Friday, June 29, 2012

Teacher Satisfaction Linked to Supportive Work Environments

In recent years, much attention has been paid to developing meaningful teacher evaluation systems as a strategy to improve public education, and rightly so. But while states and districts implement better ways to identify their strongest educators, too many are giving short shrift to the culture and work environments in schools, particularly in high-poverty and low-performing schools. In a new study released by The Education Trust, authors Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality, and Melissa Tooley, a teacher quality data and policy analyst, find the conditions for teaching and learning are critical to teacher satisfaction, especially in struggling schools.

"The Education Trust’s latest report validates what every teacher knows is necessary to strengthen public schools and the teaching profession,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “Building a culture of collaboration and shared responsibility among teachers, principals, and administrators; focusing on continuous professional development for teachers; and ensuring teachers have the time, tools, and trust they need to improve teaching and learning are essential ingredients to building strong public schools and a quality teaching force.”

In Building and Sustaining Talent: Creating Conditions in High-Poverty Schools That Support Effective Teaching and Learning, the authors report that when it comes to teacher satisfaction at high-poverty, low-performing schools, the conditions for teaching and learning supersede all other factors, including student and salary issues. The report urges school districts to pair efforts to improve outdated, inadequate teacher evaluation systems with the policy and culture changes that must accompany them. The report also highlights common-sense strategies some school districts employ to help schools most in need of talented teachers attract, nurture, and keep them once they are identified.

“Making evaluations more meaningful is a critical step toward improving our schools. But being able to determine who our strongest teachers and principals are doesn’t mean that struggling students will magically get more of them,” Almy says. “We have to be intentional about creating the kinds of supportive working environments in our high-poverty and low-performing schools that will make them more attractive to our strongest teachers.”

The Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in School Accountability Systems

This interim report presents descriptive information on school-level accountability, adequate yearly progress (AYP), and school improvement status of schools accountable and schools not accountable for the performance of the students with disabilities (SWD) subgroup under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Based on U. S. Department of Education EDFacts data from the 2005–06 to 2008–09 school years for up to 40 states, key findings from the study include:

Across the 40 states with relevant data, 35 percent of public schools were accountable for the performance of the SWD subgroup in the 2008–09 school year, representing 58 percent of tested SWDs in those states. In those same 40 states, 62 percent of middle schools were accountable for SWD performance, while 31 percent of elementary schools and 23 percent of high schools were accountable.

In 20 states that had relevant data for all fours years, there was a steady increase in the percentage of SWD-accountable schools, from 25 percent in the 2005–06 school year to 34 percent in the 2008–09 school year.

In 32 states with relevant data, 55 percent of public schools were not accountable for the SWD subgroup in any of the 4 years examined, while 18 percent of schools that were consistently accountable in each of the 4 years.

In 37 states with relevant data, nine percent of all public schools missed AYP in the 2008–09 school year because of SWD subgroup performance and other reason(s), and 5 percent missed it solely because of SWD subgroup performance. Together these schools served 28 percent of tested SWDs in all public schools in these states.

Among schools that were consistently accountable for the performance of the SWD subgroup during the 4 years across 27 states, 56 percent were never identified for school improvement over this time period. By comparison, among schools that were not accountable for SWD subgroup performance in any of the 4 years, 76 percent were never identified for improvem

Improving Charter School Accountability: The Challenge of Closing Failing Schools

From the beginning, the charter concept was to give schools more autonomy—freedom to hire and fire their staffs and control their own budgets and curriculum—while still holding them accountable for performance. No charter would be allowed to fail its students year after year, as traditional public schools are often permitted to do. If their students were not learning, they would close.

This promise has not always been fulfilled. Hundreds of school districts have authorized charters then failed to invest in oversight. Even some statewide authorizers report that they have insufficient data to make merit-based renewal and revocation decisions.

In its first 10 years, the charter community focused mostly on quantity: getting charters open. Over the past ten years, it has focused increasingly on charter school quality. Today, it is time to open a third frontier: authorizer quality. The key to quality in the charter sector is quality authorizing.

In this report the author discusses why it is so important that authorizers close failing charters, reviews the facts about charter and authorizer performance, examines why some authorizers fail to close underperforming charters, and proposes solutions to these problems.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mathematics Achievement Gaps Between Suburban Students and Their Rural and Urban Peers Increase Over Time

In this study, from The Carsey Institute authors Suzanne Graham and Lauren Provost examine whether attending a school in a rural, urban, or suburban community is related to children’s mathematics achievement in kindergarten, and whether increases in mathematics achievement between kindergarten and eighth grade differ for children in rural, urban, and suburban schools. They also consider whether achievement differs by region of the country and for children of different racial and ethnic groups. Finally, they discuss the impact of a family’s socioeconomic status, and the ways in which place and socioeconomic status together affect both early mathematics achievement levels and change over time.

They report that rural and urban kindergarten students have slightly lower average mathematics achievement levels than their suburban peers. In addition, the average increase in mathematics achievement from kindergarten to eighth grade for rural and urban children is smaller than the increase for suburban children, resulting in a widening achievement gap over time.

Changes in Children's Pretend Play Over Two Decades: More Imagination

There is growing recognition that children have less time to engage in play, and, concurrently, recent evidence suggests a decrease in divergent thinking ability in young children. This study investigated changes in pretend play ability during a 23-year period. The conclusion: Even though children have less time to play, cognitive processes that occur in play are continuing to develop.

The same standardized measure of pretend play, the Affect in Play Scale (APS; Russ, 199331. Russ , S. W. ( 1993 ). was the measure of pretend play in all studies. This puppet play task is videotaped and scored from the tapes. Fourteen studies of children from 6 to 10 years of age in school-based samples from 1985–2008 were included in the analyses. A cross-temporal meta-analysis examined correlations between weighted mean scores and year of data collection. Main findings were that imagination in play and comfort with play significantly increased over time. There was no evidence of change in organization of the story or in overall expression of affect in play.

When School-Based Nutrition Programs Involve Teachers, Staff, & Parents Kids Eat Healthier

Programs to promote healthy eating can substantially reduce the amount of unhealthy foods and beverages on school grounds if the programs focus on a school's specific needs and involve teachers, parents, staff, and administrators, according to a Kaiser Permanente Southern California study published in BioMed Central's open access journal International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

The Healthy Options for Nutrition Environments in Schools (Healthy ONES) study used a public health approach to change nutrition environments and policies in eight elementary and middle schools over a three-year period. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative and included 400 students.

Researchers found that using a more participatory public health approach decreased by 30 percent the amount of unhealthy foods and beverages in intervention schools. Control schools, by comparison, had a 26 percent increase in these items. Healthy food brought from outside sources also increased during lunch in intervention schools.

"Schools are an ideal place for establishing life-long healthy eating habits, but until now that's been easier said than done," said study lead author Karen J. Coleman, PhD, from Kaiser Permanente Southern California's Department of Research and Evaluation. "The Healthy ONES study helped us understand how communities and schools could work together to get kids to eat healthier at school and help address childhood obesity."

This study reinforces the latest recommendations on obesity prevention from the Institute of Medicine. The new report, Accelerating Progress on Obesity Prevention, describes schools as "the heart of health." The report identifies school-based interventions as among the most promising to prevent childhood obesity and underscores the need to implement policies that change food environments within schools.

"If we want to have the broad reach and impact necessary to address the enormity of the childhood obesity epidemic, it's critical that we engage children and their families within school communities," said Loel Solomon, PhD, vice president of community health at Kaiser Permanente. "Powerful results like these are why school-based interventions are a key element of Kaiser Permanente's prevention strategy, and why we will be redoubling our efforts in schools in the years to come."

In the study, researchers worked with teachers and administrators to change certain unhealthy nutrition practices. They replaced food and beverage classroom rewards with nonfood prizes and implemented nutrition-conscious catering at schoolwide events and classroom celebrations. For fund-raising activities, they served healthy foods and beverages, awarded nonfood prizes, and included games such as a "prize walk," rather than a "cake walk." In addition, schools were able to make more money using healthy events like "jog-a-thons" than fall carnivals with popcorn and pepperoni pizza.

According to the study, a public health approach may be more effective in changing school environments and policies because of stakeholder engagement in intervention design, implementation, and evaluation. This differs from other traditional methods that fundamentally ignore the multiple school-level issues that may affect intervention effectiveness.

Although researchers hypothesized that these school environment and policy changes would reduce childhood obesity rates, no changes were observed. This is likely due to the short period of observation after the changes were implemented in the schools. Nevertheless, by building capacity within schools to make and sustain change, the Healthy ONES model could contribute significantly to efforts to prevent childhood obesity, the authors stated.

