K-12 student database jazzes tech startups, spooks parents

An education technology conference this week in Austin, Texas, will clang with bells and whistles as startups eagerly show off their latest wares, Reuters reports. But the most influential new product may be the least flashy: a $100 million database built to chart the academic paths of public school students from kindergarten through high school.

In operation just three months, the database already holds files on millions of children identified by name, address, and sometimes Social Security number. Learning disabilities are documented, test scores recorded, attendance noted. In some cases, the database tracks student hobbies, career goals, attitudes toward school—even homework completion.

Local education officials retain legal control over their students’ information. But federal law allows them to share files in their portion of the database with private companies selling educational products and services.

Entrepreneurs can’t wait to tap into the database. But parents from New York and Louisiana have written state officials in protest. So have the Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Parent-Teacher Association. If student records leak, are hacked or abused, “What are the remedies for parents?” asked Norman Siegel, a civil liberties attorney in New York who has been working with the protestors. “It’s very troubling…”

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Teacher standoff stokes debate over standardized tests

A boycott by Seattle teachers of a widely used standardized test has attracted national attention and given new momentum to a growing protest movement that seeks to limit standardized testing in U.S. public schools, Reuters reports. The revolt by Seattle public school teachers, joining educators and students elsewhere, comes at a time of bitter political wrangling over how best to reinvigorate a $525 billion public school system that leaves American children lagging their counterparts in countries like Finland and South Korea. Standardized tests have played an ever-more prominent role in public schools over the past decade. Yearly testing in reading and math for elementary school students required by former President George W. Bush’s 2002 landmark testing law, known as “No Child Left Behind,” exposed stark achievement gaps in many schools, mainly along racial and economic lines, and spurred interventions to help struggling kids. Sandy Kress, a former advisor to Bush on the law and lobbyist for Pearson, a company that publishes academic tests, said focusing too much on test scores alone will, in the end, cheat students out of the kind of quality education that sometimes can’t be measured by standardized tests…

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Study: Childhood ADHD may lead to troubles later on

Nearly a third of people diagnosed as children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) still have the condition in adulthood, according to a large new study that also found they’re more likely to develop other mental disorders and to commit suicide, Reuters Health reports. U.S. researchers who published their findings in Pediatrics on Monday found that about 29 percent of participants in the study who were diagnosed with ADHD as children ended up carrying that diagnosis into their late twenties.

“They still clearly had symptoms that continued to be consistent with that diagnosis. But that in itself has been an area of difficulty and controversy,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. William Barbaresi, from Boston Children’s Hospital.

ADHD, which is the most common neuro-developmental condition, affects between 3 percent and 7 percent of American school children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s more common in boys than girls…

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NY high school raises $489K with marathon dance

The 710 students from South Glens Falls High School danced for more than a day: Conga lines, “Gangnam Style,” giddy-ups, hand jives and the “Harlem Shake.” Then, flushed and weary, the teens showed why this is a dance marathon with a difference, the Associated Press reports. Students cleared a path for a group who walked or were wheeled to the stage set at one end of the gym. One by one — a woman battling cancer in a stocking cap, mothers of ailing children, car crash survivors — thanked the teenage dancers who just raised almost $500,000 to help them tackle life’s challenges.

“When a community comes together to help lift financial stress, which allows a child to get the proper care and have the best chance in life, that’s priceless,” Kate LaFoy told the hushed crowd in a choked voice. Her 15-month-old daughter Alessandra has Turner Syndrome, a genetic condition. “You know how they say it takes a village to raise a child? You’re part of our village now. We are forever grateful.”

South Glens Falls High School students donated the hefty sum to LaFoy and 39 other recipients by dancing around the clock this weekend as part of an annual event in this small, weathered village just south of New York’s Adirondack Mountains…

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Budget cuts to hit military school districts first

Children of military families will be hit hard by the automatic spending cuts enacted March 1.

Public schools everywhere will be affected by the government’s automatic budget cuts that went into effect March 1, but few might feel the funding pinch faster than those on and around military bases.

School districts with military ties from coast to coast are bracing for increased class sizes and delayed building repairs. Others already have axed sports teams and even eliminated teaching positions, but they still might have to tap savings just to make it through year’s end.

