Search This Blog

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Exposure to Antimicrobials During Development May Cause Irreversible Outcomes

From DOE/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Via ScienceDaily

August 9, 2017

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory scientists discovered that exposure to environmental levels of triclocarban (TCC), an antibacterial chemical common in personal care products like soaps and lotions as well as in the medical field, can transfer from mother to offspring and interfere with lipid metabolism.

Triclocarban (TCC), an antibacterial chemical common in personal care products
like soaps and lotions as well as in the medical field, can transfer from mother
to offspring and interfere with lipid metabolism. Credit: © alice_photo / Fotolia

Ultimately, the findings could have implications for human health. The research appears in the Aug. 9 edition of PLOS ONE.

This study represents the first report to quantify the transfer of an environmentally relevant concentration of TCC from mother to offspring. TCC is among the top 10 most commonly detected wastewater contaminants in concentration and frequency.

Lipids are naturally occurring molecules that include fats, waxes, fat-soluble vitamins, monoglycerides, diglycerides, triglycerides and others. The main biological function of lipids is storing energy and signaling, and acting as structural components of cell membranes.

"Our results are significant because of the potential risk of exposure to TCC through contaminated water sources and in the living environment, and the potential adverse effects resulting from this exposure during development," said LLNL biologist Heather Enright, the lead author of the paper. "Early life exposure to TCC has the potential to cause irreversible outcomes due to the fragile nature of organ systems and protective mechanisms in developing offspring."

The team studied mice during gestation and lactation to see if, in fact, exposure to TCC would transfer from mother to offspring. Researchers administered TCC laced with carbon-14 to trace how the contaminant distributed in organ systems of female mice and exposed offspring.

Using accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS), Enright and her colleagues quantified TCC concentrations in offspring and their mothers after exposure. AMS fills a special niche in the biomedical field because it can measure very low concentrations of compounds with extreme accuracy and track bio-distribution and excretion over long periods of time.

"We demonstrated that TCC does effectively transfer from mother to offspring, both trans-placentally and via lactation," Enright said. "Exposure to TCC during development may pose a serious health risk to the developing embryo and fetus, as they are more sensitive to alterations in hormone levels, which may result in changes that often are irreversible."

TCC-related compounds were detected in the tissues of offspring with significantly higher concentrations in the brain, heart and fat. In addition to the transfer from mother to offspring, exposed offspring were heavier in weight than unexposed mice -- demonstrating an 11 percent and 8.5 percent increase in body weight for females and males, respectively.

Quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction (qPCR) was used in the study to examine changes in gene expression in liver and adipose tissue in the exposed offspring. The results suggested alterations in genes involved in lipid metabolism in exposed female offspring were consistent with the observed increase in fat weights and hepatic triglycerides.

Journal Reference
  • Heather A. Enright, Miranda J. S. Falso, Michael A. Malfatti, Victoria Lao, Edward A. Kuhn, Nicholas Hum, Yilan Shi, Ana Paula Sales, Kurt W. Haack, Kristen S. Kulp, Bruce A. Buchholz, Gabriela G. Loots, Graham Bench, Kenneth W. Turteltaub. Maternal exposure to an environmentally relevant dose of triclocarban results in perinatal exposure and potential alterations in offspring development in the mouse model. PLOS ONE, August 2017 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0181996

Vaccination: Costly Clash Between Autonomy, Public Health

From Spectrum News

By Ruth Fischbach, John Loike
August 15, 2017

In the United States, 117 people from 13 states contracted measles between 1 January and 15 July of this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the same time period, 45 states and the District of Columbia reported 3,886 mumps infections.

In 2015, there were 20,762 reported cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, in the country. Pertussis infections are on the rise in many states, prompting a call to vaccinate. For instance, pertussis cases doubled in Indiana from 2016 to 2017 and included one fatality.

Each of these numbers is alarming, because if all children were vaccinated, the number of cases of these infectious diseases would drop dramatically. Studies estimate that vaccines save about 42,000 lives each year in the U.S., and $13.5 billion in direct medical costs.

If vaccinations are so effective, why do thousands of parents refuse to vaccinate their children?