"Our findings are significant because previous school-based interventions often have had little success in changing behaviors," said Dr. Coleman. "The Healthy ONES study suggests that community-driven process interventions that focus on implementation and stakeholder engagement can help schools implement their current federally mandated wellness policies. These types of interventions may have a better chance to impact child obesity than other attempts to change school health practices."

This study is part of Kaiser Permanente's ongoing work to identify and treat childhood obesity through research and community programs. Previous research studies related to childhood obesity include:

* A study published in May in the Journal of Pediatrics found that children who are overweight or obese -- particularly older, non-Hispanic white girls -- are more likely to have a neurological disorder known as idiopathic intracranial hypertension, a rare condition that can result in blindness.
* Another study in the Journal of Pediatrics found that electronic health records and embedded tools can alert and direct pediatricians so they can better manage the weight of children and teenagers.
* A study in 2011 that used electronic health records of more than 700,000 patients to determine that children who are overweight or obese have a significantly higher prevalence of psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin.
* A study in February that found the prevalence of asthma among children and adolescents who are overweight or obese varies widely by race and ethnicity. The study also found that the association between childhood asthma and increasing body mass index is strongest in Hispanics and weakest in African Americans.
* A study that found extremely obese children have a 40 percent higher risk of gastroesophageal reflux disease and children who are moderately obese have a 30 percent higher risk of GERD compared to normal weight children,
* A study that found extreme obesity is affecting more children at younger ages, with 12 percent of African American teenage girls, 11.2 percent of Hispanic teenage boys, 7.3 percent of boys, and 5.5 percent of girls 2 years of age now classified as extremely obese.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Children With Autism Receiving Targeted Interventions on Joint Attention and Play

This study is one of the only long-term follow-up studies of children who participated in preschool early interventions aimed at targeting core developmental difficulties. The study findings suggest that focusing on joint attention and play skills in comprehensive treatment models is important for long-term spoken language outcomes. In all, 80% of children had achieved functional use of spoken language with baseline play level predicting spoken language at the 5-year follow-up. Of children who were using spoken language at age 8 years, several baseline behaviors predicted their later ability, including earlier age of entry into the study, initiating joint attention skill, play level, and assignment to either the joint attention or symbolic play intervention group. Only baseline play diversity predicted cognitive scores at age 8 years.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Immediate Rewards for Good Scores Can Boost Student Performance

Test performance can improve dramatically if students are offered rewards just before they are given standardized tests and if they receive the incentive immediately afterward, new research at the University of Chicago shows.

Educators have long debated the value of financial and other rewards as incentives, but a series of experiments in Chicago-area schools showed that with the right kind of rewards, students achievement improved by as much as six months beyond what would be expected.

The rewards apparently provide students with an incentive to take tests more seriously. One implication is that policymakers may underestimate students’ ability in otherwise low-performing schools, according to the research team that conducted the experiments.

Researchers used financial rewards to boost performance for older students and non-financial rewards, such as trophies, to improve performance among younger students.

The prospect of losing a reward created a stronger desire to perform than the possibility of receiving a reward after a test, the research showed. Students who were given money or a trophy to look at while they tested performed better.

“Most importantly, all motivating power of the incentives vanishes when rewards are handed out with a delay,” said lead author Sally Sadoff, a 2010 PhD graduate in economics, who did the research as a Griffin Postdoctoral Scholar at UChicago from 2010-11.

Sadoff, now an assistant professor at the University of California, San Diego, was part a team that conducted a series of experiments involving 7,000 students in the Chicago Public Schools as well as in elementary and high school districts in south-suburban Chicago Heights.

The team studied the impact of incentives on students taking relatively short, standardized diagnostic tests given three times a year to determine their grasp of mathematics and English skills. Unlike other tests on incentives, the students were not told ahead of time of the rewards so they could not study but rather demonstrated the impact of the rewards themselves on performance.

The research was reported in the paper, “The Behaviorist Goes to School: Leveraging Behavioral Economics to Improve Educational Performance,” published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Sadoff was joined in her work by John List, the Homer J. Livingston Professor in Economics and one of the nation’s leading scholars of experimental economics; Steven Levitt, the William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at UChicago; and Susanne Neckermann, a scholar at the Center for European Economic Research in Germany.

The team found that elementary school students, who were given nonfinancial rewards, responded more to incentives than high schoolers. Those students were given trophies, as they have been found to be more responsive to non-monetary rewards than older students.

Among high school students, the amount of money involved in the incentive mattered. Students performed better if offered $20 rather than $10.

“At Bloom Township High School, when we offered students $20 incentives, we found that their scores were 0.12 to .20 standard deviation points (five to sixth months in improved performance) above what we would otherwise have predicted given their previous test scores,” Sadoff said.

List pointed out that the results of the experiments challenged a conventional theory that giving students tangible rewards “crowds out intrinsic motivation, rendering such approaches ineffective in the short run and potentially detrimental in the long run.”

The students tested had low initial motivation to do well, and thus benefited from the rewards, List said. He added that follow-up tests showed no negative impact on removing the rewards in successive tests.

The research helps teachers and school leaders better understand the role of rewards in school performance. Most rewards are delayed and involve a very distant horizon, such as the prospect of making a better salary as an adult as the result of better school performance, the team pointed out.

“The effect of timing of payoffs provides insights into the crux of the education problem that we face with our urban youth,” the authors write. “Effort is far removed from the payout of rewards, making it difficult for students to connect them in a useful way. The failure to recognize this connection potentially leads to dramatic under-investment,” as students fail to apply themselves and policymakers don’t realize the students’ full potential.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Timing of ADHD medication affects academic progress

A team of researchers led by an epidemiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and University of Iceland has found a correlation between the age at which children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) begin taking medication, and how well they perform on standardized tests, particularly in math.

The study, titled, "A Population-Based Study of Stimulant Drug Treatment of ADHD and Academic Progress in Children," appears in the July, 2012, edition of Pediatrics, and can be viewed online on June 25. Using data from the Icelandic Medicines Registry and the Database of National Scholastic Examinations, the researchers studied 11,872 Icelandic children born between 1994 and 1996. The children started medication for ADHD at different times between fourth and seventh grades.

The findings showed that children who began drug treatment within 12 months of their fourth-grade test declined 0.3 percent in math by the time they took their seventh-grade test, compared with a decline of 9.4 percent in children who began taking medication 25-to-36 months after their fourth-grade test.

The data also showed that girls benefited only in mathematics, whereas boys had marginal benefits in math and language arts.

"Children who began taking medications immediately after their fourth-grade standardized tests showed the smallest declines in academic performance," said the study's lead author Helga Zoega, PhD, Post Doctoral Fellow of Epidemiology at Mount Sinai's Institute for Translational Epidemiology. "The effect was greater in girls than boys and also greater for children who did poorly on their fourth grade test."

Stimulants are widely used in the United States as a therapeutic option for children with inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity associated with ADHD. The medications are less frequently used in Europe, although their use in Iceland most closely resembles the U.S. Long-term follow-up studies of stimulant use and academic performance are scarce, according to the researchers.

Stimulation During Sleep Can Enhance Skill Learning

Want to nail that tune that you've practiced and practiced? Maybe you should take a nap with the same melody playing during your sleep, new provocative Northwestern University research suggests.

The research grows out of exciting existing evidence that suggests that memories can be reactivated during sleep and storage of them can be strengthened in the process.

In the Northwestern study, research participants learned how to play two artificially generated musical tunes with well-timed key presses. Then while the participants took a 90-minute nap, the researchers presented one of the tunes that had been practiced, but not the other.

"Our results extend prior research by showing that external stimulation during sleep can influence a complex skill," said Ken A. Paller, professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and senior author of the study.

By using EEG methods to record the brain's electrical activity, the researchers ensured that the soft musical "cues" were presented during slow-wave sleep, a stage of sleep previously linked to cementing memories. Participants made fewer errors when pressing the keys to produce the melody that had been presented while they slept, compared to the melody not presented.

"We also found that electrophysiological signals during sleep correlated with the extent to which memory improved," said lead author James Antony of the Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program at Northwestern. "These signals may thus be measuring the brain events that produce memory improvement during sleep."

The age-old myth that you can learn a foreign language while you sleep is sure to come to mind, said Paul J. Reber, associate professor of psychology at Northwestern and a co-author of the study.

"The critical difference is that our research shows that memory is strengthened for something you've already learned," Reber said. "Rather than learning something new in your sleep, we're talking about enhancing an existing memory by re-activating information recently acquired."

The researchers, he said, are now thinking about how their findings could apply to many other types of learning.

"If you were learning how to speak in a foreign language during the day, for example, and then tried to reactivate those memories during sleep, perhaps you might enhance your learning."

Paller said he hopes the study will help them learn more about the basic brain mechanisms that transpire during sleep to help preserve memory storage.