And there’s little hope for softening any future financial blows.

“Next year is scarier than this year,” said Sharon Adams, chief financial officer for Muscogee County schools in Georgia. The district serves the U.S. Army’s Fort Benning and could lose $300,000 in federal funding out of its $270 million in general funds before the end of the school year—and more than four times that in 2013-14.

The schools’ losses will come from cuts to a federal program known as “Impact Aid” that supplements local property tax losses for districts that cover federal land, including military posts and Indian tribal areas. About 1,400 school districts serving roughly 11 million children nationwide—including nearly 376,500 students from military families—benefit from the aid, said Jocelyn Bissonnette, director of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Federally Impacted Schools.

Bissonnette said slightly more than 5 percent of funding would disappear from nearly all U.S. Department of Education programs under the automatic cuts. But while most of the reductions wouldn’t take effect until next fall, Impact Aid could be immediately cut, with many districts failing to receive a scheduled payment in March.

In all, the U.S. Department of Education estimates that districts receiving Impact Aid could see $60 million evaporate this school year.

“Classrooms will be fuller,” said Sara Watson, principal of 810-student Meadows Elementary School on Fort Hood, Texas, one of the world’s largest military installations. Watson stressed that she doesn’t yet know the full impact, but she said an extra teacher for fifth and sixth grade science hired this year could be reassigned—which could mean squeezing kids into fewer classes.

Ninety-nine percent of parents at Meadows are in the military, and a quarter of the teachers are married to active-duty personnel. But the campus is run by the school district in the surrounding community of Killeen, Texas, which has 52 campuses in all—including seven elementary schools and two middle schools on Fort Hood and about 42,000 total students.

As soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan, enrollment has swelled, increasing by 1,200 students annually in recent years—though next year likely will only see 500 additional students.

Overall, the district stands to lose at least $2.6 million in Impact Aid funding before the end of the school year under the automatic cuts. Superintendent Robert Mueller said the cuts amount to more than 50 teachers’ salaries, roughly one per school, or five months’ worth of the district’s electric bills—and they might mean tapping into Killeen’s cash reserves to cover expenses.


Prevention through information: Promoting social norms awareness with digital signage

A small liberal arts college located in the heart of the Finger Lakes in Upstate New York, Hobart and William Smith Colleges (HWS) are home to one of the most progressive and successful alcohol and drug prevention programs in the nation. Developed by Professor of Sociology H. Wesley Perkins and Professor of Chemistry David Craig, the purpose of the Alcohol Education Project is to better inform our community about the social norms of alcohol and other drugs, and address the problems of abuse.

At the heart of our program is an understanding that most students misperceive social norms, assuming that it is typical for their peers to engage in risk-taking behavior. To combat these misconceptions, we gather credible data about behaviors such as drinking and tobacco and other drug use, and then communicate the actual healthy norms to students.

We’ve been using the social norms approach at HWS for more than 15 years, and up until last year, the communication aspect was achieved through the use of paper posters and screen savers on campus computers. Over the last few years, however, these methods began to feel dated. In addition, only one message could be communicated per sign. We were looking for a way to deliver our social norms content in a high-tech format that would engage students and increase exposure through multiple messages.

As it happens, some of our staff saw a digital signage network at Le Moyne College in Syracuse that had been installed by integrator VIZIONefx and is powered by X2O Media software. We immediately saw the potential of such a network for our Alcohol Education Project. It could be used to promote social norms awareness — from alcohol and drugs to other socio-cultural issues such as bullying and anorexia — to help students make better decisions in their lives. In addition, we could use it to keep students and staff up to date about campus news and events. With this in mind, we made the call to VIZIONefx between semesters in 2011.

(Next page: Implementing and using the digital signage)


School leaders brace for cuts as sequestration occurs

While all schools that receive federal funding will be affected, poor and disadvantaged students will be hit hardest.

School districts around the country are bracing for more than $2 billion in federal spending cuts that kicked in March 1 after lawmakers failed to reach a deficit-reduction deal.

School administrators say the cuts will result in fewer staff, larger class sizes, and the delay of ed-tech purchases, among other effects. The cuts come as school districts are trying to prepare for more rigorous assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards, and district leaders say the cuts will hinder these efforts.

