Current Events: In Brief

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A Ticket To Ride On 'Information Superhighway'

In a move that could dramatically change the way schools use technology, two leading telecommunications companies in January announced a partnership to link a quarter of the nation's schools to the sophisticated electronic networks they are building. If completed, the proposed plan will provide millions of students and teachers with free access to the much-publicized "information superhighway.''

The Bell Atlantic Corp., one of the seven regional telephone companies, and Tele-Communications Inc., the nation's largest cable-television concern, made the announcement at a joint press conference in Los Angeles. The companies plan to offer the service, dubbed the "Basic Education Connection,'' to all 26,000 public schools in their markets nationwide within five to eight years. Bell Atlantic's market encompasses six Middle Atlantic states, while TCI's franchises in 49 states include such urban centers as Chicago, Dallas, and Denver.

The companies propose to hook up schools as they retrofit their existing networks with billions of dollars worth of fiber-optic cables. These "electronic gateways'' will provide students and teachers access to such free services as cabletelevision programs, data networks, and the Internet, the vast global computer network. "This commitment to education means that students and teachers will have at their fingertips...a world of electronically stored data,'' said Raymond Smith, Bell Atlantic's chairman and chief executive officer.

Telephone companies and the cable-television industry have in recent years offered advanced services to schools in pilot programs, partly as tokens of good will in regulatory battles over the telecommunications market. But according to observers, the new joint venture represents the most significant long-term pledge ever by the industry to serve K-12 education. "You're listening to very large corporations make very large commitments,'' said James Mecklenburger, a consultant on educational technologies. Mecklenburger and others agreed that the move by the companies could well spark competitors to follow them into the school market, thereby dramatically changing the way schools use technology.

Still, many details about how the service will be deployed and used by educators remain to be worked out. "The reason that we're making the announcement is to hear from educators and regulators as to what [services] would benefit the schools the most,'' said Melissa Andrews, a Bell Atlantic spokeswoman. Andrews noted that the companies may sponsor a series of forums to solicit advice from educators on how best to serve the market.

Although response to the announcement was generally enthusiastic, some observers pointed out that the initiative raises important questions about such issues as the adequacy of teacher training in the use of technology and the equity of access to the machines needed to take advantage of the service.

High School Reform Efforts Are Spotty

One of the most comprehensive examinations of the progress of education reform in public and private high schools has concluded that while some innovations are taking root, much of the change is occurring slowly and haphazardly.

The new study, based on a survey of 3,380 high school principals, was conducted by Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Alliance for Curriculum Reform, for the Educational Research Service, an organization that serves as a research arm for seven national education groups. Cawelti found that hundreds of schools are using cooperative-learning techniques, incorporating new national standards for teaching mathematics, and giving more decisionmaking authority to teachers and parents. But those efforts are spotty, and few schools are attempting systemic reform by taking on several of the changes at once.

Timothy Dyer, president of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, a study sponsor, said the findings are important because they point to a lack of consensus about how to restructure high schools. "There is a lot of activity,'' he said, "but there is not a clear vision as to what is necessary to restructure the schools. One can argue that this indicates we're not making much progress at the high school level.''

As part of the study, Cawelti selected 36 indicators of change in five broad areas: curriculum and teaching, school organization, community outreach, technology, and monetary incentives for improving performance. He then asked principals to indicate whether those reforms were "in general use,'' "partially implemented,'' "planned for next year,'' or "not planned for next year'' in their own schools.

Some of the most popular reforms, he discovered, were aimed at improving what is taught. Almost half of the principals, for example, said new standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics were in general use in their schools. And more than half the schools had set or were moving to set standards or outcomes that students would be expected to meet to graduate. Only a third of the schools, however, planned comprehensive professional-development programs to help teachers put those kinds of curricular changes into practice.

The survey also found that onefifth of the schools were using portfolios and other alternatives to traditional pencil-and-paper tests; nearly one-quarter were collaborating with local community colleges and businesses to provide "school to work'' programs for non-college-bound students; and one-fifth were using interdisciplinary teaching. One out of nine schools allowed students to spend 60 minutes or more at a time in a class, and one-quarter either had partially implemented this kind of "block'' scheduling or planned to.

Some technological innovations were widespread in high schools, Cawelti said, but even technology as basic as instructional videos or word processing was not in universal use; only 64 percent of the schools surveyed regularly used video instructional materials, while 60 percent routinely offered their students opportunities to practice word-processing skills on computers. More sophisticated technological innovations--such as using modems to obtain information from outside data banks and networks--were much rarer.

To see if schools were undertaking changes in a systematic way, Cawelti looked more closely at seven innovations: interdisciplinary teaching, standards- and outcome-based education, sitebased management, block scheduling, alliances with local businesses, and computer modems. Only seven of the 3,380 schools said all seven of the reforms were in general use. When the reforms dealing with business alliances and computers were removed from the list, the number of schools grew to only 18.

"It may be that not all of those seven elements are important to every high school,'' Cawelti said. "The larger reason may be that it's difficult to sustain all of that change at one time.'' The report contends, however, that "a focus on systemic reform is essential if high schools are to become more significant institutions in the lives of students.''

President Clinton To Students: Be Responsible

Reiterating a key theme of his State of the Union Address, President Clinton in early February exhorted students at a Washington, D.C., junior high school to take responsibility for themselves. "No matter what I do, I can't live your life for you,'' President Clinton said. "You've got to decide what happens to you.''

The nation can set a goal of making its schools safe and drugfree, the president said, but students will play a large role in determining whether it is attained. Likewise, Clinton asserted, children can help the nation's efforts to fight crime by simply deciding not to join street gangs and, instead, by investing their energy in "positive gangs,'' such as sports teams.