In a survey conducted in 2013, 87 percent of pediatricians in the U.S. said they encountered parents refusing to vaccinate their children. And about 6 percent of all kindergarteners in the U.S. have not received at least one essential vaccination. Equally important and worrisome is that although most physicians continue to provide care to families whose children are unvaccinated, physicians are increasingly choosing to dismiss these families from their practices.

The failure of parents to vaccinate themselves and especially their children jeopardizes the health of their children as well as other children and adults.

We propose that doctors and hospitals institute measures that protect people in their practices, rather than refusing to treat anyone. And we believe that all states should require that children be vaccinated before attending school.

Unfounded Fears

Many parents cling to multiple false claims and beliefs when deciding whether to vaccinate their children, and many are no longer willing to take the word of their physician.

For example, some parents fear that vaccinations increase the risk of autism, a belief that is based on false data and continues to spread through social media. Others believe that vaccines are ineffective or that they can cause attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, ear infections and allergies. Still others believe that unvaccinated children are healthier than vaccinated children.

In addition, in the 2013 survey, parents reported that vaccinations are unnecessary because the diseases they prevent have been wiped out in the U.S. When parents have not seen these diseases in many years, they become complacent.

Furthermore, some parents are calling for more long-term clinical studies to assess the health risks of vaccinations. Ethicists caution that such studies are unethical because half of the volunteers would receive the vaccine and half would receive no vaccination, placing half of the volunteers at risk.

Are there health risks associated with vaccinations? Yes. Children have had allergic reactions to vaccines — which is why all parents must sign a statement that, to the best of their knowledge, their child is not allergic to eggs or other products contained in the vaccine. These reactions are rare, however. The CDC reports that only about 1.3 percent of children and 0.2 percent of adults are allergic to eggs.

Importantly, no reported risks of vaccinations are associated with autism. (British researcher Andrew Wakefield’s original paper in The Lancet linking vaccinations to autism has been shown to be a complete fabrication. The paper was retracted and Wakefield’s medical license has been revoked.)

Children whose mothers were infected with a flu virus or who received their flu shot while pregnant are also no more likely to develop autism than other children, according to a study published in January that looked at more than 196,000 children (1). Many other studies support this finding.

Unethical Exemptions

All 50 states provide medical exemptions to vaccination for the few individuals who are at risk of an allergic reaction. What is ethically challenging, however, is that 47 states allow parents to use either religious exemptions or personal-belief exemptions to avoid vaccinating their children. These exemptions highlight three bioethical principles that are, in this case, in conflict.

The first principle, autonomy, allows parents, as the decision makers for their children, to exercise their autonomy or self-determination to accept or refuse medical intervention.

Many parents believe vaccination is a private affair, not a public-health responsibility. The second principle, beneficence and its partner, non-maleficence, states that medical actions should provide good and not harmful outcomes. The third principle, justice, is seen when public-health experts look at the potential benefits for a whole population, whereas many parents focus only on what they think is good for their child.

Fortunately, there are dilemmas in bioethics, such as whether to vaccinate children, when the solution is absolutely clear.

Vaccination is particularly critical because of the ‘herd effect,’ also called ‘herd immunity,’ among other terms (2). This is a form of indirect protection from infectious disease that occurs when a large percentage of a population has become immune to an infection, providing a measure of protection for individuals who are not immune. When enough people refuse to vaccinate, protection for the vulnerable is in jeopardy.

So it is imperative that state laws mandate that, except for medical reasons, all children have up-to-date vaccines before they are allowed to attend school. In the past year, at least seven states have tried to pass bills with a provision requiring children to be vaccinated before attending school. We propose that the remaining states follow suit.

Australia may serve as a model. In July, the state of South Australia proposed legislation that would ban unvaccinated children from preschool and childcare centers. The idea follows a federal law that punishes parents of unvaccinated children with fines and loss of government benefits.

Separate Clinics

The refusal of some pediatricians to accept unvaccinated children into their practice has some theoretical ethical merit. These doctors do not want to expose people in their waiting room to an unvaccinated child who harbors an infectious disease. We argue, however, that refusing to treat anyone violates the ethical code of doctors to care for all sick individuals.

Recognizing the health risks of caring for an unvaccinated child in an office setting, we propose that private physicians set up exclusive times to provide medical care for unvaccinated individuals.

