[PODCAST] An Important Message About Your Child’s Education.

Totally meant to put some closing words at the end of this podcast. But it didn’t happen and I just needed to get it published.

Education Science

Poverty, Education and Aliens: brain power is an expensive luxury, and maybe rare.

As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve always believed that intelligent life exists in more than one place in the universe. We are of course not alone. Whether that was a child’s fervent wish or the reasoned response of an adult faced with a near-infinite universe, the idea of intelligence as a natural consequence of life has always made sense to me.

Indeed, because we know life is essentially a higher expression of chemistry – that, given the right circumstances, the right set of chemicals will create DNA-based, self-replicating structures – it is almost insane to think life can’t exist elsewhere. Our galaxy alone contains an estimated 100 billion stars and is one of 100 billion estimated galaxies in the universe. The math almost guarantees that life exists elsewhere.

Scientifically, there are some logical problems with these beliefs. For a start, even if we earnestly believe that life must exist elsewhere, we see no evidence of it. Surely if life is a consequence of chemistry, and intelligence is a consequence of life, there must be some space-faring species that could have made contact by now? This is what is sometimes referred to as the Fermi Paradox: the apparent discrepancy between the high probability of life and the utter lack of its evidence.

Still, life very clearly exists on Earth and does so in abundance and variety. Once life gets a foothold, it seems clear, it can adapt and thrive. But is intelligence a natural consequence of life?

Here again, despite the multiplicity of life on Earth, we see evidence of only one form of higher intelligence. Why do we not see multiple, coexisting forms of intelligent life? Or else evidence that our one form of intelligent life out-competed another? Perhaps then, intelligence just one possible outcome of the evolutionary process. Like the swollen abdomens of honey pot ants, human intelligence may merely be a unique adaptation, instead of an inevitable next step.

Even if we can say that intelligent life is demonstrably possible, it’s also possible that the inefficiencies of the human brain are prohibitive to reproduce. As adaptations go, intelligence is a resource hog. Despite comprising only 2 percent of the body’s total weight, the brain demands about 20 percent of the body’s resting metabolic function. That means that if you burn 1,300 calories on a lazy Sunday, your brain sucked up 260 of those calories. (math helpfully provided by Scientific American)

So, brain power requires tremendous resources to maintain. Perhaps too much for intelligence to be common in the universe and even here on Earth, enough that training young brains cannot be separated from feeding young brains. Now that we find that 51% of American school children live in poverty, it should not surprise any of us that school performance in low-income neighborhoods is declining. Children who are either not eating or eating junk food with inadequate nutrition are being deprived of the precious resources that keep the gas-guzzling engine of learning running.

To the extent that our nation is interested in improving education, it’s worth keeping in mind that intelligence exists on a knife’s edge of impossibility because we have the wealth to feed it. If kids are going hungry, they’re going to fall behind. Simply raising testing standards only compounds the problem for students who cannot bring the brain power to bear that their richer neighbors can. Beating up on teachers may have some electoral appeal in certain quarters, but it won’t change the statistic staring us in the face: our kids’ brains are getting starved.

Watson, the IBM artificial intelligence supercomputer that defeated Jeopardy’s smartest contestants, ran on 90 IBM servers each requiring a megawatt of power. One Stanford scientist predicted that replicating a fully-functioning brain would take all the energy produced by a small hydroelectric plant. Intelligence is not efficient. Are we prepared to provide the fuel we need to actually improve on our educational system?


Do family meals improve student performance? New study says maybe not so much.

We have taken it as an article of faith that the family that sits down to dinner together has kids who perform better in school. That is in large part due to studies in years past that have suggested this to be the case, along with a lot of popular wisdom and axiom. The problem with this assumption is that there are so many other factors that play into the equation. For example, the family that sits down to dinner together – especially the family that makes a point to sit down together – is making a commitment to the child’s education in a specific way. And it likely isn’t the only way. Do we factor other things like time spent doing homework into the results? Scientifically speaking, doing so pollutes the central hypothesis that breaking bread together automatically fosters better education.

That this one facet of the family life works for a set of families does not mean that another family who, for one reason or another, cannot sit down to meals together is any less committed to their child’s upbringing or education. So if we control for outside factors as much as possible, do co-diners have an edge? One study says no:

Despite popular wisdom and findings from much previous research that suggests the beneficial impact of family mealtime, a rigorous analysis of 21,400 children, ages five to 15, brings a new argument to the table: When researchers controlled for a host of confounding factors, they didn’t find any relationship between family meals and child academic outcomes or behavior.

