Articles from March, 2008

Suggested Course Reading: The Bible?

Literary characters familiar to high school students—like Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield, and Anna Karenina—may have to make room for Cain and Abel.

Next year, some public school students in Texas will learn about the Bible and its history through a new statewide elective course.

The course itself, already a reality in dozens of Texas schools, is not a point of contention for concerned parents and education officials. Instead, they argue that the class’s curriculum could be too broad.

Although the bill that allowed for the elective course also called for a specific curriculum, the State Board of Education voted on Friday to apply standard English and social studies guidelines, says the Houston Chronicle.

This lack of regulation drew skepticism from those who feel Texas may be blurring the line between church and state.

The Houston Chronicle story on the subject has generated 125 comments since Friday, some of which advocate for an objective course that encompasses education about many different religions.

When it comes to the Bible, there’s a thin line between studying a text and endorsing a religion. And not crossing that line requires intense oversight.

Stacey Hollenbeck, spring intern

Naomi Dillon|March 31st, 2008|Categories: Governance, Curriculum, American School Board Journal|

Legos, Not Just for Play Time

The building blocks of social interaction apparently are … building blocks. Lego’s to be precise. Besides providing hours of entertainment and diversion for children, this old school toy, consisting of multi-colored plastic pieces, has also been effective at cultivating the social skills of autistic children and diminishing the phobias of young kids. It also cooks, cleans, and pays the bills. Just kidding.

But seriously, the humble Lego has gained some popularity among those who work with autistic children. At the Center for Neurological and Neurodevelopmental Health, on the outskirts of Philadelphia, for instance, Dr. Dan Legoff (pure coincidence) groups autistic children together as part of his “Lego-based Social Development Therapy.” Each child in the group is given a role and a task that depends upon the approval and collaboration of other group members. The job of builder, supplier, or engineer, for example, not only draws from typically autistic preoccupations with mechanical systems, hierarchies, and taxonomy, but forces them to talk and work with one another. Check out the March cover story in ASBJ for more about the bewildering and growing diagnosis of autism.

And finally, the Denmark-manufactured toy gained top honors as a robot that aims to help kids overcome their fears. At a robotics competition in Amsterdam this month, students from the University of Amsterdam nabbed first place with their “Phobot.” Built entirely of Legos and electronic software, the machine expresses fear (at the competition it was of a larger robot) and then attempts to conquer its fear by befriending smaller robots, before moving on to larger and larger robots— which in psychological terms, is referred to as “graded exposure.”

Lest you think, Legos are only for kids, the toy has also been employed by consulting businesses and management groups, where they, for instance, “build metaphors of their organizational identities and experiences.” Yeah, I think I’ll leave the Lego blocks for the kids.

Naomi Dillon, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|March 28th, 2008|Categories: Governance, American School Board Journal|

Orlando here we come!

BoardBuzz is hitting the road starting tomorrow (Friday). We’ll be at NSBA’s Annual Conference (we may have mentioned it once or twice) in Orlando, so we’ll be off for a while. But never fear — the Annual Conference Blog will scratch your blogging itch. We’ve got guest bloggers, including school board members from all over the country, contributing, so be sure and mosey on over there and see what’s going on. And be sure to leave your comments . . .

And we’ll be back here on April 7.

Erin Walsh|March 27th, 2008|Categories: Conferences and Events, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

Blog all about it

BoardBuzz loves our blogging school board member friends. And as we prepare to head off to NSBA’s Annual Conference in Orlando, there are a few of them that are taking their shows on the road.

Our old friend Andrew Mizsak, from Ohio, who blogged his way through the FRN Conference in February, is back and blogging the NSBA Conference start to finish. He’ll also appear as a guest blogger on our Annual Conference Blog.

This post is all about blogging school board members, and promises some attention at the conference as well. And this school board member from Oregon pledges to “make sure the information comes back to the district.”

In the past we’ve offered tips for sharing your Conference experience once you get back to your school district (and be sure to LISTEN to a message from Anne Bryant, NSBA’s executive director with more on the subject), and it seems that now it’s time to add blogging to the list. What better way to share what’s happening as it happens than through the magic of the Internet?