Further, we propose that hospitals set up special clinics with enhanced protections to provide healthcare to people who are not vaccinated. These protections might include heightened infection-control measures and staff who have been specially trained in containing infectious disease.

In both situations, professionals should be available to educate parents about the benefits of vaccination and the risks of not being vaccinated.

Vaccines are among the most effective methods to control, if not eliminate, serious infectious diseases. The almost complete eradication of polio and smallpox are examples of their incredible value. They also have a record of success in preventing chickenpox, measles and pertussis.

As bioethicists, we appreciate the need to institute laws and educational programs to ensure that all individuals at risk are vaccinated. We trust that the CDC and public-health authorities will continue to rebut the erroneous associations linking vaccination to autism and other health conditions, that regularly appear on social media and in movies such as “Vaxxed.”

Science has shown that vaccinations not only protect our current generation but future generations as well.

Ruth Fischbach is co-founder and former director of the Center for Bioethics and professor of bioethics at Columbia University. John Loike is adjunct professor ofpathology at Columbia University and professor of biology at Touro College in New York City.


  1. Zerbo O. et al. JAMA Pediatr. 171, e163609 (2017) PubMed
  2. Fine P. et al. Clin. Infect. Dis. 52, 911-916 (2011) PubMed

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Brain Imaging Studies Seek Signs of Autism Before Birth

From Spectrum News

By Nicholette Zeliadt
August 17, 2017

Brain scans of people with autism reveal many things — structures that are unusually large or small, or atypical patterns of activity. But increasing evidence suggests that autism begins well before birth. By the time a person is diagnosed, her brain may have already adjusted to compensate for the condition.

To glimpse what the brain looks like as autism takes root, scientists have sought to scan children as young as toddlers and, more recently, babies. At least two different teams are reaching back even further, scanning fetuses with a family history of autism.

“I think it’s absolutely crucial that we investigate what the biological underpinnings of autism might be,” says Declan Murphy, professor of psychiatry and brain maturation at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, who co-leads one of the studies. “The logical extension has to be that you go as early as you safely and ethically can in terms of trying to understand that.”

Both projects are just getting underway, but experts say they eagerly anticipate the results.

“It’s tremendously promising,” says Tonya White, associate professor of pediatric neuroimaging at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, who is not involved with either project.

“We don’t know when you start seeing the changes in the children [with autism], and it’s probably not the same for every individual, but there must be some that begin in prenatal life.”

Prenatal View

The concept of scanning fetal brains is not new. Doctors routinely track brain development during pregnancy using ultrasound, which provides a crude view of the brain’s structure. If they see signs of atypical development — an unusually shaped structure in the brain, for instance — magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can give a more detailed look. Fast, sophisticated MRI scanners require only about 20 seconds to capture snapshots of fetal brain structure.

The interest in early brain development in autism arises from brain scans of younger siblings of children with autism. These ‘baby sibs’ are at increased risk of having the condition themselves.

Certain areas of the brain grow faster than usual in 6- to 12-month-old baby sibs who go on to have autism than they do in controls, a study in February reported. Another study in March revealed that 6-month-olds later diagnosed with the condition have excess fluid between the brain and skull.

Fetal folding: Brain scans of fetuses reveal when the brain’s outer layer acquires
ts characteristic folds. Courtesy of Catherine Limperopoulos

Baby sibs with autism also have unusual patterns of brain activity as early as 6 months of age. Researchers say analyzing activity patterns is likely to be more informative than looking at structure alone.

“It’s about the way the brain regions are communicating with each other,” says Moriah Thomason, assistant professor of pediatrics at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.

Movers and Shakers

Until a decade ago, it seemed technologically impossible to examine brain activity before birth. That’s because it can take about 10 minutes to perform functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which tracks blood flow as a proxy for neuronal activity. During this time, a fetus can wiggle around, blurring some of the images. Even a mother’s breathing or digestive processes can jostle her fetus.

One way to get around this obstacle is to scan the fetus for about 24 minutes. A longer scan creates a larger set of images, allowing researchers to discard any that are marred by motion and still have enough left over to reconstruct activity throughout the brain. (The researchers say the length of the procedure is still within safe limits for the pregnant woman and her fetus.)