The study does not specifically state that you shouldn’t eat with your children, just that the seeming causality between family meals and academic achievement is probably due to a number of other factors. Family bonding is important for many reasons, as DFE readers on social networks have pointed out. The ability to spot learning problems early is one such reason. But what this study tells us is that you probably don’t need to run to the therapist for an emergency session every time you scarf some Burger King in the car on the way to the kid’s soccer game.

Emergency session at the Y? Probably. But not the therapist.

Rochester Technology

Big Brother is bussing you: Xerox installs traffic cameras on Md school busses

There’s been a bit of… discussion… surrounding the use of red light cameras in Rochester. Do they actually discourage running red lights? Well, revenues from the cameras have been reported higher than expected, so perhaps not. But do they contribute to a general culture of better safety? Other reports say yes, they do.

But now it appears that Xerox Corporation has made a move in Maryland to widen the debate still further: do traffic cameras on busses stop people from blowing past them while kids are getting on the bus? The Frederick County, Md school district will be installing cameras, networking and software created by Xerox to monitor kids as they get on and off the bus, while at the same time, checking for drivers who illegally pass the bus while stopped. Xerox characterizes the need for its CrossSafe™ software with the following quote:

“Xerox understands our sense of urgency to address this very serious concern to student safety,” said Frederick County Sheriff Chuck Jenkins. “Violators will now face serious penalties and be held accountable for their disregard for the safety of children traveling on buses. CrossSafe™ is a turnkey solution that will help make bus routes safer and ease the minds of parents.”

“Urgency” is an interesting word. A quick Google News search turned up absolutely no mentions in local Maryland news of this program. Thumbing through the school’s news archives – as far back as mid-terms last year – turns up no discussion of this program. I can’t even find any reports of accidents in the area involving school busses.

Where is the urgency?

To be clear: blowing past a stopped school bus while they’re picking up school children is dumb, dumb, dumb. And potentially fatal. But potential is a shitty benchmark for public policy, especially policy that continues to contribute to our Nanny State culture where you’re not allowed to do anything without being filmed. And lord knows that as a liberal, I just love spending other people’s tax dollars, but seriously? Could they have hired another music teacher with the cash they’ve ported to Rochester (hugs ‘n kisses)? Maybe spent that money on actual problems?

Rochester Technology

Tech in Schools: RCSD responds to our FOIL request

In researching our series on technology in the classroom, reporter Mike Roppolo had some questions for the Rochester City School District for which only a FOIL request would provide answers. We’ve gotten those answers in an email from Debra Flanagan, which we will now pass along to you.

We noted in the original article that the school’s Code of Conduct had not been updated since 2009. This seems strange, giving the fact that the technology which is our focus has changed so much in the last three years. It’s hard to imagine that such an old policy could adequately cover this new technology.

Mrs. Flanagan responds that, while New York State requires codes of conduct to be reviewed every year, “districts are not required to update or amend it every year.” She notes that changes were made regarding students with disabilities this year. Why the publish date on the document is unchanged remains an open question. Moreover she states, well.. just read:

Not all changes in the District have to be incorporated into policy. Board policy is intended to provide overarching vision and guidance for RCSD, and the specifics as to implementation are contained in Superintendent regulations and/or written procedures. Superintendent regulation, “RCSD Regulations of Intervention and Discipline” (5300-R) implements provisions of the Code of Conduct; this regulation is listed directly below the Code of Conduct in the Table of Contents for Board policies.

So much for clarity. Apparently policy documents at the RCSD are like Russian tea dolls. But on the specifics of technology in the classroom, it seems clear that policy at RCSD is set in much the same fashion as other schools, with blanket policies that tacitly cover – but do not explicitly define – electronics outside of standard school equipment (em hers):

With regard to technology, the current Code of Conduct refers to inappropriate use of District equipment, email or Internet – this would apply regardless of the specific device used to transmit email or access the Internet (e.g. desktop, laptop, or tablet). In fact, this is stated in the Code of Conduct:
“Any direct or personal act or behavior which is prohibited under the Code is also prohibited when performed by use of computers, the Internet, cell phones, telephones or other communications media when the communication originates or ends on District property or at any school function, or may in the judgment of District officials disrupt or interfere with the educational process; or pose a threat to the safety of any person lawfully on District property or at a school function (p. 12)”

Two things worth noting in the above quote: first, “inappropriate use of District equipment” in no way covers use – appropriate or otherwise – of personal equipment. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the secondary distinction – that whatever incident took place on school grounds or at a school function – could possibly hold much water in a dispute.

