EPA's tests of air outside schools find problems
The federal government's first attempt to assess the dangers from air pollution around schools is nearing completion, and the findings underscore the need for more extensive air monitoring, especially in pollution hot spots, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency says.
"There is work to be done still on air quality," EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson says. "The best result would be to find that all of our concerns were overblown, but we're not finding this in every case."
Most of the air monitoring completed so far has not found dangerous levels of pollution, the EPA says, but outside a handful of schools, the tests showed concentrations of toxic chemicals higher than what the government typically considers to be safe for long-term exposure. The EPA's study came in response to a 2008 USA TODAY investigation that identified hundreds of schools where the air appeared to be rife with industrial pollution. In the past three years, the EPA has gathered air samples outside 63 schools in 22 states.
Among the most troubling results:
- Samples taken outside three schools in Ohio and West Virginia showed elevated levels of manganese, a neurotoxin that can cause mental and emotional problems. At East Elementary School in East Liverpool, Ohio, samples collected in 2009 showed average levels well above what the EPA considers safe for long-term exposure.
- Tests outside at least 15 schools detected high levels of acrolein, a chemical that can irritate the eyes and throat, and that — in a far more potent form — had been used as a chemical weapon during World War I. The EPA suspects those readings were caused by problems with the tests but the agency is taking more samples to be sure.
- Samples near a Portland, Ore., school found "slightly elevated" levels of cadmium, a carcinogen. The state Department of Environmental Quality has detected cadmium levels nearby before but has said it cannot identify the source.
The EPA plans to award $2.5 million in grants later this year for additional air monitoring in communities. The agency set up the program as a follow-up to its school study.
The lack of monitoring has left a blind spot for the nation's environmental regulators, says John Walke, clean air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It's a longstanding dirty little secret of the Clean Air Act that neither regulators nor the public knows what hazardous air pollutants and how much are coming from smokestacks in our communities because the monitoring is abysmal," he says.
Children are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals, and new research suggests that the impact of pollution around schools can also threaten the quality of their education.
A study published in May in the journal Health Affairs found that children were more likely to be absent and less likely to meet minimum standards in English and math if they attended schools in areas with high levels of air pollution.
"These patterns appear strong enough that they need to be taken seriously," says University of Michigan professor Paul Mohai, a study author.
The EPA expects to complete its air monitoring efforts this summer.
EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan says the agency plans follow-up tests at about a third of the schools it monitored. Those new tests are needed because the initial tests showed higher levels of pollution than the EPA considered acceptable, or because the factories that regulators suspect are the principal sources of pollution were not operating at their normal capacity during the initial tests, Gilfillan says.
As those tests continue, regulators and activists are taking action near other schools that were not part of the EPA's assessment:
- In Mecca, Calif.,regulators halted shipments to a waste treatment plant last month because of odors so powerful that paramedics were summoned to Saul Martinez Elementary School several times to treat students and teachers who became sick from the fumes. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., asked the EPA to take immediate action.
- In Natrona Heights, Pa.,county health officials said levels of lead in the air outside the local high school dropped after a nearby steel mill moved some of its operations to another facility. The Allegheny County Health Department's tests — which came in response to USA TODAY's investigation — showed elevated levels of lead and manganese outside the school in 2009. Officials concluded the metals were coming from a melt shop at an Allegheny Ludlum Corp. steel mill less than a mile away.
In a settlement last year with the county and the EPA, Allegheny Ludlum agreed to move its melting operation to a nearby plant that had been outfitted with more advanced pollution controls. The move had a "very dramatic" impact on lead levels outside the schools, says Darrell Stern, the head of the county health department's air quality unit.
- In Portland, Ore., a community group called Neighbors for Clean Air is negotiating an agreement that could require new pollution controls for a steel plant blocks away from Chapman Elementary School. Mary Peveto founded the group two years ago after seeing USA TODAY's investigation.
"If you're in a hot spot, it's up to you to muster an outcry and create solutions," she says.
The mill's operator, ESCO Corp., expects the agreement will include more than $2 million worth of new measures to reduce emissions from the plant, says Carter Webb, the company's environmental affairs manager.
