The oppressive heat and humidity is making us worry for all our kids studying in steaming schoolrooms, and of course, for the TEPCO workers in their radiation suits, as well as for those in Tohoku suffering under hardship circumstances.

Also finding it hard to cope with the heat are the batch of overseas exchange students who have arrived in Japan with their visits slightly delayed following the events of the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear crisis.

Also many students are busy with “shugaku ryoko” or school excursions (sixth (as well as fifth) graders of elementary schools; third-graders of middle schools and second-graders of high schools), which are very big events for local students. Typically, the herds(I mean hordes) of schoolchildren descend upon places of historical note or scenic beauty, so it is a big event for local travel/tourist-related economies as well. Not only is it a pretty memorable cultural event of Japanese school life, there is even an old but famous J. Enka pop song entitled shugaku ryoko 「修学旅行」 here on Youtube  [Hear it sung by a female in a N. Korean version].

My son went on his shugaku ryoko to Kyoto just a few weeks ago, here is his photo essay of his trip.

Matsumo, a high school teacher writes about the “Difficulty in Making Groups” for school excursions and a blogger who suffers from the selective mutism disorder writes about the trials of being in a group during the school excursion in “Memories of shugaku ryoko

Schools and families in Japan have all been balancing the need for setsuden/energy conservation while trying to survive the summer heat since the mercury has been climbing into the high 30’s (Celsius) in the past weeks.

If you are one of the many parents racking their brains for ideas on slumming the sultry heat as well as setsuden… you may find some help here, here, here and here. One of the funny things about living with the Japanese heat, is that the ghost talk reverberates around summer – what’s hot (or cool) to do this year is to visit a haunted house or getting on to the ghost grid via a tour see suggestions here. Another option popular with kids is to hit the water, although post-tsunami, understandably many are staying away from the beaches. A new local e-zine Setsuden Shufu no Tomo (literally, “energy-saving housewife friends”) is now offering free tips for conscientious housewives to prepare for what summer may bring. It has sections specifically on tactics for the summer season, though it also includes ideas for how to save gas and water. (Try also this energy conservation HP).

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Summer and setsuden talk aside, we now get around to our usual roundup and news briefs on the educational scene in Japan:

Tokyo parents demand safe school lunch (NHK, July 07, 2011)

Parents of schoolchildren have petitioned the mayor of Tokyo’s most populous ward with 6,000 signatures in support of their requests to take measures to secure the safety of school lunches. Excerpts follow:

“They met Nobuto Hosaka, the chief of Setagaya ward, at the ward office on Wednesday to submit a letter of request and a list of signatures. The parents took the action amid rising concerns about school lunch safety among parents in the wake of the ongoing nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. …

In their letter of request, the parents asked the ward to not only set up a checking system to detect radiation in vegetables, fish, milk and other foodstuffs used in school lunches but also to procure these items only from limited areas.

The mayor told them that no milk has been found tainted with radiation so far and that the harvest areas of foodstuffs will be disclosed at all schools in the ward.

One of the parents said they cannot trust the safety of food, although the authorities have explained that the current provisional legal limit for radioactive substances in food are higher than in other countries. The parent said they all want the ward to set its own rules.

Hosaka said he understands the parents’ concerns and promised to convey their requests to the national government.

U. of Tokyo mulls autumn admissions ((Yomiuri Shimbun, Jul. 2, 2011)
The University of Tokyo said Friday it is looking into the possibility of admitting students in autumn, in line with global trends.

Unlike many foreign universities where autumn admission is the norm, enrollment at the University of Tokyo starts in April following entrance examinations in February and March.

A shift to autumn enrollment is expected to have a significant impact on students’ job hunting activities, as the standard business year starts in April.

It would also require revisions to the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry’s university establishment standards.

After considering this and other issues involved, the university aims to reach a conclusion within the year, a university spokesman said.

The university will maintain its current entrance exam schedule, and is therefore considering how students should spend the six months until their autumn admission. One possibility is sending students to study abroad during that period, to enhance their abilities.

The university is also considering whether to prolong its enrollment period beyond the current four years, as well as whether to switch completely to an autumn admissions system or allow both spring and autumn admissions.

Gov’t gives up completely consolidating kindergartens, nurseries (JapanToday, Jul. 7) Summary: A gov’t expert panel approved a new draft for preschool services which has the gov’t abandoning its earlier plan to consolidate the functions of kindergartens and nurseries and has decided to allow some of the kindergartens to continue to operate independently.