But the second problem is: this policy concerns itself entirely and exclusively with what students should not do with technology, not what they should. And while fidgeting with a phone during class can easily be discouraged on any number of levels, the trouble with phones isn’t just that kids are using them to be disruptive: kids are also using them to communicate with parents and relatives. Where is the policy regarding these things?

Rochester Technology

Tech in schools: Brighton’s progressive view of personal electronics

With technological advances and increasing numbers of students owning cellphones, school districts have had to begun to reevaluate or reinforce their current policy with stricter policies. With such constantly changing technology, is it becoming a waste of time for schools to constantly addressing changes and fighting a, seemingly, lost battle?

In comparison to other issues, like bullying, a student’s use of a cellphone during class is really insignificant. Instead of wasting the energy and time of school officials to change and enforce the electronics policies, why not begin to embrace the different gadgets and incorporate them into the classroom?

Students at Brighton High School are allowed to carry cellphones with them on school grounds. The devices also do not need to be locked in a student’s locker at the beginning of the day.

Brighton’s Code of Conduct states that electronic devices are not allowed to be used to: invade privacy, disrupt the academic setting or engage in any academic dishonesty. Of course, the code reminds students that bringing these devices on campus mean they are responsible for their “safe-keeping.”

Seemingly vague, the code actually leaves room for more freedom with electronic devices, specifically cellphones, than most other schools.

Students are actually allowed to use their cellphones in classrooms when it is appropriate, says assistant principal Michael Leiner.

“They can be used when it is constructive to the classroom, like fact checking. It’s good when students can look information up and contribute.,” said Leiner in a phone interview. The students also are allowed to use their cellphones in lunch and hallways

As assistant principal to Brighton High School, he also oversees disciplinary actions of 1/3 of the students. With the freedom the school’s policy provides, he sees very few cases of inappropriate use for cellphones.

“It’s just not on list of big issues we see when it comes to disciplinary problems and students making the wrong decisions,” he said.

With this approach to technology, the issue with abuse doesn’t seem to be a problem, allowing the student to use their phones takes away the thrill of doing it on the sly. Maybe then they will only use the phone when it’s needed or beneficial.

With this approach so successful on cutting down on disciplinary actions needed, it seems silly that other schools still remain so strict with their policies.

Similar to other schools, Brighton does not allow texting in class or using the phone to cheat on tests. If students are caught using the phones, they are subjected disciplinary action that could be anything from losing the phone to being suspended, depending on the severity of the disruption.

Rochester Technology

Technology in the classroom: how do local schools deal with personal electronics?

Making cellphones and other technology acceptable in school In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Educational Technology released a National Technology Plan in the hopes of achieving President Obama’s goal that by 2020, “America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.”

The report stresses that students and educators should have “options for engaging in learning: large groups, small groups, and work tailored to the individual goals, needs, interests, and prior experience of each learner.” It also stressed the importance of utilizing technology, which will help to develop “inquisitive, creative, resourceful thinkers; informed citizens; effective problem-solvers; groundbreaking pioneers; and visionary leaders.”

Despite this national recommendation arguing for the inclusion of cell phones and other technologies in the curriculum, in a recent study released by Project Tomorrow, 55% of students polled nationwide said that they could not use their cell phones while in school. Some school districts in the Rochester area are no exception, as they remain against students having their cell phones (or any other personal electronic devices) in classrooms and on campus.

Rochester City School District

The Rochester City School District, which upon researching, had one of the strictest policies against cell phone usage in class. According to the RCSD Code of Conduct, disruptive behavior caused by students who are in found in possession of “laser pointers, pagers, beepers, walkie-talkies, or portable/cellular phones equipped with video or photographic capacity” on school property, may result in disciplinary actions, including suspension from school.

The Rochester City School District’s Code of Conduct does not appear to have been updated since November of 2009. We asked school officials why this was and if there were plans to update soon, but could not obtain an answer in time to publish. A FOIL request has been submitted for these answers, we will update our readers when we find out.

Some students in the Rochester City School District are not at all pleased with the ban or cellphones or the strict rules and enforcements on cell phone policy.

“I don’t really see the point,” said Gideon Kemp, a student at the Dr. Freddie Thomas High School. “I don’t think it helps anything; it just makes a bigger problem, in my opinion.”

“I listen to the rules and don’t bring my cellphone into school,” said Kemp. “But I don’t see the problem if I did.”

In an article by YNN, news students express their dislike of the cell phone bans, particularly talking about safety, but Edison Campus Principal Bonnie Atkins said that there has been a dramatic change in the culture inside the school.

