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The Boredom Factor, Political Upheaval, and Overly Inclusive Cheerleaders

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, March 2-March 8.

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In the conventional view, high school dropouts are kids who couldn’t keep up academically because of deeply rooted personal problems. But could it be that a lot of dropouts were just bored in school? That’s the question raised by new report commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in which researchers interviewed 467 young people who failed to graduate. The study, conducted by the public policy group Civic Enterprises, reports that most of the dropouts interviewed said they had passing grades in school. What ultimately drove them to opt out, they responded in large numbers, was lack of motivation and boredom in class. The study’s authors say the responses show that schools could help reduce dropout numbers by, among other things, adopting a curriculum that is more relevant to students and using more personalized instructional strategies. But Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and president of Alliance for Excellent Education, suggested that the former students’ self-evaluations should be interpreted with caution. “Underneath the frustration of a lot of these kids is an adolescent-literacy issue,” he said. “Of course, class isn’t interesting if you can’t understand it.”

Literacy isn’t an issue with one college prep curriculum, but apparently politics is. A growing number of school boards claim that the popular International Baccalaureate program is too expensive and instills anti-American values. Most recently, in Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, opponents got enough votes to abolish IB. Emphasizing studies in foreign languages, individuals and societies, the arts, and community service, IB is offered in 677 schools in the United States and is considered a big plus on college applications. But critics, harboring suspicions that its parent organization is aligned with Marxist interests, have charged that the multiculturally tinged curriculum promotes values at odds with Judeo-Christian principles. In Upper St. Clair, some see ominous echoes of the recent legal battles over evolution in Dover, Pennsylvania: “You had a majority [on the school board] that ascends to power and runs roughshod over the administration, the teachers, and the students to impose its own political agenda,” said Pennsylvania ACLU legal director Witold Walczak, who plans to challenge the Upper St. Clair decision.

On the subject of political agendas, a high school social studies teacher in suburban Denver was put on leave after comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler and harshly criticizing U.S. foreign policy in class. Jay Bennish, a five-year veteran at Overland High School, in Aurora, Colorado, claimed that parts of President Bush’s State of the Union Address sounded “a lot like the things Adolf Hitler used to say” and called the United States “probably the single most violent nation on Earth.” Unfortunately for him, a student recorded the remarks on an MP3 player, and they subsequently found their way onto a local conservative talk-radio show. In an appearance on the NBC’s Today Show, Bennish later said he was merely trying to get students to think critically about national affairs, and he has threatened to file a lawsuit against the school district if he’s terminated. Officials are investigating whether he violated a policy against intimidating students who hold opposing political views.

In Washington state, it appears that students aren’t forming many opinions at all on current events after watching Channel One’s daily news show. A recent study of 240 7th and 8th graders found that the students remembered more of the advertising than the news stories they’d seen. Channel One is broadcast in 12,000 U.S. schools, and those who agree to show it on 90 percent of school days receive free TVs and satellite equipment. The authors of the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, say their findings raise many questions about the program’s commercial influence. Some students, meanwhile, find the show’s award-winning reporting less than riveting. “When Channel One is on, I do my homework or talk with my friends,” observed 16-year-old Angela Young.

Turning to politics of a different sort, parents of a dozen cheerleaders at Carroll High School in Southlake, Texas, have filed a grievance with school officials. They charge that the selection process for the cheerleading squad was too inclusive. The trouble started with tryouts in December, when some parents complained that the scoring system was flawed. So the district decided to let anyone who tried out join the team, resulting in a 32-member squad. This kind of populism didn’t sit well with the parents of the girls who made the squad after the first tryout. “These girls have earned the right to be called varsity cheerleaders,” the grievance contends. “They deserve recognition for years of hard work. These girls also deserve a squad equivalent to their talents.” The parents want the board either to cut the rest of the members or create two separate squads. A district spokeswoman remarked: “We’re going to be hard-pressed to find something that will make everyone happy.”

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