All nurseries to provide preschool education (Japan Times, Jul 7) Excerpts follow…

The government plans to make all nurseries provide preschool education in addition to day care to address the gap between kindergartens as an education service and nurseries as a welfare service.

After finalizing the plan at a meeting of a council tasked with tackling the falling birthrate, the government aims to submit relevant legislation to the Diet next year for a possible phased implementation starting in fiscal 2013, government sources said Tuesday. …

According to the plan’s final draft, the government would urge kindergartens to provide nursery functions but without specifying when that should begin

Police thank corgi for protecting children (NHK, July 06, 2011)

Tokyo police have sent a rare letter of thanks to a dog for guarding school children at a crosswalk during Japan’s spring and autumn traffic safety campaign.

The chief of the Sugamo police station in Toshima Ward, Tatsuo Seki, commended the 6-year-old female Welsh Corgi named Fuka on Wednesday.

Fuka and her owner Noriaki Echigo have served as crossing guards for neighborhood children going to a primary school every morning during the twice-yearly nationwide campaign for 4 years.

Teachers must upgrade their Internet skills (Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2011)

The ability to gather and properly assess information online has become indispensable to modern-day daily life.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently published the results of a first-of-its-kind survey to test the digital literacy of 15-year-olds who have completed compulsory education. The survey was conducted under the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The average score of Japanese students stood at 519 points, ranking fourth among 19 countries and territories that took part in the program. Japan fell behind first-ranking South Korea by 49 points but exceeded the OECD average by 20 points. We are relieved to know that the digital literacy of Japanese students is relatively high by international standards.

All the questions in the test were given on personal computers. The students were tested on their ability to find necessary information from relevant Web sites and present answers in their own words online.

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Book reading vital

It is interesting to find that Japanese students who use PCs at school scored higher than those who do not, but this does not necessarily mean that the longer they used PCs the higher their scores became.

The survey also found that students who read books more scored higher than those who read less.

This indicates the importance of sufficient book-reading time to cultivate comprehension ability without relying on the haphazard use of computers. It is necessary for schools to work out curriculums by first clarifying which subjects should be learned through computer use.

Following in the footsteps of Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, an increasing number of local governments are promoting computer-based education.

In middle school social studies classes, for example, students investigate local industrial policies through the prefectural government’s Web site and exchange opinions with students at other schools through electronic bulletin boards.

The Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry should collect as many examples of such online class activities as possible to make them widely available online for schools.

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Improve online teaching ability

In an education ministry survey of teachers at all public schools, 30 percent said they “have no ability to teach students to gather information through the use of computers and identify the best information from what they find.”

Teachers’ computer-based teaching abilities are in urgent need of improvement.

We live in an era in which science and technology are constantly developing. In addition to conveying existing knowledge, it is essential to teach children how to acquire the latest information, such as via the Internet.

Thus, teachers must make constant efforts to develop their teaching methods during their training at university and through participation in various seminars inside and outside school as they progress through their teaching careers.

Osaka takes early lead in summer fun (Japan Times) Excerpt follows:

Students from the Osaka School Of Music will add to the festivities by performing an acoustic mini-concert outdoors. Other performers will include: the Osaka Municipal Tennoji Junior High Band, the Oedo Junior Sports Baton Twirling Group, a pop dance/music group called Studio Upward, several taiko drummers, the hula-dancing group Halau Hula o Mehana, a Japanese buyoh (dance) group, a Koto ensemble, the well-known Japanese musician Takamasa Segi who plays Peruvian instruments, Japanese flutist Yumiko, and more.

There will also be a variety of stalls selling books or traditional summer food, and plenty of games for families to play.

Shitennoji Temple in Osaka’s Tennoji Ward leads the way in Tanabata celebrations, which will be held throughout Japan later in the summer.

Most impressive is a 22-meter bamboo grass tunnel, complete with an artificial Milky Way created by glittering LED lights. This year, a banner will also be hung to show support for the victims of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and to help promote the renowned Tanabata festival in Sendai, which is set to happen in August.

The Osaka Tanabata Tunnel Opening Ceremony will be on July 7 at 7 p.m. and the decorative lights will remain lit from 7 p.m. till 12 midnight from July 7-9. Sendai’s Tanabata will be held Aug. 6-8.

Sendai girls end healing Aloha home-stay (Japan Times) | Canada inviting 150 students from disaster zone (Japan Times)

Canada plans to invite 150 students who were affected by March’s devastating quake and tsunami for a month of free English- or French-language lessons to help them get over the disaster, the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo said.

Language schools across Canada have banded together to offer a special scholarship program under which tuition, accommodation and transportation will be offered for free, the embassy said.

