Current Events: In Brief
Efforts To Meet National Goals Still Fall Short
For the second year in a row, the annual report on the national education goals shows that the United States is making only "modest progress'' toward meeting those targets by 2000.
The two-volume report, which contains a mixture of new and revised data, was unveiled in late September by the National Education Goals Panel. The panel of governors, members of Congress, and federal officials is charged with tracking progress toward the goals.
On the positive side, the report points out that more high school students are taking Advanced Placement examinations and that a majority of them are scoring high enough to earn college credit. In addition, the percentage of students who drop out between the 10th and 12th grades has been nearly cut in half over the past decade, and student drug and alcohol use is down.
Those improvements are somewhat overshadowed, however, by the report's more negative findings. It says nearly half of all infants are born with one or more "risk factors'' that potentially mark them for school failure later on. Literacy levels are declining among young adults. And at no point in their school careers, the report points out, are American students doing as well as they should be in mathematics or reading.
"In the last three years,'' said Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a panel member, "we have not made substantial progress in meeting the goals. But at least we know what we need to do now to make that progress.''
Panel members said they were optimistic about future educational progress for three reasons. For one, more and better indicators of progress are becoming available. Second, national stan- dards for what students should know and be able to do in core academic areas are nearing completion. And, finally, new surveys show that public support for reforming schools is growing.
A survey released this fall by the Educational Excellence Partnership, a business-sponsored organization, suggests that 70 percent of Americans disagree with the statement, "Some schools need improvement but not mine.'' This is a turnaround from earlier surveys in which most participants tended to express satisfaction with their neighborhood schools.
"I predict in the last five years [of this century] you're going to see an almost exponential increase in the rate of improvement,'' said Gov. John McKernan Jr. of Maine, the panel's chairman for 1993-94.
Some educators, however, said the report suggests instead that federal and national strategies for improving education are not enough. "We've had these alarm bells for four or five years now, and the issue is what action is to be taken,'' said Gordon Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "We'd better be talking about what it takes to increase money for those that are underserved.''
President Bush and the nation's governors set the six national education goals in 1990. They state that by 2000: All children will start school ready to learn; the high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent; students will demonstrate competence in challenging subject matter; students will be first in the world in mathematics and science; every adult will be literate; and every school will be free of drugs and violence.
Outcome-Based Reform Dies In Virginia
Proponents of outcome-based education suffered another defeat this fall when Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia announced in September that he would not support an OBE program that the state board of education had already approved.
James Jones, president of the board, says the move by Wilder killed the reform initiative.
In May, the board adopted a Common Core of Learning, which set standards and goals for the skills and abilities students were expected to acquire by age 16. Critics argued that the program elevated instruction in values and self-esteem over academics. Supporters said, while the program was intended to bolster student learning, it was never clearly explained.
Outcome-based education programs in other states have met similar fates. For example, a wideranging proposal in Pennsylvania was derailed earlier this year when OBE opponents launched a vocal campaign to defeat the plan. [See "Rebel Mom,'' October.]
"Widespread misunderstanding'' was at the root of the failure of the Virginia initiative, says Jones. "Education reform has to speak more clearly and simply about what its goals are.''
School Gun Law Ruled Invalid
In 1990, with gun violence in and around schools capturing national headlines, Congress got tough and passed the Gun-Free School Zones Act, making it a federal crime for an adult to possess a firearm within 1,000 feet of a school.
This past September, however, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit invalidated the law, saying federal lawmakers overstepped their powers under the U.S. Constitution's commerce clause when they established the gun-free school zones.
"Both the management of education and the general control of simple firearms possession by ordinary citizens have traditionally been a state responsibility,'' the Sept. 15 ruling said. In enacting the law, the court stated, Congress failed to establish a connection between gun possession near schools and interstate commerce. It said such a law might be sustained if lawmakers passed it with adequate legislative findings showing that connection.
The Fifth Circuit panel ruled in a case from San Antonio in which a high school senior, Alfonso Lopez Jr., was caught at school carrying a handgun. Lopez was convicted under the federal law and sentenced to six months in prison. The Fifth Circuit overturned the conviction and ordered his indictment dismissed.
