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April 15, 2014 10 min read
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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

State Lawmakers Take Steps To Keep Cursive in School

The teaching of cursive handwriting is back in the news as action has heated up in several states recently. The House of Representatives in Tennessee overwhelmingly approved a bill last month that would require teachers to teach cursive. Also in March, the House education committee in South Carolina approved such a measure, which now awaits action in the full chamber.

Meanwhile, a bill on teaching cursive sailed through the Indiana Senate earlier this year, only to die in the House.

As new technologies continue to infiltrate standards and curriculum in schools, many educators and political leaders are wondering where, if at all, cursive handwriting fits into the equation. The Common Core State Standards are notably silent on the matter.

Responding to that silence, the state board of education in Florida voted in February to add standards on teaching cursive to 4th and 5th graders.

A number of other states that adopted the standards have made clear that the teaching of cursive is still expected, including California, Idaho, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, according to the Associated Press.

– Alyssa Morones

| NEWS | Education and the Media

Common-Core Film Makes Hazy Case Against Standards

A group wary of the Common Core State Standards has released a documentary film about the effort.

“Building the Machine” was produced by the Home School Legal Defense Association and directed by Ian Reid.

The film is not a one-sided, conservative screed against the common core. In fact, it presents quite a few voices on both sides of the debate, and, in the end, it comes off as damning the standards with faint praise, even though that may not have been the intent.

The home-schooling group says in press materials that the 40-minute film grew out of its effort to understand how the common core might trickle down to affect private schools and home-schooling families.

One of the film’s main indictments of the common core is that the standards were developed in a semi-secretive fashion. One education analyst called the effort “immaculate conception,” because of the difficulties faced by national standards efforts going back to the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

At times, the film seems critical of the common standards for not being rigorous enough, and at other times it gives voice to people who argue that such standards and high educational goals are not right for every student.

Toward the end, the film veers into the idea that the common core will have undue influence on colleges, admissions tests, school curriculum, and achievement tests. That, in turn, means a trickle-down effect on private schools and home-schooling families, which is why that world should be concerned, the film suggests.

– Mark Walsh

| NEWS | Marketplace K-12

Amazon’s Brazilian Textbook Deal Stirs Speculation on K-12 Ambition

Amazon is an instantly recognizable player in the e-commerce market, but its presence in schools so far has been limited, at least compared with that of other industry giants. But a big move by the company in an expanding international market has raised speculation about whether the company has bigger designs for K-12.

The Seattle-based company recently announced that it is working with Brazil’s Ministry of Education to wirelessly distribute textbooks to teachers throughout the country, using a free Kindle reading app. The textbook material would be delivered to teachers on their Brazilian-government-issued Android tablets, according to Amazon.

The project’s size, as described by Amazon, seems enormous: The company says that, to date, more than 40 million e-textbooks have been delivered through the app project. Textbook materials are being delivered via the platform Whispercast to 600,000 tablets used by teachers across the country. More than 200 types of textbook titles have been made available, the company says.

Teachers using the free app can “read, highlight, make notes, and reference the dictionary directly in the textbooks, even when the tablets are not connected to the Internet,” the company says.

Some observers speculate that Amazon’s work in Brazil offers a likely glimpse into the company’s broader designs for the school market.

– Sean Cavanagh

| NEWS | Teaching Now

Allow Students to Doodle, Draw In Class, Educator Suggests

Far from being a distraction from academic work, drawing can turn students into better writers, asserts Misty Adoniou, a senior lecturer in literacy and teaching English as a second language at the University of Canberra, in Australia. In an essay for The Conversation, an independent source of academic-research news, Adoniou makes a case for allowing, and encouraging, students to draw in classrooms.

Adoniou says research shows that drawing and artwork actually help improve students’ writing skills: “Children who draw before they tackle writing tasks produce better writing—it’s longer, more syntactically sophisticated, and has a greater variety of vocabulary,” she writes.

She encourages teachers to have students draw their first drafts instead of writing them to explore and clarify their ideas.

Just like stringing words together to create meaning, drawing is a form of communication. One should not be superior to the other, says Adoniou.

– Marlena Chertock

| NEWS | Politics K-12

At Hearing, Duncan Treads Lightly On Issue of Common-Core Support

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan continued to distance himself from the Common Core State Standards at a hearing before a House appropriations subcommittee, where he also defended the competitive grants built into his fiscal 2015 budget request.

“I’m just a big proponent of high standards. Whether they’re common or not is secondary,” he told members of the House appropriations subcommittee that works on health, education, and other related issues.

Mr. Duncan also maintained that there are “zero” federal grants tied to the common core, after being pressed at the April 8 hearing by members, including Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., who has filed legislation to prohibit the federal government from trying to encourage states via grants or waivers to adopt certain standards. Mr. Duncan pointed out that in instances where federal programs such as No Child Left Behind Act waivers are tied to common standards, they include a back-up option for non-common-core states: getting universities to approve the standards as college-ready. (Virginia has a waiver, but has not adopted the common core.)