"These same mechanisms may not only allow an abundance of memories to be maintained throughout a lifetime, but they may also allow memory storage to be enriched through the generation of novel connections among memories," he said.

The study opens the door for future studies of sleep-based memory processing for many different types of motor skills, habits and behavioral dispositions, Paller said.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Confusion Can Be Beneficial For Learning

Most of us assume that confidence and certainty are preferred over uncertainty and bewilderment when it comes to learning complex information. But a new study led by Sidney D'Mello of the University of Notre Dame shows that confusion when learning can be beneficial if it is properly induced, effectively regulated, and ultimately resolved.

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of Learning and Instruction.

Notre Dame Psychologist and Computer Scientist D'Mello, whose research areas include artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction and the learning sciences, together with Art Graesser of the University of Memphis, collaborated on the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation.

They found that by strategically inducing confusion in a learning session on difficult conceptual topics, people actually learned more effectively and were able to apply their knowledge to new problems.

In a series of experiments, subjects learned scientific reasoning concepts through interactions with computer animated agents playing the roles of a tutor and a peer learner. The animated agents and the subject engaged in interactive conversations where they collaboratively discussed the merits of sample research studies that were flawed in one critical aspect. For example, one hypothetical case study touted the merits of a diet pill, but was flawed because it did not include an appropriate control group. Confusion was induced by manipulating the information the subjects received so that the animated agents' sometimes disagreed with each other and expressed contradictory or incorrect information. The agents then asked subjects to decide which opinion had more scientific merit, thereby putting the subject in the hot-spot of having to make a decision with incomplete and sometimes contradictory information.

In addition to the confusion and uncertainty triggered by the contradictions, subjects who were confused scored higher on a difficult post-test and could more successfully identify flaws in new case studies.

"We have been investigating links between emotions and learning for almost a decade, and find that confusion can be beneficial to learning if appropriately regulated because it can cause learners to process the material more deeply in order to resolve their confusion," D'Mello says.

According to D'Mello, it is not advisable to intentionally confuse students who are struggling or induce confusion during high-stakes learning activities. Confusion interventions are best for higher level learners who want to be challenged with difficult tasks, are willing to risk failure, and who manage negative emotions when they occur.

"It is also important that the students are productively instead of hopelessly confused. By productive confusion, we mean that the source of the confusion is closely linked to the content of the learning session, the student attempts to resolve their confusion, and the learning environment provides help when the student struggles. Furthermore, any misleading information in the form of confusion-induction techniques should be corrected over the course of the learning session, as was done in the present experiments."

According to D'Mello, the next step in this body of research is to apply these methods to some of the more traditional domains like physics where misconceptions are common.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Fixing PA’s Charter School Formula Could Save $365 Million a Year in Taxpayer Money

PA Auditor General Jack Wagner said today that Pennsylvania could save $365 million a year in taxpayer money by adopting separate charter and cyber charter school funding formulas similar to those used in other states, and by closing an administrative loophole that permits double-dipping in pension payments through the calculation of tuition rates.

A study by the Department of the Auditor General shows that Pennsylvania has overpaid charter schools because its formula is pegged to educational costs in the sending school district rather than on the actual educational cost to the charter or cyber charter school.

Wagner’s special report found that Pennsylvania charter schools spent an average of $13,411 per student, which was about equal to the funding they received. That amount was about $3,000 more than the national average of about $10,000, Wagner’s auditors found. While Pennsylvania cyber charter schools received about the same funding level as bricks-and-mortar charter schools, they spent an average of $10,145 per student, reflecting their lower operating costs. Wagner’s report found that Pennsylvania cyber charter school’s average cost of $10,145 was $3,500 more than the national average of $6,500.

Wagner’s special report estimated $315 million in sustainable annual savings if Pennsylvania paid charter and cyber charter schools the national averages for its 100,000 charter and cyber charter students. He noted that most of the savings would flow to local taxpayers who are the primary funding source for charter and cyber-charter schools.

"With the tightening of school budgets and funding available to school districts throughout the state, Pennsylvania’s flawed and overly generous funding formula for charter and cyber charter schools is a luxury taxpayers can no longer afford,” Wagner said. “While I have long supported alternative forms of education, as the state’s independent fiscal watchdog, I cannot look the other way and ignore a broken system in which charter and cyber charter schools are being funded at significantly higher levels than their actual cost of educating students. It is time for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, along with the General Assembly and the Corbett administration, to fixPennsylvania’s flawed funding formula for charter and cyber charter schools.”

The projected $365 million in savings were calculated as follows:

• Brick-and-mortar Savings, $210 Million – Taking the approximate $3,000 per student rate difference between Pennsylvania’s costs and the national average brick-and-mortar costs, and multiplying by the number of brick-and-mortar charter students in 2011-12 (70,000 rounded figure);
• Cyber Savings, $105 Million – Taking the $3,500 per student rate difference between Pennsylvania’s costs and the national average cyber costs, and multiplying by the number of cyber students in 2011-12 (30,000 rounded figure);
• Double-Dipping Savings, $50 million – Taking the estimated per student Public School Employee Retirement Systems’ (PSERS) contribution rate in 2011-12, multiplied by the number of charter/cyber students in 2011-12 (100,000).

Wagner’s auditors found that based on the five U.S. states with the largest student enrollment in independently operated charter and cyber schools, Pennsylvania’s spending of $12,657 was clearly the highest among the five states with the most charter and cyber charter students. Ohio spent $10,652; Michigan, $9,480; Texas, $8,954; and Arizona, $7,671.

Wagner said that Pennsylvania could save taxpayer dollars by correcting the charter and cyber charter school funding formula by implementing existing state models that have proven to be more equitable, including using a set state-based rate to fund charter and cyber schools like some other states across the country have done. The report further noted that across all states, funding levels appear to dictate spending habits.

Wagner said Pennsylvania taxpayers could realize even greater savings if the commonwealth directly funded charter and cyber education as do Michigan and Arizona. If Pennsylvania used Michigan’s rate of $9,480, it would save about $318 million annually; if it used Arizona’s rate of $7,671 it would save nearly $500 million annually, based on 2008-09 state rates reported by the U.S. Department of Education.

In Pennsylvania, school districts have been heavily dependent on local property taxes to provide funding to school districts, including charter and cyber schools, Wagner said. In 2009-10, local property taxes accounted for 44 percent of all school district revenue, compared with just 28 percent nationally.

One loophole within the charter and cyber school funding formula that Wagner highlighted in his special report was a double dipping of retirement benefits at charter and cyber schools. Wagner’s report noted that in 2010-11, school districts paid retirement costs that equate to approximately $500 per student, because of a duplication of state reimbursements for school districts costs that charter and cybers schools are eligible to receive in direct state funding. Wagner said the double-dipping into the retirement reimbursement is particularly concerning, given the fact that Pennsylvania’s public educational organizations are seeing a steep rise in the cost of the commonwealth’s public employee pension system.

In addition, Wagner’s report found that 42 percent of cybers and 30 percent of brick-and-mortar charters paid management companies in 2010-11. He said that because Pennsylvania’s charters and cyber charters are funded by a school district’s per-student tuition rate, our funding method has attracted management companies to cyber charters and charters in urban areas, noting that 100 percent of the state’s top five charter and cyber schools that have the highest student enrollment used a management company in 2010-11. The report noted that a review of a management company contract found the company’s fees were based on a percentage of the school’s total revenue and not on the management services provided.

"Pennsylvania needs a fair and appropriate public education funding system capable of sustaining both traditional public schools and charter and cyber schools, and Pennsylvania taxpayers should not be spending one dollar more than the actual cost to educate our children in a charter or cyber school,” Wagner said.

Wagner’s special follow-up report on charter school funding made several key recommendations to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the General Assembly and the governor, to save taxpayers money, while maintaining high-quality school choice options.

• Correct the charter/cyber funding formula based on existing state models that have proven to be more equitable, and develop a statewide brick-and-mortar charter school funding rate and a statewide cyber school funding rate;
• Develop a charter school funding model that avoids double-dipping of commonwealth retirement contributions to state funded programs such as the Public School Employees’ Retirement System;
• Develop limits on the fees management companies can charge to save on excessive administrative costs to run charter and cyber schools;

Pennsylvania Department of Education should lead the charge to correct the charter school funding formula and to improve oversight of charter schools to prevent the commonwealth from continuing to pour money into poorly run schools.

Evaluation of Denver’s SchoolChoice Process for the 2011-2012 School Year

Denver Public Schools (DPS) recently completed its first round of school choice using a new unified approach called SchoolChoice. Prior to this year, charter schools, magnet schools and neighborhood schools used different processes to enroll students. One analysis of the prior system estimated that there were over 60 different procedures for school choice in place. In an attempt to create a more streamlined and equitable approach to school choice, a unified school choice process was put into place.