“The target is students who might benefit from being in a foreign environment and might be given an extra boost by having a bonus gift,” a senior embassy official, who declined to be named, said Wednesday.

Details of the program will be released by the fall. Students aged 16 or older, mainly from the Tohoku region, will go to Canada when they are ready.

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IN THE NEWS / Prof. sees university role as ‘destiny’ (Jul.5)

Female grads get more jobs (Yomiuri, Jul 7) Excerpts follow below:

Among those who graduated from universities this past spring, 66.4 percent of women found full-time employment, surpassing 57.7 percent of new male graduates who secured regular work, according to a recent Yomiuri Shimbun survey.

It is the first survey result to show the percentage of new graduates, broken down by gender, who found regular employment.

The survey showed that women tend to make more realistic choices than men, not restricting themselves to their first-choice companies, but rather looking for jobs patiently. …

Among newly graduated females, 71.6 percent of those from home economics-related departments found regular jobs, following those from medical and dental faculties at 80.5 percent. As most graduates from the medical and dental departments are usually employed for training at a clinic after graduation for a set period of time, females from the former category hold the de facto top position. …

Yukio Tonomura, head of the career development center at Chuo University, said: “Women are enthusiastic about finding a job, and they also have a flexible way of thinking. They had a more difficult time finding jobs [than men], so they haven’t given up even at this time of the year.”

A similar situation has been seen at other universities. …

The Yomiuri survey results show that more newly graduated females have obtained regular employment than male graduates.

The persistence and flexibility of female graduates have been remarkable.

According to Keiko Hirano, a researcher at Bunkahoso Career Partners’ job information research center, “Women tend to think they should avoid graduating unemployed in order to seek for jobs more suitable for them. In consideration of the future possibility of marriage and childbirth, they don’t want to waste time. As a result, they start looking for jobs early and seriously. Read the entire article here

Independent projects foster students’ curiosity (Yomiuri, Jul 7) This article focuses on Tokyo Gakugei U. Setagaya Elementary School in Setagaya ward, a Tokyo primary school’s programs that aim to encourage students to engage in projects independently. The article features the unique curriculum at their school in whcih the students engaged in projects independently, and assertively question things they consider unreasonable or unrealistic. It is part of a national project called “riaru jukugi” (real face-to-face discussions) launched by MEXT to encourage dialogue about education among schools, parents and local communities. So far, the students have planned on their own summer school class, an excursion outing, as well as worked on a film-making project. To read more, go to the Yomiuri page(the link will expire).

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Next, a look at the education-related news around the world:

Textbooks in South Korea will be all digital by 2015 (Digital Trends, Jul 5) Excerpts follow below…
South Korea is taking the lead on technology and education, promiing to spend $2 billion to convert its entire school system’s curriculum and texts to a variety of digital formats by 2015.

The country’s Ministry of Science and Technology has announced that it will digitize its entire elementary-level educational textbooks and materials by 2014. Topping that goal, the entire school-age curriculum will be available on computers, smartphones, and tablets by by 2015.In addition, the ministry is pushing for online classes to be available so that students who miss classes can catch up. Online hours will be recognized as attendance under some circumstances.“Korean students have ranked first in terms of digital literacy among developed nations according to the OECD-run Program for International Student Assessment,” said an official from the Education Ministry. “That’s why Korean students, who are already fully prepared for digital society, need a paradigm shift in education.”There is no word on precisely which digital devices South Korea will buy for its students, but hopefully they will be closer to an iPad in terms of functionality. We don’t want these kids getting stuck with the tablet equivalent of a Betamax. And speaking of outdated technology, a few lawmakers here in the United States should take notice.
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Two-year olds ‘to be given compulsory education checks’ (Telegraph)

Toddlers in England will be assessed to find out whether they can use basic words, respond to familiar sounds, communicate their needs and play with friends.

A Government overhaul of pre-school education being announced today will propose giving all parents a written summary of their children’s abilities in key areas between the age of two and three.

Ministers claim the test will identify early developmental problems and diagnose special needs at a young age.

It comes amid fears that too many children are currently starting school at the age of four or five without the skills needed to make a success of compulsory education. Almost half lack basic social and language skills, figures show.

But Richard House, senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Roehampton University, said the move risked branding children as “failures” at a young age.

Helping your child return home for university (Telegraph)

Students however who have been living outside their passport country and plan on returning for their tertiary studies must face an added transition – that of adjusting to the culture in their home country.