“The school day is very different,” said Atkins, “Because you don’t have kids calling each other in and out of class, kids texting in class, the teacher spending more of the instructional time saying, ‘put it away or take it from the place to that place.’ Theft, we haven’t had a single incident of a cell phone being stolen at all, we haven’t had a single incident reported of cyber bullying during the school day because of that. You have your normal teenage problems during the school day. In other words, it gives the kids time to get the emotion out of it because they’re not all of a sudden angrily texting on the cell phone.”

Hilton School District

However, in the nearby Hilton Central School District, change is apparent. Originally against having students’ electronic devices in class, the high school recently adopted a policy that allowed students to have personal electronic devices out.

There are still some restrictions, as designated by a streetlight signal in each of the classrooms. According to the District website, there is a “red room,” in which no personal devices are allowed; a “yellow room,” in which some devices are allowed with an instructor’s permission; and a “green room,” which allows students to use personal devices as tools of learning.

Always evolving, the HCSD Code of Conduct has been changed several times over the past few years. The policy is always changing, as required by the NYSED, and will be reviewed at the May 8, 2012 meeting of the Board of Education, according to the Hilton Director of Communications and Community Education, Barbara Carder.

Gates-Chili Central Schools

A third path chosen by Gates-Chili School District is combining electronics policy with the rest of the school’s policies. There is no specific policy guiding the use of personal electronics, in fact, the Code of Conduct only specifies as “disorderly or disruptive” conduct as (section VII, 1.j):

Using/carrying cell phones, radios, pagers, walkmans, video recording devices, MP3 players, or other telecommunications or imaging devices during the instructional day except in such areas or at times specifically authorized by the building principal

On the other hand, GCS does a better job of explaining a three-step discipline process for those students who violate the code of conduct. And whereas other policies focus on students, GCS’s policy spells out – albeit in somewhat vague form – an acceptable use policy for faculty, parents, visitors and non-essential personnel.

DragonFlyEye.Net will continue to bring you comparisons of school policies around the area in the coming weeks. We’re also looking for local educator reactions to the state of technology in classrooms, which we will bring you as we get it. Is there a school whose policy you’d like us to review? An administrator you’d like us to contact? Leave us a note in the comments section or else contact us to send us a confidential message.


What’s School Got to Do With It? RCSD’s Vote to Include Condom Availability Program in High Schools

After a long, and sometimes heated debate, the Rochester City School District has voted to make condoms available in city high schools. The vote was hardly unanimous – 4:3 –with many differing opinions on the matter.

Beliefs aside, the truth of the issue remains – abstinence education just wasn’t working.  Statistically, the average age people lose their virginity in the United States today is between 15 and 17 and most teenagers are likely to have sex before the age of 18 (PDF). Sure, we know all the fear factors – unplanned pregnancy, STIs, – but when was the last time you told a teenager not to do something and you received an appreciative response of “you know, you’re right. I think I won’t”?

High school is a scary place, one you could not pay me to revisit.  I’ll spare you the gory details of my first time, but we did have a condom – one of those LifeStyle condoms in what resembles a restaurant butter container we had received from a friend probably a year in advance. Why? Because buying condoms is embarrassing when you’re a junior in high school. What if I see one of my parents’ friends? What if I see a teacher? Maybe we’ll just forget the condom all together and pull out. What if I can pick some up at school and don’t have to worry about all this?

I was 24 the day my dad passed away and we made it that entire time having never spoken about sex even once. My step-mother did, once, on his behalf. The entirety of it was “Your dad assumes you either have or you will. As long as you’re being smart about it, he doesn’t ever want to hear about it. Do you have any questions?” My mom did give me the sex talk once – after I had finished both college and grad school and my boyfriend and I had already decided on getting an apartment together. My parents were both very attentive, very up-to-date with the times, and very protective of me, so it makes no sense why they would delay (or in my dad’s case, flat-out avoid) this talk, right? Not really. Parents dread giving “the talk” just about as much as kids dread hearing it – there’s no amount of anything in this world that can turn that into a cozy little chat.

Say what you will about the Rochester City School District, but they’ve just taken the one most uncomfortable, yet most important parent/child talk in existence and made it easy – easy because they’re offering to do all of it. Before a high school student can receive condoms, he or she must go through several educational classes and counseling regarding sexual health, emotions, and possible consequences. Of course parents can opt their student out of these classes if they’re uncomfortable with it or really disagree with Rochester City School District’s stance – but the option for it is there.