This year, for the first time, charter, magnet and neighborhood schools all participated in the same process. Families completed one form to rank their top five choices for schools. A new matching procedure was used to match students with their requested schools in an equitable manner. In a separate report, Dr. Gary Kochenberger described how the matching procedure worked and concluded that it performed as intended.

This report describes analyses of SchoolChoice enrollment data to shed light on how the process worked and to inform refinements to the process going forward. This report addresses five major research questions: 1) Who participated in the SchoolChoice process? 2) How were seats distributed across the district? 3) What were students' choices? 4) With which schools did students get matched? 5) What does the choice information tell us about demand for schools?

The group of students who participated in SchoolChoice was similar to the district as a whole in terms of race/ethnicity and free/redtced lunch status. The quality of available seats offered to SchoolChoice participants the district was examined using the district’s School Performance Framework (SPF) rating as the measure of quality. Across the district, about half of offered elementary and middle school seats were in higher-rated schools. About half of the offered high school seats were in schools rated as On Watch.

A large proportion of students were matched with one of the schools they requested. Over two-thirds of students overall were matched with their first choice. Students who qualified for free or reduced lunch were slightly more likely to get one of their choices and more likely to get their first choice than students who did not qualify. Hispanic students were most likely of the racial and ethnic groups to be matched with any choice and their first choice; white students were the least likely.

Interestingly, students in these same subgroups (i.e., qualify for free or reduced lunch, Hispanic, live in the Northwest or Southwest regions of the city) all tended to choose lower rated schools as their first choices, on average. Students who qualified for free and reduced lunch and Hispanic students were more likely to live in regions of the city that tended to have fewer seats in higher rated schools and more seats in lower-rated schools, which may explain why they tended to choose lower rated schools as their first choices.

Nonetheless, the fact that they tended to choose lower rated schools may explain, at least in part, why they were more likely to get their first choices, as the SPF rating of schools was strongly related to the demand for schools. After taking into account the SPF points earned by the schools that students requested, we found that demographic characteristics were largely unrelated to the SPF ratings of the schools with which students were actually matched.

That is, any apparent demographic differences in the SPF ratings of schools with which students were matched are actually due to the differences in the types of schools that students from different demographic groups request. This highlights the fairness of the matching procedure but also raises questions about the extent to which all students are making requests that reflect their true preferences. The old system for choice in DPS provided incentives for some students to misrepresent their choices. The new procedure eliminates this need, but these results raise questions about the extent to which parent behavior has changed along with the SchoolChoice process.

About two-thirds of students’ requests were for schools in the same region of the city as they resided. Students in the non-transition grades requested schools outside their home region more often than students entering other grades. Hispanic students tended to choose schools within their home region more often than students of other races/ethnicities. Students residing in the Near Northeast region made the smallest percentage of choices in their home region. Finally, generally speaking students who were currently enrolled in lower-performing schools tended to make more choices from within their region than students in higher performing schools.

In sum, many students participated in the SchoolChoice process. It is impossible from these data to determine if those who did not participate intended to choose to attend their neighborhood school or if more marketing is needed to engage more students in the process.

For those that did participate, the process did not appear to disadvantage minority or low-income students. There was evidence that families showed a preference for higher-performing schools, but that the strength of that preference varied by demographic characteristics, including where in the city students resided. It is clear from these analyses that demographic characteristics, region of the city in which students reside, the extent to which they request higher-rated schools, and their willingness to attend a school outside of the region in which they live are all factors that are highly associated with one another and with the school with which a student was ultimately matched.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools

Additional Federal Attention Needed to Help Protect Access for Students with Disabilities
Complete Report

What GAO Found

Charter schools enrolled a lower percentage of students with disabilities than traditional public schools, but little is known about the factors contributing to these differences. In school year 2009-2010, which was the most recent data available at the time of our review, approximately 11 percent of students enrolled in traditional public schools were students with disabilities compared to about 8 percent of students enrolled in charter schools.

GAO also found that, relative to traditional public schools, the proportion of charter schools that enrolled high percentages of students with disabilities was lower overall. Specifically, students with disabilities represented 8 to 12 percent of all students at 23 percent of charter schools compared to 34 percent of traditional public schools. However, when compared to traditional public schools, a higher percentage of charter schools enrolled more than 20 percent of students with disabilities. Several factors may help explain why enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools differ, but the information is anecdotal. For example, charter schools are schools of choice, so enrollment levels may differ because fewer parents of students with disabilities choose to enroll their children in charter schools. In addition, some charter schools may be discouraging students with disabilities from enrolling. Further, in certain instances, traditional public school districts play a role in the placement of students with disabilities in charter schools. In these instances, while charter schools participate in the placement process, they do not always make the final placement decisions for students with disabilities. Finally, charter schools’ resources may be constrained, making it difficult to meet the needs of students with more severe disabilities.

Most of the 13 charter schools GAO visited publicized and offered special education services, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities. Most charter school officials said they publicized the availability of special education services in several ways, including fliers and placing ads in the local newspaper. Many charter schools GAO visited also reported tailoring special education services to individuals’ needs, but faced challenges serving students with severe disabilities due to insufficient resources. About half of the charter school officials GAO interviewed cited insufficient resources, including limited space, as a challenge.

The U.S. Department of Education’s (Education) Office for Civil Rights has undertaken two compliance reviews related to charter schools’ recruitment and admission of students with disabilities in three states, but has not issued recent guidance covering admission practices in detail, nor has Education conducted recent research about factors affecting lower enrollment in charter schools. The three states GAO visited already have taken steps to monitor charter schools’ admission practices. In addition, officials in these three states reported prohibiting disability-related questions on charter school admission forms, in part to protect students with disabilities’ access.

Why GAO Did This Study

While the number of charter schools is growing rapidly, questions have been raised about whether charter schools are appropriately serving students with disabilities. GAO was asked: (1) How do enrollment levels of students with disabilities in charter schools and traditional public schools compare, and what is known about the factors that may contribute to any differences? (2) How do charter schools reach out to students with disabilities and what special education services do charter schools provide? (3) What role do Education, state educational agencies, and other entities that oversee charter schools play in ensuring students with disabilities have access to charter schools? GAO analyzed federal data on the number and characteristics of students with disabilities; visited charter schools and school districts in three states selected on the basis of the number of charter schools in the state, among other things; and interviewed representatives of federal, state, and other agencies that oversee charter schools.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that the Secretary of Education take measures to help charter schools recognize practices that may affect enrollment of students with disabilities by updating existing guidance and conducting additional fact finding and research to identify factors affecting enrollment levels of these students in charter schools

Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks in Science

As part of the 2009 science assessment, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administered two types of innovative science tasks that invited students to put their science knowledge into practice: Hands-on Tasks (HOTs) and Interactive Computer Tasks (ICTs). These tasks were administered to students at grades 4, 8, and 12 nationally. The report Science in Action: Hands-On and Interactive Computer Tasks From the 2009 NAEP Science Assessment at Grades 4, 8, and 12 presents the findings from this special probe assessment.

In addition, three of the HOTs and all nine of the ICTs administered as part of the assessment have been released on the Nation’s Report Card website. Try the tasks for yourself and view data about student performance on each of the tasks.

Key findings from Science in Action include:

• Students were successful when investigations involved limited sets of data and making straightforward observations about the data.

• Students were challenged when investigations contained more variables or involved strategic decision making to collect appropriate data.

• Students successful at selecting conclusions were often less successful when asked to explain the results.

• While there was no gender gap in performance on the ICTs, female students scored higher than their male peers on the HOTs.

• At grades 4 and 12, Hispanic students scored higher than their Black peers on both the HOTs and the ICTs.

• Approximately 92 percent of fourth-graders and 98 percent of eighth-graders had teachers who reported doing hands-on activities with students at least monthly.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Early Years Class-Size Most Important

A new report from the Southern Regional Education Board says that even when budgets are tight, states should protect smaller classes in the early grades and study the effects of larger classes on student achievement.

Research shows that students perform better in small classrooms, especially in kindergarten through third grade, according to Smart Class-Size Policies for Lean Times. Yet shrinking class sizes is one of the most expensive education initiatives for states: Reducing average class size by even one student could cost the nation more than $10 billion per year. In Florida, a statewide class-size reduction policy cost nearly $22 billion over a nine-year period.

In the 1980s, SREB states, led by Tennessee and Texas, spearheaded policies to limit the number of students in public K-12 classrooms. The K-12 student-teacher ratio dropped over two decades by nearly three students in SREB states and by almost two students nationally.

In recent years, some states have altered their class-size policies as they weighed their cost effectiveness during lean times. About a third of all states — including 10 SREB states — permit waivers to provide flexibility. Florida adjusted its list of core courses, and Texas sought to move from caps to averages.