Asked by one girl what children can do to help restore the family, the president urged her to "make up your mind that you are not going to have a baby until you are old enough to take care of it, and you are married.'' Boys, he said, should talk about the responsibilities of fatherhood.

Clinton was speaking to students at Washington's Kramer Junior High School. The branch of the Secret Service that guards the president "adopted'' Kramer as their Christmas present to him. It plans to establish a mentoring program there.

During his visit, the president boasted that he has spent more time in schools "than any person ever elected president.''

Experts on the presidency say Woodrow Wilson, a college professor and president for much of his working life, almost certainly spent the most time in classrooms. But if one rules out higher education and counts the schools he visited as governor of Arkansas, Clinton might be right.

Gift Gives NASDC New Lease On Life

After a period of faltering fund raising and turnover in leadership, things are looking up for the New American Schools Development Corp.

The announcement in December that philanthropist Walter Annenberg would be giving $50million to the private, businessbacked organization dedicated to innovative schooling has resurrected NASDC, which only last year was declared "dead'' by a newsletter on corporate philanthropy. In January, Mary Goodell, managing editor of Corporate Philanthropy Report, offered a new assessment of NASDC: "The Annenberg gift has clearly breathed new life into it, and we're watching it closely.''

The gift, together with a show of support from President Clinton, has also brought new hope to the nine NASDC-funded design teams that are struggling to implement "break the mold'' schools.

NASDC was launched in 1991 by business leaders responding to President Bush's call for innovative schools. Early on, NASDC leaders talked of raising $200 million to underwrite 20 to 30 proposals, but they fell short of those goals. Before the recent Annenberg grant, NASDC had only raised $53 million, and it picked just 11 design teams for the initial planning phase. Two of those teams did not receive funding for the second, two-year phase of testing and implementation.

With the departure of President Bush from the White House, some thought NASDC's demise was imminent in light of its close ties to his administration. Foundation officers began to receive inquiries from design-team members who were concerned that the anticipated NASDC support might not materialize. Meanwhile, NASDC was experiencing changes in leadership. Its first president and chief executive officer, Frank Blount, held the position for only a year, while its second, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Ann McLaughlin, resigned only seven months after taking the post. The corporation was then temporarily led by a fourperson executive management council headed by David Kearns, then vice chairman. In June, Kearns agreed to become the organization's chairman and chief executive officer.

But it was in May, when Clinton endorsed NASDC, that the corporation's future began to look a bit brighter. Kearns acknowledges the significance of the president's endorsement, calling it "a very important plank for us to get in place.''

"After we got the endorsement last spring, we kind of got restarted up again,'' he says. The new funds, he adds, will "allow us to concentrate on scale-up and on funding for phase three.'' In that phase of NASDC's plan, successful ideas from the design teams will be disseminated to schools across the nation.

Although Annenberg did not require that the corporation raise matching funds, NASDC officials say they plan to raise an additional $50 million, in keeping with the spirit of the philanthropist's gift. "We consider it to be a moral responsibility,'' says Michael Sandler, who oversees fund raising for NASDC. With $103million raised to date, NASDC is already two-thirds of the way toward meeting its new $150 million target, Sandler adds.

The chief impact of the Annenberg grant for NASDC, according to Robert Schwartz, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts' education program, will be to enable the nine design teams to concentrate on their reform work. "If you were working in one of those design teams over the last year,'' he says, "it would have been hard to fully concentrate your attention on the work without wondering if there was going to be a next installment.''

Philadelphia Gets Tough On Truants

Students who are thinking about skipping school in Philadelphia these days would be wise to consider skipping town, as well.

Under a new get-tough-ontruancy policy, city and transit police in the city have been told to pick up suspected truants on the streets and at other popular hangouts, handcuff them, and take them to one of four new "truancy centers.'' On any given school day, about 27,000 of the district's 191,000 students are absent, according to a study released in December by Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a childadvocacy group. And, on average, high school students miss 41 days of school a year.

While the primary purpose of the initiative is to cut down on the number of unexcused absences from school, district officials say they hope it will also help reduce youth-related street crimes. Last year, during a sixmonth period when a similar program was in operation, incidents of robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and theft dropped by more than 20 percent.

Under the new program, truancy-center personnel will determine which school a student should have been attending, call the school and the student's parents, provide the student with counseling and some academic work, and monitor the student's attendance. Truants who are taken to the centers early enough in the day might be sent back to their schools, says James Lytle, a district assistant superintend- ent. "We are not pretending that this is a high-quality instructional program,'' Lytle says. "This is strictly meant to discourage kids from not being in school and from hanging out all over town.''

The centers will be staffed by retired counselors, long-term substitute teachers, reassigned security officers, and some school staff members. They'll be open from 10 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. on weekdays. Operating the four centers until the end of the school year is expected to cost about $150,000. The cost would increase if more centers are opened, as some members of the school board have requested.

The program is attractive to the police, Lytle says, because they will not have to do extensive paperwork on the truant students. They will check students for criminal records, but the bulk of the paperwork will be done by school personnel. "Having a truancy program in place gives the police department leverage in terms of picking up kids'' from popular gathering places, Lytle says. "Otherwise, there isn't much they can do.''

The plan to handcuff students, a standard police procedure when transporting people taken into custody, has its critics. Shelly Yanoff, executive director of the Philadelphia child-advocacy group, has serious concerns about "criminalizing'' truancy. "A school district that doesn't have enough funds, allegedly, to provide kindergarten,'' she says, "now is going to set up detention centers. It seems like that's not an appropriate use of resources.''

Vol. 05, Issue 06, Page 1-24

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