But when it comes to competitive grants, the answer is more complicated than “zero.” The administration’s original $4 billion Race to the Top program awarded 40 points to states for developing and adopting common standards. All 12 of those winners have adopted the standards, and have not backed off. What’s more, a separate, $360 million Race to the Top contest to fund common tests was based on the premise that states needed help developing assessments based on the common standards. But, technically, aligning to the common core wasn’t required.

Mr. Duncan’s testimony, which didn’t contain such nuances, illustrates the fine line the U.S. Department of Education continues to walk between supporting states as they implement the common core and not giving critics ammunition to cry “federal overreach.”

The education secretary appeared before the House panel to answer questions about the Obama administration’s $68.6 billion budget request for the Education Department, which would be about a $1.3 billion increase over fiscal year 2014. That request includes a new, $300 million Race to the Top contest that would offer grants to help states and districts create data systems that track matters such as teacher and principal experience and effectiveness, academic achievement, and student coursework.

But Mr. Duncan gave few, if any, new details about the contest—other than to imply that rural schools would not be overlooked in any new competitions.

–Michele McNeil

| NEWS | On Special Education

Settlement in R.I. Disabilities Case Includes New Services for Students

High school students in Rhode Island with intellectual and developmental disabilities will be offered transition services—including internships and job site visits—with the goal of getting them competitive jobs in the community, as part of a settlement announced April 8 between the state and the federal government.

The 10-year agreement also comes with provisions for adults with disabilities: Rhode Island has agreed to shift funding currently used to support segregated settings over to services that will place people with disabilities in mainstream educational, leisure, and volunteer activities. The state will also provide “supported employment placements” in typical community-based jobs that pay at least the minimum wage.

The agreement was spurred by an investigation of potential violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act that started in January 2013. In June 2013, the federal government entered into an agreement with Providence, part of which required the city to improve services for students with intellectual disabilities in its 23,000-student school district. Before the agreement was reached, students with intellectual disabilities had been placed in a segregated schooling environment, and almost invariably ended up at sheltered workshops after graduation, performing light manufacturing tasks for far less than the minimum wage.

After that agreement with Providence, the federal investigation continued, and the U.S. Department of Justice found that the state overall was relying too much on segregated settings for people with intellectual disabilities. Those people were earning an average of $2.21 an hour, and sometimes stayed in their segregated workshops for decades, the investigation found.

–Christina A. Samuels

| NEWS | The School Law Blog

Louisiana Must Give Voucher Data To U.S. Department of Justice

A federal judge has ordered Louisiana to provide annual data to the federal government on the students participating in the state’s private-school-voucher program.

The April 7 order by U.S. District Judge Ivan R. Lemelle of New Orleans appears to bring to a conclusion months of skirmishing between the state and President Barack Obama’s administration over the voucher program and whether it will affect racial balance in the school districts still under court supervision for desegregation. The judge largely sided with the U.S. Department of Justice, ordering the state to provide data about the racial background of students enrolling in the voucher program.

The order “rejects the state’s bid to resist providing even the most basic information about how Louisiana’s voucher program will affect school desegregation efforts,” U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican who has criticized Mr. Obama and Mr. Holder over the administration’s efforts in the case, claimed his own victory, noting that Judge Lemelle had not given the Justice Department the length of time it had sought to review data before the state could award vouchers. He said the order does not give the federal government “veto power” over individual scholarship awards, an issue the Justice Department gave in on several months ago.

In his order, Judge Lemelle said that for each round of voucher applications, the state must provide the federal government data on voucher recipients, their race, the public school they attended or would attend, and other information. The data are to be provided 10 days before families are notified of the award, not the 45 days the Justice Department sought.

The judge sided with the federal government in a dispute over racial classifications. The state had sought to exclude data on students who marked “black” as one of several racial or ethnic categories they identify with. The order makes clear that the federal government “may use the above information produced by the state in federal school desegregation cases,” which potentially could lead to the challenge of specific voucher awards in cases that upset the racial balance in public schools under desegregation plans. –Mark Walsh

| NEWS | K-12 Parents and the Public

Ed. Dept. Model Aims to Encourage Family, Community Engagement

The U.S. Department of Education has created a family- and community-engagement model that it hopes school districts and schools will use to establish and strengthen family-school partnerships to increase student achievement.

The model encourages schools to link student learning to family engagement—a critical point that parent-involvement advocates have been touting. Most believe that many so-called “drive-by” school-community events lack meaningful purpose because they are not tied directly to the school’s curriculum or student achievement efforts.

The department released the framework last week during the National Family Engagement Conference in Cincinnati.

–Karla Scoon Reid

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2014 edition of Education Week as Blogs


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