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Portsmouth Middle School warns parents about Smartie-snorting epidemic and the risk of nasal maggots


Parents in Portsmouth, Rhode Island got a letter from the Portsmouth Middle School warning them that students may be snorting and smoking ground-up Smarties candies. The letter warns of risks of cuts, lung infections, nasal passage scarring, nose-wedged maggots (!), and future cigarette and drug use. John McDaid, a writer and local investigative blogger, got a comment from Portsmouth School Committee chair Dave Croston, who stated "I can say only that this behavior raises troubling issue of modeling."

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Feds spend more subsidizing undergrads than undergrads pay in tuition


Here's an analysis of the New America Foundation's Federal Education Budget Project, a wide-ranging and thorough look at the way the government spends on education. It shows that the total take from American universities in tuition for undergraduate programs is $62.6B, while the Federal government is spending $69 billion on grants, aid loans, tax breaks and other funding.

The implication is that it would be cheaper to give away university education than to charge for it, but that's not quite right (federal education funding pays for more than tuition -- it also includes housing, food and other expenses, and the feds are already subsidizing colleges out of their $69B spend). But it does suggest that the education system is really screwed up, an expensive boondoggle that is optimized for paying bondholders who own student debt, rather than turning out an educated, resilient and adaptable nation.

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Meet Educational Credit Management Corporation, the arm-breakers of the student debt racket


An private contractor to student debt-holders has a special legal department that goes to bankruptcy court to argue that student loans shouldn't be discharged in bankruptcy, ever. The Educational Credit Management Corporation contracts to the Department of Education, on whose behalf it argues (for example) that debtors who go bankrupt fighting pancreatic cancer should still have to pay back their student loans in full, because "Survival rates for younger patients tend to be higher."

Student debt is the most pernicious kind of debt. It's debt that you take on when you're a teenager, and it's the only debt that can be taken out of your Social Security check. But as bad as the student debt racket is (and it's bad -- no, I mean really bad), I hadn't quite clocked how depraved its bagmen and enforcers could be.

They've been censured by courts for their strongarm tactics, bills have been introduced to make them behave, but they seem unstoppable. Why not? The precarious job-market has convinced Americans to go into $1 trillion worth of student debt, and when that collapses, it'll make subprime look like small change. So, realistically, who's ever going to stop thug bill-collectors from torturing people with terrible illness, or caring for severely disabled loved ones, or facing other unimaginable hardship, in order to bleed whatever they can for the debt-holders who're depending on that trillion bucks being repaid?

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Crowdfunding toilets for schools in Ghana

Gmoke writes, "Pure Home Water (PHW), the same people who make AfriClay Filters -- a locally-sourced clay pot water filter -- in Taha, Ghana are now building toilet blocks for local schools. In June 2013, PHW built a 6-stall toilet block in 30 days for a school in the village of Taha. They are planning to build the same toilet block for the neighboring village of Gbalahi and are looking for $8,600 over the next two months."

Toilets for Schools - Improving Sanitation in Ghana (Thanks, Gmoke!)

Arapahoe teacher on survival and resilience

For several years, I've conducted an annual Skype session with the students at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, who read my novel Little Brother as a jumping-off point for a wide-ranging, critical discussion of the Internet and politics. Arapahoe has been much in the news lately, for sad reasons: a student brought a gun to school, shot and wounded two of his fellow students, and then killed himself. Kristin Leclaire teaches Language Arts at Arapahoe, who was living in New York on September 11th, 2001, and she has written a sad, smart, important essay on her experience, called Scar Tissue . My thoughts are with my friends at Arapahoe.

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CopyrightX: Harvard's ground-breaking MOOC on copyright law


Nathaniel writes, "Copyright X -- AKA 'The MOOC the New Yorker actually liked' -- is tooling up for a second run at it, expanding on its unusual, hybrid format. This year, in addition to the real-world classes attended by 100 Harvard Law students and online sections for 500 students -- taking the M out of MOOC -- the course is adding more 'satellites' and integrating them more with the other two course communities. The satellites are, for the most part, meat-space classes in about 10 locales around the world, each taught by an expert in copyright law. Apply here."

CopyrightX (Thanks, Nathaniel!)

UK kids have the right to opt out of school fingerprinting (even if their parents are OK with it)


New provisions of the UK Protection of Freedom Act 2012 went into effect this September, which strictly limits the gathering of biometric information from children. Under the law, kids have the right to opt out of biometric collection (including fingerprinting, which is in widespread use in UK schools). Kids have this right even if their parents or school insist upon their submission to biometric collection. Needless to say, schools have done pretty much nothing to accommodate this legal right, and as Jon Baines points out, this is a great teachable moment for privacy conscious kids (in that they could teach their educators that privacy is worth something, even if you're just a kid).

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Museum display of toys confiscated from London schoolchildren


A British teacher and artist named Guy Tarrant has assembled two cases' worth of toys confiscated from London schoolchildren, soliciting them from fellow teachers. The collection represents items from 150 schools and 30 years, and is on display at the excellent Victoria and Albert Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green. The Childhood Museum is very close to my home, and it's one of my favourite London museums -- I like it better, even, than its enormous parent institution, the V&A down in South Kensington.

