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The Homework Crunch, Problems of Language, and Poisoned Coffee

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, Dec. 9-15.

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It used to be that kids just complained about having too much homework. In these hypercompetitive times, though, it seems they’re reduced to begging for more time in the day to get all of it done. That’s the situation in Norton, Massachusetts, where three 7th grade girls are petitioning their school to restore two weekly study halls it eliminated to meet new state class-time requirements. The girls’ plight has become a focal point in the ongoing debate about homework quantity, with many parents and educators charging that test-score-obsessed schools are trying cram too much into kids’ heads—and backpacks. “The standards have been raised, and it can’t all be covered in the school day,” said Diana Potter, a Norton parent. “But it’s hard on kids who are already overscheduled.” Others, however, retort that if kids don’t have enough time in the day, it’s because they are overburdened by sundry extracurricular and enrichment activities, not homework.

Texas education officials probably should have done a little more homework before adopting a policy backed by Republican Governor Rick Perry to let school districts automatically certify college graduates as teachers. A year and half after the controversial initiative went into effect, the instant-certification measure has resulted in a total of one new teacher—and, having been hired by a charter school, he or she isn’t even technically required to be certified. Some 1,640 people have applied but most—indeed, all except that one—have failed to attain certification because they haven’t received a job offer from a district or haven’t met other requirements, including passing a teacher competency exam. While Governor Perry’s office still believes the program has promise, critics say it places too great a burden on school districts, which have to provide training and mentoring. “Apparently, most school districts don’t want to be responsible for instantly certifying folks as teachers,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers Association, in what could be a late-entry candidate for Understatement of the Year.

A high school principal in Kansas City appears to have taken on a little too much responsibility when she suspended a student for speaking Spanish in a hallway. The school district subsequently revoked the suspension and acknowledged that it doesn’t actually have a policy against speaking a foreign language on school grounds. Regardless, the incident—apparently initiated when 16-year-old Zach Rubio, a junior at Endeavor Alternative School, uttered the words “No problema” in response to a classmate’s request—has become a flashpoint in the controversy over bilingual education and related immigration issues. Some advocates suggest that the actions of Endeavor principal Jennifer Watts reflect a broader anxiety about the growing Latino population in schools, even as they question why exactly multilingualism should be discouraged. “A fully bilingual young man like Zach Rubio should be considered an asset to the community,” said Janet Murguia, national president of the National Council of La Raza.

Language of an altogether different sort is being targeted in Hartford, Connecticut, schools. Unable to stanch with ordinary measures the rampant flow of expletives from kids’ mouths, school officials have authorized police officers stationed at two city high schools to give tickets to students who curse. Thus far, some 60 tickets have been issued—with the fine set at the not-exactly-negligible amount of $103—and there’s anecdotal evidence to suggest the strategy has had a positive effect on student behavior. At the same time, critics charge that the fine is too steep, particularly for low-income students, and that the approach is ill-conceived. “Throwing a $103 fine at people who can’t afford it—is that going to going to solve the problem or make it worse?” asked Paul Stringer, principal of Weaver High School in Hartford, which has declined to participate in the ticketing program.

Certain curse words might come to mind at the news that a 4th grade girl at Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Philadelphia has been arrested for allegedly attempting to poison her teacher. The 10-year-old reportedly spiked the teacher’s coffee cup with a toxic (though quite feminine) concoction of fingernail polish, nail polish remover, and hand lotion. Fortunately, the teacher, whose name has not been released, did not drink from the cup; she learned about the alleged incident from the parent of another student at a later school event. The student faces a range of criminal charges and possible expulsion from the school. “It appears she did not like her teacher,” commented Philadelphia Police Department spokesman Inspector William Colarulo, another front-runner for Understatement of the Year.

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