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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Urban Districts Embrace Social-Emotional Learning

From Education Week

June 9, 2015

" ... if inside school, students feel this is a safe haven, this is a place where they can grow and be challenged, we've done our job." 

Madison Reid, a student in a combined 2nd and 3rd grade classroom,
leads a discussion on good listening with her classmates during a morning
session at Cleveland's Wade Park Elementary School. Such classroom
exercises are part of Cleveland's districtwide social-emotional learning plan.
--Dustin Franz for Education Week

Cleveland - In a kindergarten classroom at Wade Park Elementary School this spring, students huddled around their teacher in a tight circle while she held up cards that said "proud" and "ashamed" and explained to them what it's like to feel those emotions.

"I felt proud when I graduated from college," she said.

The children had started the day by writing one-word descriptions of their emotions on the classroom's whiteboard, completing the prompt, "Today I feel," with words like "happy," "love," and "tired" in shaky penmanship.

The simple morning classroom exercises are a small part of a data-driven, district-wide social-emotional learning plan in Cleveland that aims to boost students' ability to make responsible decisions, regulate their own emotions and behavior, and build healthy relationships with their peers.

As a growing body of research links such competencies to higher academic achievement, school systems such as the 40,000-student Cleveland district have started to take notice.

It is one of eight large, predominantly urban districts that have committed to a multi-year initiative that is allowing researchers to study their system-wide social-emotional learning programs. Such programs blend evidence-based classroom curriculum with school climate improvements and efforts to infuse social and emotional concepts into the teaching of traditional subjects like history.

In Cleveland, for example, posters illustrated with colorful stoplights hang on the walls of elementary classrooms, advising students how to talk through problems.

Social-emotional lessons are taught in a district-prescribed sequence, similar to traditional learning objectives. Elementary teachers use a curriculum called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS. High schools have adopted varied approaches, including using history and writing assignments to help students share what they value and care about.

Each school has designated teams of staff members to lead social-emotional-learning efforts, work with families, and coordinate student supports.

Throughout the district, rooms previously used for in-school suspensions have been converted into "planning centers," where teachers refer misbehaving students to talk through problematic or disruptive actions as an alternative to traditional discipline.

Data Driven

Every district brings a unique approach to the multi-district initiative, which is led by the Chicago-based Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, or CASEL. What sets Cleveland apart is its use of data.

Teachers and principals at the district's 96 schools rely on students' responses on "conditions for learning" surveys, administered online three times a year to grades 3-12, to guide their work. The surveys are akin to formative assessments, but instead of gauging student progress in math and reading, responses help educators size up whether students feel safe, supported, and challenged, and how students think their peers stack up socially and emotionally.

"We are constantly looking at the data," Wade Park Principal Janet McDowell told leaders from other CASEL districts who came to observe her classrooms in the spring. "I meet with the teachers weekly."

Cleveland school leaders developed their social-emotional-learning strategy after a 2007 school shooting. In that incident, a 14-year-old gunman shot two students and two teachers at one of the district's alternative high schools before killing himself.

Afterward, the district built up its safety hardware, installing more equipment like metal detectors to make buildings safer, said Eric Gordon, the district's chief executive officer. But leaders also recognized a need to build emotional safety and supports for students, a strategy they refer to as "humanware."

The district began using the conditions for learning survey in 2008 after it worked with the Washington based research and evaluation organization American Institutes for Research to identify its strengths and weaknesses in supporting students.

The AIR initially proposed using the survey—which was first developed for the Chicago school district—just once to gauge students' perceptions, said David Osher, an AIR vice president and the co-director of its health and social-development program. But leaders instead opted to administer the survey repeatedly to track the district's work. Some other districts take annual surveys on issues such as school climate, but few are as extensive or administered as regularly as they are in Cleveland.

The plan has buy-in from the district's teachers' union, which agreed to include the survey results in its differentiated-pay plan. If a school shows agreed-upon amounts of growth in several areas of the survey's results, every union member in the building gets a small stipend.

"I imagine over time, people will be doing this more," the AIR's Mr. Osher said of Cleveland's data-driven approach. The U.S. Department of Education will soon release a free survey that districts can use to measure factors like student safety, support, and comfort at school, he said. 

'A Safe Haven'

Teachers and principals said that building supportive school environments and nurturing so-called "soft skills" can be challenging in high-poverty districts like Cleveland, where all students receive free and reduced-price lunches.

Situations outside of school—often related to poverty, crime, or community conflicts—can make it difficult for students to focus in the classroom, teachers said.

The city's police department has been singled out by the U.S. Department of Justice for using overly aggressive tactics, leading to a sense of distrust in low-income and predominantly African-American communities. Last November, a Cleveland police officer shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who had been a student in the district. That shooting, along with events in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., have sparked national conversations about race and the limits of police power.