And for more blogging school board members and all the conference happenings, do check out the Annual Conference Blog, because after today, that’s where we’ll be.

Erin Walsh|March 27th, 2008|Categories: School Boards, Conferences and Events, Educational Technology, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

Lessons from a Mouse?

“Hey kid! Quit-ya whinin’!”

Maybe that’s not right. Maybe he said: “What’s wit da whinin’, kid?” But you get the point.

The fact is, the admonition from the funny, big-bellied, Brooklyn-born conductor on the Wildlife Express Train at Disney’s Animal Kingdom made a distinct impression on me (and, I’m sure, my 3-year-old — the whiner in question) for two reasons.

One: It worked.

Two: It was decidedly non-Disney.

This week, many of you will be flying to Orlando to attend NSBA’s 68th Annual Conference, and doubtless many of you — especially those with children — will be visiting one of Disney’s humongous theme parks. We did: My family just returned from Orlando. Now, I’m going right back. (I know; it doesn’t make much sense.)

But I must tell you, what you may have heard about Disney’s vaunted customer service is true. And it made me think about how this concept might be applied to schools, in their dealings with the public, to be sure, but also in their treatment of students. Someone at Disney — more likely, many people — has apparently looked repeatedly at how its theme parks are experienced from the ground up. (Literally so, when you think of the sizes of some of its customers.) What if another big bureaucracy — — educational this time, not corporate — did the same thing?

Our conductor notwithstanding, the Disney employees are friendly, polite, and helpful, but not artificially so. There is an incredible attention to detail. For example, at the Animal Kingdom, the walls of the Asian jungle trail have been made to look like ruins, their beautiful pastel tiles seemingly crumbling into various states of disrepair. Disney could have just shown me the Komodo Dragon and hanging Malayan Flying Fox bats, and I would have gone away happy; but it took the experience a step further.

Education is not entertainment, of course. But in this age of standardized testing — and more and more time spent preparing for those standardized tests — schools might learn a little from Disney about how to generate excitement, especially for the younger kids. I’m not talking about turning your elementary classrooms into Disney rides (there are also more interactive exhibits), but it doesn’t have to be all drudgery, either.

And what to make of our conductor? After reprimanding our daughter, he proceeded to rag on an elderly couple from New Jersey — “the wannabe New Yawk” — and told us that if we thought the park was crowded, we should come on days when it’s packed so full “you can’t hardly wauk!”

We all left the train smiling. My younger daughter was an (almost) angel the rest of the day. Maybe, in his own way, our conductor was doing the Disney thing.

Customer service, indeed!

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Naomi Dillon|March 27th, 2008|Categories: Governance, American School Board Journal|

New London disaster shows errors can be costly

Careless errors can be costly ones.

“Ho-hum,” you might be saying. “Why is he stating the obvious?”

Unfortunately, because it’s true. And it’s a lesson I learned again recently after writing my April feature, “Time to Heal,” which tells the tragic story of the London School explosion that killed more than 300 children.

The explosion should not have happened, but it did largely because school officials carelessly decided to cut corners. They saved a few pennies at a huge cost of life.

Growing up in Texas, I was vaguely aware of the 1937 explosion. What I didn’t realize until after the story was written was that my grandfather was one of the rescue workers at the scene. A.T. Vestal was working for the Premier Oil Company in Longview, which is about 25 miles northeast of New London. Like others, he drove to the school as soon as he heard about the blast and spent hours trying to pull children from the rubble

My grandfather, who was a Navy Seabee during World War II, was not the talkative type. But my mom said he would occasionally reference the disaster at New London.

“He said it was worse than being in Okinawa,” my mom told me.

Careless error #1: This was a detail I should have known, except that I was so busy writing and editing that I didn’t call my mom for a week.

Careless error #2: I’m proud of my accuracy. I double check quotes. I look and look again at statistics and numbers and names. This time, unfortunately, I didn’t check closely enough.

Ellie Goldberg, who wants the New London disaster to be designated as a national day to raise awareness about chemical hazards in schools, runs a great program called “Healthy Kids: The Key to Basics.” Her website is

I talked to Ellie early in the story, and she provided some great tips and contacts in New London. Unfortunately, I incorrectly wrote down her organization’s name and forgot to insert the hyphen between “healthy” and “kids” on her website address. It was, quite simply, a mistake that I failed to check.