The SREB policy brief recommends that if states must consider enlarging class sizes to save money, they should:

- Consider the state’s record of student performance along with their current fiscal condition.
- Base change on research about impact on student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
- Require schools to monitor individual student achievement at any grade level where they enlarge classes.
- Factor in effectiveness of classroom teachers and how they assess it.
- Maintain smaller classes pre-K through third grade and for groups of students at risk of academic failure.
- Keep the public informed of any changes.

Smart Class-Size Policies for Lean Times reviews research on the impact of class size on student performance, details how states measure class size, and relates recent changes to class-size policy in SREB states. It also includes a state-by-state table, by grade level, of AdvancED class-size cap recommendations alongside current averages or state-level caps in SREB states.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Early learning about spatial relationships boosts understanding of numbers

Children who are skilled in understanding how shapes fit together to make recognizable objects also have an advantage when it comes to learning the number line and solving math problems, research at the University of Chicago shows.

The work is further evidence of the value of providing young children with early opportunities in spatial learning, which contributes to their ability to mentally manipulate objects and understand spatial relationships, which are important in a wide range of tasks, including reading maps and graphs and understanding diagrams showing how to put things together. Those skills also have been shown to be important in Science Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields.

Scholars at UChicago have shown, for instance, that working with puzzles and learning to identify shapes are connected to improved spatial understanding and better achievement, particularly in geometry. A new paper, however, is the first to connect robust spatial learning with better comprehension of other aspects of mathematics, such as arithmetic.

"We found that children's spatial skills at the beginning of first and second grades predicted improvements in linear number line knowledge over the course of the school year," said Elizabeth Gunderson, a UChicago postdoctoral scholar who is lead author of the paper, "The Relation Between Spatial Skill and Early Number Knowledge: The Role of the Linear Number Line," published in the current issue of the journal Development Psychology.

In addition to finding the importance of spatial learning to improving understanding of the number line, the team also showed that better understanding of the number line boosted mathematics performance on a calculation task.

"These results suggest that improving children's spatial thinking at a young age may not only help foster skills specific to spatial reasoning but also improve symbolic numerical representations," said co-author Susan Levine, a leading authority on spatial and mathematical learning.

"This is important since spatial learning is malleable and can be positively influenced by early spatial experiences," added Levine, the Stella M. Rowley Professor in Psychology at UChicago.

Gunderson, PhD'12, and the research team reasoned that improved understanding of spatial relationships would help students figure out the approximate location of numbers along a line and could lead to better mathematics performance. They tested their idea with two experiments.

In the first experiment, the team studied 152 first- and second-grade boys and girls from diverse backgrounds in five urban schools. It gave them tests at the beginning and end of the school year, to see how well they could locate numbers on a straight, unmarked line with zero at one end and 1,000 at the other.

At the beginning of the school year, the researchers also assessed children's spatial knowledge on a task that required them to choose the correct piece from among four alternatives, which could be added to others to complete a square shape. The students with the strongest spatial skills showed the most growth in their number line knowledge over the course of the school year.

In a second experiment, the team showed the relationship among spatial skills, number line knowledge and facility in solving mathematics problems. That study was based on information gathered from a study of 42 children, who were videotaped between the ages of five and eight while having everyday interactions with their parents and caregivers.

The children were tested for spatial knowledge when they were five-and-a-half years old, and for number line knowledge when they were a little older than six. At age eight their calculation skills were assessed on a task that required them to approximate the answer.

Consistent with the results of the first study, this study showed clearly that the children with better spatial skills performed better on number line tests. Importantly, this number line knowledge was related to their later performance on the approximate calculation tests when they were eight years old.

"Improving children's spatial skills may have positive impacts on their future success in science, technology, engineering or mathematics disciplines, not only by improving spatial thinking but also by enhancing the numerical skills that are critical for achievement in all STEM fields," Gunderson said.

Persistence is learned from fathers, study shows

New research from Brigham Young University shows that dads are in a unique position to help their adolescent children develop persistence.

BYU professors Laura Padilla-Walker and Randal Day arrived at these findings after following 325 families over several years. And over time, the persistence gained through fathers lead to higher engagement in school and lower rates of delinquency.

"In our research we ask 'Can your child stick with a task? Can they finish a project? Can they make a goal and complete it?'" Day said. "Learning to stick with it sets a foundation for kids to flourish and to cope with the stress and pressures of life."

The scholars from BYU's School of Family Life report their findings June 15 in the Journal of Early Adolescence.

"There are relatively few studies that highlight the unique role of fathers," Padilla-Walker said. "This research also helps to establish that traits such as persistence – which can be taught – are key to a child's life success."

The key is for dads to practice what's called "authoritative" parenting – not to be confused with authoritarian. Here are the three basic ingredients:

Children feel warmth and love from their father •

Accountability and the reasons behind rules are emphasized •

Children are granted an appropriate level of autonomy •

About 52 percent of the dads in the study exhibited above-average levels of authoritative parenting. Over time, their kids were significantly more likely to develop persistence, which lead to better outcomes in school and lower levels of delinquency.

This particular study examined 11-14 year olds residing in two-parent homes. Yet the study authors suggest that single parents still may play a role in teaching the benefits of persistence, which is an avenue of future research.

"Fathers should continue to try and be involved in their children's lives and engage in high quality interactions, even if the quantity of those interactions might be lower than is desirable," Padilla-Walker said.

Knowledge Of Fractions and Long Division Predicts Long-Term Math Success

From factory workers to Wall Street bankers, a reasonable proficiency in math is a crucial requirement for most well-paying jobs in a modern economy. Yet, over the past 30 years, mathematics achievement of U.S. high school students has remained stagnant — and significantly behind many other countries, including China, Japan, Finland, the Netherlands and Canada.

A research team led by Carnegie Mellon University's Robert Siegler has identified a major source of the gap - U. S. students' inadequate knowledge of fractions and division. Although fractions and division are taught in elementary school, even many college students have poor knowledge of them. The research team found that fifth graders' understanding of fractions and division predicted high school students' knowledge of algebra and overall math achievement, even after statistically controlling for parents' education and income and for the children's own age, gender, I.Q., reading comprehension, working memory, and knowledge of whole number addition, subtraction and multiplication. Published in Psychological Science, the findings demonstrate an immediate need to improve teaching and learning of fractions and division.

"We suspected that early knowledge in these areas was absolutely crucial to later learning of more advanced mathematics, but did not have any evidence until now," said Siegler, the Teresa Heinz Professor of Cognitive Psychology at Carnegie Mellon. "The clear message is that we need to improve instruction in long division and fractions, which will require helping teachers to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts that underlie these mathematical operations. At present, many teachers lack this understanding. Because mastery of fractions, ratios and proportions is necessary in a high percentage of contemporary occupations, we need to start making these improvements now."

The research, supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences and by the National Science Foundation's Developmental and Learning Science Group at the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Directorate, was conducted by a team of eight investigators: Siegler; U.C. Irvine's Greg J. Duncan; the University of Michigan's Pamela E. Davis-Kean, Maria Ines Susperreguy and Meichu Chen; the University of London's Kathryn Duckworth; the University of Chicago's Amy Claessens; and Vanderbilt University's Mimi Engel.

For the study, the team examined two nationally representative data sets, one from the U.S. and one from the United Kingdom. The U.S. set included 599 children who were tested in 1997 as 10-12 year-olds and again in 2002 as 15-17-year-olds. The set from the U.K. included 3,677 children who were tested in 1980 as 10-year-olds and in 1986 as 16-year-olds. The importance of fractions and division for long-term mathematics learning was evident in both data sets, despite the data being collected in two different countries almost 20 years apart. 

"This research is a good demonstration of what collaborations between psychologists, economists, public policy analysts and education scientists can create," said Davis-Kean, associate professor of psychology at Michigan. "Instead of relying on results from a single study, this study replicates findings across two national data sets in two different countries, which strengthens our confidence in the results."

Rob Ochsendorf, program officer for special education research at the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Special Education Research added, "This study is critical for providing empirical and general confirmation of the crucial role of division and fractions proficiency for long-term success in mathematics for all students. The results provide important cues to educators and researchers regarding the skills that are ripe for intervention in order to improve overall mathematics achievement in the U.S."

For more information, watch this short video of Siegler discussing the study and its implications:

Limited Choice Doesn’t Support New School Models, Study Finds

School choice is growing nationwide, but existing programs don’t support highly innovative school models, according to a new study. Although previous research has established a moderate academic benefit from those programs, the study suggests universal school choice for all families would bring to scale the kind of dramatic models piloted by such schools as Carpe Diem, Rocketship Education, or KIPP.