Source: USA TODAY
Retailers see tablets hitting classrooms soon
For Wal-Mart CEO Mike Duke who grew up in rural Georgia, back-to-school season meant a new pair of jeans, and if he was lucky, a couple of shirts too.
"That was about it. That's what shopping was like for my family. That's what shopping was like for much of America in the 1960s," Duke said last week at the company's annual meeting.
Fast forward to 2011, and retailers are betting tech-savvy teens will urge their parents to splurge on tablet computers instead, in the second biggest selling season of the year.
"A dynamic taking place in the market is the increased use of technology by students in the classroom and the advent of a large expansion in the tablet arena," Ryan Vero, OfficeMax's chief merchandising officer, said.
Baylor School in Chattanooga, Tennessee has already told students they will have to buy or lease an iPad by next fall.
"The iPad is just one tool we will use to enhance the learning experience for our students, but we are convinced that it could potentially transform our classrooms," headmaster Scott Wilson said in an online post.
Last year this time, Apple's iPad -- the current version of which ranges from $499 to $829 -- was the only branded tablet in the market. After seeing the overwhelming reception the iPad got, a slew of manufacturers rushed to make something similar. While many tablets hit the market early this year, supply constraints and high prices have kept them away from classrooms.
That may change soon as retailers carry more tablets this back-to-school season.
"The year will be the first year where there is a broad set of competitive products out in the marketplace," Vero said. "Everybody is pretty bullish about the potential for that product."
The chief of Wal-Mart's U.S. entertainment division also recently said tablets were selling well and the world's largest retailer was keen to sell more.
OfficeMax customers can choose from a wide range of tablets, including those from Acer and Blackberry maker Research in Motion.
Larger rival Staples Inc, which carries tablets ranging from $300 Dell Streak 7 to $600 Motorola Xoom, promises to sell tablets from HP and Toshiba later this year.
Best Buy did not shed light on its new products for the critical season, but said it will stay competitive in all must-have categories including tablets.
And if budget-conscious Americans spend more on tablets, they may not splurge elsewhere, Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, warned.
"Dollars and share of wallet are rotating out of apparel ... into technology," he said.
U.S. shoppers set aside a budget of $225.47 on average for clothes in the 2010 back-to-school season versus $231.80 in 2007. Their budget for gadgets rose to $181.61 last year from the pre-recession level of $129.24, data from trade group National Retail Federation showed.
"For apparel players, they are hit coming and going, by a shrinking share of wallet ... at the same time as their costs are going up," Johnson said. "So this will be a very difficult back-to-school."
Source: Yahoo! News/Reuters
Industry puts heat on schools to teach skills employers need
Big U.S. employers, worried about replacing retiring baby boomers, are wading deeper into education and growing bolder about telling educators how to run their business.
Several initiatives have focused on manufacturing and engineering, fields where technical know-how and math and science skills are needed and where companies worry about recruiting new talent.
Their concerns are borne out by the math and science test scores of 15-year-old students in the U.S., which continue to lag behind China, Japan, South Korea and Germany, for example.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report in May that said higher education had failed to "tap the potential of digital technology" in ways that would "transform learning, dramatically lower costs or improve overall institutional productivity."
The Chamber report praised Internet educational institutions like Khan Academy, which built its reputation on YouTube.com math lessons.
The National Association of Manufacturers is leading a drive, partly funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to establish standardized curricula at community colleges across the U.S. with the goal of preparing students to qualify for certification in industrial skills ranging from welding to cutting metal and plastics.
The association isn't pushing for an end to liberal-arts education, but has said bright students should be encouraged to consider alternatives that lead directly to jobs.
"We need to move aggressively to competency-based education" based on mastery of skills at the student's own pace, rather than on an accumulation of credit hours, said Emily DeRocco, president of the Manufacturing Institute, a research arm of the group.
One such employer effort is the National Math and Science Initiative, launched in 2007. The program, with $163 million of funding commitments from companies including Exxon Mobil Corp. as well as foundations and the federal government, trains math and science teachers and gives more high school students a chance to enroll in college-level courses.
