Tuesday, June 30, 2009

SCOTUS eases federal court oversight of Arizona English teaching program

The Supreme Court on Thursday handed a partial victory to Arizona officials who are challenging federal court supervision of a program to educate students who aren't proficient in English. By a 5-4 vote, the court reversed an appeals court ruling in a 17-year-old lawsuit intended to close the gap between students in Nogales, Ariz., who are learning to speak English and native English speakers.

Justice Samuel Alito, in the majority opinion, said a federal judge in Arizona must take another look at the program to see whether Nogales now is "providing equal opportunities" to English language learners.

Alito, joined by his conservative colleagues, was highly critical of rulings by both the judge and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco that have kept Nogales and, more recently, the entire state under federal court supervision with regard to teaching non-native English speakers.

In 2000, a federal judge found that the state had violated the Equal Educational Opportunities Act's requirements for appropriate instruction for English-language learners. A year later, he expanded his ruling statewide and placed the state's programs for non-English speaking students under court oversight.

Since then, the two sides have fought over what constitutes compliance with the order. Arizona has more than doubled the amount of funding that schools receive per non-English speaking student and taken several other steps prescribed by the No Child Left Behind Act, a broader education accountability law passed by Congress in 2002. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, one of the state officials in Phoenix who defended the current system and asked for it to be freed from federal court oversight, expressed confidence that the state can demonstrate the program's compliance under current circumstances. "It's a major victory for the principle of self-government," Horne said of the ruling. "People rule themselves through their elected representatives and should not be ruled over by an aristocracy of lifetime federal judges."

State House Speaker Kirk Adams, one of the Republican legislative leaders who sided with Horne, said the ruling was "a breath of fresh air" that respects both federalism and separation of powers between branches of government. "Now we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with it and teach these children English," Adams said in a statement.

Tim Hogan, an attorney for the class-action plaintiffs, said that with the case going back to lower courts for further review, "we're going to have an expanded opportunity to put the efficacy of the state's current program at issue." "The message seems to be that we have to prove there's an ongoing violation of federal law. I welcome the opportunity to do that actually, to focus on the program that exists today, the four-hour models, and whether or not they're working," he added.

Arizona's current program for English-learning students includes daily four-hour instruction periods in English. The state Department of Education said Arizona has approximately 143,000 such students.

Alito said the courts need to be more flexible in evaluating the state's actions.

Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent for himself and the other three liberal justices, said the lower courts were thorough and correct. Thursday's decision "risks denying schoolchildren the English-language instruction necessary to overcome language barriers that impede their equal participation," Breyer said in a dissent that was longer than Alito's majority opinion. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens also dissented.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were in the majority.


Roberts: SCOTUS seeks school rule clarity

Don't look to the Supreme Court to set school rules, only to clarify them when officials have abdicated that responsibility, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said Saturday. At a judicial conference, Chief Justice Roberts was asked how school administrators should interpret seemingly conflicting messages from the court in two recent decisions, including one Thursday that said Arizona officials conducted an unconstitutional strip-search of a teenage girl. In 2007, the justices sided with an Alaska high school principal, ruling that administrators could restrict student speech if it appears to advocate illegal-drug use.

Chief Justice Roberts told the audience there was no conflict in the court's rulings, just clarity intended to deal with narrow issues that surface from government actions. "You can't expect to get a whole list of regulations from the Supreme Court. That would be bad," he said. "We wouldn't do a good job at it."

In the Arizona case, the high court said school officials violated Savana Redding's rights when they strip-searched her for prescription-strength ibuprofen. The court said educators cannot force children to remove their clothing unless student safety is at risk.

Chief Justice Roberts said administrators should take comfort in the 8-1 ruling, which also found that officials could not be held financially liable when carrying out school policy. "We recognized that they didn't have very clear guidance," Chief Justice Roberts said. "We laid down a rule about what they can and can't do, but we said they don't have to fork over damages from their own personal funds if they guess wrong."

He also defended the court's diversity - all nine justices are former federal appeals court judges. The issue has surfaced in light of Justice David H. Souter's decision to retire. Senators from both parties have said the court needs justices who don't come from the federal bench, or the "judicial monastery," as Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, has called it. Mr. Leahy is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will begin hearings next month on Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination to succeed Justice Souter; she, too, is an appeals court judge.

Chief Justice Roberts said the current justices have a range of legal experience despite their shared background on the appeals level. "I consider myself a practicing lawyer," the chief justice said, noting he was a judge for only a short time. He served on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit from 2003 to 2005, when President George W. Bush nominated him to be chief justice. Other justices have academic and political experience, he said, adding that Justice Clarence Thomas ran a federal agency. "We're also a pretty diverse bunch," he said.

Asked about his desire for more consensus among justices in the court's opinions, Chief Justice Roberts said he wasn't suggesting that justices compromise, but that agreement gives clearer guidance. "The more we can speak with a broader degree of agreement, it looks a lot more like law," he said.


Computer studies unpopular with female students – but better than nursing

The report below is in my view a bit hysterical but it contains some interesting information

Research out of the US has found that while computer science studies are highly regarded by college-bound teenagers there is a substantial negative image of the profession – particularly among women.

The findings of a nationwide online survey of 1,406 college-bound teenagers provide a chilling expose of the challenges of securing a gender diverse workforce in the information technology profession in the years ahead. While 52% of respondents overall rated computer science a ‘very good’ or ‘good’ choice for a college major, just 32% of women felt this way. By comparison, nursing was considered a ‘very good’ or ‘good’ choice by just 28% of respondents.

Even more startling, 67% of male respondents felt computer science would be a ‘very good’ or ‘good’ profession to select compared to just 23% of females.

Not surprisingly ‘doing work that was interesting’ was found to be the most important element in selecting a career, closely followed by having a ‘passion for the job’. Given the idealism of young people this is perhaps both encouraging but not surprising. The fact that less than a quarter of respondents felt that ‘doing work you find challenging’ or ‘working in a cutting-edge field’ were important elements in selecting a profession requires some thought for those seeking to promote computer science degrees to university entrants.

The research also contained some interesting insights into what may be driving young people into or away from the computer sciences and with the comfort of males and females in engaging with, using and creating technology. A key finding of the research was that the strongest positive driver towards computer science or an openness to a career in computing is ‘having the power to create and discover new things’. Despite this only 35% of male respondents and 13% of females felt comfortable subscribing to an RSS feed.

Reconciling the promise and reality of computing has clearly someway to go – especially in the minds of the young. Digital natives may be comfortable with computers but they evidence no greater desire to specialise in the field of computing than the generation who produced the natives’ computers in the first instance.The push for the ‘democratisation’ of computing may need reconsideration too. In particular computing as a subject of formal education may need to extend further into the earlier years of schooling. It may also be helpful if the fringe crusade of neo-tech evangelists against proprietary computing ceased so that media attention may be focused on the significant and urgent issues that confront all forms of computing development.

While undoubtedly the majority of the population will continue to rely on a few to create the computing tools that enable their economic innovation, the need to increase that few is pressing. Many efforts have been made in the past to inspire computing careers; those efforts must be redoubled if we are to even hope for the promise of an information connected world.


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