But this approach is too expensive and cumbersome, says Colin Studholme, professor of pediatrics and bioengineering at the University of Washington in Seattle. He and others are developing a different workaround: mathematical algorithms to detect and correct artifacts in brain scans that result from fetal movements.

In November, Studholme’s team reported an algorithm that minimizes distortion in images taken from adults told to move their heads while in the scanner. Applying the algorithm to scans of eight fetuses improved the clarity of the scans (1).

“Fetal imaging has a great potential to offer unprecedented information,” says Hao Huang, associate professor of radiology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Huang also devises motion-correction algorithms but was not involved in Studholme’s study. “But further technology advances and validation are needed before information from fetal imaging can be fully trustable,” Huang says.

Early Days

In order to spot changes in children with autism, researchers need an atlas of typical brain development. The Developing Human Connectome Project aims to create this reference work.

A consortium of researchers at three institutions are scanning the brains of 1,500 fetuses and babies between 20 and 44 weeks after conception, within two weeks after the birth or, whenever possible, both. The team uses fMRI to collect data on brain activity. The researchers also use a technique called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to probe the structure of nerve bundles that link brain regions.

They plan to get enough data points from fetuses of various ages to map how neural wiring and activity in the fetal brain change over time. They have scanned more than 600 fetuses so far.

Murphy’s baby sibs study is part of the project. He and his team have so far scanned the brains of 24 baby sibs. Preliminary evidence hints that the sibs have atypical brain activity shortly after birth, but the researchers haven’t finished analyzing the fetal scans.

In particular, brain regions involved in processing sensory stimuli such as sights, sounds and touch appear to be more active in baby sibs than in controls.

If confirmed, these findings could help to explain why some baby sibs have trouble integrating information from different sensory modalities at 9 months of age.

“The earlier we can look at the brain, the more answers we get in terms of the causal mechanisms that are at play” in autism, says GrĂ¡inne McAlonan, deputy head of forensic and neurodevelopmental science at King’s College London. McAlonan presented the unpublished findings at the 2017 International Meeting for Autism Research in May.

Making Predictions

Another project, led by Simon Baron-Cohen at Cambridge University, is recruiting pregnant women with autism. The goal is to use MRI, fMRI and DTI to scan the brains of their fetuses during the third trimester of pregnancy, and again within three months after birth.

The researchers plan to follow the children’s behaviors as they grow, and assess them for autism when they are 2 years old. “We can look to see whether the brain data predicts later behavioral data,” Baron-Cohen says.

Twitching twins: Babies move frequently in the womb, making
it difficult for researchers to analyze their brain activity.
Courtesy of Studholme lab

The researchers all caution that the aim of these projects is not to diagnose autism or to help parents make decisions about whether to continue a pregnancy. Even if they could use brain scans to diagnose the condition in utero, it would be impractical to put every pregnant woman into a scanner. Rather, the goal is to understand which brain regions and structural changes contribute to autism.

Fetal brain scans have already been deployed to find markers for other conditions, such as congenital heart disease, which can deprive the developing brain of oxygen. Some children with congenital heart disease develop learning difficulties, hyperactivity and mood problems by the time they enter school. Researchers are using fetal fMRI to identify the brain changes that predict these difficulties.

“We can begin to identify problems early enough so that we can intervene,” says lead investigator Catherine Limperopoulos, director of the Developing Brain Research Laboratory at Children’s National Health System in Washington, D.C.

Baby brains: To examine autism’s origins, scientists are
scanning fetuses with a family history of the condition.
Courtesy of Wayne State University

Moriah Thomason and her colleagues used a similar approach to identify brain features that underlie the language difficulties seen in some preterm babies. They scanned 32 fetuses, 14 of whom went on to be born prematurely, and found that those born preterm have weakened connections between areas of the brain that specialize in language processing (2).

They plan to track the children’s language development to see how it might relate to behavior.

Murphy says fetal scans might reveal how risk factors for autism shape fetal brain development, and how early brain changes track with later behaviors. His team and Baron-Cohen’s team expect to wrap up their studies next year.

  1. Seshamani S. et al. Hum. Brain Mapp. 37, 4158-4178 (2016) PubMed
  2. Thomason M.E. et al. Sci. Rep. 7, 39286 (2017) PubMed

Should Literacy Instruction Be a Constitutional Right?