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Comic Sans, British officialspeak, and the separation of church and state

Here's a story that sums up a giant slice of the stuff that frustrates me about the British education system. The UK has no separation of church and state, so British state schools have mandatory "religious education" curriculum (which is often a survey of world religions, but which rarely, if ever, touches on atheism). So Littleton Green Community School, Cannock announced a religious education school trip to nearby Staffordshire University to "learn about different cultures," which is fine, but apparently provoked a bunch of parents who were alarmed that their kids were going to look at religious artifacts from religions other than Christianity, and gave rise to something of a panic.

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Tennessee school safety officer arrests parent for calmly objecting to pick-up policy

Here's a video of a Cumberland County, Tennessee school safety officer illegally arresting a parent who disagreed with the school's policy on picking up kids. The policy had recently changed, creating a long traffic jam, so the soon-to-be-arrested man walked to the school to get his kids.

The school safety officer was reportedly upset because the parent had called the local sheriff to complain about the school's new pickup policy and the long waits, and what followed was an argument in which the reasonable, quiet-spoken and polite parent was arrested for "disorderly conduct" by the school safety officer, who put him in cuffs and then into the back of a cruiser without advising him of his rights or enumerating the charge against him.

Presumably the officer was trying to help the local school board get rid of excess cash on its books by creating enormous, pointless liabilities for it.

Update: Here's local coverage from 6ABC/WATE: The school is South Cumberland Elementary. Officer Absolute Obedience is actually Sheriff Deputy and School Resource Officer Avery Aytes. Jim Howe is the dad. Amanda Long, his fiancee, shot the video.

Aytes's boss, Cumberland County Sheriff Butch Burgess is described as saying he "hasn't seen the video and doesn't need to, because it won't tell the whole story. He says Aytes was just doing his job."

Phonar: a massive, free photography class


Jonathan Worth sez, "Four years ago when I first opened my photography classes online the big issue was 'free' - if you 'give your classes away for free then no one will pay for them'. My answer to those people was that the classes weren't what people paid for - they paid for the learning experience, of being in the room - this online version - this open and connected version just meant that the room they paid to be in now sat at the middle of a network. And that network is now significant. Yesterday it trended on Twitter - I don't know many classes that do that.

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Regex Runner: a game to teach regular expressions to kids

Last December, I wrote a column suggesting that games would be a great way to teach kids Regular Expressions, a part of the world of programming that surfaces in tons of non-expert applications, like word processors.

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Web Literacy Standard 1.0 from Mozilla


Mozilla has shipped the 1.0 of its Web Literacy Standard: "a map of the territory for the skills and competencies Mozilla and community think are important to get better at to more effectively read, write & participate on the Web." It's a noble effort, and it's meant to be a baseline for people who want to develop teaching programs, curriculum, and identify Web resources that will aid in promoting Web literacy.

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A moving long read about a medical school dissection class

Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has put together an amazing four-part story about medical students entering a human dissection lab for the first time. Interweaving the stories of the students, their teachers, and people who have chosen to donate their bodies to science, the series really gives you a sense of how emotionally intense the experience can be for students, and how it brings together all these different lives. Powerful stuff. Maggie 4

South London school bans "slang"


An "Academy School" (like US charter schools) in south London has banned "slang" from its student body, under the mistaken apprehension that English has a language academy that determines what is and is not correct speech. The argument is that privileged British people look down on people who talk "poor" -- using words like "woz" and "ain't" -- and that the inability to code-switch into rich-person's English makes it harder to get a job. There is some validity to this (that is, rich people are indeed bigoted against poor people), but my experience in my own neighbourhood is that people are perfectly capable of code-switching to formal registers if they want to.

In the meantime, the school is throttling the expressive potential of their kids' English (as a writer, it's totally obvious to me that "I wasn't doing nuffink" has a totally different flavour from "I did nothing" or "It wasn't me").

Academy Schools have a lot of freedom to diverge from the curriculum, to hire unusual instructors, and to try variations on school meals and other conventions. In theory, this makes room for schools that are freer and more student-oriented. In practice, many of them are run by Young Earth Creationists who teach that the universe is 5,000 years old; or sell sugary drinks and candy bars as a source of profit for the school's investors; or do sweetheart deals with preferred suppliers for mandatory, overpriced school uniforms that include some form of kickback for the school; or hire totally unqualified ideologues to teach the kids.

Academies are "selective schools," meaning that they can suck all the high-scoring kids out of the local state schools, which brings down the average performance of the state schools, costing them budget and ensuring that parents will try to keep their kids out of them. And Academies are only accountable to the national government, instead of the local council, so if your local Academy is screwed up, your only real remedy is to ask your MP to raise a question about it in Parliament.

It's great if your neighbourhood Academy is a progressive hotbed of exciting educational ideas that uses community-based experts in its instruction and grows a garden to supplement the school dinners. But if it's a rent-seeking hotbed of loony Creationism and dumb ideas about policing language, it's still likely to be the only game in town for your kids, after the state school has been drained of any kid with the chance to go somewhere else, and then punished for failing.

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