When Educational Research Battles Polictical Research

The New York Times Magazine last week had an interesting piece on new science indicating that physical exercise mitigates anger.  The science here is new only in the sense that this is a study that clearly indicates this link, but as others have written over the years, the link between physical activity (and sleep) and emotional/intellectual stability and strength is pretty clear. We know this.

So why, then, do we not change our schools to reflect what the facts tell us will improve the learning of our students? Because of political research. The Brookings Institution and others release studies about the effectiveness of individual schools that often ask political questions, not academic ones, which then affects funding for schools, which, in turn, affects how effective schools are. When we ask whether student test scores are rising, we are asking a political question, not an academic one, since the science is clear that testing does not actually measure or improve learning.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know, but getting our politicians to stand up to political pressure and look at what is actually best for students is a good start. That can be done on Capital Hill, but what about in your school? Can you talk to your teachers? The principal? The school board? “All politics is local” Tip O’Neill famously said, and the individual school I send my child to is a good place to start.

Felony Charges for School Bullies

Map of Massachusetts highlighting Hampshire County
Hampshire County, MA, home of South Hadley

The DA’s  Office in South Hadley, Massachusetts has returned felony charges against a number of students who, through their campaign of bullying, drove a 15-year-old to commit suicide in January. Elizabeth Scheibel at a press conference yesterday that “the investigation revealed a relentless activity directed toward Phoebe, designed to humiliate her and to make it impossible for her to remain at school. The bullying, for her, became intolerable.”

While I am glad that those involved are being held accountable, it is so sad and such a shame that a high school freshman committed suicide after treatment largely at school that went unchecked. Scheibel said school officials would not be charged, but the adults in Phoebe’s life quite clearly failed her.

The adults who are charged with our children’s safety, well-being, and education cannot continue to look the other way, or dismiss bullying behavior as “kids being kids”. Nor can we pretend it does not happen. We must continue to talk to youth about what their lives are like, what their struggles are, and whether they are supported in the ways they need.

Do your kids’ teachers ask them how they are doing in meaningful ways? Does your school have these conversations? Do you see and hear adults genuinely asking youth how they are in authentic and respectful ways that go beyond “I’m fine”?

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Have Threats of School Violence Become Unremarkable?

Police at Lyman Moore School

Police at Lyman Moore School

While looking for something else on the web, I stumbled across an article from last week in one of the little local free newspapers that cover the region. It seems that one of the three Middle Schools in town had an incident last Monday where someone found some sort of note in a bathroom threatening mass killings. The school locked down the entire building and the police came in and searched every locker and every bag while students — who were not allowed to use cell phones or make calls home — were kept in whatever classroom they were in at the start of it all.

When parents started getting wind of this, many of them naturally went to the school, where they were greeted by police wielding assault rifles keeping everyone away. Some hours later, they were allowed to see their children.

The fact that this school was locked down and they brought in police to facilitate searches is one thing, but the remarkable thing to me is that the little local newspaper is the only place in print that seems to have covered it. A couple of the local tv stations did stories on it, but our regional newspaper did not cover it, our local NPR station did not cover it, and the School Department blog does not mention it. (I searched by the school’s name and went through the week’s news at each site and was unable to find any mention of the event.) The news sites that did cover it did so only when it was taking place, and I have been unable to find any follow up about what happened or what their investigation turned up. Was it a ‘prank’? Was there a real threat?

Have school lockdowns become so common that they are no longer newsworthy to the bigger news sources? I fear that we are moving towards a world where these sorts of things are just part of the common social fabric, not because inquiring minds want to know, but because these events directly impact the sense of community in those schools, and how much students can concentrate on their studies and learn in those environments. Students who attend a school where lockdowns are routine and unremarkable will necessarily learn to distrust their community. And what happens when our culture at large is filled with people who grew up with that sort of distrust?

Maine denies LGBT families rights; where does this leave youth?

Two Grooms wedding cake topper

Yesterday, Maine voters narrowly repealed our recent law allowing same-sex marriage.

It is a travesty of human rights for some people to define how other families should live, and I am suffering an election hangover this morning. Lots of us are. But, according to poll data, not quite enough of us. It is heart breaking and such a shame that, essentially, one minority in Maine — the supposedly religiously fervent — have led the stripping of an essential right (or, perhaps more accurately, a bundle of rights) from another minority of the population. I am appalled; I had such hope for this to be upheld in Maine…..