From Education Week's Blog
"Curriculum Matters"

By Stephen Sawchuk
August 15, 2017

A federal lawsuit centering on the Detroit school district raises a fascinating argument about the relationship of literacy to citizenship: Is it possible to be a participating member of society without the ability to read and write?

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Gary B. v. Snyder, don't think so. And they argue that Michigan's failure to help Detroit's needy students, and students of color, to read falls afoul of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees liberty and equality under the law.

Think about it, they say: If you can't read and write, you will have trouble voting, reading the news, getting a job, or otherwise being a fully formed citizen.

The unusual lawsuit is among the first to argue that public education should lead to a specific educational outcome in a content area: if not literacy outright, the schools must give access to literacy instruction.

A Complex History

As you probably know, the U.S. Constitution doesn't say anything explicit about education, leaving it up to states to define in their own constitutions what educational rights are guaranteed. That's why most litigation over school adequacy has been fought at the state level, rather than at the federal level.

(And in some states, including Michigan, courts have even held that the state constitution doesn't create a "cause of action" over education—or allow individuals to sue over educational rights.)

The U.S. Supreme Court has generally been suspicious of attempts to read educational rights into the constitution. Most notably, in the 1973 case San Antonio v. Texas, it ruled that even though Texas' school financing system yielded big disparities in per-pupil funding, it did not run afoul of the 14th Amendment's equal-protection clauses.

That seems pretty open-and-shut.

But according to the plaintiffs in the Michigan case, brought by the pro bono law firm Public Interest, the San Antonio case left open the possibility that a school system could be so dysfuctional and fail so greviously to provide a "basic" education that it might run afoul of the constitution's equal-protection clause.

And, in effect, the Gary plaintiffs say that's exactly what's happened in Detroit, thanks to the falling spending, the crumbling schools, the outdated textbooks, and the lack of qualified teachers. What's more, the state is doing a disservice to a particular class of students who are disadvantaged and non-white.

Not surprisingly, the state of Michigan is fighting this argument. In its motion to dismiss the case, which was heard by U.S. District Judge Stephen Murphy last week, the state argued that "there is no fundamental right to literacy" in the constitution, and that it is not responsible for the Detroit school district's woes.

"Plaintiffs' claims go far beyond mere access to education and ask this Court to serve as a 'super' legislature tasked with determining and dictating educational policy in every school district and school building throughout the United States where an illiterate child may be found," the state's lawyers wrote. "This Court should soundly reject Plaintiffs' attempt to destroy the American tradition of democratic control of schools by creating a fundamental right out of whole cloth."

Mark Rosenbaum, the director for Public Counsel's Opportunity Under Law project, said that during the hearing, he argued that the right the plaintiffs are fighting for isn't as anywhere near as extensive as the defendants claim.

"It's not clear to me beyond basic education and access to literacy how much the 14th Amendment would admit," he said in an interview. "But if kids can't read and write, they are excluded from democracy and the ability to achieve based on merit."

Expanding Educational Rights

No matter which way this case ends up, it is emblematic of a subtle shift in lawsuits over educational rights. For years, access to school finance and funding were the name of the game in such lawsuits. And now, a handful of lawsuits are arguing that equity contains an instructional component.

The primary example is probably Vergara v. California, the 2014 case that sought to overturn that state's teacher-tenure and dismissal rules, arguing that they were concentrating poorly performing teachers in schools serving large number of needy students, in violation of the state constitution. That lawsuit was successful at the trial-court level, but an appeals court overturned it.

Public Counsel wasn't involved in Vergara, but Rosenbaum was a key figure in another, similar equity lawsuit, Reed v. California. That case, in 2010, argued that seniority-based layoffs violated needy and minority students' civil rights by subjecting them to a revolving door of teachers.

It resulted in a settlement with the Los Angeles school district, but the settlement was also overturned, this time over procedural problems raised by United Teachers Los Angeles.

The Gary plaintiffs' legal team includes two law professors, Evan Caminker of the University of Michigan and Erwin Chemerinsky of the University of California, Irvine, alongside the Public Counsel and other pro bono lawyers.

Lori Higgins, the Detroit Free Press' excellent education reporter, has a great rundown on some of the complex legal arguments in this case and will be following it as it develops. Her most recent piece is here.


