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K-12 Education News – July 27, 2009

Administration Pressures States on Teacher Evaluations

The Obama administration is using financial leverage to make student achievement data part of teacher evaluations, the New York Times reports. States with laws barring use of the data stand to lose a share of a $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund, under rules proposed by the Department of Education.

After heavy teachers’ union lobbying, New York, California and some other states have enacted laws that limit, to one degree or another, use of student achievement data in teacher performance evaluations. Both national teachers’ unions oppose the use of student testing data to evaluate individual teachers. Race to the Top funds will be distributed this year and next.

Obama Underscores Community Colleges’ Value

The Obama administration’s proposal to provide $12 billion to community colleges is widely seen by educators as explicit recognition of the two-year colleges’ importance to the economy, according to the New York Times.

President Obama

President Obama

President Obama’s goal of five million more community college graduates by 2020 would require nearly doubling graduation rates at most community colleges. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, more than six million students a year enroll for credit at the nation’s 1,200 community colleges, but only about 555,000 a year earn a two-year degree, and another 295,000 a year earn a vocational certificate.

“This is the higher education equivalent of the moon shot,” said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, which supports community-college initiatives. The Obama proposal would require stronger efforts to retain students until graduation, and encourage partnerships between community colleges and employers to offer work force training.

Racial Achievement Gap Narrows in D.C. Schools

New, preliminary test results show that D.C. public school students continue to improve their reading and math skills and that the achievement gap between African American and white students has narrowed, the Washington Post reports.

The biggest gains in the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System exams were in the elementary grades, where almost half of the students tested were deemed proficient. Gains at the middle and high school levels were more modest. The annual exams, given in grades 3 through 8 and to high school sophomores, provide a much-awaited snapshot of Chancellor Michelle A.
Rhee’s effort to transform the District’s 45,000-student school system, widely regarded as one of the country’s weakest.

Separately, a National Assessment of Educational Progress, issued by the U.S. Education Department, found a modest narrowing across the country in the black-white achievement gap — as of 2007. While the gaps in 2007 were narrower than in previous assessments at both grades 4 and 8 in mathematics and at grade 4 in reading, white students had average scores at least 26 points higher than Black students in each subject.

Not Everyone Thinks There’s a Scientist Shortage

As the push to train more young people for STEM careers gains momentum, a few prominent skeptics are warning that it may be misguided – and that rhetoric about the United States losing pre-eminence in science, technology, engineering and math may be a stretch, USA Today reports.

U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics show the unemployment rate for electrical engineers hit a record high, 8.6%, in the second quarter of 2009, more than doubling from 4.1% in the first quarter. The rate for all engineers climbed to 5.5%, up from 3.9% in the first quarter. The nation’s overall unemployment rate was 9.7%.

Among the most vocal critics is Michael Teitelbaum of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York, which funds basic scientific, economic and civic research. He says there are “substantially more scientists and engineers” graduating from the country’s universities than can find attractive jobs. Rapid increases in federal funding for research and education, Teitelbaum said, are
“more likely than not to further destabilize career paths for junior scientists,” as more funding will generate “substantial growth” in slots for graduate students but only limited growth in the number of career scientific positions down the line.

Top Teacher Tries ‘Anything to Hook Them’

Megan Marie Allen, a Tampa elementary-school teacher who raps about decimal points and dresses up in military fatigues for writing drills, has been named Florida’s teacher of the year, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Allen, 30, a fourth-grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary, is known for her fun, high-energy teaching style and her work outside the classroom. Allen says students love her “Drop the Decimal Like It’s Hot” song — modeled after a hip-hop single from rapper Snoop Dogg. They usually sing it while they do the “decimal place-value dance” during math lessons.

“Anything to hook them,” said Allen, who holds certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Teachers’ Union to Obama: Work with Us

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union will post a “collaboration meter” on its Web site to judge whether the Obama administration’s education reforms are being carried out with teacher involvement.

“When education reform is done to teachers and their unions, it is doomed to

Randi Weingarten

Randi Weingarten

fail,” she told an AFT meeting in Washington. “But when education reform is done with teachers, it is destined to succeed.”

It was a friendly challenge, according to Education Week. Weingarten met at the White House before her speech and joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan onstage for a town-hall -style forum.

President Barack Obama’s education goals put him at odds with many teachers, including performance pay and the idea of linking teacher bonuses to measurable student achievement.

N.J. Districts Find Pre-school a Sound Investment

An increasing number of school districts in New Jersey are offering public preschool, the idea being that teaching children earlywill help their learning — and save school districts money — down the road, according to the Newark Star-Ledger.