As much as it directly affects those who want their families to be recognized like everyone else’s, I worry about how it will affect youth: will homophobic youth be emboldened in schools to increase homophobic language and behaviors? Will LGBTQI youth feel more persecuted than usual? Will the children of same-sex couples be targeted more than they have been?

Equally important is whether schools will be on the lookout for this. The kids will know what’s going on; will the adults charged with protecting them?

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The ethics of TV ‘experiments’

Macon, over at Stuff White People Do, picked up on the ABC show “What Would You Do?“, specifically an episode on racism in public settings and how people respond. It is in some ways reminiscent of some early ‘instigation research’ where researchers purposefully instigated some conflict to see how people would respond.

Macon tackles the issues of racism and white apathy, so I’ll largely leave that aspect to him, even though it is germane to this blog also.

Beyond that obvious issue, however, the concerns I immediately hit upon were those of human subjects in a research setting. All research that takes place which involves human subjects must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). IRBs function under the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP), which basically is checking to be sure that researchers are not doing anything unethical, as in the classic Tuskegee Siphilis Case (which ran from 1932 to 1972 and, interestingly, the last widow to receive reparation payments after the Tuskegee case just died about two months ago). So if all research has to have oversight when human subjects are used, several questions arise about what the host of this TV program describes as an “experiment”:

  • Who approved this ‘study’? Does it have any IRB oversight?
  • Have they even thought about informed consent? Doubtful considering how upset several participants were.
  • What about debriefing? Every time I watched the film crew follow one set of people out on the street to do a post-interview, I wondered about all the other customers who were not interviewed and debriefed and who just slipped out the side and wandered off into their lives, unaware that what they’d been through was a con.
  • What about the effect on people of color? This ‘experiment’ is ostensibly to see how people would (or would not) respond, but people of color have no need to have this sort of store-front racism shoved in their faces since they are, in fact, living this reality every day.
  • Were participants compensated for their time, their discomfort, their trauma?

One of the questions IRBs consider when looking at a potential piece of research that involves human subjects is whether it stands to increase knowledge. Aside from the fact that most all people of color can testify that this is the reality in stores everywhere, upscale or down, there is also quite a lot of research that shows this as well. So what do we learn from ABC’s ‘experiment’ that we didn’t know before?

Another IRB question is whether a given piece of research does harm. Watching the responses by some participants (and only the ones that they chose to show, even thought the voiceover cites ‘more than a hundred’ people they filmed), I think it’s fair to say that, yes, it did harm: many people were really upset with what they witnessed. And what about the people who left the store but didn’t get caught by the film crew…. many of them may be left with the idea that this behavior is acceptable and appropriate, especially by someone with authority (the store security guard), because that’s what the silence of bystanders encourages.

And by silence of bystanders, I mean both the white people in the store who said and did nothing, but also those people accosted by the film crew who said and did nothing to stop this sham.

Unfortunately, the silence of bystanders is one of the strongest reinforcements for bullies, domestic and dating violence perpetrators, and people everywhere who would hold power over others.

This is the reason why all schools should be talking about talking: what do you say or do when you see or hear bullying? If we’re not talking about it in schools, youths grow up to be the callous adults who say nothing in episodes of “What Would You Do?”, as well as in the pre-production meetings of shows like “What Would You Do?”, as well as in their day-to-day lives.

So how are we talking to youth about their moral and ethical responsibilities to each other in our culture?

Rational conversation about dating and domestic violence

Well there’s been altogether too much sensationalization about Rihanna and Chris Brown.

But are we now getting some rational thought on it instead off the victim-blaming tripe churned out by the likes of Kanye West?

Other victims of domestic and dating violence are now feeling that they need to publicly tell their stories to set the public understanding straight. These are brave women for coming forward, but they should not have to provide the public with the details of their lives because journalists are not doing their jobs of researching and understanding the dynamics of dating violence (now often called, in an oddly scientific turn of phrase, Intimate Partner Violence, or IPV) and reporting on the situation within that context.

This week was also a big one for televised conversations about IPV. Oprah and Tyra Banks both discussed it, and BET did an entire episode of 106 and Park talking about it and ways to end controlling relationships, which is good since Rihanna’s young fans are starting to line up behind the ‘it’s her fault for returning to him’ nonsense.

It’s about time, too, since teens experience dating violence too: One in four teen relationships involves violence of some sort. Here in Maine, better than half of the murders over the past 15 or more years have been IPV-related.

Are we talking to our kids about what healthy relationships do and do not look like? Are our schools? Youth are all watching at least this one relationship as it gets dragged through the mud….