We have corrected the error online, and we’ll tell our print readers about it in the June edition. But I hope it does not detract from Ellie’s cause, because this careless error does not need to be a costly one.

Glenn Cook, Editor-in-Chief

Kathleen Vail|March 26th, 2008|Categories: Governance, Wellness, Educational Research, American School Board Journal|

Can there be a cure for autism?

You’ve probably seen the autism awareness logo, the ribbon with multicolored puzzle pieces that’s popping up on car bumpers, T-shirts, and all sorts of items. It’s all part of a well-financed and coordinated campaign to not only boost awareness but also find a cure.

It seems like autism came out of the blue a few years ago—in fact, the rate of the disability has increased some 900 percent in the last decade. It’s now estimated to affect about one in 150 students, mainly boys, as I explained in our recent story, “The Cost of Autism.”

But every report seems to unleash more frantic questions than answers: Why the sudden increase? Have there always been children and adults with autism who were just thought to be a little “off”? What causes autism? What can be done to treat it? What is the cure?

Unfortunately, right now researchers are still struggling with the first question, trying to figure out just how many children have autism, whether some regions of the country actually have higher incidences or are just more apt to make a diagnosis, and whether there’s been a sudden increase or just acknowledgement of the disorder, which varies widely from highly intelligent children whose social abilities are somewhat idiosyncratic to very low-functioning children with multiple disabilities.

But some researchers worry that the quest for a cure is overshadowing the fact that children with autism can greatly benefit from readily available treatments and interventions.

“There are no definitive answers to anything—but we haven’t met anybody with autism who can’t improve and improve significantly” with the right interventions, said Lee Grossman, the executive director of the Autism Society of America.

Edward Carr, a psychology professor and researcher at the State University of New York-Stony Brook, notes that some 90 to 100 genes, plus potentially thousands of environmental triggers, may be involved with autism, making even the possibility of a cure elusive.

“It’s very important to explore what the causes are, but people have to be realistic and understand that autism is at least as complicated as cancer,” he said. “The real issue is living with autism.”

There are many people who are currently living with diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, he added. “None of these are curable but that doesn’t mean their life is ruined — that is the hopeful message that isn’t getting across in autism.”

Joetta Sack-Min, Associate Editor

Kathleen Vail|March 26th, 2008|Categories: Governance, Wellness, Student Achievement, Budgeting, American School Board Journal|

Stop the bullying now

I just finished reading Jodi Picoult’s book, Nineteen Minutes. If you have anything to do with education, or if you’re a parent, you need to read this book — now.

Picoult’s 2007 bestseller chronicles a horrific school shooting incident and its aftermath. A meticulous researcher, Picoult imbues the shooter, a brutally bullied boy named Peter, with a sense of humanity that seems almost impossible, especially considering that he goes to school one day and guns down 10 classmates.

The hardest parts of the book to read were the passages about Peter’s relentless torment at the hands of his fellow classmates, starting in the first day of kindergarten when one of them throws his Superman lunchbox out of the school bus window. In fact, I wanted to skip those passages entirely.

In this impulse, I’m like most adults, probably. We don’t want to believe our children are capable of this cruelty, so we look away.

Of course, it is happening. Read the recent New York Times article, “A Boy the Bullies Love to Beat Up, Repeatedly,” about a young man in Fayetteville, Ark. Elements of his daily torture were sickeningly similar to the fictional Peter’s abuse.

In an interview with ASBJ in January, Picoult said: “As a mom, I saw all three of my kids face bullying—and it begged the question: In a post-Columbine world, why haven’t we figured this out yet?

School officials will point to their bullying policies, of course, and every district should have them. But these policies are a starting point, not the end. During the shooter’s trial at the end of Nineteen Minutes, the defense lawyer memorably demonstrates why. No matter how air-tight your policy is, it’s utterly meaningless when adults — whether they secretly identify with the bullies, they not-so-secretly don’t like the bullied child, or because it reminds them too much of their own childhood torment — turn the other way when a child desperately needs help.

