Tag Archives: in the media

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.

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?

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?

Dehumanizing People of Color

Well Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is at it again. He’s been criticized before, by the Mayor of Phoenix among others, for violating civil rights and for ignoring some 40,000 felony arrest warrants so he can focus on rounding up people with brown skin. “Immigrants” and “Criminals”, Sheriff Joe calls them, but he doesn’t seem to care what their legal status. To quote the Mayor:

American citizens and U.S. veterans who fought for our rights are seeing their own rights violated. Immigrants, who are here legally, with paperwork in hand, are being treated like criminals. Vendors, with valid visas and properly licensed equipment, are being detained.

Last week, Arpaio paraded 220 “immigrants”, all reportedly Mexican, from the Durango Jail to the Tent City, and sent out a Press Release to announce this, and be sure media were present. They were dressed in prison stripes, chained, and marched down the street (traffic was rerouted for them), with an enormous force of armed guards around and above them.

This from a Sheriff who has some 2,700 civil rights violations filed against him from 2004-2007 and who has apparently cost the County some $43 million in legal settlements over the jails during his tenure.

Unfortunately, too many in this country see this sort of public humiliation to be permissible for people of color. It’s really unfortunate that we are teaching youth that it’s okay to treat POC not only differently from white people, but it’s okay to humiliate POC publicly.

Two years ago, Tarleton State University, the second-largest school in the Texas A&M system, discovered that an annual MLK Jr-day party at one of their fraternities was predicated on white students dressing up like racist stereotypes of black people.

Last fall, there was the case of the white teacher who tied up two black girls and made them get under a desk to demonstrate how slave traders treated slaves as they were bringing them to this country.

Last week, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a predominantly black elementary school called off their “Cotton Picking Day” where students were encouraged to come to school dressed as slaves for the day as part of Black History Month.

Of course these events are offensive and of course they are racist, and there are lots of other events like them. And, you’ll note, they are happening in schools. Not Sheriff Arpaio’s event, of course, but all the local kids heard about that and/or saw it on the tv. So are we talking about these events in schools? Are we, as adults, merely ascribing them to ‘extremists’ and assuming that ‘that sort of thing wouldn’t happen here’, or are we looking, with our students, at the cultural forces that make the people who do these things think it’s a good idea?

What do you do when a student in your class uses a term like “that’s so gangster” or “that’s so ghetto”? Do you punish, or do you start a conversation with the class about what those terms actually mean?

One of the difficult aspects of being a teacher is the constant pressure to be a role model. Not just the I-say-please-and-thank-you variety, but the how-do-I-respond-to-hate variety, regardless of how ‘minor’ the infraction. It’s African-American Month, February is, so will we spend it with platitudes about how post-racial, post-civil-rights, post-slavery we are, casting furtive glances at the black student in the corner to see how he responds, or will we engage our students with actual conversation about real events that still take place and how we must respond to all forms of hate and prejudice, even when someone argues they’re ‘just joking’? Every time a teacher does not challenge these comments (or behaviors, like pulling eyes back to mimic Asians), that teacher has just taught the entire class that it’s not that big a deal to put down or humiliate people of color.

So, who are you?

We all develop a sense of who we are, and this process is a juggle of one’s sense of self and our culture’s sense of us. Even¬† as adults, we are constantly refining this sense of self and even working on several different versions of it. Much like having several different resumes that highlight our skills in different ways, we all have several different hats we wear, whether at work, with our children, or while pursuing a sport or hobby or other avocation. Right now I am a blogger, but I’m also a Dad, I’m straight, I’m white, I’m a researcher, I’m an employee, I’m a partner. And many things beyond that. As I approach 40, I am still struggling with what it means to be any number of these things, but for school aged youth, this struggle is often what their lives are consumed by.

