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April 22, 2014 9 min read
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| NEWS | Time and Learning

Schools Abandon Homeroom in Return for More Class Time

The West Jefferson Hills district, near Pittsburgh, recently changed the schedule at Thomas Jefferson High School. Starting with the 2014-15 school year, students will have eight class periods rather than seven, plus lunch.

Where did they find the extra time? They got rid of homeroom, which takes up 21 minutes at the start of each day. (Schedulers also gained 13 minutes by starting school earlier and shaved a minute off each class period.)

In the fall, students will start the day with a regular 42-minute class followed by 10 minutes of announcements.

Thomas Jefferson High joins many schools that have ditched homeroom in the scramble to squeeze in as much learning as possible.

But other schools still see value in it, particularly in the lower grades. The Queens, N.Y., K-8 campus of the private United Nations International School includes two 10-minute homeroom periods, at the beginning and the end of the day, for its middle school students. “It gives them a home base,” said Assistant Principal Barbara Kennedy.

–Samantha Stainburn

| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Students With Special Needs Meet the Common Core

Because of the Common Core State Standards, some math teachers have moved away from teaching tricks. Instead, they’re emphasizing conceptual understanding and letting students figure out the shorthand techniques on their own.

Students with special needs are among the mostly likely to be taught math tricks—formulas, mnemonics, key words, and even songs. At the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ recent meeting, a mother-daughter team described the importance of starting these students with concepts rather than math facts and memorization—even if the process is painstakingly slow.

When Alex Dixon was in 6th grade, she suffered a stroke and lost nearly all her physical and academic abilities.

Alex’s math returned quickly—more so than her reading. Her mother, Juli K. Dixon, attributes that to using inquiry and overarching concepts to reteach Alex in math, rather than having her memorize key words and compute quickly.

She showed a video of Alex doing a multi-digit addition problem (2,368 + 5,795). Instead of lining up the digits vertically and adding starting on the right side, Alex started with the thousands. She wrote 1,000 two times, then another five times, and counted them up. She worked from left to right, adding an extra thousand when she reached 10 in the hundreds place, and so on.

For word problems, instead of circling the key words to determine the correct operation, Alex’s mom and her teacher had Alex visualize the problem to figure out what to do. “Did we jettison key words entirely? We elevated all the words to be important words,” Juli Dixon said.

–Liana Heitin

| NEWS | Digital Education

Louisville Suicide Highlights Role of Social Media in Crisis Response

After a high school student posted a video suicide note on YouTube then killed herself last week, officials from the 101,000-student Jefferson County district in Louisville, Ky., temporarily shut down school-based access to YouTube and Twitter, prompting renewed attention to the role of social media in responding to school tragedies.

District spokeswoman Mandy Simpson said in a statement that 20 grief counselors were dispatched to Louisville Male High School, and that access to the sites was quickly restored.

H. Eric Sparks, the director of the American School Counselor Association, said the handling of social media in crisis-response situations is an issue that is “just coming up on the radar screens” of many schools.

In instances where there is two-way online communication between a troubled student and a school official, he said, best practices include directing the student to a hotline or other help, calling authorities, and trying to get an intervention in place as soon as possible.

More typical, though, might be a situation in which a student tells an adult he or she saw suicidal threats or worrisome comments on Facebook or Twitter. Then, he said, having plans and strategies in place for communicating with the individual in crisis, contacting parents, and marshaling other resources is key.

Richard Lieberman, a California school psychologist and the lead consultant for suicide prevention for the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said it’s also important that adults not be afraid of social media when working to prevent and respond to tragedies.

Social media “is where kids are gathering, so that’s where we have to be,” he said.

–Benjamin Herold

| NEWS | College Bound

Online Directory Details College-Access Programs

Descriptions of hundreds of organizations that serve disadvantaged, minority, and first-generation students in the college-preparation process are organized into a new, free directory hosted online by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The organization of counseling professionals launched the resource last week to help admissions officers reach out to underserved students as they work to diversify their campuses. It could also be useful to high school counselors looking to connect students with local programs. The NACAC Directory of College Access & Success Programs is available to members and the public at large.

The directory includes national membership organizations, community-based providers, grassroots programs sponsored by education groups, and government-funded grant programs.

