Study Indicates Science Gap Begins Before School Does

Young girl playing with chemistry set

A new study proves what we’ve suspected for awhile now: The gap in STEM education between privileged and unprivileged students starts early.
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A new study on the science gap in American schools has some disheartening news: The achievement gap in science between white, upper-income students and their underserved and minority peers begins even before students enter school. Before their first day of kindergarten, realities about social perception have already saturated a child. Minorities are already very aware that they are minorities, which means that they’re aware of what that means in a broader social context.

The authors of the study, hailing from Pennsylvania State University and University of California, Irvine, used a nationally-representative sample population of more than 7,000 students from across the country, all of whom entered kindergarten in 1998. The data stretches all the way until 2007.

The study provides evidence of what we already suspected: White, privileged children tend to outperform their low-income and minority classmates. The research also suggests that if this trend continues, the STEM fields could become even more exclusively white, and that does a disservice to us all. These fields already lack diversity to an alarming degree.

Some places, like Slack, are working to increase the diversity in their employee population: 43 percent of the current managers are women and 7 percent are black. That may not seem like a lot, but as far as the tech industry goes, it’s quite impressive. To compare, Twitter’s tech staff is only 13 percent women, and black people make up only 1% of their workforce.

However, the authors of the study believe there are things that schools can do to make their science and technology programs more inclusive. They encourage teachers to introduce a very basic level of science education into their classrooms that all students can understand. Paul Morgan, one of the researchers, also recommends that parents ask their children—even their toddlers—more questions about science, as well as encouraging them to talk about what they see and to ask questions themselves.

This method benefits both the adult and the child, as adults also often have low levels of science understanding and education. The more everybody learns, the better.

“We need to have some kind of coordinated attempt,” Morgan says. “An effort that involves parents, preschool teachers, and policymakers working together to help address these disparities that emerge so early.”

Harvard Business School Begins Precision Clinical Trials Challenge

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Harvard Business School is aiming to improve opportunities for clinical trials with their new challenge.
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Clinical research trials are one of the costliest and most time-consuming endeavors in the medical community. Each trial takes an investment of close to $1.5 billion and ten years to complete the process. Now, in an effort to make those statistics more practical and less painful, Harvard Business School has launched the Precision Trials Challenge, a competition where users can submit ideas to make clinical trials a better process. The challenge is open until March 13th, 2016, and a panel of judges will select one winner and two runners-up to share in a $100,000 prize.

Harvard Business School has produced a number of great thinkers like Salman Khan of the Khan Academy, Thom Weisel of Stifel Financial Corp., and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, so it’s not surprising that the school would create a challenge for innovations. “The Precision Trials Challenge aims to provide a roadmap for faster innovation, targeted medicine, and more effective treatments,” says Harvard Business School.

Clinical trials only see success 25% of the time. Part of the problems lie within the process itself. With so many different patients’ bodies and cancer variations as well as so many other variables, it’s incredibly difficult to come up with concrete test results for any medical trial. Add in the mess of false positives, and the odds for success become lower still.

These are some of the problems that Harvard’s Precision Clinical Trials Challenge hopes to correct. “Advancements in science and technology in the past ten years have led to great advances in precision medicine,” says Harvard Business School professor Richard Hamermesh. “However, many of the big challenges facing precision medicine today are actually big business challenges. How can we develop business models that support the advancement of precision medicine? How can we get therapies to market faster and at a lower cost?”

Our Precision Trials Challenge will help answer these questions by encouraging conversation and helping to put leading-edge ideas into practice,” Hamermesh added.

The Challenge is funded by a $20 million gift from the Kraft Endowment for Advancing Precision Medicine. Ideas can be submitted on the initiative’s website. A winner will be announced in April.

New Study Shows How Movement Helps Kids with ADHD

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A new study puts fidgeting in a positive light for students with ADHD.
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According to a new study, trying to get kids with ADHD to sit still actually works against them. Florida State University Assistant Professor of Psychology Michael Kofler is working on new, non-medication ways to help kids with ADHD. What he’s found is that children fidget when they are trying to solve a problem, and for kids with ADHD, that movement has a positive effect.

Professor Kofler had suspected this based on other studies, so he engineered the first study to focus directly on this. The study found a direct cause and effect relationship to students’ fidgeting. A survey of 25 children with ADHD, aged 8 to 12, had them take two types of test focusing on working memory. Working memory rearranges information or updates it in real time–it’s the kind we use to process information while undertaking tasks. It’s also the kind of memory that ADHD interferes with.

The tests had the kids rearrange a sequence of remembers numbers or colors in different ways, and what they found was that the kids fidgeted while doing this. In some of the tests they were told to arrange things in one way before the test began, but in others what they needed to remember was random. The study found that, when faced with the more random tests where they had to use their working memory more, the kids also fidgeted more. This shows a direct relationship between working memory and physical movement, namely that the harder working memory has to work, the more the kids need to fidget in order to accomplish the task.