These global nomads, or third culture kids (TCKs), as they are sometimes called, are likely to have been back and forth to their home country many times during their overseas experience. They often think they know their home culture well, and can be quite shocked to find that they don’t understand, for example, the nuances of daily living, or the pop culture. …

They often feel more like an international in the very place they have grown up calling “home.”

Due to a lack of shared experience, these children sometimes have difficulty relating to their home-country peers. The domestic peer has no point of reference for someone who may have lived on several continents during their childhood, who in turn has no point of reference for someone who may have grown up in one place all his life. Their different backgrounds also mean they build relationships quite differently. The often transient lifestyle of expat children forces them to make connections quickly, whereas domestic peers take their time to wait and see if a relationship will develop. Plus, children who grew up overseas can come off as being arrogant when they become impatient with peers who they feel are immature, have a narrow world view, or are ignorant or less concerned about global issues. These relational disconnects can lead to feelings of isolation and depression.

What can parents, teachers, counsellors and schools do to help students make this double transition with success? To find out the recommendations, read more here

20,000 students without a job after leaving university (Telegraph, 30 Jun 2011)

Almost one-in-10 students failed to find a job after leaving university last year amid a continuing squeeze on graduate positions, figures show.

Related news: 83 graduates for every job (Telegraph, 28 Jun 2011)

Higher Education White Paper: Universities to be ranked by graduate jobs(Telegraph, 28 Jun 2011)

A White Paper being published on Tuesday will outline plans to force all institutions in England to publish data on 16 different areas to give students greater choice between courses.

For the first time, all universities will be forced to release detailed figures setting out how many students leave with well-paid jobs as well as average graduate starting salaries.

Other data is expected to cover criteria such as teaching hours, lecture sizes, accommodation costs and standards of student facilities.

Under plans, the information will be fed into new price comparison-style websites that shame the worst-performing universities and allow students to apply to the best institutions.

The move is being seen as a trade off for allowing universities to impose far higher tuition fees – ensuring students gain maximum value for their additional investment.

The government launches another bid to create a market in higher education while containing its costs
Last year, in a bid to transfer most of the spiralling costs of tuition from the state to students, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition raised the maximum fees English universities can charge, while slashing the exchequer’s contribution to teaching. The aim was both to ease the pressure on the public purse from rising student numbers, and to create a market in which universities compete for students on cost and quality. The plan failed on both counts—but ignited riots among students and ire among parents and lecturers. On June 28th the coalition unveiled new proposals to contain costs and facilitate choice, by letting both good and cheap universities expand.

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“SPD-led North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and rich Baden-Württemberg, now run by a Green-SPD coalition, plan to join Hamburg in abolishing tuition fees.

The city-state’s newly elected government, formed by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), will abolish tuition fees in 2012. Hamburg is one of several German states in which new, usually left-leaning governments are bringing back free university education. Of the seven states that introduced tuition fees after the constitutional court allowed them in 2005, just two—Lower Saxony and Bavaria—plan to continue.”

“Universities embraced fees as a way to improve teaching conditions. The burden on students looks light. In most states they pay €500 ($720) per term—nothing like the mortgage-sized sums levied on American, and soon British, students. Fees produced €1.2 billion for German universities in 2008, a modest but useful sum compared with their total spending of €36 billion. They spend it predictably, on smaller classes, better-equipped laboratories, longer library hours and the like, usually in consultation with students.

This did not convince left-of-centre parties, which think education should be free from kindergarten to colloquium. Fees, they allege, deter potential students, especially from poor families. The money is often wasted, for example on billiard tables, barbecues and, in one case, defibrillators.

Such objections are mostly nonsense, says Ulrich Müller of CHE, a think-tank. Students can defer payments and states offer loans on easy terms. A study of western states by HIS, a state-run consultancy, found that school-leavers in states that charge tuition are no less likely to attend university than those in non-tuition states. … Mr Müller argues that fees encourage students to think harder about what they want to study and universities to treat them with more respect. The misspending complaints are based on a few lurid press reports, he says.”

“…money is part of the problem. The United States spends nearly twice as much per student as Germany does. Two-thirds of American universities’ revenues come from private sources, compared with just 15% in Germany. The federal government is pumping in money through programmes like the “excellence initiative”, which promotes mainly research at a few select universities. But it so far has done little to improve teaching, which is what students tend to care about. Meanwhile states are cutting basic financing, notes Margret Wintermantel, head of the German Rectors’ Conference.”

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Are Finnish schools the best in the world? (Independent) They have no uniforms, no selection, no fee-paying and no league tables. Yet Finland’s education system consistently tops global rankings.