The ruling was the first at the federal appellate level on the validity of the law, which a coalition of education and gun-control groups has defended as an important federal tool to fight the growing threat of school gun violence.
In a challenge pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, the National Education Association, and the American Federation of Teachers, among other groups, have filed a brief supporting the law. Dennis Henigan, a lawyer with the CPHV, says the groups had not been aware of the challenge in the Fifth Circuit. "This decision may simply mean Congress has to pass the law again to make the connection and findings regarding interstate commerce,'' he says. "We strongly feel the national scope of the problem dictates a federal response.''
But John Carter, a public defender who represented Lopez, says the law is an ineffective response to the problem of gun violence near schools. "They can only prosecute people who are over 18,'' Carter explains. "So as for students with guns, it's barely touching the problem.''
Teachers Question Reform Agenda
A recent national poll of 2,000 American teachers turned up a mixed response to the Clinton administration's push for new stan- dards, curricula, and assessments for students.
The survey, conducted by LH Research for the Ford Foundation, was designed to find out how teachers view key elements of the nation's school reform agenda.
What the survey found is that teachers are generally knowledgeable about the administration's proposed reforms but have "serious reservations'' about their impact. For example, more than half of those polled believed the reforms would establish a "strict set of criteria'' they would have to follow, and 57 percent said they did not believe new standards and assessments would motivate low-achieving students to higher performance. Sixty-seven percent of the teachers also expressed concern that schools would be rewarded for "figuring out how to get their students to test well but not necessarily to learn more.''
The survey also asked about school-based management, one of the most highly touted reforms of the 1980s. Only 41 percent of the teachers surveyed said it has had a major impact on their schools. But those teachers reported that when shared decisionmaking was put into place at their schools, other reforms have followed, including cooperative learning, mixed-ability classrooms, authentic assessments, and use of subject-area standards for learning.
"A telling 61 percent of [teachers] where school-based management/shared decisionmaking has had a major impact say they are satisfied with their careers as teachers,'' a report on the survey states, compared with only 44 percent of teachers in schools where those reforms did not have an impact.
To request a free copy of the report, Testing Assumptions: A Survey of Teachers' Attitudes Toward the Nation's School Reform Agenda, contact: LH Research, 1270 Avenue of the Americas, Suite 2308, New York, NY 10020; (202) 332-2950.
A Nation Of Poor Readers
The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the perennial purveyor of grim news, released yet another disquieting report in September, this one on the reading abilities of the nation's students. What NAEP found is that more than two-thirds of 4th, 8th, and 12th grade students are not proficient readers.
The data also contained some particularly disturbing news about African-American students. Even though the gap in reading achievement between white and black students has narrowed in recent decades, the national assessment shows that it remains wide. The percentage of black high school seniors who scored at the proficient level, for example, was less than half that for white students.
"The results of this study are extremely troubling,'' said Secretary of Education Richard Riley. "As a nation, America will certainly go from great to secondrate if our children cannot read well enough.''
The congressionally mandated assessment was given in 1992 to 140,000 public and private school students across the country. Although the testing program has been in place since 1969, this examination was the first to measure student progress against new, higher standards. The purpose: to gauge performance according to what students should be able to do rather than by how they did compared with an average.
For that reason, the report contains no information on whether students' reading achievement has improved or worsened; a separate study on student-achievement trends will be released early next year.
The new benchmarks, however, will be used as a baseline for measuring future progress. They describe student performance according to three levels: basic, proficient, and advanced. A majority of students--from 59 percent to 75 percent across all three grades--were able to read at the basic level or better. However, only 25 percent of 4th graders, 28 percent of 8th graders, and 37 percent of 12th graders were judged to be reading proficiently for their grade. Markedly fewer students, from 2 percent in 4th grade to 4 percent in high school, read at advanced levels.
Also, in findings that are sure to heighten the already bitter debate over the best way to teach reading, the study suggests some possible links between students' reading achievement and the type of reading instruction they are receiving. In grade 4, for example, students whose teachers said they had heavily emphasized literature-based approaches to teaching reading tended to do better on the assessment than students in classrooms where there was little or no attention paid to that approach. Likewise, students who were poorer readers tended to get more phonics instruction in the classroom.
