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A Gates-Crasher, Robot Wars, and
A Real Snow Job

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Feb. 25-March 3.

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Education activists have long criticized the structure of American high schools, but that charge probably has more resonance coming from a really rich guy. In a speech before the National Governors Association, Bill Gates delivered a blistering critique of secondary education in the United States, saying that with their current mass production approach, U.S. high schools are obsolete and ultimately leave millions of students without the knowledge they need to compete in the global economy. “Training the work force of tomorrow with today’s high schools is like trying to teach kids about today’s computers on a 50-year-old mainframe,” the Microsoft co-founder said.

In his speech, Gates advocated a revised conception of high schools based on “smaller learning communities” and greater support for teachers—an effort to which his foundation has committed some $733 million. None too subtly, he informed the body of elected officials that the key barrier to institutional change in schools is a lack of “political will,” suggesting that much of the resistance to smaller schools stems not from philosophical differences but from support of big high school sports programs.

Overshadowed by the recent coverage of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ stern rebuke of the No Child Left Behind Act was a more personal lobbying initiative led by a Maryland special education teacher. Edward Kitlowski, who teaches at Baltimore County’s Loch Raven High School, has launched a letter-writing campaign designed to tell President Bush how teachers feel about NCLB. So far, Kitlowski has assembled some 30 letters from colleagues at his school, but he has plans to include educators from farther afield. The campaign was motivated, Kitlowski says, not only by teachers’ concerns about how the far-reaching federal law is playing out in their classrooms but also by their frustration at being left out of decisions affecting the profession. “You wouldn’t have a group of people who are not lawyers and not doctors telling lawyers and doctors what to do,” said letter writer Niamh McQuillan, a Loch Raven English teacher.

Internet chat rooms about high school robotics are reportedly abuzz over the salacious details surrounding the downfall of one of the country’s most prominent clubs. The robotics team at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California—once hailed by now-defunct Forbes ASAP magazine as a veritable training ground for high-tech leaders—has been forced to cancel its season because of internal tensions that resulted in two separate restraining orders. Fittingly, the conflicts seem to have played out largely in cyberspace. One involved an alleged death threat made by one student on a weblog following a dispute over who would build a robot’s drivetrain; the second, unwanted romantic overtures sent to a female team member via instant messenger. Accounts differ as to whether the team's coach, Bill Dunbar, tried to supress the harrassment claims. “It’s really sad to see a handful of adults and kids not getting along and to let their issues impact the entire team,” said Jason Morrella, who heads a program that organizes robotics meets in the San Francisco area.

Following up on our coverage of “Bustergate” (let’s hope for the last time), U.S. Representative Barney Frank has sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings accusing her of “meanness.” Spellings, it will be recalled, launched her tenure as education secretary by denouncing an episode of the PBS cartoon “Postcards From Buster,” which featured two lesbian couples. The Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, who is openly gay, said the “strong implication” of Spellings’ objection was that same-sex relationships intrinsically are “something from which young children should be shielded.” “I am sorry that young people all over this country who happen to be gay or lesbian have now learned that the person who has been picked by the president of the United States to help with their education has such a fundamentally negative view of their very existence,” he wrote. The education department has declined to comment on the letter.

Finally, schools in the Washington, D.C., region were shuttered twice in the past week and a half in response to largely phantom snowstorms—storms that were aggressively forecast by local news stations but never really materialized. In addition to forcing some schools in Maryland to reschedule standardized-testing dates, the closings caused much consternation among harried parents. The director of transportation for Calvert County’s school district said he got a number of profanity-laced calls—and he probably wasn’t the only one. At the same time, one editorialist observed that parents themselves might be most to blame for the schools’ reaction by imbuing the local educational culture with a “hyper-protectiveness” resting on the absolute belief that “my child can’t be exposed to any risk whatever.” That’s a tough expectation for any school to weather.

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