Professor Kofler is taking this into account while developing new ADHD treatments, but the information itself indicates a huge shift in our understanding of ADHD. Fidgeting and other such symptoms aren’t the problem; they’re symptoms of the problem, and they work to help children overcome those issues.

Superintendent Tackles Poverty in Jennings

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A superintendent in Jennings is making school about more than just what happens in the classroom.
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“You cannot expect children to learn at a high level if they come in hungry and tired,” says Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent of the Jennings School District. It’s a perfectly obvious statement, really, but it’s not just an observation for Anderson. It’s a mission statement.

When she stepped into office three years ago, the small town of Jennings, just outside St. Louis, Missouri was one of the worst-performing systems in the state. Many of the 3,000 students live below the poverty line, and she made that her first priority. Her schools have opened a food pantry, a homeless shelter, and a health clinic, all to serve the community to which her students belong.

The food pantry gives out 8,000 pounds of food a month, feeding between 200 and 400 families, or more than ten percent of the entire student body. The clinic has a licensed pediatrician, reducing the need for expensive emergency care and medical travel. Jennings does not have a hospital of its own. The clinic also offers mental health counseling, a service that’s rarely available to students in poverty.

Anderson’s newest project, which opened in November 2015, is Hope House. Built in a disused school office building, Hope House is a group foster home. It now houses eight children, with foster parents from the community.

Anderson’s tackling of poverty is expansive. Along with the above, she’s made smaller services available. All the schools offer free laundry in exchange for volunteer hours, parenting courses, and grocery help. Training in addressing issues of race, poverty, trauma, and community violence is provided to all her teachers.

The results have been stunning. In 2012 when Anderson stepped up, the schools were scoring at 57% on state educational standards. The district could have been shut down entirely if that score had slipped much farther. Now, it is at 81%, and will likely rise another 4-6 points in the 2016-17 school year.

Anderson has more plans for Jennings. And her past record suggests that the community should let her have her head.

Harnessing the Power of Introverted Students

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It’s important for teachers to accommodate the strengths and weaknesses of introverted students.
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The world can often be an overwhelming place for introverts, especially for young ones. The term “introvert” is a bit of a buzzword these days, thanks to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. For extroverts, things like school, parties, and making friends come a little bit more easily, but for shy and introverted students, finding their place in school and in social groups can be more challenging. Introverted students can often feel left behind because of their reserve, but they’re just as intelligent and capable as other students. The trick to bringing out their best is knowing how to reach them.

Some introverted students do quite well in school, but many others struggle to find their voice. A major key in helping an introvert do well in school is knowing where their energy comes from: Introverts re-energize by being alone, while extroverts find energy by being with others. This is an important point for teachers to remember. Extensive group work or cold-calling will wear an introvert out. Break up group-focused lessons by allowing for alone time, solitary reflection, or a quiet period of reading.

Cain encourages teachers and parents to use a think/pair/share technique to get introverts engaged in a lesson. In this method, the teacher will pose a question to the students, then ask them to think or write about their response. Then, students pair up to talk about their answers, and a few minutes later the class can come together as a whole. This method is especially helpful for introverts because it allows them time to process their thoughts first and then speak them aloud only to one other person at first. It helps the introvert approach the rest of the class more comfortably and with more confidence.

To help introverts approach school more readily, other classroom techniques appear to make them more comfortable. Introverts need quiet zones with little stimulation to help them feel energized again. Creating a quiet play room that introverts can use during recess while their extroverted friends are running around outside helps.

Encouraging interests helps, too. Ask students about their hobbies and the things they like, and gear class projects toward students’ individual interests. This is good for introverts, extroverts, and students in between. Allowing time for reflection and internal engagement is helpful for all students, and it is a good way to put introverts at ease.

Grecia Perez and the Perfect AP Score

Multiple choice test form and pencil

Grecia Perez is the first at her school to receive a top score in the AP Spanish test

In 2015, four and a half million students took Advanced Placement exams on 35 subjects including everything from Macroeconomics to Calculus. The test are administered by the College Board to high school juniors and seniors, and a passing score means college credit for applicable classes. A passing score is 3 or better, with 5 being the highest score possible.

While that sounds like a 5 would be the equivalent of 80% and easy to achieve, it’s really not. In 2015, out of that 4.5 million, fewer than 3 million passed the exams, and only 322 students received a perfect score.

One of those was Grecia Perez, a junior at Southwest High school in San Diego, California. She took home a perfect five on her AP exam in Spanish Literature, the first perfect score ever awarded to a student at Southwest. Spanish is her first language, but that’s no guarantee of a grade. No student in the nation scored as high on the English Literature exam last year.

The teenager is proud of her score, but not inclined to rest on her laurels. She’s already registered for four more Advanced Placement classes for her senior year and is working towards her goal of majoring in film at San Francisco State University.

The next AP courses Perez plans to tackle are Environmental Science, Government, English Literature, and the next tier of Spanish Literature. Environmental Science and Government are both ambitious choices, being the two AP courses with the lowest pass rates nationwide, and English Literature is a bold choice for a student who did not speak English when she started at Southwest three years ago. Perez, true to form for a great intellect in the making, is undaunted.