But Alan Farstrup, executive director of the International Reading Association, warned that "you can't draw a cause-and-effect relationship'' from the findings. "It may be that phonics instruction is an artifact of how schools are organized or a feature of school remedial programs,'' he said, adding that poorer readers may be getting more phonics because their teachers believe they need additional instruction in that area.
One surprise in the study was the low performance of schoolchildren in California. In 1987, that state adopted a new framework for language arts instruction that called for a significant shift from traditional approaches to teaching reading to newer, literaturebased ones. Yet the average reading-proficiency scores of California's 4th graders were near the bottom on the assessment.
Testing experts and California school officials said the poor performance may be due in part to demographics. The proportion of disadvantaged children in California--22 percent--is almost two and a half times greater than that for the rest of the country. Nationwide, students from disadvantaged urban areas and extremely rural areas tend to have the lowest average reading proficiencies. Moreover, 21 percent of California schoolchildren are not native speakers of English.
However, Mark Musick, chairman of the federal governing board that sets policy for NAEP, pointed out that demographics do not entirely explain California students' reading-achievement problems. White students in California, he noted, also performed near the bottom when compared with white students in other states. "It wasn't just a matter of immigrants bringing down the higher scores,'' Musick said.
Pupils Harassed By Peers May Collect Damages
A federal district judge has ruled that students may recover money damages from school districts for sexual harassment by other students, but only if they prove that school officials intentionally failed to stop the harassment.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Eugene Lynch of San Francisco is the first to state that students harassed by peers can win damages from districts under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which bars sexual discrimination in schools receiving federal funds. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that Title IX could be enforced against schools through private lawsuits that seek damages. Since then, lower federal courts have refused to bar damage suits involving students who claim that harassment by a school employee created a "hostile environment.''
But according to Judge Lynch, his August ruling in Doe vs. Petaluma City School District was the first to affirm that "student-tostudent sexual harassment'' is also actionable under Title IX.
Still, the judge essentially dismissed the lawsuit, which was filed against the California district on behalf of a junior high school girl, known in court papers as Jane Doe. The lawsuit alleges that while the student, now 15, was in 7th and 8th grades at Kenilworth Junior High School, she was the subject of a cruel running joke about masturbation. The student and her mother complained repeatedly to a school counselor, who did little more than say the comments would subside in time, according to the lawsuit. Some students eventually were suspended for making their comments. The girl left the school in March 1992, first for another public school and later for a private girls' school. Her lawsuit seeks $1 million in damages from the district.
"To obtain damages,'' the judge wrote, "the plaintiff must prove intentional discrimination on the basis of sex on the part of an employee of the educational institution, not just that an employee or employees of the institution knew or should have known of the hostile environment and failed to take appropriate action to end it.'' He gave the plaintiffs time to amend their suit to show intentional discrimination by school officials.
Anne Shelton, the lawyer for the student, said the ruling was significant even though the judge granted the defendants' motion to dismiss the suit. "We have a decision for the first time that peer-to-peer harassment is a violation of Title IX,'' Shelton said. "I can only hope that other judges take heed of this decision.''
Detroit School Issues 'Dog Tags' To Students
Malcolm X Academy in Detroit has taken the unusual step of providing its students with military-style "dog tags'' to aid children who might wander from school or home. Each brass tag is engraved with a student's name, the school's telephone number, and the number of an emergency line that school employees will answer from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
"As a safety precaution, they will have these safety identification tags available for an adult or police officer to look at,'' says Freda Dawson, an assistant principal at the public, African-oriented magnet school. "We don't allow them to wear fancy jewelry, so we thought this would be some way they could have an ornament around their neck.'' Next year, the school plans to distribute tags in the shape of Africa.
The new addition to the school uniform was distributed to the academy's 519 K-7 students in October during an assembly that focused on safety issues. Parents were asked to reimburse the school for the $4 cost of the tags, but school officials say they will give the IDs to children who are unable to pay for them.