Treating girls differently

NPR did a short piece on ‘sexting‘ yesterday on All Things Considered. They opened with two 16-year-old girls who took a cell-phone picture of themselves naked together. One girl had erased the pic, the other sent it to a friend and, after one thing led to another, everyone at school had it on their phones, the administration had print outs, and lawyers were involved.

But here’s the catch: both girls were punished (suspended from being cheerleaders), but no one else was. Aside from issues of what the school has jurisdiction over (can they suspend students for weekend behaviors?), the fact remains that the administration saw fit to suspend the girls from their team–the cheerleading squad–but none of the football team who apparently forwarded the photos on were punished at all.

So why do we still insist on holding girls and women to different standards than men and boys? This school is simply reinforcing the gender double-standard that says that boys can be sexual, but girls must be chaste. The adminstration may not see it as such, but when they use the defense “The girls understood that as athletes, they would be held to higher standards of behavior”, but don’t hold the male football players to that standard, they are underscoring the old saw that women should know better. Never mind that one of the girls involved didn’t forward the picture on and deleted the original, meaning she did less than the football players.

Schools, of course, do this sort of thing all the time. It’s called abstinence-only education. We pay for it as taxpayers and the curricula developed for it, while differing state-by-state, seems all to reinforce the double-standard. Statements like “girls have a responsibility to wear modest clothing that doesn’t invite lustful thoughts,” and blaming a victim of rape based on her reputation for having sex (i.e. being a ‘slut’) coupled with the fact that the boy was drunk and therefore, didn’t really know what he was doing. Pretty awful stuff.

So what is your school teaching your kids? Have you asked? What are you telling your kids about being a boy or being a girl and what that means? Are you having authentic, non-judging conversations about sex or just telling them “don’t do it” and letting them figure it out on their own (they will!).

Youth Sexuality

According to data collected by Hunter College with the Human Rights Campaign, men are 12 when they first think they might be gay or bisexual. Women are 16 when they first think they might be lesbian or bisexual. By the time LGB people hit college age, they have, on average, had sex with someone of the same sex and have decided for sure that they are LGB. So it is no surprise that so many people come out before or shortly after graduating from high school and explore these aspects of themselves during those years.Regardless of an individual’s sexuality, these are the sexual development years and so many youth are exploring sexuality during this time, with whomever they are drawn to be with.

So how are our cultural views on sexuality during youth changing? Last weekend, Ryan Allen, under the stage name Reann Ballslee, was named Homecoming Queen at George Mason University, a school with some 30,000 students. While there are some who are nay-saying his being named to this position, this is a title given to the person with the most votes after they performed at a qualifying pageant in early February, so clearly an awful lot of GMU students were comfortable with a drag queen being named Homecoming Queen and cast their votes for Reann Ballslee.

On the other hand, high schools across the country are grappling with staging a newly-released toned-down version of the musical Rent. It seems that many communities are not yet comfortable with the idea of high school students talking about sex, STDs, and drugs. Oh, and there are two gay couples in the show. Perhaps the parents and administrators ought to attend the Homecoming this weekend at GMU?

Meanwhile teens across the country are now being booked on pornography charges for texting pictures of themselves nude to friends and partners. Some of this is certainly warranted, as when a boy takes pictures of his girlfriend and texts them to his friends, but much of it is the same fear of human sexuality, especially among youth as probably drives the people fighting Rent productions. I’d be interested certainly to see gender breakdowns; I’d assume that these photos are more often of and by young women trying to live up to cultural expectations of being sexualized. Where is the line here between allowing youth to be sexual as human beings and protecting youth from being victimized by our culture?

So how are we talking with youth in Sex Ed class about sexuality? What sort of language do we permit in schools? Is language that puts women down or sexualises them laughed off by teachers? Does homophobic language merit merely a “hey, cut it out!” or more conversation about what homophobia looks like and means? What messages are we sending youth through both what we talk to them about as well as what we do not talk to them about?

Boys of Color

The Rand Corporation, subcontracted to the California Endowment, has released a big study of inequities for boys and young men of color in California. Much of it is statistical evidence of what we already know: compared to white boys, boys of color have much lower educational attainment, grow up around more violence (exposure to violence outside of the home? Latinos are 2.1 times, African-Americans are 3 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to die by homicide (Latinos are 5.1 times, African-Americans are 16.4 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to be incarcerated (Latinos 2.1 times, African-Americans 5.5 times more likely (p.19)), have worse health (PTSD? Latinos are 4.1 times, African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely; HIV and AIDS? Latinos are 3.1 times, African-Americans are 6.9 times more likely), etc. etc. etc.