Other projects are smaller and more local. The James Dyson Foundation, funded by the founder of the Dyson vacuum-cleaner company, recently announced plans to sponsor after-school engineering clubs at 20 public middle schools in Chicago.
Among other things, students will take apart a Dyson vacuum cleaner and might turn it into some other contraption. "Learning from failure gives you a far deeper learning experience," Mr. Dyson said.
Employers have long scolded schools for their failings. But with the looming retirement of baby boomers, companies are about to lose a large number of experienced hands and, therefore, are growing attuned to education issues. An estimated 2.7 million U.S. manufacturing employees, for example, nearly a quarter of the total, are 55 or older.
The solutions are neither simple nor easy. Jack Jennings, chief executive officer of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington, D.C., research organization, said employers were right to be worried the U.S. was falling behind.
But, he noted, U.S. education policy is mostly decided locally, compared to countries that can impose national changes quickly. Employers, he said, needed to be patient with the political process. Nor does the problem lie entirely with educators, he said, arguing that students and their parents should take school more seriously.
"This is not a business where you can go out and tell everybody to sell widgets tomorrow," Mr. Jennings said.
Much of the emphasis is on community colleges and vocational schools because they are affordable and can quickly turn out job candidates. Employers increasingly are asking community colleges to create custom training programs for specific jobs. In Ohio, Lorain County Community College's Nord Advanced Technology Center has provided 41 courses tailored for individual employers in the latest school year, up from 32 a year earlier.
Even as employers clamor for more, states, the main supporters of community colleges, are setting limits. The proposed California budget for the fiscal year beginning in July calls for cutting community college funds by about 5%. The colleges may have to turn away about 140,000 students, said Dan Troy, a vice chancellor of the state's 112 community colleges. The system enrolls more than 2.7 million students.
Despite the budget squeezes, some states promote their willingness to train workers. Since the 1960s, South Carolina has offered customized training at its technical colleges for companies making large investments and creating jobs. That program figured in the decision by BMW AG to begin making cars in South Carolina in the 1990s and to expand production there in recent years, said Kenn Sparks, a spokesman for the German auto maker.
Businesses that get deeply involved in public education sometimes encounter frustrations. The Chicago Manufacturing Renaissance Council, composed of people from industry, unions and city government, four years ago set up a school called Austin Polytechnical Academy in a poor neighborhood on the city's West Side. One goal was to give high school students skills needed for metalworking and other manufacturing jobs. Dozens of companies have provided internships and money to help the school.
The sponsors have complained about low test scores and breakdowns in communication with Chicago Public Schools, which manages Austin Polytech. "We knew it was going to be tough," said Dan Swinney, chairman of the manufacturing council and a founder of the school.
But cooperation is improving, he said, and some of the students are enhancing their career prospects by earning credentials from the National Institute for Metalworking Skills.
Source: Wall Street Journal
Education Secretary may agree to waivers on ‘No Child’ law requirements
Unless Congress acts by this fall to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the main federal law on public education, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signaled that he would use his executive authority to free states from the law’s centerpiece requirement that all students be proficient in reading and math by 2014.
The Obama administration has been facing a mounting clamor from state school officials to waive substantial parts of the law, which President Bush signed in 2002, especially its requirement that states bring 100 percent of students to proficiency in reading and math by 2014 or else face sanctions. In March, Mr. Duncan predicted that the law would classify 80,000 of the nation’s 100,000 public schools as failing this fall unless it was amended.
But his efforts to address the problem have gained little traction on Capitol Hill, where several attempts since 2007 to rewrite the sprawling school accountability law have failed.
“We’re not going to sit here and do nothing,” Mr. Duncan told reporters on Friday in a conference call that was embargoed until midnight Saturday. “Our first priority is to have Congress rewrite the law. If that doesn’t get done, we have the obligation to provide relief in exchange for reform.”