1.7 m school children diagnosed with special needs (Telegraph, Jun 30) One-in-five schoolchildren are labelled as having special needs, it emerged today, following claims that problems are being over-diagnosed to disguise poor results.

Related news: Separation anxiety: Parents voice fears over special-needs education Radical reforms will mean fewer disabled children in mainstream schools. Is this what families want?

State schools using private tutors to help pupils secure Oxbridge places (Independent, Jul 4)

More than 100 state schools are paying a private company to coach their brightest pupils on how to get places at Oxford or Cambridge, The Independent can disclose.

The figures emerge as a new report out this week is expected to show there are still “stark inequalities” in the selection of successful candidates for the two universities.

The report, from the Sutton Trust, is expected to show only “a tiny proportion” of schools being successful in getting their pupils places and almnost all of them are either selective state grammar schools or from the independent secrtor.

However, Oxbridge Applications, which offers coaching on interview techniques and test preparation for up to £1,500, says the number of candidates approaching it for help has doubled in the past three years.

“”We’re now working with about 5,000 candidates over the year,”said a spokeswoman.

Two-thirds of them are from state schools as are 55 per cent of the 200 schools that have also enlisted their services. Read the rest here

Ministers cut school trips red tape (Telegraph, Jul 2) The Government has told schools and councils to cut health and safety red tape to ensure that more pupils go on trips.

David Willetts defends university ranking plans (Telegraph, Jun 28)

Tailoring Mathematics for Young Minds (Edweek.org) A Web-based program modeled on a Russian math curriculum is showing positive results, especially in economically disadvantaged schools.
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Moving Beyond One-Size-Fits-All: Schools Use Digital Tools to Customize Education This annual report investigates how educators are turning to technology and different teaching and learning approaches to provide more personalized learning experiences for students.

In today’s digital marketplace, students of all ages can create experiences tailored just for them…

Then many of these same students walk into their classrooms and sit at their desks to absorb one-size-fits-all lessons or, if they’re lucky, instruction aimed at the high-, mid-, or low-level learner. And in many cases, there is little, if any, technology integrated into those lessons.

In some pockets around the country, though, educators and schools are turning to technology and different teaching and learning approaches to give students a personalized learning experience that mirrors the customized experiences they take for granted…Read the full report

Beyond High School, Before Baccalaureate (EdWeek) Most know by now that the way to earn middle-class pay is to acquire at least some postsecondary education. President Barack Obama has even made it a goal that every U.S. student have at least one year of postsecondary study. What may be less clear is exactly how much education is enough and what kind of training is needed for the occupations that graduates might choose to pursue.
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The Government has announced plans to axe modular exams in GCSEs, now he should do the same with A-levels, says John Newton, head of Taunton School.
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Higher Education White Paper: expansion of cheap universities ‘will drive down standards’ (29 Jun)

School found using bomb as bell (Yahoo! News, Jul. 5)

A mine awareness team in Uganda was horrified to find an unexploded bomb being used as a bell when they visited a school to teach children how to spot bombs, a local newspaper reported.

The Anti-Mine Network organization saw teachers banging the bomb with stones to call children to lessons in a 700-pupil school in a rural area, the Daily Monitor said.

“Its head was still active, which means that if it is hit by a stronger force, it would explode instantly and cause untold destruction in the area,” Wilson Bwambale, coordinator of the organization, told the newspaper. … This is the second bomb that the Anti-Mine Network have found in a Ugandan school in the last six months. Another was found being used by children at lunchtime as a toy and put away in a storeroom during lessons.

Middle school language arts teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron says teachers need to commit themselves to linking instruction to the skills students will need for life after high school. She addresses the “top five” skills needed (Collaboration; Communication; Problem-Solving; Questioning; Independent Learning) and says you can easily weave in ways to help students develop other key competencies for tomorrow’s workplace. To read more, go to here
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Replicating Success: Project-Based Learning | Edutopia 

Oftentimes in education, the most inspiring models of excellence can seem the most difficult to emulate. The more innovative a school and outstanding its results, the more impossible replicating it looks to educators elsewhere who are struggling with challenging student populations, limited resources, and unimaginative administrations.

There is a hardly a truer example of this than High Tech High, which Edutopia covered in-depth in 2008. The original textbook-free, nonprofit, public charter school—housed in a beautifully converted U.S. Navy training center in San Diego—is architecturally grand and educationally mold-breaking. Bolstered by a teaching culture that promotes constant collaboration and self-improvement, students there engage in rigorous projects with real-world impact, from building a fish pen to protect local white sea bass from avian predators to creating educational DVDs to benefit the local blood bank. Nearly 40 percent of the students come from low-income families, yet 99 percent of graduates go on to college.