Is bullying occurring in your schools? Are you willing to take a hard look – and not turn away if you see something that makes you uncomfortable, if you see something you know is wrong?

The bullied kids can’t look away. They live with this every day. If you don’t protect them, no one will.

Why haven’t we figured this out yet?

Kathleen Vail, Managing Editor

Kathleen Vail|March 25th, 2008|Categories: Governance, School Law, Wellness, School Security, American School Board Journal|

White spaces: Google’s master plan

Back in December, Google joined a coalition of technology companies, public interest and consumer groups, civil rights organizations, think tanks, and higher education groups to launch the Wireless Innovation Alliance to promote the benefits that “white spaces” can bring to consumers. Other members of the Alliance include Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft. Today their vision takes another step closer to becoming reality.

What are white spaces, you ask? Google’s Public Policy blog describes it nicely:

Remember how, before cable and satellite TV became ubiquitous in our homes, we would have to turn the VHF dial on our old televisions to watch local channels? NBC might have been on channel 3, CBS on 10, and ABC on 17. And between those channels…was static.

Those spaces still remain largely unused. However, an idea was raised to take portions of that TV spectrum–the “white spaces”–and use them to expand internet access. Think WiFi 2.0 or WiFi on steroids as Google has begun to call it. Google submitted a proposal to the FCC on Friday, saying that by freeing the white spaces spectrum, “consumers will be able to enjoy robust access to the Internet, including the ability to download and utilize any lawful applications or content that is desired.” Google claims to have a plan–one that will result in Americans across the country surfing the web on handheld gadgets at gigabits-per-second speeds by the 2009 holiday season.

Broadcasters strongly oppose this move with claims that operating mobile devices in the TV spectrum is bound to cause interference. Google counters these claims and even offered up working prototype devices for the FCC to test.

Ars Technica has this to say on the issue:

Since its inception last year, the white spaces project has seen its fair share of controversy. Prototype devices submitted to the FCC have not performed as hoped, with some of the blame due to broken hardware. The FCC is currently testing prototype devices capable of sensing the presence of digital TV and other transmissions, including those of wireless microphones. Testing is scheduled to continue throughout this week.

This is what will happen to your digital TV picture if white space broadband becomes a reality, according to the NAB Broadcasters have seized upon every testing hiccup to argue that the white spaces should be left alone. The National Association of Broadcasters, in particular, is bitterly opposed to allowing unlicensed broadband service in the white spaces. Last month, the group said that the hardware problems experienced by the White Space Coalition’s devices “vindicates beyond doubt the interference concerns expressed by broadcasters, sports leagues, wireless microphone companies, and theater operators.”

Nevertheless, Google and the Alliance are moving forward with their plans. “The future is now,” Google concludes. “The value of the TV white space to all Americans simply is too great to allow this unique opportunity to be blocked by unfounded fear, uncertainty, and doubt.”

BoardBuzz looks forward to a more open wireless world where wireless access is not limited to hotspots, cell networks, and expensive contracts (can you say iPhone?). However, we can only imagine the impact this will have on schools–both positive and negative. What do you think? Will this be the birth of high-bandwidth, affordable, ubiquitous wireless internet services? It could be welcoming news in the face of the waning hopes for wireless cities as the New York Times reports.

Erin Walsh|March 25th, 2008|Categories: Educational Technology, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|

Online learning

BoardBuzz wants to remind you to log in to the two online discussions that we’ll be hosting from NSBA’s Annual Conference in Orlando.

The Tipping Point on School Vouchers: Has Time Run Out for the Privatization Movement?
Join NSBA Director of Federal Affairs Marcus Egan for an online discussion Sunday, March 30 at 1 p.m. ET to get the latest information on research, legislation and the political landscape impacting vouchers. You can submit a question in advance or log in to the discussion as it happens.

Straight Talk on Tobacco Join NSBA school health experts, Karen Lewis and Brenda Greene for an online discussion Monday, March 31, at 12:45 ET, to get the full scoop on tobacco free schools and to learn more about what school districts can do to make campuses tobacco free.You can submit a question in advance or log in and watch as the discussion unfolds.

Erin Walsh|March 25th, 2008|Categories: Educational Legislation, Wellness, Privatization, NSBA Opinions and Analysis|
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