Published Online: August 4, 2015
Published in Print: August 5, 2015, as Best of the Blogs

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| NEWS | District Dossier

Amid New Reports of Cheating, Atlanta Chief Calls for Change

With recent reports of grade changing at some Atlanta high schools, Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said the district may be dealing with a deep-rooted problem.

When a jury convicted 11 former Atlanta educators in a test-cheating conspiracy in the spring, some education experts thought it might signal the end of high-profile academic-misconduct cases for the 49,000-student school system.

But the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported on multiple cases of possible improper grading practices in recent months.

The reports have emerged since the end of a months long trial in which eight educators were sentenced to prison for their roles in cheating on state tests, a scandal the newspaper also uncovered.

Vowing to stamp out cheating in the district, Carstarphen said that attitudes must shift.

That will only come about if district employees are able to report possible wrongdoing without risking retaliation, she said during a press conference last month.

The latest cases unearthed by the Journal-Constitution aren't as far-reaching, but still pose problems for a district looking to rebound from a fiasco that drew national headlines.

Corey Mitchell


| NEWS | High School & Beyond

Graduation Rates: Deep Pockets of Need, Even as Picture Improves

The sleepy, slow days of summer are a great time to curl up with a 112-page compendium of high school dropout statistics. Right?

We think so. Those of you who disagree are more than welcome to use this document as a doorstop. But you'll miss a bracing refresher course on why we need to work hard to improve the experiences, and prospects, of our middle and high school students.

The document I'm leafing through is "Trends in High School Dropout and Completion Rates in the United States: 1972-2012," issued this summer by the National Center for Education Statistics.

For starters, flip to Page 13, which explores the adjusted cohort graduation rate, or ACGR. That's the calculation that tells you what portion of a given entering 9th grade class finishes high school with a diploma in four years. Page 13 greets you with this cheerful tidbit:

"For [school year] 2010-11, the estimated national four-year ACGR for public high school students was 79 percent, and for [school year] 2011-12, it was 80 percent. This indicates that nearly 4 out of 5 students receive a regular high school diploma within four years of starting 9th grade for the first time."

That rate dipped as low as 59 percent in the District of Columbia and rose as high as 89 percent in Iowa.

The good news is that 37 states showed increases in their four-year graduation rates. An NCES table that covers 2011-2013 shows the rate moving from 79 percent to 81 percent.

News of the 81 percent national rate prompted celebratory headlines, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the new high a "profound milestone."

But as he noted, a lot of work remains. The students who are least likely to graduate in four years? Those still learning English, and those with disabilities, followed by Native American and African-American students. Barely 7 in 10 Hispanic students finish in four years.

Old news? Sure. Patterns we're painfully familiar with? Absolutely. But there's nothing like seeing it all again, imagining each face that makes up those statistics as the memory of the last school year fades and the hard work of the next one is still hanging there, waiting to be done.

Catherine Gewertz


| NEWS | Digital Education

Demise of Microsoft 2003 Server Could Bring Tech Woes to Schools

When a company as big as Microsoft ends support for an operating system with as big a footprint as Windows Server 2003, it isn't just businesses that are forced to adjust. School districts get caught up in the technological changeover, too.

Just how many school districts? That's a bit fuzzy.

But it's widely understood that schools that keep using the servers after Microsoft's support ends—and it ended July 14—face potential security risks, viruses, and the possibility that, over time, the software they're using won't run as smoothly, or at all.

Some observers who work on education technology issues say the challenges and potential pitfalls facing schools are as great if not greater than those that came with the end of support for Windows XP.

Windows XP was an operating system for desktops. For many schools, upgrading meant buying more up-to-date systems or a new stock of computing devices.

Windows Server 2003 is the operating system for the server itself. Even though that kind of infrastructure can't readily be seen, said education consultant Douglas A. Levin, server systems are critically important for devices and software to function properly.

Microsoft has for years been urging districts to take steps to protect themselves from security risks and other headaches by taking such steps as upgrading to new, and possibly cloud-based operating systems.

Moving from one type of computing device to another is a relatively simple, if costly fix, Levin said.

But making decisions about replacing servers or moving to the cloud typically require a lot more expertise. Making a big mistake, such as moving to a server that cannot handle a district's needs, can be "potentially catastrophic," he said.

Sean Cavanagh


| NEWS | On Special Education

Americans With Disabilities Act Turns 25, Continues Impact on K-12

Twenty-five years after the Americans With Disabilities Act passed, schools and other public spaces have made strides to accommodate children and youths with disabilities, said participants at a recent U.S. Department of Education event to honor the civil rights law.