Every school has its own unique teachers, students, culture, history, and setting, and its path to change must uniquely match those. Yet the core design principles that shaped High Tech High—such as personalization, adult-world connections, a common intellectual mission, and teachers as designers—apply anywhere, and these are what guide the schools’ replication efforts.

“Those design principles are something that can be replicated even if you’re in a traditional school,” says Eric White, a teacher at Whitfield Career Academy, in Dalton, Ga., where they are in their second year of shifting to High Tech High-style project-based learning. “You can give kids work that gives them choices. You can have high expectations for all your students. You can involve presentations and critiques and involve students in work that real adults do. There are no barriers to that, only perceived barriers.”

The work of replication is hard and messy, with steps forward and back. It requires educators—many of whom are accustomed to working in isolation—to band together, leave their comfort zones, and learn from one another’s mistakes and triumphs.

Related links:

More About Project-Based Learning | High Tech High: Inspiring Change | Putting in the Rigor | Ten Takeaway Tips

Online Learning 101 about how online learning in Idaho works.

Online Learning in the Traditional Classroom (Edutopia) A useful article on where to find collaborative online learning projects as well as free online learning resources

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Systematic Cheating is Found in Atlanta’s School System (NY Times)

A state investigation released Tuesday showed rampant, systematic cheating on test scores in this city’s long-troubled public schools, ending two years of increasing skepticism over remarkable improvements touted by school leaders.
The results of the investigation, made public by Gov. Nathan Deal, showed that the cheating occurred at 44 schools and involved at least 178 teachers and principals, almost half of whom have confessed, the governor said.

A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in the district, which led to a conspiracy of silence, he said in a prepared statement. “There will be consequences,” Mr. Deal said.

That will certainly include dismissals, according to school board members and the interim superintendent, Erroll B. Davis Jr., and could possibly result in criminal charges.

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In the news on health (physical and mental) & safety and social issues topics:

New Study Implicates Environmental Factors in Autism (NY Times)

On the issue of selective mutism disorder in children and bullying problems in Japan here

Chinese teen offers virginity for white iPhone 4

With E. coli and other superbug concerns, it might be helpful to heed the advice found in this article What are the germiest public places?

On average, you can touch as many as 30 germy objects a minute. While coexisting with microbes is a necessary fact of life, here are the top seven places that are best left untouched.

On July 1 American health and nutrition magazine Prevention reported on the germiest public places, with some practical tips on how to steer clear of the bugs that could make you sick. Read the full report here and also How to Clean Your Home’s 10 Germiest Places

Single-member homes top 30% (Japan Times, Jul 1)

For the first time, single people are now the largest household category in the nation, according to a preliminary tabulation of last October’s census.

Single-member households account for 31.2 percent of the total, surging about 10 percent from previous census in 2005 to 15,885,000.

Couple-and-child households, the most dominant category until the previous census, fell slightly to 14,588,000, or 28.7 percent of the total.

The total number of households passed 50 million for the first time since the census began in 1920, as smaller households rose.

The average number of people per household, however, fell to a record low of 2.46.

The government also said people 65 and older added 2.9 points to account for 23.1 percent of the population in 2010, the highest in the world.

UK nabs suspect in hacking attacks on Sony, CIA(RT.com Jun 21) British police say they have arrested a significant suspect in the investigation into hacking attacks on the websites of Sony and US intelligence agencies. The 19-year-old man is being held in custody on suspicion of hacking and fraud offences. Police are searching the computer seized from the suspected hacker for links to a cyber attack on Sony. The Metropolitan Police would not say whether the detainee was connected with the Lulz Security hacking group, but did confirm that a computer seized in the operation will be examined for Sony data. Lulz Security has claimed responsibility for recent high-profile attacks on Sony and CIA webpages. The hackers have recently called for “war” on governments that control the internet.

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Last up, is the news on the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear crisis:

45% of kids in Fukushima survey had thyroid exposure to radiation (Mainichi Japan) July 5, 2011

TOKYO (Kyodo) — Around 45 percent of children in Fukushima Prefecture surveyed by the local and central governments in late March experienced thyroid exposure to radiation, although in all cases in trace amounts that did not warrant further examination, officials of the Nuclear Safety Commission said Tuesday.

The survey was conducted on 1,080 children aged 0 to 15 in Iwaki, Kawamata and Iitate on March 26-30 in light of radiation leakages from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant crippled after the March 11 earthquake and tsunami disaster.