Majka Burhardt has been blogging about a sense of understanding who she is, especially relating to what I understand is a very U.S.-centric question: “what do you do?” How do we articulate who we are in a one-sentence soundbite? And what if ‘what you do’ is not really fully how you understand yourself? Like Majka, I have climbed for all of my adult life, and this is a major way that I understand myself, even if I barely get out these days because of other responsibilities. So “what I do” is not necessarily who I am. This is also going to be true for many people of color, for women, for anyone who struggles against the culture. I’ve always struggled with the common dinner-party question Majka talks about: “what do you do?” and I’ve never come up with a really good alternative, but I’m certainly open to options. I usually ask something like “what do you do with your days” as a way to allow someone to answer outside of their job, but it still implies “what is your job?” to many people.

If we take this sense of self one step back to a more basic sense of human identity, I am male. But that simple fact does not encompass who I am anymore than the fact that I am a climber. I am male, but I have struggled against culturally-force-fed stereotypes of gender my whole life, especially in classrooms. I like to take students’ comments about being one gender or another and start a bigger conversation about what gender means in our culture: “Wow, so do you really think you’ve got to be ‘tough’ like that to be a man? Can’t women be tough too?”, or, perhaps more commonly, “do you really think women are less valuable than men? Why do you say ‘don’t be a girl’ like it’s a bad thing? What are you actually trying to say then?” 7th graders ‘get it’ when they are encouraged to talk about it, because so much of these gender stereotypes are ‘received knowledge’ that they’ve heard but never questioned. Dollface is talking about these gender stereotypes on her blog and asking what we’re doing to reinforce or break these gender stereotypes. For me, I always enjoyed talking about how I like to sew and quilt and cook and parent and yet still climb and get dirty and use tools and fix things: I can be my own definition of man.

One issue with these cultural stereotypes is the idea of homophily, which the Guardian had a piece on last week. Homophily is “The faintly depressing human tendency to seek out and spend time with those most similar to us.” One of the reasons I always tried, as a teacher, to talk about my own experiences and life (to a reasonable degree) is that I was different than many of my students. I felt that if I talked about this, they would see that the stereotypes (of whatever, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, class, rural/urban, etc. etc. etc.) are just false social constructions. If teachers allow themselves to be vulnerable in this way, students often respond to that with authentic thinking. Other students, especially (in my experience), the LQBTQI students, seem to feel a sense of relief in an adult being open to these conversations and in an adult who is willing to talk about these issues.

So do we surround ourselves with only people like us? Is that a good or bad thing? Don’t we want to have interactions with other viewpoints? To what degree is this line of questions white- or male- or hetero- or able-centric? Can members of any non-dominant group truly surround themselves with only like points of view in a culture so fiercely dominated by straight-white-male-able-culture?

I guess the bottom line to me is that we ought to be having these conversations with youth early on.

Is empathy eroding?

Jean Twenge was recently interviewed on Fair Game with Faith Salie. Twenge is a professor at San Diego State University where she studies differences in generations. She has also written a book called Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before, which title is fairly self-explanatory, as far as these things go.

One of the things she was talking about was the rise in narcissism in the generation born since about 1980. In many ways this is how older generations talk about younger generations: they’re all out for themselves, they don’t care, they are lazy, etc. etc. etc. I was born in 1970, the heart of Generation X, and they certainly said all of those things about us in the 80s and 90s, and I wonder if we hear less about Generation X now mostly because there’s a new generation (often called the Millennials) to complain about.

Or is there something to this narcissism? She points out that the corollary to a rise in narcissism is a drop in empathy and that has been coming up recently for me in the world of liberation activism and theology.

One of the problems with people and groups who oppress others, either directly (say, hitting someone) or indirectly (say, not speaking up when a racist joke is said), is that they seem to lack a certain level of empathy. They may not even realize that they are missing it, as when students in my class make comments that they don’t even understand are hurtful because they’ve never really parsed the language.

So how do we teach empathy? How do we better get students to analyze their language and be better aware of how certain words affect others? I feel like this needs to get done in every class all the time, on top of what we’re already teaching, but certainly lots of teachers already feel like they have too much to do and don’t want to take on yet another thing….

[Also, I’m not sure my use of ‘directly’ and ‘indirectly’ oppressing others is a good distinction, but it seems useful in that usage.]