“I want to be part of some social change,” she said in an interview with local news. She hopes to become a community leader and is on good footing to do whatever she wants to do with a brilliant future.

Students Themselves Might Be Best at Reducing Bullying

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If schools want to put a stop to bullying, they’d do well to turn to the students themselves.
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According to researchers at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Rutgers University, and Yale University, the best way to handle bullying and school conflict among students isn’t by setting rules from on high, but encouraging students to influence each other in positive ways.

A one year study in 56 New Jersey middle schools showed that influential students, referred to as social referents or social influencers, have a greater impact on the issue than adults do.

These influencers are not necessarily the most popular kids in school, but those who are most connected with their peers. By making it well known that they are against bullying and conflict, they can influence their peers to reduce instances of these kinds of interactions. The schools in the study saw a 30% decrease in reported conflicts, which is a pretty solid reduction.

The trick lies in leaving the definition of such conflicts to the students, instead of defining bullying or social conflict by adult standards. Reducing such conflict is important to teachers, administrators, and parents, but issuing orders about what is and is not considered appropriate seems to meet with little improvement. Worse, it’s possible, and likely, that forms of bullying can fly under the radar, if administrators are convinced that they know what bullying looks like. And of course, it can only be enforced if these incidents are witnessed by staff are reported to them.

Students are more likely to speak about these issues with their peers, and those peers are more likely to be able to influence the issue, guiding students away from conflict. The study only saw a 30% drop in such incidents, but those were only reported incidents–and only during one school year. Such a program would need to be implemented anew each year as new students enter a school in order to keep up momentum.

Public Advocate Sues NYC Education Department

School bus in New York City

A Public Advocate in NYC is suing the city’s Education Department over a faulty computer system meant to help disabled kids get the services they need.
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Public Advocate Letitia James is suing the New York City Education Department for the failure of a computer tracking system that was supposed to help students with disabilities.

With about $130 million sunk into it, the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) has done little to help its target audience and, according to James’s suit, actually deletes student data and has caused the city to lose out on an estimated $356 million in Medicaid reimbursements over the last several years.

There are about 200,000 students in New York City who are on individualized education plans, or IEPs, that allow them to get extra help like speech therapy. Of course, keeping track of this information is vital. That’s where SESIS was supposed to come in. Built in 2009, SESIS was meant to replace the paper system and provide more intricate data to educators trying to serve diverse student populations.

This past Monday, James filed her suit, noting that “the failure of the system is resulting in a lack of services for our most vulnerable children, and we’re basically cheating taxpayers of rightful funding from the state and federal government.

“Everyone is telling me they’re aware of it and correcting it,” she added. “But I’ve heard that before.”

A spokesman for the Education Department responded by pointing out that they have made strides to help these students, including hiring more than 300 new occupational therapists and creating more programs to help children with autism.

But this isn’t the first time New York City has been accused of not supporting the students who need it most. Last December, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District, wrote a letter to the Education Department decrying that 83% of the city’s elementary schools are not fully accessible to students with disabilities—a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city rejected Bharara’s claim, stating that it “inaccurately characterizes the number and geographic distribution of accessible schools.”

“It’s understood that the department inherited this mess, and it is a mess,” said Ellen McHugh, a special education advocate. “But it’s been a number of years.”

No further updates have been announced in terms of where the lawsuit or other reforms will go from here.

Translating “Bored”

Bored young woman in classroom

“I’m bored” is a lot more complicated than it might seem.
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The bored student is an archetype. Slouched in their chair, doodling on their desk, dog ate their homework…. Boredom is a symbol of the biggest barrier to learning there is: non-engagement. And it’s common to blame the kid. If they just tried harder to take an interest, they wouldn’t be bored, and they would be learning more. But there are so many reasons for non-engagement, and so many translations for “bored.”

“The homework was boring.” Possible translations: We’re going over concepts I mastered so long ago that this feels insulting. The teacher is wasting my time. Or: I don’t see how this assignment is teaching me anything. It feels like busy work. Or: I don’t see any real world application to this skill in the way it’s being taught.

“Writing is boring.” Possible translations: The way I’ve been taught writing doesn’t work for me. Or: The topics I’ve been ordered to write about feel irrelevant to me, usually because they’ve been stripped of context.

“Math class is boring.” Possible translations: I need to be taught math in a different way than the class standard. Or: I’m struggling and don’t want to admit that I am, so I will attack the instruction instead.

“My teacher is boring.” Possible translations: Sometimes, teachers just are very, very boring. Or: Their teaching style works at odds with my learning needs. Or: The teacher is not invested in the subject, and that is obvious to us students.

And sometimes “I’m bored,” really does mean just “I am choosing not to engage.” Sometimes it’s because the student doesn’t know how to engage, and that’s something that can be addressed, altered, and improved. It’s a teacher’s responsibility to keep the translations in mind and do everything they can before assuming that the problem is on the student’s end.