School in Gilbert…

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Seven steps to success with mobile learning

Seven steps help define successful mobile learning implementation.

Implementing a mobile learning initiative is a complicated undertaking, no matter how much funding or stakeholder support you have. But a new resource from the Consortium for School Networking offers an outline for school administrators who hope to launch and sustain a successful mobile learning project.

The first step, Investigating, is to determine why you want to implement mobile learning. This can be accomplished by:

  • Identifying the problem that must be solved.
  • Researching background information and examples.
  • Identifying skills that teachers, administrators, and students must have.
  • Estimating the cost of implementation.
  • Considering how to facilitate acceptance and measure success.

During this step, administrators should look for an overview of plans, best practices in mobile learning implementation, and research to support the procedure.

The second step, Scoping, involves identifying core stakeholders and defining an implementation scope, by:

  • Gathering stakeholders and stakeholder requirements.
  • Setting preliminary goals for the implementation.
  • Defining a budget.
  • Identifying participating classrooms, schools, and grades.
  • Deciding in-house or external development and requirements.

School leaders should be sure they come to know their stakeholders and their needs throughout this step.

(Next page: The next five steps)


U.S. public favors more spending on education

Most Americans want increased spending on a host of popular programs, with education at the top of the list.

As President Barack Obama and lawmakers spar over huge federal deficits, they’re confronted by a classic contradiction: Most Americans want government austerity, a new survey shows—but they also want increased spending on a host of popular programs, with education at the top of the list.

The newly released General Social Survey asked people whether they believe spending in specific categories is “too much,” ”too little,” or “about right.” It covers the public’s shifting priorities from 1973, when Richard Nixon was president, through 2012 with Obama in the White House.

“Despite a dislike of taxes, more people have always favored increases in spending than cuts,” wrote the survey’s director, Tom W. Smith, of the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago.

While people’s priorities shift over the years, they’ve not changed on one category: Foreign aid has been stuck firmly in last place since the survey began. Last year, 65 percent of those surveyed thought there was “too much,” 25 percent checked “about right,” and a slim 11 percent said “too little.” The numbers have not changed much from 1973, when 73 percent said too much on foreign aid, 22 percent just right, and 5 percent too little.

Various polls have consistently shown the public believes foreign aid is a far bigger slice of the spending pie than it actually is.

Foreign aid amounts to loose change, hovering for years at 1 percent or less of the federal budget, compared with defense spending and “entitlement” programs like Social Security and Medicare. Those are among the biggest deficit drivers and a focal point in Washington’s recent budget debates. The survey shows the public is largely opposed to cuts in entitlement programs but tilts toward cuts in the defense budget.

To reach all these conclusions, Smith devised an index that boils down his findings to a single number for each category. If everyone favored more spending for a given program area, the maximum score would be +100; if everyone wanted less spending, the score would be a negative number, -100.

On this scale, top-ranked “improving education” in 2012 scored +68.4, while bottom-rated foreign aid scored a -60.4.

Support for defense spending has swung back and forth between negative and positive over four decades. It posted a -28.4 in 1973 near the end of the politically divisive Vietnam War, turned positive in 1978 and peaked at +48.9 in 1980. It returned to negative territory from 1983 to 2000. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorism attacks and the start of the war in Afghanistan, support for more defense spending again went positive—through 2004. It turned negative again as U.S. military involvement in Iraq increased and has been negative ever since.

Conversely, Social Security has always been in positive territory. Most people have favored increased spending on this program since the mid-80s, with the exception of 1993 and 1994.

(Next page: How other issues fared on the survey)


App of the week: Drawp

Name: Drawp

What is it? The first iPad app that enables children to create drawings and then share them with a single-swipe; no email, phone number, or screen name necessary. Using advanced technology to create dynamic paints, like Cotton Candy, Furry Flurry, or Mega Pixels, combined with the ability for children ages 3-11 to independently share their drawings with a parent-approved network, this is definitely not your average children’s app. It builds children’s creativity by removing the limitations of pen and paints and teaches children how to safely share information via technology. It was recently launched by Ana Albir, an MIT physicist and Stanford MBA, and Kunal Jham, Michigan alum and former Amazon Web Services engineer.

Best for: Children ages 3-11

Price: FREE

Requirements: Compatible with iPad. Requires iOS 5.1 or later.

Rated: 4+

Features: Kids can safely share with members of the parent-approved network using SimpleShare® technology; parents can showcase kids’ drawings on Facebook; allows online and offline accessibility, and multiple children’s profiles; ability to delete friends; dismiss button to clear everything from the screen but the canvas.




Randi Weingarten, AFT leader, arrested

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted tonight to close 23 public schools at a meeting where American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was arrested along with 18 other activists during a protest at the entrance to the hearing, the Washington Post reports. Four schools originally slated to be closed were given a reprieve and will stay open. Weingarten, who runs the second largest teachers union in the country, and the other activists were protesting and blocking the entrance to the room where the hearing was being held. Weingarten sent text messages to colleagues saying she was placed in handcuffs and arrested.

“When you’ve exhausted all the legal remedies and none of the powers that be will listen to you, then you’re forced to take actions which may lead to an arrest,” she said in a text. About the closing schools, she said, “It will cost more to close these schools — $25 million — than it will to keep them open, $24 million.”

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