Friday, August 18, 2017

Now and Zen: Lower Prenatal Stress Reduces Risk of Behavioral Issues in Kids

From the University of Ottowa
via ScienceDaily

August 9, 2017

Expectant mothers may want to consider adopting today's trend towards stress management, in light of new research pointing to its ability to lower the risk of problematic behavior in their offspring. Mothers who are exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy have kids who are more than twice as likely to have chronic symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder.

These are tips and tricks to help expectant mothers manage stress.
Credit: University of Ottawa

Parenting is a complicated journey full of questions, and when a beloved child begins to show signs of a behavioural disorder, a parent's challenges become even more difficult to navigate.

Expectant mothers may want to consider adopting today's trend towards stress management, in light of new research from the University of Ottawa pointing to its ability to lower the risk of problematic behaviour in their offspring.

Dr. Ian Colman, associate professor at the University of Ottawa's Faculty of Medicine, led a team of researchers in examining data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. The team found that mothers who experience significant prenatal stress may be increasing their child's risk for behavioural issues.

"Mothers who are exposed to high levels of stress during pregnancy have kids who are more than twice as likely to have chronic symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder," Dr. Colman said of the team's recently published findings.

"Hyperactivity is a symptom of ADHD, and about 10% of school-age children are affected by ADHD or conduct disorder," he said. "These disorders can lead to poor results in school and difficulties in their relationships with family and friends."

Behavioural disorders such as those seen by the researchers are characterized by aggressive or antisocial behaviour, high activity levels, and difficulty inhibiting behaviour. They are also associated with school failure, substance use/abuse, and criminal activity, according to the paper.

A mother's stress can alter brain development in the fetus, and it is believed these changes may be long-lasting or permanent, said Dr. Colman.

The team was unique in its approach: it studied the effects of specific stressors on participants, as opposed to gauging overall stress levels. Participants reported stressful events, such as problems at work, the illness of a relative, or an argument with a partner, family or friend.

"Generally speaking, we found that the higher the stress, the higher the symptoms," Dr. Colman said. "We can't avoid most stressful events in our lives and since we can't always prevent them, the focus should be on helping mothers manage stress in order to give their children the best start in life."

Journal Reference
  • Nathalie MacKinnon, Mila Kingsbury, Liam Mahedy, Jonathan Evans, Ian Colman. The Association Between Prenatal Stress And Externalizing Symptoms In Childhood: Evidence From The Avon Longitudinal Study Of Parents And Children. Biological Psychiatry, 2017; DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2017.07.010

Betsy DeVos is Wrong About Accountability for Schools of Choice

From the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Blog
"Flypaper" - Advancing Educational Excellence

By Chester E. Finn, Jr.
August 16, 2017

Accountability for schools of choice is a topic forever in the news—and in dispute. The latest combatant is none other than Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who made clear in a recent interview with the Associated Press that she favors letting the market work its will and trusting parents to judge whether a school is worth attending.

In this context, she was referring specifically to private schools insofar as they participate in publicly financed voucher or tax-credit-scholarship programs. (Yes, yes, I understand the argument that if it’s done via tax credits it’s not actual public financing. But that begs the political and policy questions that dog such programs and those who want more of them.)

When it comes to charter schools, the Secretary acknowledged that authorizers play a role alongside parents, though she picked the dubious case of Michigan, her home state, to illustrate the point.

The Wolverine State certainly has some top-notch authorizers, and they have indeed closed down some failing charter schools, yet the overall track record of Michigan charters is too spotty—at least in the eyes of those who value academic achievement and fiscal probity—to warrant citing it as a stellar example of quality control via authorizing.

Back in June, I unloaded on the authors of a recent CER volume on charters’ “freedom, flexibility and opportunity” because of their support for a market-only accountability system. Indeed, I termed it “idiocy,” and a bunch of folks jumped all over me for using that blunt term. But I also deferred for later the admittedly gnarlier issue of whether the market is sufficient when the schools involved are private yet the funding involved is arguably public.

Later is now, thanks to the AP and Secretary DeVos taking the matter off the table. Here’s what she had to say about it:

"I think the first line of accountability is frankly with the parents. When parents are choosing [a] school they are proactively making that choice. And schools are accountable to the parents. And vice versa, the students doing well and working to achieve in the schools. I think it's important for parents to have information about how their students are doing, how they're achieving, how they're progressing. And that kind of transparency and accountability I think is really the best approach to holding schools accountable broadly.