While all schools that receive federal funding will be affected, poor and disadvantaged students will be hit hardest. The so-called sequestration cuts federal Title I spending on low-income students by $725 million, affecting 1.2 million students—which could put the jobs of about 10,000 teachers and aides at risk, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Other cuts include $600 million from Individuals with Disabilities Education Act funding, requiring states and districts to cover the cost of about 7,200 special-education teachers, aides, and other staff. What’s more, some 70,000 Head Start students could be eliminated from the pre-kindergarten program.

“Doing that to our most vulnerable students is economically foolish and morally indefensible,” Duncan said last month in testimony before the Senate.

The Education Department is also warning that the cuts will affect up to 29 million student loan borrowers and that some lenders might have to lay off staff or even close. Some of the 15 million college students who receive grants or work-study assignments at about 6,000 colleges also could see changes.

President Barack Obama and congressional Republicans on March 2 refused to concede any culpability for failing to stave off what both parties acknowledged was a foolhardy way to slash a total of $85 billion in federal spending.

The still-fragile economy is bracing itself for the gradual but potentially grave impact of the across-the-board cuts, which took effect on the night of March 1 at the stroke of Obama’s pen. Hours earlier, he and congressional leaders emerged from a White House meeting no closer to an agreement.

Even as they pledged a renewed effort to undo the spending cuts retroactively, both parties said the blame rests squarely on the other for any damage the cuts might inflict. There were no indications that either side was wavering from entrenched positions that for weeks had prevented progress on a deal to find a way out: Republicans refusing any deal with more tax revenue—and Democrats snubbing any deal without it.

“None of this is necessary,” Obama said in his weekly radio and internet address March 2. “It’s happening because Republicans in Congress chose this outcome over closing a single wasteful tax loophole that helps reduce the deficit.”

The president said the cuts would cause “a ripple effect across the economy” that would worsen the longer they stay in place, eventually costing more than 750,000 jobs and disrupting the lives of middle-class families.

In the Republican-controlled House, GOP lawmakers washed their hands of the mess, arguing that bills they passed in the last Congress to avert the cuts absolved them of any responsibility. Those bills passed with little to no Democratic support because they did not include any revenue increases, and they were never taken up by the Senate.

(Next page: A closer look at the cuts’ impact—including results from a national survey of superintendents)


App of the week: Vernier Video Physics

Name: Vernier Video Physics

What is it? A 2012 CODiE Awards Finalist for ‘Best Educational Use of a Mobile Device,’ Video Physics brings physics video analysis to iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Users can take a video of an object in motion, mark its position frame by frame, and set up the scale using a known distance. Video Physics then draws trajectory, position, and velocity graphs for the object. Share video, graphs and data via the Camera Roll, eMail, and iTunes. Perform on-the-go analysis of interesting motions. Measure the velocity of a child’s swing, a roller-coaster, or a car. Or, take a video of a basketball free throw shot. Video Physics will display the path of the ball and provide graphs of Y vs X as well as the X and Y position and velocity as a function of time.

Best for: Students and physics instructors.

Requirements: Compatible with iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Requires iOS 5.1 or later. This app is optimized for iPhone 5.

Price: $4.99

Rated: 4+

Features: Capture a new video using the built-in camera, choose a video from your photo library, or use one of our sample videos; mark the position of one object, frame by frame; set the scale of the video using an object of known size; optionally set coordinate system location and rotation; view graphs of trajectory, and x/y position and velocity; export the marked video to your Photo Library; graphs are appended to video; eMail the video and data for further analysis in Vernier’s Logger Pro software for OS X and Windows; open data files directly in Vernier Graphical Analysis for iPad; open data files in Dropbox or Google Drive to upload to the cloud.

Link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/vernier-video-physics/id389784247


Win one of four document cameras

Epson is asking K-12 and post-secondary educators in the United States and the District of Columbia to share their top five benefits of using document cameras in the classroom. Submissions will be judged on the following criteria: creative use of document cameras in the classroom (50%), practicality of implementing the idea using real life examples/application (25%), and impact of using document cameras on student learning (25%). Epson will select the top four entries and highlight them on the new Epson document camera website. Winners will be announced in early June 2013.