Greg Forster, Ph.D., and James L. Woodworth, M.Ed., authors of “The Greenfield School Revolution and School Choice,” took a critical look at whether current private school choice plans are driving structural innovation in America’s private schools. The authors find that in spite of moderate academic benefits, cities and states with school choice aren’t seeing larger structural changes in private schooling. The real entrepreneurial activity, they suggest, is in charter schools; but they warn that momentum can’t last forever.

“From digital learning to college prep, the most innovative schooling models tend to be in charter schools,” Forster said. “But the natural tendency of government to get in the way is already limiting those innovations. The private schooling sector has the potential to foster much more ambitious reforms.”

In the “Greenfield” report, U.S. Department of Education data were analyzed to see whether that potential is being tapped by existing choice programs in Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin. None appears to have led to major changes in the private school sector. Only the programs in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona have produced even modest structural changes in private schooling; none is producing significant disruption of the status quo.

Forster and Woodworth claim charter innovators, on the other hand, have succeeded because they are chosen by parents, “free” to consumers, and less regulated than traditional public schools. Those features, they say, could be amplified if all parents were empowered through a universal school choice policy.

“The private education sector isn’t innovating because not enough people are using it,” Woodworth said. “Families aren’t using it because there’s a tuition barrier that’s difficult to overcome. But if all parents had access to, say, vouchers for their kids, that tuition barrier would be removed or greatly lowered.”

The goal, according to the authors, “shouldn’t be just to push some kids from one existing system into different existing systems. The goal should be to empower parents and entrepreneurs to create new schooling models that drive meaningful innovation and improvement in all schools, public and private.”

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Low-Performing Students: Percentage of U.S. Students at the Lowest Proficiency Levels Relative to International Peers on the Most Recent International Assessments in Reading, Mathematics, and Science: Results from PIRLS 2006, TIMSS 2007, and PISA 2009

How does the United States compare with other nations in terms of the proportion of students performing at the lowest proficiency levels? The international assessments Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) report the percentage of students in each participating nation and sub-national or non-national education system performing at each of several proficiency levels. The most recent U.S. results on international assessments are from PIRLS 2006, TIMSS 2007, and PISA 2009 and cover reading, mathematics, and science literacy.

NCES used the International Data Explorer to compare the percentage of low-performing students in the United States and other participating nations (and sub-national or non-national education systems) in reading, mathematics, and science at grades 4 and 8 and age 15. Low-performing students at grades 4 and 8 are defined as those failing to reach the Low International Benchmark on the PIRLS (reading) or TIMSS (mathematics and science) assessments. At age 15, they are defined as those failing to reach PISA Proficiency Level 2.

Complete Report


At grade 4, nine education systems had less than 5 percent of students performing at the lowest proficiency levels in any subject, including Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong-China, Japan, Latvia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, the Netherlands, Quebec-Canada, and Singapore (though Japan, Massachusetts, and Minnesota did not participate in grade 4 reading).

>The United States had around 5 percent low-performing students in each subject at grade 4: 4 percent in reading, 5 percent in mathematics, and 6 percent in science.

> Six out of the 45 education systems had at least 40 percent of low-performing 4th graders in reading, and 8 out of the 43 participating education systems had at least 40 percent low-performing 4th graders across both mathematics and science.

At grade 8, the Republic of Korea, Japan, and Minnesota all had less than 5 percent low-performing students in both mathematics and science (reading was not assessed internationally at grade 8).

>In both mathematics and science, 8 percent of U.S. 8th graders were low performers.

>Eleven of the 56 education systems had at least 40 percent of low-performing 8th graders across both mathematics and science.

At age 15, only Shanghai-China had 5 percent or less of low-performing students in any subject.

>About one in five U.S. 15-year-olds were low performers in reading (18 percent), mathematics (23 percent), and science (18 percent).

>Nineteen of the 65 participating education systems had at least 40 percent low-performing 15-year-olds in all three subjects and 23 had at least 40 percent low-performing 15-year-olds in at least one subject.

In both reading and mathematics, the United States had three times the percentage of low-performing 15-year-olds as it did low-performing 4th graders; in science, the United States had twice the percentage of low-performing 15-year-olds as it did low-performing 4th graders.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Teaching autistic teens to cope

Teenagers with autism spectrum disorder are in a bind. The disorder is characterized by impairments in communication and social interaction, but it's a continuum, so some teens diagnosed with ASD are considered high functioning and healthy enough to be "mainstreamed" in school.

But without the proper social skills, even mainstreamed teens don't quite fit into the general social milieu of middle school or high school. As a result, they suffer from all the slings and arrows of that world.

Since 2006, however, the UCLA PEERS (Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills) clinic has assisted high-functioning teens with ASD by literally teaching them the strategies they need to fit in better with their peers. And while previous research demonstrated that the program was effective, it wasn't known whether the new skills "stuck" with these teens after they completed the PEERS classes.

In the current edition of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Elizabeth Laugeson, director of the PEERS Clinic and a UCLA assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, and colleagues report that in a long-term follow-up study, they found that the skills taught and learned stayed with the kids — and in some cases even improved.

ASD includes a range of pervasive developmental disorders characterized by problems with communication and socialization; it's estimated that one in 88 children born in the United States has some form of ASD.

The researchers' findings show that the PEERS intervention resulted in significant improvements in social skills, as reported by parents and teachers using standardized measurements of social functioning. Reports from parents also suggested that teens' ASD symptoms related to social responsiveness decreased significantly by the end of the class and even at the long-term, 14-week follow-up. In addition, the teens' knowledge of social skills improved, as did the frequency of their get-togethers with their peers.

Teacher ratings of the teens' social functioning in class also showed significant improvements at the long-term follow-up — an important finding, since the teachers did not know the teens had participated in the PEERS class.

Both parents and teachers also reported there were fewer problem behaviors with the teens 14 weeks after the program was over.

"Teens not only showed better social competence and greater understanding of social skills, but they were having more frequent get-togethers with their peers because they had developed the critical skills needed to make and keep friends," said Laugeson, who also directs The Help Group–UCLA Autism Research Alliance.

Studies on the effectiveness of social-skills training for individuals with ASD indicate that intervention during childhood and adolescence is critical. However, very few evidence-based interventions focus on improving the social competence of teens with ASD, which makes the present findings unique and important, Laugeson said.

"This is exciting news," she said. "It shows that teens with autism can learn social skills and that the tools stick even after the program is over, improving their quality of life and helping them to develop meaningful relationships and to feel more comfortable within their social world. The fact that these social skills are sticking is critical, because we need them to thrive throughout our lives."

Laugeson attributes the power of the program to the parents. The PEERS classes, which focus on teaching the rules of social etiquette to teens, require parents to participate as well. In separate meetings, the parents are also provided with information on how to be social coaches for their teens in the real world. Many of the social skills taught are those most of us know intuitively: how to have a conversation (by trading information), showing good sportsmanship ("Hey, nice shot!"), and how to avoid bullying or deflect taunts ("Yeah, whatever").

The classes meet for 90 minutes once a week for 14 weeks and include brief didactic instruction, role-playing demonstrations, behavioral rehearsal exercises for teens to practice newly learned skills, in-class coaching with performance feedback, and weekly "homework" assignments, supervised by parents, such as inviting a friend over for a get-together at home.

"The class is very structured, and the skills are broken down into small rules and steps of social etiquette that give the teens specific actions they can take in response to a social situation," Laugeson said. "This method of instruction is very appealing to teens with autism because they tend to think concretely and literally and often learn by rote."

What makes this program even more unique, Laugeson said, is that it teaches the skills used by socially accepted teens — not what adults think teens should do. For example, if teens with ASD are teased, "most adults will tell teens to ignore the person, walk away or tell an adult," she said. "But when you ask teens if this works, they say no. So we want to teach our teens to do what kids that are socially accepted are naturally doing. In this case, that would be to give a short comeback that shows what the person said didn't bother them — like saying 'whatever' or 'yeah, and?' They learn not to take the bait."

Monday, June 11, 2012

Treating Childhood Anxiety with Computers, Not Drugs

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, one in eight children suffers from an anxiety disorder. And because many anxious children turn into severely anxious adults, early intervention can have a major impact on a patient's life trajectory. The understandable reluctance to use psychiatric medications when it comes to children means child psychologists are always searching for viable therapeutic alternatives.

Now Prof. Yair Bar-Haim of Tel Aviv University's School of Psychological Sciences and his fellow researchers are pursuing a new method to address childhood anxiety. Based on a computer program, the treatment uses a technique called Attention Bias Modification (ABM) to reduce anxiety by drawing children away from their tendency to dwell on potential threats, ultimately changing their thought patterns. In its initial clinical trial, the program was as effective as medication and cognitive therapy for children — with several distinct advantages.

