Bilingual Education is Back

Animated children with speech bubbles above their heads. Each speech bubble has the greeting "hello" written in different languages.

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Eighteen years ago, California voters passed Proposition 227, a ruling ending nearly all bilingual education in the state. Critics of bilingual instruction claimed that it delayed reading, writing, and English fluency among children for whom English is a second language to be taught in both. Parents could sign a waiver and seek out a bilingual school if they wanted to, but the default was made English-only.

Nearly two decades later, studies of ELL (English-language-learning) students show that there’s no developmental delay to having bilingual instruction. In fact, it actually has huge social development advantages. And those studies have led to the decision facing voters today; Proposition 58, if it passes in November, will restore instruction in English and a second language as an option at all schools.

This is a particularly Californian need in education. California residents are nearly twice as likely as the general American population to speak a language other than English. Primarily, this language is Spanish, but there are substantial Chinese and Japanese populations as well.

The history of Prop 227, the bilingual ban, is interesting. Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire, was the prime force in campaigning for it, alongside a group of students and families who called themselves Familias Del Pueblo. They claimed that bilingual educational programs were a form of segregation and did little to prepare Spanish-speaking students for college or careers where they would be required to speak only English. Unz argued that ELLs only needed a single, high-intensity year of English instruction before moving on to English-only classrooms. After the proposition passed, test scores among Latino students rose, and supporters saw that as proof of their platform.

But by 2015, ELL test scores and scholastic achievements in California had diminished so much that a group of civil rights group won a precedent-setting suit against the state for failing to support ELLs. Prop 58, overturning Prop 227, is expected to pass quietly and be enacted at the beginning of the next school year.

2,000 Seattle Teachers Sport “Black Lives Matter” T-Shirts

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Yesterday, about 2,000 Seattle educators voiced their support for racial equality by wearing Black Lives Matter t-shirts. The teachers are part of a group known as Social Equality Educators, which is a subdivision within the Seattle teachers union.

Organizers wanted to draw attention to racial disparities in the school system. Statistics from a 2007 study by the National Center for Education Statistics show that for grades 4 and 8, white students, on average, have higher test scores than black students. Specifically, white students scored at least 26 points higher than black students in all subjects.

Educators believe the disparity is due to unequal access to opportunities. For example, a study conducted by the Department of Education revealed that a quarter of the schools with the highest numbers of African American and Latino students do not offer Algebra II classes.

But that’s only the beginning. Statistics also show that black children were expelled at a rate three times higher than that of white children. Additionally, black children were more than three times as likely to be enrolled in schools where less than 60% of teachers meet certification and license prerequisites.

Statistics like these are what brought teachers and activists together to rally for educational reform. They met early in the morning at Chief Sealth International High School in Seattle to protest what they believe is an unjust education system.

“Black Lives Matter means ‘don’t leave us out,’” said 17-year-old Precious Manning, president of Chief Sealth International High School’s Black Student Union.

Since the event was not sponsored by the school district, educators were asked to leave before students started arriving. However, members of the Black Student Union elected to stay until classes began.

The latest show of solidarity caused quite the stir among the public. While most people were incredibly supportive, others voiced their concerns with the Black Lives Matter movement. Some even likened it to being a “terrorist group.”

From Pranks to Profit

A photo of the Georgia Tech building.

Georgia Tech, located in Atlanta, Georgia.
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It seems like a very minor piece of hacking—Georgia Tech student Ryan Pickren used an HTML loophole to sneak into the event calendar of rival college University of Georgia to post this message on the date of a football game between the two schools:

Sat., November 29, 2014 / 12:00 pm / Get Ass Kicked by GT.

Inter-school pranks are a long American tradition, but the simple elegance of this one made national news when it happened in 2014. Pickren was arrested and convicted of felony computer trespassing, but it seems the judge was nearly as admiring of the prank as his own grandfather. The offense is punishable by a maximum of 15 years in jail and a $50,000 fine. Pickren got 12 months of community service. After completing that, which he did in early 2016, his record was wiped clean.