Separately, a survey of soil at four locations in the city of Fukushima on June 26 found that all samples were contaminated with radioactive cesium, measuring 16,000 to 46,000 becquerels per kilogram and exceeding the legal limit of 10,000 becquerels per kg, citizens groups involved said Tuesday.

The city, about 60 kilometers northwest of the crippled plant, does not fall within the 20-km no-entry zone or nearby evacuation areas.

One location registered as much as 931,000 becquerels per square meter, surpassing the 555,000 becquerels per sq meter limit for compulsory resettlement in the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident. Samples from the other three locations measured between 326,000 and 384,000 becquerels per sq meter.

Among children who tested positive for thyroid exposure, the amounts measured 0.04 microsieverts per hour or less in most cases. The largest exposure was 0.1 microsieverts per hour, equivalent to a yearly dose of 50 millisieverts for a 1-year-old.

None of those surveyed was exposed to over 0.2 microsieverts per hour, the government’s benchmark for conducting more detailed examinations, according to the officials.

Babies and young children are at highest risk of developing thyroid cancer after exposure to radioactive iodine released into the atmosphere in nuclear accidents. In the case of Chernobyl, most victims who developed the cancer in following years had been babies or young children living in the affected regions at the time of the accident.

Earlier news: Cesium found in child urine tests (Japan Times, Jul 1) Citizens’ groups urge government to carry out thorough checks on all Fukushima Prefecture kids. Excerpts follow…

Small amounts of radioactive cesium were found in the urine of 10 children in the city of Fukushima, confirming their internal exposure to radiation, citizens’ groups that carried out a survey said Thursday.

The groups, including Fukushima Network for Saving Children from Radiation, asked ACRO, a French independent radiation monitoring and sampling laboratory, to conduct tests on its members’ own children. ACRO conducted tests in Belarus after the Chernobyl accident.

The groups said they couldn’t judge whether the level of contamination was large or small, and urged the government to conduct thorough tests on all Fukushima children to find the precise levels of their internal exposure and take necessary measures to avoid any further contamination. …Read the rest here

Tokyo Electric Power Co. said a system that decontaminates radioactive water and recycles it to cool reactors is now working properly, a huge step in bringing the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant under control.

If the system continues to function well, it will reduce the risk of highly radioactive water accumulating at the plant, a problem that has seriously hampered work to stabilize the reactors, TEPCO said.

The system is being used to cool four problem reactors at the site, the company said.

More details here: Reactor cooling to be accelerated in August (NHK) TEPCO says a new cooling system is now working well so it will accelerate the cooling of the plant’s reactors in August;  Wastewater filters not working to capacity (NHK)

Radioactive strontium to be closely monitored ((NHK, July 06, 2011)

Japan’s science and technology ministry says tests have found no radioactive strontium in the seabed off the northern Pacific coast.

The test follows last month’s detection of the radioactive material in the seabed near the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. The operator of the plant took samples 3 kilometers off the coast at 2 locations — 20 kilometers south and north of the plant. Radioactive strontium can cause cancer as it accumulates in bones if inhaled.

No radioactive strontium was found this time in samples taken at 6 locations between 10 and 30 kilometers off a section of the Pacific coast that includes Fukushima Prefecture and two prefectures to the south and north.

The Nuclear Safety Commission, an independent body advising the ministry, says more evidence is needed to prove that no strontium has reached these locations.

The current system cannot detect amounts below 0.8 becquerels of strontium per kilogram of soil. It has advised the ministry to use a method that can detect smaller amounts of the radioactive substance.

The fisheries ministry is also testing marine products caught off Ibaraki and Chiba prefectures, near Tokyo, but found no strontium.

Japanese Parents urge govt to protect children from radiation (Rt.com, June 21, 2011)  

Japanese parents from areas near the crippled Fuksuhima-1 nuclear power plant have signed an “emergency petition” on Tuesday, calling on the government to protect their children from radioactive contamination, Agence-France-Presse reports. Citizens’ and environmental groups have urged the evacuation of children and pregnant women from radiation hotspots, stricter monitoring and the early closure of school for summer holidays. “Since atmospheric radiation levels show no sign of abating, the inhabitants of heavily contaminated areas will continue to endure high radiation doses, both externally and internally,” they said in the petition.

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113 households identified as radioactive hot spots (Japan Times)
The central government designates 113 households in Date, Fukushima Prefecture, as areas with radioactive hot spots and recommends that the people living there evacuate.

