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Election-Year Education, Quality Control, and The Cyberspace Teachers’ Lounge

Teacher Magazine’s take on education news from around the Web, March 30-April 5.

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Maryland was just this close (imagine thumb and index finger a millimeter apart) from becoming the first state to use NCLB to take failing schools out of a district's hands. Despite repeated efforts to boost achievement, the seven middle and four high schools in Baltimore are in bad shape—at one high school, just 1.4 percent of the students passed the state's biology exam. So last week Nancy Grasmick, Maryland's school superintendent, officially requested that supervision of the schools be split between the state and other managers, including non- and for-profit entities. The state school board granted the request, but Martin O'Malley, Baltimore's Democratic mayor, who happens to be running for governor this year, cried foul. "This is unprecedented," he claimed. "No other state superintendent in the history of the country has ever tried to do what Dr. Grasmick is trying to do in this election year."

What followed was well-crafted politics, with the state's general assembly passing a moratorium on the takeover just hours before a legislative deadline. The state's governor, Republican Robert Ehrlich, who's up for reelection, promised to veto the bill, but there may be enough votes to override. He also dismissed the notion that politics played a role in the board's decision, saying that Baltimore students "have a vested right, a constitutional right, to a quality education." But O'Malley, who's defended the city's ongoing efforts to improve the schools, shot back: "There are a lot of people who like to wag their paternalistic finger and tell a multicultural, proud, and diverse and strong people that we cannot achieve. Don't you believe it."

Disbelief is running rampant in Connecticut, where the skills of 30 percent of public-school teachers are being challenged. A study that the U.S. Department of Education did in January shows that 13,000 teachers may not be meeting the "highly qualified" standard set by NCLB. Among those whose competence is in question is Diana Proto Avino, recipient of a Milken Family Foundation National Educator Award. The feds concluded that anyone certified in Connecticut before 1988, when the state began testing new teachers in subject-matter know-how, may not be enough of an expert in, say, reading, math, or science. "Shame on the federal government for having this narrow view," said Avino, who, like other vets, may now face job reviews and tests, so as to comply with NCLB.

This all sounds like blogworthy material. And, indeed, teachers—many of whom shied away from the Internet just a few years ago—now operate thousands of education-related blogs, both personal and professional, according to Web experts. The personal ones often make for gossipy, humorous material, like this tidbit authored by a teacher about to leave town for a week: Worrying about her sub, she writes that he "reeks—and I mean REEKS—of cigarettes. ...The kids are horrified by my abandonment." The professional blogs, on the other hand, can be edifying. A researcher from Michigan State University said he reads blogs "every day to keep up on what the newest thoughts are on education."

Will Richardson, a 47-year-old former English teacher who's now a supervisor for instructional technology, is such an ardent believer in the medium, he's helped his school establish 400 blogs, which populate the school's Web site. Four years ago, when Richardson was teaching The Secret Life of Bees at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in New Jersey, he put together a blog the kids could use to discuss the book outside of class. Soon they were posting all kinds of thoughts and interpretations, and after the book's author, Sue Monk Kidd, visited the school, she posted her own response, saying how much she'd learned from the students about her work. "From that point on," Richardson recalls, "[blogs] became pretty much a staple of every class I taught."

One staple of kids' media diet that may be especially unhealthy is sex. A new study, conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, concludes that kids drawn to TV shows, movies, magazines, and music laced with sexual content are twice as likely to have intercourse by age 16 than those less exposed to it. More than 1,000 North Carolina teens were shadowed for two years, and researchers found the content, ranging from risqué banter to depictions of sex acts, in 308 sources. Less than 1 percent of the media addressed sexual health (including the use of contraception), and among those sources scoring high for sexual content were UPN's "WWE Smackdown" and MTV's "Total Request Live." Jane Brown, a study researcher, explained that many teens rely on the media for information on sex because they don't get it elsewhere. And, the study found, those kids whose parents do talk to them about sex and its consequences are less likely to engage in intercourse as teens.

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