While the secretary said it was premature to lay out specific plans for potential waivers, his aides said that the 100 percent proficiency standard would be the main target, and that restrictions on how federal money is spent could be relaxed. Mr. Duncan said in exchange for such flexibility, states would have to embrace President Obama’s education priorities, a formula the administration used last year in its signature education initiative, the Race to the Top grant competition, which awarded money to those that opened new space for charter schools, toughened teacher evaluation systems, and remade their worst-performing schools, among other things.
Congressional leaders reacted cautiously to Mr. Duncan’s salvo. Representative John Kline, the Minnesota Republican who is chairman of the House education committee, “remains concerned about any initiative that would allow the secretary to pick winners and losers in the nation’s education system,” said Jennifer Allen, a spokeswoman. Still, she said, Mr. Kline supports “providing states and school districts with enhanced flexibility, believing a more streamlined federal role in education combined with reduced regulatory burdens would encourage greater innovation and higher academic achievement.”
Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate education committee, called Mr. Duncan’s comments “premature.”
“The best way to fix the problems in existing law is to pass a better one,” he said in a statement. “We are making good progress towards introducing a bill that will advance that goal. Given the bipartisan commitment in Congress to fixing No Child Left Behind, it seems premature at this point to take steps outside the legislative process that would address N.C.L.B.’s problems in a temporary and piecemeal way.”
But since no draft legislation has been introduced in either chamber this year, experts are skeptical that Congress could send a rewrite of the law to Mr. Obama’s desk by the time school begins this fall, as he requested in a recent speech.
Mr. Duncan said the administration would immediately reach out to governors, state school commissioners and other leaders to begin negotiations over the potential waivers, asking which provisions of the law they consider the most serious obstacles and what kinds of school improvement policies they would be willing to undertake in exchange.
More than 40 states have agreed in recent months to adopt new common academic standards, and several of them have formally asked the Department of Education to exempt them from the law’s accountability system. They argue that it is unreasonable and unfair to hold them to testing targets outlined in the Bush-era law even as they are trying to raise the bar with the new standards, and new tests being written to align with them.
So far, Mr. Duncan has refused to grant such waiver requests, but his latest statement indicated that would change by fall if there is no action on the law.
Some state education chiefs lauded Mr. Duncan for promising to fix the law’s flaws after four years of Congressional paralysis.
“I’m pleased that there is an option for a Plan B,” said Diane DeBacker, the commissioner of education in Kansas, a state that in February requested — and was denied — a waiver to the 100 percent proficiency by 2014 rule. “This would work great for Kansas.”
Arkansas lodged a similar waiver request in March. In a meeting last month of that state’s Board of Education, Naccaman Williams, the chairman, reported that federal officials had denied the request but had told him they might reconsider it if Congress did not rewrite the law by the fall term.
“Basically I would sum it up as politics,” Mr. Williams added. “They’re trying to encourage Congress to reauthorize.”
On Friday, Tom Kimbrell, the Arkansas education commissioner, said of Mr. Duncan’s plan, “It’s better than the direction we have now, because we’re being held to the old accountability system even when we’re trying to adopt these new standards and put into place new assessments.”
Sandy Kress, an Austin lawyer who as a senior education adviser to Mr. Bush helped devise the No Child Left Behind law, said he saw trouble in the administration’s new stance.
“This idea of, ‘if you don’t act, we’re going to go do these massive things’ — to me there’s the feel of a threat to Congress in it,” Mr. Kress said.
Chester E. Finn, a Republican who is president of the Fordham Institute, an education research group, said the Congressional inaction was leading to an increasingly serious impasse in American government.
“If you believe in the rule of law, this is not good,” Mr. Finn said. “If the Congress can’t fix, after 10 years, something that is widely seen as in need of repair, and the executive takes the law into its own hands, then we are looking at a dysfunctional government and a disruption of our separation of powers.”
But Mr. Duncan said his authority was clear, and his aides sent reporters an e-mail copy of the legislative language: “the secretary may waive any statutory or regulatory requirement of this act.”
Mr. Duncan said: “What I want to see in the fall is real action. It’ll either come from Congress or from us. It’s got to happen in real-people time, not Washington time.”
Source: New York Times
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