Principal Clifford Watson says he was concerned about the safety of students who ride buses from various parts of the city to his school, on Detroit's West Side. Officials were afraid children might wander off their normal routes, get lost, or find themselves without adult supervision when they get off the bus in the evening. The school has already had "a couple of serious incidents'' this year, Watson says, citing an episode in which a 1st grader had no one to pick him up and had to solicit the help of a postman to get home.
John Elliott, president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, says the tags are "an excellent idea.'' He suggests that the district make them available to all students and add vital medical information to them.
Publisher Creates Computer Network For Classrooms
Scholastic Inc., the well-known publisher of classroom periodicals, launched in late September what it says is the nation's first computer network aimed exclusively at teachers and students.
The new service, which carries a $295-a-year subscription fee, allows classes to use their computer modems to carry on electronic conversations with authors, scientists, policymakers, and other students around the country. Pupils who are plugged into the network, for example, can talk by computer with such children'sbook authors as Frank Asch and Virginia Hamilton, ask questions of journalists who covered the floods that ravaged the Midwest this past summer, and carry on science projects with students in other parts of the country.
Moreover, the service provides access to eight national news wires and past articles from Scholastic publications. Several databases, information from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Weather Service, and Compton's Encyclopedia will also be available through the new service.
In addition, the network will allow teachers to communicate with colleagues nationwide. They can, for example, tap into the network to get advice on upgrading their schools' technological services or to take part in professional conferences. "We're looking at this as a way to facilitate on-line learning communities,'' says Susan Mernit, Scholastic's director of network development. "One of the real values of this kind of service is that we will be able to provide a sense of timeliness to classroom instruction.''
Unlike other national and international networks, which computer savvy teachers already use to link their students with databanks, the Scholastic network is dedicated to instructional use. For that reason, the publisher has developed a software program that is so easy to use, company officials say, "a child can master it in an hour.'' Participating teachers can get notice of the network's specially designed projects and events through bulletin board listings on the computer or subscriber mailings. Music Channel With Advertising Debuts In Schools National advertisers have a new way to tap the student market-- a music radio channel delivered via satellite to high school lunchrooms, hallways, and student lounges.
Star Broadcasting Co. of St. Paul, in partnership with 3M Sound Products, is offering schools the 12-hour daily service--along with a satellite dish, speakers, and wiring--in exchange for the right to broadcast eight to 10 minutes of advertising every hour.
The venture, begun this fall, is similar to Whittle Communications' controversial Channel One, a daily, 12-minute classroom television-news show that carries two minutes of advertising. The radio service's developers contend, however, that their program is different; it will not air in classrooms, they say, or any other place school officials declare off limits.
Star is also throwing in a little sweetener: National ad revenue will be split with the participating schools. In addition, each school will get two minutes of air time each hour to sell to local advertisers or to use for announcements. "With all of their budget cuts, schools are obtaining resources more independently,'' says Scott Plum, director of sales and marketing for Star Broadcasting. "An average school with about 1,500 students could expect about $20,000 [in revenue] over the year. Schools can really use those dollars.''
Star will offer two music formats: "top 40'' rock and country. Schools can switch between them whenever they want. The programming will be free of sexually explicit and violent lyrics. "Everything is going to be screened very carefully,'' Plum says.
Star has been pitching the program through local faculty advisers to Distributive Education Clubs of America, which promotes marketing and business skills among high school students. By the start of the school year, approximately 900 schools had already signed up.
Joe Felardo, a marketing teacher and DECA chapter adviser at Eureka (Calif.) Senior High School, says the service will give his students a chance to sell ads to local merchants and provide money for the school. "When I first read about it, I said, 'This sounds too good to be true,' '' he says. "I took it to the school-site council and principal, and they agreed to try it on a trial basis.''
Lyle Hamilton, a spokesman for the National Education Association, was less complimentary, saying the radio service is just the latest example of marketers using schools to reach the lucrative youth market. "We wouldn't think this is a step in the right direction,'' he says. "The more commercials there are in the schools, the more clutter.''