It is an idea that the state already supports — some $596 million in state aid will go to preschool this year — and that Gov. JonCorzine had hoped to invest in further this fall. The governor proposed spending another $25 million to expand preschool forlow-income children as the first step in a wider expansion. That money was eliminated when the financial crisis hit this spring.

But some districts are going ahead and expanding preschool anyway. Linden, for instance, will add six preschool classroomsand serve almost 100 more children this fall, increasing its program from 249 kids in half-day preschool, to 170 in full-daypreschool and another 170 in half-day.

California Plan Puts Stimulus Money at Risk

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget package, which he has touted as a way to solve the state’s entire deficit, has a glitch that may jeopardize $10 billion in federal stimulus funds for California’s public schools, colleges and prisons, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The flaw in Schwarzenegger’s proposal centers on his plan to borrow $2 billion from local governments, which would then be used to pay for education. That move would free up $2 billion in the state’s general fund, which carries the $26.3 billion shortfall.

But this year, such a maneuver would cause the state to break a minimum-funding rule set by the federal government when it awarded stimulus grants to states. The federal rule is designed to ensure that states use the dollars to stimulate their economies — not to replace dollars cut from their budgets.It’s a problem Schwarzenegger’s finance experts are trying — with much difficulty — to work around, said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the governor’s Department of Finance.

Sixth Graders Take on Flammable Fabric

Three Charlotte, N.C. sixth-graders have won the eCybermission national championship for a science project testing a solution to make children’s Halloween costumes less flammable, according to the Charlotte Observer.

With help from a local fire station, Harrison Bell, Clyde Nelson and Shep Zoutewelle created a borax and water solution that helped prevent certain costumes from burning as fast as they had. The three, who form team “Dragonface,” tested the solution under the firefighters’ supervision and found it did not protect polyester costumes, but worked on cotton.

Each won an $8,000 savings bond. They decided to tackle the problem when they learned, through research, that last fall manypeople had been burned while wearing Halloween costumes.

Chicago Schools Report Casts Doubt on Duncan Gains

A new report by the Civic Committee of The Commercial Club of Chicago says city schools have made little progress since 2003, according to USA Today.

Its key findings stand in stark contrast to assertions President Obama made in December when he nominated Arne Duncan, the Chicago schools’ chief executive, as Education secretary. Obama said that during a seven-year tenure, Duncan hadboosted elementary school test scores “from 38% of students meeting the standards to 67%” – a gain of 29 percentage points.

But the new report found that, adjusting for changes in tests and procedures, students’ pass rates grew only about 8 percentage points. Obama also said Chicago’s dropout rate “has gone downevery year he’s been in charge.” Though that’s technically true, the committee says it’s still unacceptably high: About half of Chicago students drop out of the city’s non-selective-enrollment high schools. And more than 70% of 11th-graders fail to meet state standards, a trend that “has remained essentially flat” over the past several years.

Duncan spokesman Peter Cunningham says Chicago schools “made significant gains across a range of indicators” under Duncan. “While we still have a long way to go, it is absolutely misleading and irresponsible to suggest that there has not been progress.”

Companies Hired to Run 17 Detroit Schools

Detroit Public Schools Emergency Financial Manager Robert Bobb has hired four educational management companies to turn around 17 of the worst-performing high schools in the district, a move that marks what leaders say is the largest public school district overhaul of its kind in the nation, the Detroit News reports.

School board members expressed shock and dismay. Some accused Bobb of overstepping his bounds as a financial manager by launching an academic plan without the board’s knowledge that will affect 20,000 students in three-quarters of the district’s high schools without the board’s knowledge. The district signed multiyear contracts with four out-of-state companies that will be funded through $20 million in federal stimulus dollars. The aim is to improve student achievement, discipline, respect, safety and graduation rates, district officials said.

Teaching Not Recession-proof

Education jobs grew steadily in recent years amid rising enrollment and government efforts to reduce class sizes. Now the increase in teaching positions has leveled off as school districts struggle with budget pressures, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The demographic bulge caused by children of baby boomers — the so-called echo boom — has also begun to wane. Los Angeles Unified School District laid off 2,500 teachers this spring. Broward County, Fla., cut 400 school jobs. Rochester, N.Y., laid off 300 teachers. Many of the layoffs came in June as teachers prepared to say goodbye to their students for summer.

Other districts have avoided cuts by negotiating pay reductions and enacting furloughs and hiring freezes. In June, education jobs actually ticked up 0.5% nationally to just under 3.1 million on a seasonally adjusted basis. But the number of education-related jobs has declined in six of the past 12 months, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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