For something that has been taboo in so many classrooms (and sometimes, so many homes) across the nation, RCSD’s decision has definitely raised a lot of questions. However, according to many studies, high school condom availability programs have not led to increased sexual activity among high school students, but have led to improved condom use among high school males. If they’re going to do it anyway, what more can you ask for? Can’t argue with statistics. Time will tell where Rochester will fall in future studies. In the mean time, best of luck to Rochester City School District in their new endeavor.

Politics Rochester Technology

RIT boffins say: mo toys, mo learning.

I think most of my audience would agree with the idea that more technology is always good. But now, RIT provides us documentarian evidence of same.

Researchers at RIT took a few low-performing classes in the engineering department – classes that had typically high failure and drop-out rates – and switched up the course to include things like tablet learning software and an interactive environment including smart boards and the like.

What they found should not have been terribly surprising: students generally performed better when the class used the same language they’re used to speaking in the outside world. Strange that we need to reenforce this exact same concept with every new technology, but there you have it.

Researchers also plan to expand this research to find out if underrepresented groups such as the deaf will see the same benefit from the use of a high-technology classroom.

Now if we could only get our leaders to fund a high-technology classroom, we’d be all set.

Use of Technology-Rich Learning Environment Reveals Improved Retention Rates – RIT News.

Politics Technology

A Word on Homework

The big news in education today is the fact that LA schools have decided to de-value homework as part of student’s grades. Homework grades now make up only ten percent of the student’s overall score. Obviously, when the famously-dysfunctional schools of LA decide something, they must be wrong.

Unless of course they’re not. The article makes a lot of good points about the sheer volume of homework some school systems are imposing on students. My niece, for example, had homework on the first day of the second grade which she had to turn in to her first grade teacher. Figure that out.

But the other problem is this: the days of paper handouts and homework in the conventional sense are soon to be history. Meanwhile, just as the Internet is breaking down many other forms of communication to smaller parts, so too should the education profession begin wrapping its collective head around decentralized learning models that are more immersive and representative of the way information travels.

Online learning tools that are semi-social (meaning kids and parents can interact with teachers, without the entire Internet chiming in) would be a better way to handle rote practice. Give the kid their assigned workload for the week and let them and their parents handle getting it done.

Otherwise, we may as well be teaching them to read on the backs of pitch shovels.


If 100 Percent of Students Pass, 100 Percent Also Fail

Your kid is dumb. Sorry.

Well, maybe he’s not dumb. Maybe he learns differently or perhaps thinks differently. No, not learning disabled, though that’s a possibility, too: just maybe a writer or a musician, not a mathematician. Hey! Maybe they like fixing cars or working in machine shops.

But fuck all that: Kirstin Gillibrand needs to make you think she cares about education, and so like all politicians, she’s going to push the “Math, Science and Engineering” canard as our route to a better tomorrow. This according to an article by @innovationtrail :

Gillibrand: Math and science are key to the future of the workforce | Innovation Trail.

Remember when our economy was doing so much better? Yeah, that’s when we made stuff. We don’t make stuff anymore and the insistence that our future lies in lab coats and masters degrees has been part of the problem for lo this past forty years. But because there is a natural instinct for parents to want to see their kids do better than themselves, there is a natural tendency to vote for the person who makes you think that might happen. And every politician – from Gillibrand to Obama to Paul Ryan – plays that instinct for all its worth. In fact, its not even an instinct as much as it is a reflex.

And the NCLB insistence that *all* children pass math and science at a certain level is also part of this problem. Gillibrand is trying to repackage that turd as something more constructive, but we’re right back where we started. If your kid doesn’t pass the class by 2014, well, we’ll either have to kick him out of school or else lower the standards to match his dumb ass.

The truth is that education is not machining: you don’t get to set some tools, run a few test pieces, and then let the machine turn out perfectly-similar parts all day long. Education is an intensely personal and highly individualized pursuit that requires the kid to find their own path and the teacher to help them. No kid is ever the same, nor would we be anything less than horrified if our children were returned to us as automatons. Yet this is what is required.

Education is, in fact, a horrible political chess piece in that it is just barely quantifiable in the first place. What, exactly, qualifies as a success story? A better quality of life, perhaps? And what does that mean? No, better that we stick to proven-ineffective standardized testing that yields the statistics that look so good on a campaign flier.


So We’re Going to Trust Politicians?

Capitol Tonight posts a new video of a State Senator’s “Widget Theory” of education reform, which basically boils down to: we need teachers that can teach well:

DeFrancisco’s Widget Theory On LIFO.

Ok… so in order to reform that system, we’re supposed to trust politicians? Because of their years of experience in the education profession? Would we trust politicians to hire and fire widget manufacturers, or would that be too intrusive?