It starts with holding themselves accountable to communication of relevant and important information to students and parents about how they are doing. And we know from, that when parents choose and they are unhappy with whatever the school setting is they will choose something different. And that's the beauty of having choices."

Parents as first line of defense, sure, although she appears to trust the schools themselves to equip the parents with the information they need to make competent decisions. There’s no sign of any sort of impartial data source.

But where’s the second line of defense?

She never gets around to one, not to anything akin to authorizing in the case of charters or “protective services” or audits in the case of private schools that may be committing educational abuse or financial fraud. (For that matter, she doesn’t even mention such rudiments as health and fire codes.)

For me, this approach just doesn’t cut it, not when we’re talking about publicly authorized and funded programs intended to educate needy children in whose educational success there is a strong public (as well as private) interest.

Where’s the school equivalent of the FDA or Department of Agriculture, enabling parents to see the ingredients on a can of beans and to be sure that the chicken in the grocery case is not contaminated with salmonella?

At Fordham, we’ve spilled a lot of ink over this issue in recent years. After much thought, research, and palaver, we’ve ended up firmly attached to a trinitarian approach to private-school accountability in cases of publicly-supported choice programs.

We recommend that states:
  • Require that all students who receive a voucher (or tax-credit scholarship) participate in state assessments. (While we prefer state assessments as policy, we think any widely respected test that allows for ready comparison against other schools or districts is a reasonable compromise);
  • Mandate public disclosure of those assessment results, school by school, save for schools that enroll fewer than ten voucher (or scholarship) students in grades that are tested; and,
  • Use a sliding scale when it comes to acting on the test results—i.e., private schools that derive little of their revenue from programs of this kind should be largely left alone, while those that receive more of their dollars from state initiatives should be held more accountable.

We’re painfully aware that this kind of comparability and transparency does not always advance private-school choice in the sense of persuading people that there should be more of it.

Several recent evaluations of voucher programs that use such publicly available assessment data—including one sponsored by Fordham—have yielded mixed or negative results in terms of the academic efficacy of participation in such programs.

Sobering, yes, and if we were single-mindedly dedicated—as perhaps Secretary DeVos is—to expanding and extending access to such programs, we might back off from results-linked accountability. In the long run, however, it’s better for choice, for kids, for taxpayers, and for the country’s economic vitality and social mobility that we continue to insist: No school, public or private, is a good school unless its students are learning what they should.

And, where public policy and public funding are concerned, what kids should learn is a matter of public interest and so are the results that their schools are—or aren’t—producing.

It would be wonderful if the parent marketplace were a sure-fire mechanism for gauging and producing those results. Sadly, it simply isn’t. Which is to say, again sadly, Secretary DeVos has this one wrong.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Learning in Motion: Bring Movement Back to the Classroom

From Education Week "Teacher"

By Marwa Abdelbary
August 9, 2017

With a new school year beginning, many students are expected to rapidly transition from months full of activity and movement to a classroom that relies—primarily—on stasis. This can be a problem, especially when considering that the persistent demand for teachers to do more with their students has, unfortunately, pushed schools into thinking that movement and free play are just wasted time.

But studies show that children who are more active exhibit better focus, faster cognitive processing, and more successful memory retention than kids who spend the day sitting still. Keeping the body active promotes mental clarity by increasing blood flow to the brain, making activity vital to both learning and physical and neurological health.

The problem is that there aren’t enough hands. Many educators know how important movement is, but don’t have the classroom support to safely handle active children throughout the day.

Fortunately, teachers can take advantage of several opportunities to keep children active during the school day—without needing additional help to keep things under control.

Why Sitting Shouldn’t Be the Standard

Sitting still and being quiet have always been schoolhouse rules. In recent years, the mantra has gained more steam with worries that today’s children lack focus or aren’t grounded enough in what has been dubbed an age of distraction.

A 2011 study by researchers at Duke University found that a student’s capacity to concentrate is one of the best predictors of success. The researchers studied more than 1,000 children in New Zealand over a period of eight years to track their ability to pay attention, then followed up with them as adults to measure their health and financial stability. Those with more self-control were less likely to have difficulty with money or health problems.