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Govt plans detailed radiation monitoring (NHK, July 05, 2011)

The Japanese government will conduct a detailed survey of radiation levels in Fukushima and use the data to review existing evacuation orders and advisories.

In a meeting held on Monday, the government decided to take charge of all radiation surveys being conducted separately by ministries, localities and the operator of the disabled Fukushima nuclear plant.

All data will be collated by the education and science ministry and made public through a dedicated website.

A more detailed survey of radiation will begin later in July, with measurements to be taken every 2 square kilometers inside the no-entry zone and other areas where evacuation is advised.

Priority will be given to schools and streets frequented by children. The government plans to compile a database by the end of August before the children return to school. …

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Robot to gauge radiation in No.3 reactor (July 05, 2011) The operator of the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant says it will send a robot inside the No.3 reactor to measure radiation and determine if it is safe to begin injecting nitrogen.

Tokyo Electric Power Company is rushing to implement the procedure, which has already been carried out in the No.1 and 2 reactors to prevent further hydrogen explosions.

High levels of radiation are hampering work inside the building housing the reactor. TEPCO workers on Monday covered parts of the floor with steel plates to block the radiation.

TEPCO says the remote-controlled robot is equipped with a special camera that shows radiation in different colors.

Fallout from the Fukushima nuclear disaster is spreading throughout Japan’s energy industry (The Economist)

Power in Japan: The troubles of TEPCO (The Economist)

Microbes used to remove cesium in water and soil (NHK Jul 6)

Japanese researchers have found that microbes could help remove cesium from water and soil, raising hopes for their use in decontamination efforts around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.

A team led by Professor Ken Sasaki of Hiroshima Kokusai Gakuin University has for 10 years been studying ways to remove metals using microbes called phototrophic bacteria.

Such removal is possible because negative ions on the microbes attract positively charged metals.

The team recently experimented with 2.5 grams of cesium mixed in water, and about 90 grams of microbes.

The cesium dropped to one-twelfth its original density in 24 hours, and was gone by the third day. The same effect was confirmed in soil.

The team says the microbes could very likely also remove radioactive cesium from around the plant, and plans to test soil and water in Fukushima Prefecture.

Did animals give quake warning? (Yomiuri, Jul. 4)

People in areas affected by the March 11 earthquake have reported witnessing unusual behavior by wild animals shortly before the magnitude-9 temblor hit, stories that lend support to the idea that animals can anticipate natural disasters. …

For five years, Abe had risen before dawn five days a week to drive her fisherman husband to work. When she opened the front door of her house at around 1:50 a.m. on March 11, she was immediately struck by the cacophony being made by a murder of crows. She had never heard the birds make such a racket before. Peering into the dark sky, she could make out about 50 crows flying around–three times as many as she would usually expect in the area.

She remembers her husband being struck by the unusual sound as well. “I’ve never heard cries like this,” he said, his eyes scanning the dark sky.

On March 4, a week before the disaster, 54 melon-headed whales between two and three meters long were found beached in Kashima, Ibaraki Prefecture.

Masayuki Shimada, chief of the exhibition division at the Ibaraki Prefectural Oarai Aquarium, also known as Aqua World Oarai, believes the whales accidentally wandered into shallow waters and become stranded. Shimada said there is no reason to connect the whales’ behavior with the subsequent earthquake.

However, a similar phenomenon occurred in New Zealand this year, shortly before a major earthquake hit Christchurch on Feb. 22. According to local media reports, 107 pilot whales became beached on a small island off the country’s South Island.

Although scientists have not established whether there is a relationship between animal behavior and earthquakes, there exists an abundance of anecdotal evidence of animals’ ability to predict natural disasters.

The Fire and Disaster Management Agency has collected accounts of such incidents and published them on its Web site, under the heading “information on legends related to national disasters.”

Many of the stories refer to unusual behavior by birds. The maxim, “When the pheasants cry, an earthquake will come,” is well known in many prefectures, including Aichi, Chiba, Ibaraki, Iwate and Yamanashi. In Kushima, Miyazaki Prefecture, it is often said, “When crows make a fuss, an earthquake will occur.”

Azabu University Prof. Mitsuaki Ota, a veterinary expert, said there are many examples of birds, rats and fish displaying abnormal behavior before an earthquake.

“These wild animals likely sense unusual changes in the natural environment,” he said.

Toshiyasu Nagao, chief of Tokai University’s Earthquake Prediction Research Center, said more research should be conducted based on first-hand accounts of odd animal behavior before the March 11 quake. … Read more here.