But there is still work to be done on making the promise of the ADA the “delivered reality of our kids in schools,” said Catherine E. Lhamon, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the July 24 commemoration. She rattled off a list of settlement agreements that the department had entered into in July alone:

• A Denver charter school disenrolled a kindergartner after finding out on orientation day that he had a mobility issue that would require him to use the school’s elevator. School officials told the department that it only handles “mild disabilities,” and that they couldn’t ensure there would be an adult to ride the elevator with the student. “Well, they can now,” Lhamon said.

• A student with brittle-bone disease was barred from going on a field trip, because the school said it couldn’t guarantee her safety. The civil rights office intervened, and the school has bought a special vehicle to accommodate her.

• In a Colorado school, students with emotional disabilities were sent to an “alternate learning lab” with no teacher. The OCR worked with the school to make sure they were fully included.

“Our kids are fully part of our schools,” Lhamon told the audience of disability-rights advocates. “We need to make sure the rights of our kids are realized.”

The 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act happens to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was signed by President Gerald Ford in November 1975. The ADA prohibits disability-based discrimination in employment, accommodations, and public services. The education rights of students with disabilities are not directly protected by the ADA, but the law does require “reasonable accommodations” for students. School programs, including extracurricular activities, must be made available for students with disabilities.

–Christina A. Samuels


| NEWS | Politics K-12

Fresh Crop of States Get Renewal of Waivers From NCLB Mandates

Twelve more states and Puerto Rico received the greenlight from the U.S Department of Education to hang onto their flexibility from mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act in two rounds of announcements in July.

The renewals vary from one year to four years, and many come with “conditions,” which is waiver-speak for things states need to follow up on to keep their flexibility.

Receiving one-year waivers were: Delaware, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, and Utah. Receiving three-year waivers were: Alaska, Indiana, Maryland, New Jersey, Oregon, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, and South Carolina. Tennessee received a four-year renewal.

–Alyson Klein/Andrew Ujifusa


| NEWS | Teacher Beat

Messy, Missing Teacher-Prep Data Stump Even Federal Watchdog

We may have a winner of the Black Hole Award for transparency: Teacher preparation. It’s hard to tell if states are doing anything about poor teacher education programs, since many are not evaluating them like they’re required to do.

Even the federal government’s watchdog arm seems a bit stumped by the absence of performance information. At least seven states aren’t complying with a key federal reporting requirement for teacher colleges—and the U.S. Department of Education hasn’t forced them to, the Government Accountability Office found in a newly released report.

Based on surveys and interviews with state officials, the GAO found that those seven unnamed states ignored the Higher Education Act’s requirement to identify “at risk” and “low performing” teacher programs, some of them blatantly: “They believed their other oversight procedures [were] sufficient to ensure quality” without having such a process in place, the GAO said.

Also at fault: the U.S. Department of Education, which didn’t have a monitoring process in place to ensure that states met their responsibilities under the law.

Twelve states told the GAO they could not provide information on which providers they approved, approved conditionally, or denied approval to; elsewhere, just two providers were shuttered in 2013-14.

The GAO also faulted the Education Department for not figuring out how to make the federal reporting more useful for states. Nor has the agency made clear the limitations of the federal data, including inconsistencies among states in how they define terms like “program completers.”

The department responded by saying it would work with the noncompliant states, and it also cited its controversial proposed regulations to strengthen the hea requirements as a sign that it’s committed to improvement.

–Stephen Sawchuk


| NEWS | Teacher Beat

Little Surprise in AFT Endorsement Of Hillary Clinton for White House

The 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers has endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton as the Democratic nominee for the presidency in 2016. The July 11 move puts the union’s significant political war chest—and, potentially, thousands of teachers-turned-door-knockers-and-canvassers—behind Clinton, far and away the front-runner in the Democratic primaries.

The union’s endorsement follows the approval of its executive council, which is composed of the union’s leadership and its 40-odd vice presidents. The council weighed interviews with the candidates, as well as feedback from town-hall-style events and polls of the union’s members.

The endorsement is not much of a surprise. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential contest, the aft endorsed Clinton at the height of the fierce primary campaign battle between the former first lady and Barack Obama. And a former senior adviser to aft President Randi Weingarten, Hartina Flournoy, is a top aide to former President Bill Clinton.

Hillary Clinton has not explicitly outlined her education priorities. But she has historically supported early-childhood education and she has been critical of the No Child Left Behind Act’s emphasis on standardized testing, positions that align well with the AFT’s. On the other hand, she has also supported charter schools, and the AFT remains deeply wary about the expansion of the typically nonunionized, privately managed schools.

The National Education Association has not yet endorsed a primary candidate in the race.

–Stephen Sawchuk

Vol. 34, Issue 37, Pages 12,18

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