So much for a post-racial country.

These boys and young men are growing up in a world dramatically different than what the average white boy grows up in. Which is not to say that no white boys grow up like this, nor to say that all boys of color grow up like this, just that many more boys of color grow up like this than white boys, and these boys tend to struggle in school.

Teachers have, off and on, been known to write off some of these students: “I can’t get to him,” “he’s just too disruptive for my classroom,” or “if his parents are not going support his schooling and homework and studying, what can I do?” I am not arguing that there are not cases of students who simply cannot function in school, but many of these ‘excluded students’ can be taught, just not necessarily in the way their school functions. Many of these excluded students are students of color, judging in part from the statistics in the Rand Corporation report.

Learner-centered teaching and other related theories over the past couple of decades have talked about changing teaching dynamics to meet more students where they are (also see Howard Gardner’s theories), and this Rand Report echoes some of these changes in education:

Learning Using Non-Didactic Approaches. A final example of a practice that is represented among many of the effective program models is the recognition that participant learning should take place through experiential approaches, such as role-playing, rather than through didactic approaches, such as straight lecturing. (page 26)

One of the reasons we need to fund our schools fully is that, once we make the needed repairs to the physical structures of many schools so they are physically safe places, we need to focus on supporting teachers in redeveloping curricula to meet students where they are. In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt talks of having five classes of forty students each, and a 200 student load is simply too much to allow a teacher to give students feedback on their work, challenge each student appropriately, and return work in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, too many of those boys of color are being taught by this sort of over-worked teacher who can barely keep up with the grading and testing requirements, let alone engaging each student individually.

Terror Toys

So what do our children see and play with in today’s world? On TV, there is a Homeland Security reality program on ABC (yep, Disney owns that one too). Propaganda? The executive producer says it pretty clearly:

“I love investigative journalism, but that’s not what we’re doing,” he told The Reporter. “This show is heartening. It makes you feel good about these people who are doing their best to protect us.”

Well, if you were worried about all the guns kids play with, as they imitate superheros, Power Rangers, and other fictional characters, perhaps those, as fantasy, aren’t the worst things to worry about in playland. There are more realistic toys they could be playing with:

  • Lego has a Police Command Center, for which the description states “the police are keeping a watch from their mobile command center!”
  • Playmobil has both a Security Checkpoint with walk-through metal-detector, guard with a wand-metal-detector, and an x-ray machine for bags and luggage, as well as a Police Checkpoint, in which officers are “also equipped with a map, stop sign, and pistols.”

One interesting note here is that the Police Command Center has comments about how much their kids loved the toy and played with it for extended times. No irony there. But both of the other toys are full of ironic reviews that include comments the following. So where is the line between what is acceptable violence and what is not? Different for each of us I imagine….

  • This playset is one of the best purchases I have made for my three-year-old. In the past, when we have been stopped at roadblocks, or when during one of Daddy’s arrests, he would start crying uncontrollably. Now, after playing with this for the past several months, he is perfectly docile.
  • What better way to condition your kids to accept the police state and patriot act? Last thing one needs is your kids growing up to question authority!
  • Unfortunately, this product falls short …. There’s no brown figure for little Josh to profile, taser, and detain? Where are all the frightened plastic Heartlanders pointing at the brown figure as they whisper “terrorist?” Where are the hippy couple figures being denied boarding passes?

And if you really want to give the full effect to your kids, there are also SWAT teams and Police Stations with Jail Cells. One poster even suggested using their electric fencing in the Cow Pasture to elicit the full Guantanamo feel.

Here in Maine, where there are lots of guns, some parents vet the homes of their kids’ friends before allowing play-dates: “Are there guns in the house? Are they locked up? Loaded? Are kids taught gun safety?” Do we also ask about what sort of toys the kids play with? “Does your child play with guns?” A friend of mine has pointed out that differences in child-rearing come between friends much more than anything else in our lives. If your oldest, dearest friend allows his or her children to play with toys like these, do you allow your child to go play with them? Does your kids’ daycare facility or school prohibit toy guns? What about play guns, like using fingers?

As Lucinda Marshall says over on Feminist Peace Network in a blog post on these toys:

As difficult as it sometimes seemed to raise sons during the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Power Ranger years, clearly teaching children the difference between right and wrong has  become far more challenging as the toys and games pitched at them become blatant police state propaganda.

h/t to Alternet, which carried Lucinda’s post.