The results of the trial were reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Computers instead of capsules

Children are comfortable with computers, explains Prof. Bar-Haim. And because of the potential side effects of medications or the difficulty in obtaining cognitive behavioral therapy, such as the need for highly trained professionals, it is good to have an alternative treatment method. ABM treatments can be disseminated over the Internet or administered by personnel who don't have to be Ph.D.s. "This could be a game-changer for providing treatment," he says.

Anxious individuals have a heightened sensitivity towards threats that the average person would ignore, a sensitivity which creates and maintains anxiety, says Prof. Bar-Haim. One of the ways to measure a patient's threat-related attention patterns is called the dot-probe test. The patient is presented with two pictures or words, one threatening and one neutral. These words then disappear and a dot appears where one of the pictures or words had been, and the patient is asked to press a button to indicate the dot's location. A fast response time to a dot that appears in the place of the threatening picture or word indicates a bias towards threat.

To turn this test into a therapy, the location of the dot target is manipulated to appear more frequently beneath the neutral word or picture. Gradually, the patient begins to focus on that stimulus instead, predicting that this is where the dot will appear — helping to normalize the attention bias pattern and reduce anxiety.

Prof. Bar-Haim and his colleagues enlisted the participation of 40 pediatric patients with ongoing anxiety disorders and divided them into three groups. The first received the new ABM treatment; the second served as a placebo group where the dot appeared equally behind threatening and neutral images; and the third group was shown only neutral stimuli. Patients participated in one session a week for four weeks, completing 480 dot probe trials each session.

The children's anxiety levels were measured before and after the training sessions using interviews and questionnaires. In both the placebo group and neutral images group, researchers found no significant change in the patients' bias towards threatening stimuli. However, in the ABM group, there were marked differences in the participants' threat bias. By the end of the trial, approximately 33 percent of the patients in this group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for anxiety disorder.

New methods for personalized treatment

These indications of the method's success in treating children warrant further investigation, says Prof. Bar-Haim. In collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health in the US, a large international trial involving his computer program is now being carried out at more than 20 sites across five continents.

The more options that exist for patients, the better that clinicians can tailor treatment for their patient's individual needs, Prof. Bar-Haim observes. There are always patients for whom medication or cognitive therapy is not a viable option, he explains. "Psychological disorders are complex, and not every patient will respond well to every treatment. It's great to have new methods that have a basis in neuroscience and clinical evidence."

Friday, June 8, 2012

Impact of African-American teachers in Title I schools

Closing the academic gaps in performance among students from diverse backgrounds is a challenge for schools and a mandate from the government. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has prompted schools and school districts to re-examine elements that impact student achievements.

A study completed by a recent graduate from University of Houston's Executive Education Doctorate in Professional Leadership suggests that African-American students do not necessarily fare better when taught by African-American teachers. The study examined the impact of African-American teachers on African-American eighth-graders in Texas Title I schools and found no significant relationship between their academic achievement and the percentage of African-American teachers on campus.

Additionally, the study, conducted by Walter Hunt, a Houston-area assistant principal, found the achievement gap between African-American and Caucasian students was greater on campuses with a larger percentage of African-American teachers.

"As an administrator of a campus that fits the criteria of a Title I school, I wanted to look at minority student achievement in low socio-economic environments, which can have a profound impact on campuses that are receiving federal funds. So my focus was on the teachers," Hunt said. "There has often been a preconceived notion that the staff make-up should resemble the student body population, and this has often directed recruitment and hiring efforts among building principals."

Hunt examined eighth-graders and teacher diversity in 198 Title I Texas schools. Title I is part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and provides additional funding for those campuses serving children from low-income families. He studied 2010 eighth-grade math and reading scores from the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests and compared scores of African-American and Caucasian students with campuses of large and small percentages of African-American teachers.

"At first glance, it would appear that teacher race doesn't matter when addressing student achievement of minority students, but there are many layers involved when analyzing achievement of a middle-school student, such as racial identity, self-identity, age, involvement in school activities," he said. "In this particular study, I was surprised to see that the campuses with more African-American teachers did not have the highest African-American student achievement. This just goes to show that having a positive impact on students is a complex, multi-layered process."

His study suggests next steps that include a broader examination of other middle school grades, as well as high school, that looks at the relationship between academic achievement of Hispanic students and the percentage of Hispanic teachers. He also suggests a broadening of the study to include social studies and science TAKS scores.

The study was a project to complete the UH College of Education's Executive Education Doctorate in Professional Leadership. The two-year program is for working education professionals and provides intensive research and applied skills for real-world education concerns. Students bring the most pressing concerns experienced by the educational community to each course. A practical internship or laboratory of practice gives students an avenue to apply the specifics of these problems to their other courses and their research. Students who successfully complete the program are qualified for superintendent positions, school administrators or university professors.

"I think the program has helped to prepare me for the challenges that I will encounter as an educator in public education in the 21st-century," Hunt said. "The program's design not only exposed me to research-tested theory, but focused on real-world application that is unmatched by other programs."

National Graduation Rate Keeps Climbing

1.1 Million Students Still Fail to Earn Diplomas

Report Examines Challenges Facing Latino Students;

Identifies Promising Strategies and Districts Beating the Odds

Individualized Graduation Reports Issued for All 50 States and D.C.

A new national report from Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education (EPE) Research Center, Diplomas Count 2012, finds that the nation’s graduation rate has posted a solid gain for the second straight year, following a period of declines and stagnation. Amid this continuing turnaround, the nation’s graduation rate has risen to 73 percent, the highest level of high school completion since the late 1970s. The report shows that the nation’s public schools will generate about 90,000 fewer dropouts than the previous year. Nationwide improvements were driven, in large part, by impressive gains among Latino students.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that the educational and economic future of the nation will hinge on our ability to better serve the nation’s large and growing Latino population, which faces unique challenges when it comes to success in high school and the transition to college and career,” said Christopher B. Swanson, Vice President of Editorial Projects in Education, the nonprofit organization that publishes Education Week. “Given what’s at stake, it is heartening to see that graduation rates for Latinos are improving faster than for any other group of students.”

The nation's 12.1 million Latino schoolchildren encounter significant barriers on the road to educational success: language challenges, poverty, lagging achievement, low rates of high school and college completion, and, more recently, a wave of state laws targeting illegal immigrants that have put additional strain on Hispanic students, families, and communities. The 2012 edition of Diplomas Count—Trailing Behind, Moving Forward: Latino Students in U.S. Schools—takes a closer look at the state of schooling for this population of students, the challenges they face, and the lessons learned from some of the schools, districts, organizations, and communities that work closely with Latino students.

The report—part of an ongoing project conducted by the Bethesda, Md.-based Editorial Projects in Education—also tracks graduation policies for all 50 states and the District of Columbia and presents an updated analysis of graduation patterns for the nation, states, and the country’s 50 largest school systems. The new analysis focuses on the class of 2009, the most recent year for which data are available.


The national public school graduation rate for the class of 2009 reached 73.4 percent, an increase of 1.7 points from the previous year. Much of this improvement can be attributed to a rapid 5.5 point rise in graduation rates among Latinos and a 1.7 point gain for African-Americans. These increases more than offset modest drops in graduation rates for Asian-American and Native American students. Rates for white students remained largely unchanged.

The class of 2009 marked the end of a decade—punctuated by periods of sluggish growth and some troubling reversals—during which the nation’s graduation rate rose by more than 7 percentage points. These improvements have been widespread. Forty-four states have posted gains ranging from a fraction of a point to more than 20 points. All major demographic groups have also improved, with the drive toward higher graduation rates led by African-Americans and Latinos, both of which have posted improvements of 10 percentage points over the last 10 years.

While such signs of progress are reason for encouragement, that optimism is tempered by the reality that far too many young people are still failing to complete a high school education. Diplomas Count projects that 1.1 million students from this year's high school class will not graduate with a diploma. That amounts to 6,000 students lost each school day, or one student every 29 seconds.


Because the Latino graduation rate, at 63 percent, lags substantially behind the U.S. average, this group makes up a disproportionate number of the students who do not finish high school. Of the 1.1 million members of the class of 2012 that we project will fail to graduate with a diploma, about 310,000 (or 27 percent) will be Latinos. Two states—California and Texas—will produce half the nation's Hispanic dropouts.

The educational experiences of Latino students are largely reflected in—if not directly driven by—the characteristics of the communities in which they live and the school systems by which they are served. Latinos are much more likely than whites to attend districts that are large and highly urbanized, that serve high proportions of English-language learners, and that struggle with high levels of poverty and racial and socioeconomic segregation. Yet some schools, districts, and communities—including those profiled in the report—have demonstrated records of success serving diverse Latino populations.