Given the endless media streams from devices like smartphones, iPads, and iPods, it’s no surprise that children today seem less focused than kids 30 years ago. But tying them down is not the solution. Over the past few decades, the time schools have dedicated to physical education and recess has steadily decreased.

Yet experts agree that children need at least 60 minutes of physical activity each day. With this in mind, savvy teachers are increasingly making physical activity an important part of their lesson plans.

Play and movement give kids the chance to release stress and take breaks from the rigor of schoolwork. While it’s important for children to learn how to work while sitting still, we also need to realize when our bodies are telling us to take a break—even as adults.

I learned the necessity of movement for myself in my college years. I retained a lot from sitting and focusing for two hours, but gained much less if forced to sit for five hours at a stretch. This knowledge has translated to my own work as a school-based physical therapist. I now help children and adolescents (and their parents) access specific strategies that can lead them to a more productive lifestyle.

Making Time for Activity

Discipline and order in classrooms help shape children’s habits and rules of behavior early on in their lives—and these needs are not very different from what we need as adults. At work, you may hear co-workers say, “I’m going outside to get some fresh air for a few minutes” or “I need to take a walk to clear my head.”

A quick 15-minute break helps adults tackle the rest of their day, and the same is true for children. More importantly, physical engagement helps children build the foundations of their social skills, particularly for children who are naturally shy or have difficulty with certain developmental areas. Kids can learn empathy by sharing, and build self-esteem and leadership skills by strategizing and working as part of a team.

Daily activity also helps boost balance, motor function, brain function, and cognition. According to a growing body of research, movement increases blood and oxygen flow, which positively affects cognitive development, physical health, and mental well-being.

I have supported teachers by teaching them how to use media in the classroom for breaks. YouTube is a great resource for finding videos to guide movement breaks and exercises. Teachers can also allow for free dance or movement periods during their classes.

Here are a few other ways teachers can seize opportunities that allow children to be more active:

1.) Set ground rules for play.

Inviting children to move around more in the classroom can feel like inviting pandemonium. But as with all new strategies, the key is to set ground rules so children know what to expect. Before inviting them to move about, explain the purpose of an exercise that requires physical activity.

Plan lessons and activities—even non-educational ones like jumping jacks—beforehand with clear objectives, time limits, and a backup plan in case the activity doesn’t go as expected.

2.) Make learning activities more active.

Create gallery walks in which children must travel around the room to observe visual aids for different parts of a lesson. Have children form groups to discuss and answer lesson questions, then have them write their answers on the board. Play board games tied to the current lesson and include spaces that call for students to do push-ups or jumping jacks.

Making children carry their assignments to your desk, rather than passing them forward, can also introduce more movement into their day.

3.) Encourage periodic breaks.

Midmorning snacks are an important way for adults to hold their hunger in check until lunch, and kids should have the same opportunity. Hunger can be one of the biggest distractions to learning, and offering snacks can also be a physical activity. Line up juice and snacks on a table at one end of the room, and have children take their refreshments back to their desks or to another designated area for some variety.

4.) Take midday walks.

Taking a quick walk outside can do wonders to help lift the fog from a child’s brain. If possible, plan lessons that can occur outside, or incorporate a 10- to 15-minute window around noon for the class to take a walk around campus. Walking offers fresh air and is one of the simplest and most effective forms of everyday physical activity.

There's a long way to go before incorporating physical activity into general lesson plans becomes the norm. In my practice, therapeutic play that emphasizes physical activity is paramount for children to acquire important cognitive and physical skills. When kids are moving, they’re having more fun, often making lessons feel less like work.

However, we can’t just state that activity is good for learning; we also have to prove it by tracking the performance and development of children who are more active. Once we begin to measure these effects, we can better understand how to implement activities into the broader educational system and better gauge which ones will give children the greatest health and learning benefits.

Marwa Abdelbary is a physical therapist and co-founder of Tiny Tots Therapy, a multidisciplinary and multilingual team of occupational, physical, and speech therapists based in Columbia, Mo. Tiny Tots collaborates with pediatricians, counselors, and psychologists to provide individualized therapeutic services for children.