–Caralee Adams

| NEWS | State EdWatch

Sticking With Common-Core Tests Proves Divisive in S.C., Louisiana

South Carolina schools chief Mick Zais announced last week that he will pull the state from the Smarter Balanced testing consortium, and that the South Carolina board of education’s April 9 vote to stick with the group is legally irrelevant. And he said he’s making the move after consulting with both the legislature and the office of Gov. Nikki Haley, a fellow elected Republican.

“I want to have a high-quality assessment that meets the specific needs of South Carolina, at a competitive price. If we continue to focus only on Smarter Balanced, we lose any opportunity to consider alternatives,” Zais wrote in his April 14 letter to state board Chairman Barry Bolen.

The state board’s April 9 vote had countermanded an April 3 letter from the state education department to districts telling them to suspend the field-testing of Smarter Balanced tests because the state was withdrawing from the consortium, one of the two main multistate groups that are creating assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards. But Mr. Zais told the board chairman he had discovered that “the authority to exit the consortium lies solely with me.” By sticking with Smarter Balanced, he said, the state is ignoring the opportunity to pick up another common-core-aligned test at (potentially) a better price.

In Louisiana, meanwhile, Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, has indicated that he’s willing to have the state drop tests from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers that the state is due to give in 2014-15, according to The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. That statement follows a request from eight state lawmakers to Mr. Jindal asking him to end the relationship with PARCC by canceling the state’s testing memorandum of understanding with the consortium.

But in an interview, state schools chief John White said Gov. Jindal doesn’t have the power to drop the tests. And the schools chief is frustrated that after roughly four years of planning for and implementing the common core and the PARCC tests, state officials are no longer on the same page.

“We have a plan that is a long-term, 12-year plan,” White told me. “It was vetted through months of public discourse. Now that anyone is suggesting that we should throw this multiple-year process into reverse in the last minute, ... [a reversal’s] greatest impact is really on teachers.”

–Andrew Ujifusa

| NEWS | Teacher Beat

Kansas Eliminates Key Element of Teacher-Tenure Protections

Veteran Kansas teachers may no longer be given a hearing before they’re dismissed under a policy included in a budget bill awaiting Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature last week.

It seemed certain that Gov. Brownback, a Republican, would sign the bill, which also includes some $120 million for schools—an infusion required under the terms of a state supreme court ruling, the Associated Press reports. Teacher tenure is a complex process that refers both to the granting of continuous employment and the conferral of due process, which means teachers can’t be dismissed without cause. The Kansas bill appears to get rid of the latter component, but preserves continuing contracts. (This is a bit different from other states that have eliminated tenure, as in North Carolina.)

It’s still possible that local districts could write due-process provisions into their collective bargaining agreements, supporters of the measure say.

The Kansas teachers’ unions criticized the measure. “The lack of transparency and the punitive measures in the due-process policy amendment of this bill illustrate the very abuse of power and culture of retribution due process was intended to prevent,” the union said in a recent statement.

–Stephen Sawchuck

| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

E-Cigarettes Marketed to Youths, Federal Lawmakers Say in Report

Manufacturers are stepping up efforts to market electronic cigarettes to children and teens, says a report released this month by 11 Democrats in Congress. Those efforts include an increasing presence on social media, sponsorship of “youth-oriented events,” and candy- and fruit-flavored products, according to the report, “Gateway to Addiction?”

The lawmakers called for greater federal regulation of electronic cigarettes, which can be sold and advertised more freely than traditional nicotine products. While 28 states currently ban the sales of e-cigarettes to minors, there is no similar federal restriction.

The report goes on to note that “federal laws and regulations prohibit traditional cigarettes from being sold to persons younger than 18 years of age, distributed as free samples, advertised on television and radio, and having ... candy and fruit flavors that appeal to children. ... In the absence of federal regulation, some e-cigarette manufacturers appear to be using marketing tactics similar to those previously used by the tobacco industry to sell their products to minors.”

While the products have been widely viewed as an alternative to traditional cigarettes for those who are already addicted, public-health research has demonstrated rising rates of e-cigarette use among teens. The report’s release comes a month after a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association said e-cigarette use in teens correlates with traditional cigarette use.

–Evie Blad

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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