More than that, the computer engineering student, who was able to continue working on his degree during his sentence, has been deluged with job offers. His community service was served at Techbridge, a nonprofit tech-support agency for other nonprofits. In that time, he developed security tools to protect clients from hackers like himself.

Now he’s working in the security sector. He is the top contributor to United Airlines’ Bug Bounty Program, a freelance initiative wherein UA rewards hackers for finding and reporting security flaws in their digital presence.

With the only rule being that hackers have to keep their fingers off of any onboard systems, the program gives away up to a million free air miles for every flaw found. If they’re found, they can be fixed. The program debuted shortly after a security researcher tweeted that he could hack the onboard system to drop its air masks.

Pickren, who chose to work in United Airlines’ program mostly because he needed the air miles to help him through an out-of-state internship that would have resulted in a lot of travel, says that he grew quickly to love the work. He’s earned over 15,000,000 frequent flier miles, a third of which he’s donated to his school.

CommonLit Paves the Way in New Age Literacy

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The Innovative Approaches to Literacy Program is a little-known program being run by the U.S. Department of Education, with a 26 million dollar budget, which is small change at the federal level. Its goals are to encourage the invention of programs for improving literacy levels in high-risk schools. Focus is divided between encouraging early reading skills in the young and motivating reading interest in older students, and it encourages this with competitive grants for innovators.

A recent recipient, CommonLit, bears a good look. CommonLit is a three-year-old educational technology (edtech) nonprofit with aims to use software and apps to encourage students to read more and read more efficiently. Students with accounts can track their reading and receive assignments that are tailor-made to their current reading level. Teachers and parents can track their progress and get tips about what needs reinforcing.

CommonLit includes its own library, which is full of donated and open-source content for all reading levels. Everything from fiction to current news. Users or educators can sort content by grade, genre, theme, or lexicon, which is a particularly useful metric. Perhaps unique among edtech softwares, they also allow users to print any material they need, which makes it more accessible to the millions of students without Internet at home.

What CommonLit hopes to do with the nearly $4 million grant they received from the DOE through the IALP is to make their content and service available completely free to any school, family, or student who needs it.

“We don’t want to put the best parts of our product behind a paywall,” said founder Michelle Brown, gently denouncing ‘freemium’ access platforms, which provide only a percentage of their features for free to end users.

As of this September, CommonLit reports more than 22,000 teachers signed up in more than 12,000 schools. The nonprofit is ready to expand, and the DOE grant means that they can bring more content to more who need it.

Student Excellence: Mya Le Thai

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Postgraduate student Mya Le Thai was just “playing around” in the energy research lab at the University of California Irvine when she coated a gold nanowire with both a manganese dioxide shell and an electrolyte gel. But her playful experiment broke through a barrier that energy researchers have been fighting for decadesthe degradation limit on how many times a battery can be recharged.

Lithium-ion batteries, like those in most of our cell phones and electric cars, tend to fail after about five to six thousand recharges as the nanowires within break down. It’s like a built-in self-destruction. But her coating proved to extend the lifetime of those nanowires to a shocking degree.

After three months of testing and over 200,000 cycles of discharging and recharging the coated nanowires, the batteries showed no signs of degradation. While they’ve yet to actually make a battery with the new advance, all evidence suggests that they could be made to last more than 33 times longer. Your next iPhone might have a battery expected to last more than five hundred years if this new technology lives up to its promise.

“The coated electrode holds its shape better, making it a more reliable option,” said Thai. “This research proves that a nanowire-based battery electrode can have a long lifetime and that we can make these kinds of batteries a reality.”

Thai, along with the rest of her team from UCI, published their findings in The American Chemical Society’s Energy Letters back in April, and the University of Maryland is working on confirming their results. Since her discovery, she has graduated with her PhD in chemistry, and continues to work in energy research at UC Irvine. At 27, she’s a bilingual polymath, a trailblazer in energy studies, and a leader in UCI’s STEM programs.