Monday, May 5, 2008

Education conference sheds light on important school needs

The following piece appeared in the Nashua Telegraph.

Education conference sheds light on important school needs
Covering education in New Hampshire, you sometime lose sight of the fact that many of the issues being dealt with in the Granite State are nationwide issues as well.

Merit pay for teachers, the growing Hispanic student population and the trend toward alternative schools – all issues relevant to Nashua schools – were just some of the topics covered at the Education Writers Association's 61st annual conference in Chicago.

I was one of 200 education writers to attend the conference, held from April 24-26, and it was by far the best professional development opportunity I've ever had. I'm hopeful that much of what I learned can be applied to our local education coverage.

Here were some of the highlights:

• At the Friday afternoon luncheon, Michelle Rhee, the new chancellor of the Washington, D.C., school district, talked about the drastic changes she has implemented to turn the troubled school system around.

Since taking the position in June, Rhee has finalized the closure of 23 of the city's 144 schools and has fired 100 central office employees, bringing the total number of employees down from 700 to 600.

Closing the schools has not been easy, and there has been a significant amount of criticism from parents, she said.

Rhee said she has tried to make data-driven decisions. With 50,000 students, the city should really only have about 70 schools, she said. Rhee's math works to about the same as what Nashua is running, with 18 schools for 12,500 students.

Using the money saved from the school closures and reduction in staff, Rhee said she has been able to ensure that each school will have an art teacher, a music teacher and a physical education teacher at the start of next year.

"In the District of Columbia, that's almost unheard of," she said.

• A Saturday session focused on the growing Hispanic student population in the country. Richard Fry, senior scholar at the Pew Hispanic Center, went over census data that he believed debunked some myths about Hispanic students.

For example, there are 8.9 million Hispanic students in the country, and 3.8 million English Language Learners, so most Hispanic students are not in an ELL program, he said.

Also, only 16 percent of Hispanic students are foreign born, he said.

Jose Martinez, associate superintendent of the Racine Unified School District, talked about his personal experience going to school in New York City. One of the problems, he said, is ensuring that school districts challenge Hispanic students.

Hispanic students make up 13.2 percent of the enrollment in Nashua, the highest proportion in the state.

In Nashua, data has shown that Hispanic students are underrepresented in the district's gifted and talented program, and that there are an inordinate number of them in the low-level classes in the middle schools and high schools.

Martinez said this happens in districts across the country.

"If you have low expectations, you're not going to get much," he said.

• One of the more entertaining seminars was Friday morning, when two vastly differing opinions were presented on the issue of single-sex education and whether it is truly effective.

Leonard Sax, president and founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, believes that there are innate learning differences in boys and girls, and that there are some students who can benefit greatly from single-sex classrooms with different learning environments.

The difference can be as subtle as changing the room temperature, he said. But it's not enough to simply separate boys from girls, he said.

"Single sex education will be of no value if teachers have no knowledge or background in the subject," he said.

Lise Eliot, an author and a neuroscientist, argued that the differences between boys and girls are not substantial enough to warrant segregating the two groups. She said that single-sex education is more of a response to the systemic problems in public education.

"I really believe that the genders have a lot to learn from each other," she said.

At first, it seemed having two such differing opinions represented was beneficial, but the seminar quickly degenerated into a back-and-forth argument between the two, and the issue at hand was lost.

• At a series of seminars at the offices of the Chicago Tribune, the focus was on multimedia and adapting to the convergence of newspapers with the Internet. Reporters talked about education blogs they had created and projects they had done that utilized audio and video.

Kent Fischer, reporter for the Dallas Morning News, said he uses his blog as a way to get out to the readers all of the little tid-bits and nuggets of information that don't make it into the stories published in the paper.Fischer, who used to write for the Concord Monitor, now covers the Dallas Independent School District.

He gave some examples of how he uses his blog – one entry focused solely on the fact that there are 60 different languages spoken in the district. There is also an entry every morning called "Daily Dish," which includes all news about the district in the past 24 hours.

Fischer said he uses his blog "to give analysis to things that are happening in the district that you can't write in a story."

• Dion Haynes of the Washington Post and Emily Hagedorn of the Bakersfield Californian both went over projects they worked on using multimedia.

Haynes wrote a series of stories focusing on what it would take to fix the Washington, D.C., school system. One of those stories tracked 140 students who did not graduate and look at what they did after high school.

On the paper's Web site, readers could hear from the students themselves in videotaped vignettes.

Hagedorn was on a team at her paper that tackled childhood obesity. The stories tracked a group of teenagers who were trying to lose weight. Reporters gave the teens their own voice recorders to create a diary to chronicle the daily struggles of weight loss.

Those clips were then loaded onto the Web site to go with the story.

• Fischer gave another seminar later in the conference on how to analyze school district spending. He makes regular requests for the check logs, credit card statements, payroll database and purchase orders.

He uses the information to create a database tracking how the money leaves the district. Through credit card statements, Fischer was able to find that $800,000 was spent on retail gift cards, among other things.
The Learning Curve appears Thursdays in The Telegraph. Michael Brindley can be reached at 594-6426 or

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