In a special analysis conducted for Diplomas Count 2012, the EPE Research Center identified a nationwide group of large, majority-Hispanic districts that are beating odds when it comes to graduation rates. Topping the list is California's Lompoc Unified School District, which graduated 89 percent of its Latino students, compared with an expected rate of 67 percent. Three other districts "overachieved" by at least 15 percentage points: the Ceres Unified and Merced Union districts in California and Arizona's Yuma Union High School District. High-performing systems outside the West and Southwest included those serving Providence, R.I., and Yonkers, N.Y.


State Graduation Briefs for the 50 states and the District of Columbia featuring detailed data on current graduation rates and trends over time, definitions of college and work readiness, and state requirements for earning a high school diploma.

_ EdWeek Maps, a powerful online database, lets users access graduation rates and other information for every school system in the nation and easily compare district, state, and national figures at maps.

Graduation in the United States Nationwide, 73.4 percent of all public school students graduated from high school with a regular diploma in the class of 2009, marking the second straight year of gains following a period of modest declines. A gap of 35 percentage points separates the best-performing and worst-performing states. The national leaders—Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—each graduate at least 80 percent of their students. By contrast, the graduation rate falls below 60 percent in the District of Columbia, Nevada, and New Mexico.

From 1999 to 2009, the nation’s graduation rate increased by 7.3 percentage points on average.

_ Forty-four states posted gains over the past decade, including double-digit increases in 10 states: Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

_ Graduation rates have increased for all major racial and ethnic groups, with African-Americans and Latinos showing the most rapid improvements. Both groups have posted increases of 10 percentage points in their graduation rates since 1999. As a result, the black-white and Latino-white graduation gaps have narrowed substantially over this period.

_ The gap between Native Americans and whites has widened somewhat.

Diplomas Count 2012


While all demographic groups and most states have made progress, large graduation gaps persist, both among racial and ethnic groups and across the states. These disparities remain a cause for concern.

_ Asian-Americans and whites remain the nation’s highest-performing groups, posting graduation rates of 81 percent and 79 percent, respectively, for the class of 2009. Sixty-three percent of Latinos finished high school with a diploma, while 59 percent of African-Americans and 53 percent of Native Americans graduated.

_ High school graduation rates for minority males consistently fall between 50 and 60 percent.

_ On average, 70 percent of male students earn a diploma compared with 76 percent of female students, a gender gap of nearly 7 percentage points that has remained virtually unchanged for years.


Graduation rates vary dramatically across states and districts. Some systems thrive, while others struggle to make earning a diploma a reality for most students. An alarming 35 percentage-point chasm separates the highest- and lowest-performing states.

_ The leading states—Iowa, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—each graduate more than 80 percent of their high school students. At the other extreme, fewer than 6 in 10 students graduate in the District of Columbia, Nevada, and New Mexico.

_ Wide variations are also found among the nation’s 50 largest districts. Within that group, Detroit has the lowest graduation rate, at 42.4 percent, while Montgomery County, Md., tops the nation at 87.6 percent.

_ The report also identifies the epicenters of the Hispanic graduation crisis, 25 individual school systems that collectively produce 37 percent of the nation’s Latino dropouts. Los Angeles is the leading producer of Latino dropouts, with nearly 30,000 Hispanic students failing to earn diplomas. New York City ranks second, with about 16,000 Latino nongraduates.


To provide context for high school completion rates and reform efforts, Diplomas Count tracks key state policies related to graduation.

_ College and work readiness: Thirty-seven states define what students should know and be able to do to be prepared for credit-bearing courses in college. Definitions of work readiness have likewise been established in 37 states.

_ Advanced diplomas: Twenty-three states award advanced diplomas or some type of formal recognition to students who exceed standard graduation requirements.

_ Exit exams: Twenty-four states require exit exams for the class of 2012, with 23 of those states basing exit exams on standards at the 10th grade level or higher.

_ Completing coursework: In the typical state, earning a diploma requires that students obtain four course credits in English, three credits each in math and social studies, and two or three credits in science.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Inside a Child’s Mind — Research Findings from Psychological Science

Developmental psychology researchers have long known that children aren’t simply mini-adults – their minds and brains work in fundamentally different ways. Exploring those differences can help us understand how kids think and behave and can provide insights into how the mind and brain develop and change over time. Here is some of the latest research involving children from Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Who is Good At This Game? Linking an Activity to a Social Category Undermines Children’s Achievement

Can linking an activity to a social group affect children’s performance on a task? Before playing a drawing game, four- and five-year-old participants were told that “boys [girls] are really good at this game” (category condition) or “there’s a boy [girl] who is really good at this game” (individual condition). Children in the category condition performed worse on the task regardless of whether the statement they heard referenced their own gender or the opposite gender. The study authors suggest that referencing a social group’s performance on a task can lead children to believe that they have little control over their own performance, causing them to worry and perform poorly.
Published in the May 2012 issue of Psychological Science

Young Children Are Intrinsically Motivated to See Others Helped

Research has shown that infants start to demonstrate helpful behavior toward other people around their first birthdays. Yet little is known about what motivates infants to help others. Researchers investigated whether children helped people so that they could get ‘credit’ for being helpful or whether they were just helping because the person needed help. Because the pupil dilation measurements, which have been shown to reflect emotional reactions to an event, were similar for infants who helped another person and infants who watched a person get helped by a third party, the researchers concluded that the children were motivated to help others because of genuine concern for the person in need.
Forthcoming in Psychological Science

Childhood Poverty and Young Adult Allostatic Load: The Mediating Role of Childhood Cumulative Risk Exposure

Poverty in childhood can have implications throughout an individual’s life, whether it’s physiological problems from poor nutrition or psychological issues arising from the social implications of poverty. Researchers have now demonstrated quantitatively that children who experience poverty from birth to age 9 tend to have an elevated allostatic load—a stress marker that incorporates physiological measurements associated with stress, such as heart rate—in their teenage years. Previous studies have focused largely on the role of parenting and diminished cognitive enrichment, but this study shows that chronic physiological stress also could contribute to the problems impoverished children face later in life.

Teachers may need training to respond to children's emotions

Teachers learn a lot about how to teach curriculum in college, but they don't get much training in helping very young children learn to handle frustration, anger, and excitement, skills that kids need for kindergarten readiness, said Nancy McElwain, a University of Illinois professor of human development and family studies who conducted a study on the topic.

"When teachers aren't trained to respond to emotional outbursts in supportive ways, they often fall back on responses that reflect the way they were raised and whether they feel comfortable with their own emotions," said Rebecca Swartz, a doctoral candidate and the study's first author.

For the study, 24 student teachers in the U of I Child Development Laboratory (CDL) filled out self-assessments, rating their responses to hypothetical emotional situations and reporting their beliefs about the best ways to handle children's emotions.

These student teachers were then each observed several times interacting with children in the CDL classrooms over the course of a semester. From these observations, the researchers rated how the student teachers responded to the children's positive and negative emotional displays.

As expected, student teachers who reported more effective strategies for regulating their own emotions—for instance, thinking about a stressful situation in a different light—and who also reported more accepting beliefs about children's emotions were more supportive of children when they had emotional outbursts.

The most common non-supportive response was not responding. "Perhaps teachers were busy and didn't notice an emotional display or they needed a strategy to work through that difficult moment," she said.

Swartz wants teachers to learn emotional regulation strategies as part of their professional development so they can model them for children and manage challenging emotional moments in the classroom. "It might be effective to bring in a mentor who could coach, consult, and reflect with teachers as occasions arise," she said.

In the typical preschool classroom, it wouldn't take long for a mentor to find a teachable moment, she predicted. "In a classroom for two-year-olds, sometimes it's just emotion, emotion, emotion."

Instead of saying "Don't cry" or "That's not important," Swartz would like to see the teacher label the child's emotion and help him learn to cope with his anger or frustration.

"If a child is crying because a classmate has taken a toy, a better response would be, "I know you're sad. You really want to play with that." Then the teacher could use a problem-solving strategy: "Maybe you could take turns, or you could play with another toy for now."

According to Swartz, "These everyday moments are golden opportunities for children to learn how to manage their emotions. Too often, teachers want to make negative emotions go away. Instead we need to use them as learning opportunities."

Although it's important to support positive emotions—"we like to see teachers smile when children are smiling, and to give them pats on the back or high-fives"—the student teachers only sought the support of a master teacher in dealing with a child's negative emotion, she said.

But kids need help handling happiness and excitement, too, she noted. In those instances, teachers could say, "We can't throw blocks in the air to show we're excited, but we can clap or cheer instead."

Swartz emphasized that emotional self-regulation is important not only for kindergarten readiness, but for long-term success as children move into the higher grades.

"When you're sitting with a long-division problem, it's not just understanding long division that's important but being able to stick with it long enough to understand it. When children are building a block tower and managing their frustration, those skills will help them later," she said.

The study was published in a recent issue of Early Education and Development.