In advisory sessions with teachers held as part of the district's social-emotional-learning program, high school students, many of whom know the Rice family, talked about their own experiences with police and the family problems they carry with them into the classroom, principals said.

As the district prepared for a potentially controversial verdict in another police-shooting case in May, administrators worked with teachers to hold classroom conversations to discuss students' feelings about the case, as well as larger race and justice issues.

"In an urban district, we cannot control what happens outside of school," Christopher Broughton, the district's director of research and evaluation, told school district leaders from across the country who observed Cleveland's programs in May.

"But, if inside school, students feel this is a safe haven, this is a place where they can grow and be challenged, we've done our job."

Cleveland's leaders describe the development of the district's social-emotional learning strategies as an ongoing process. They've learned a few things along the way.

For example, high school students score their schools much lower on conditions for learning surveys than their younger peers. That may be because they have higher expectations or because such strategies are harder to implement in secondary schools, high school principals said.

But Mr. Osher believes data collected between 2008 and 2013 indicate the strategy is proving its merit. Those data show a strong correlation between growth in students' responses on the conditions for learning survey and performance on state-administered tests, he said.

Measuring Results

AIR researchers are also working to analyze the work of the other districts participating in CASEL's initiative: Anchorage, Alaska; Austin, Texas; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Oakland, Calif.; Sacramento, Calif.; and Washoe County, Nev.

As part of the initiative, those districts will each receive a total of $1.6 million from the NoVo Foundation over six years to plan and help implement their social-emotional-learning strategies, said Melissa Schlinger, CASEL's vice president of programs and practice. (Funding from the NoVo Foundation helps support Education Week's coverage of social-emotional learning.)

The initiative's immediate goal was to determine if it's possible to implement social-emotional learning districtwide in a large school system, Ms. Schlinger said. Preliminary research shows that it is. Using staff and student surveys, interviews, and observations, researchers found high levels of fidelity in program implementation in participating districts, despite such challenges as changes in superintendents since the initiative began.

They also found drops in discipline rates, improved attendance, and, in many cases, improved academic performance in schools with higher levels of implementation.

The broader discussion about social-emotional and non-cognitive skills has accelerated among both policymakers and educators since the initiative launched in 2011, Ms. Schlinger noted.

That new focus has led to state laws focusing on "whole child" issues, improved school climate, and social-emotional-learning programs. On the federal level, bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress that would allow federal professional-development funds for teachers to be spent on training for social-emotional-learning programs.

In Cleveland, Mr. Gordon, the CEO, said he's made it a habit to call newly appointed superintendents in districts with social-emotional learning programs to say "you have important work that you need to know about on day one of your new job."

And leaders of the CASEL districts hope others can learn from their successes and struggles if they decide to adopt similar approaches.

"I don't know that there's any one right starting point from our experience," Mr. Gordon said. "It is about an intentionality, and it's about just starting."

Is Special Education Racist?

From The New York Times

By Paul L. Morgan and George Farkas
June 24, 2015

"If well-intentioned but misguided advocates succeed in arbitrarily limiting placement in special education based on racial demographics, even more black children with disabilities will miss out on beneficial services."

More than six million children in the United States receive special-education services for their disabilities. Of those age 6 and older, nearly 20 percent are black.

Critics claim that this high number — blacks are 1.4 times more likely to be placed in special education than other races and ethnicities combined — shows that black children are put into special education because schools are racially biased.

But our new research suggests just the opposite. The real problem is that black children are underrepresented in special-education classes when compared with white children with similar levels of academic achievement, behavior and family economic resources.

The belief that black children are over-represented in special education is driving some misguided attempts at policy changes. To flag supposed racial bias in special-education placement, the United States Department of Education is thinking of adopting a single standard for all states of what is an allowable amount of over-representation of minority children.

If well-intentioned but misguided advocates succeed in arbitrarily limiting placement in special education based on racial demographics, even more black children with disabilities will miss out on beneficial services.

Black children face double jeopardy when it comes to succeeding in school. They are far more likely to be exposed to the gestational, environmental and economic risk factors that often result in disabilities. Yet black children are less likely to be told they have disabilities, and to be treated for them, than otherwise similar white children.

About 65 percent of black children, compared with about 30 percent of white children, live in families with incomes below 200 percent of the poverty line. From 1985 to 2000, about 80 percent of black children grew up in highly disadvantaged neighborhoods characterized by widespread unemployment, racial segregation, poverty, single-parent households and welfare.

Thirty-six percent of inner-city black children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. The figure for suburban white children is only 4 percent. Black children are about twice as likely to be born prematurely and three times more likely to suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome.

In a study published today, we report that the under-diagnosis of black children occurs across five disability conditions for which special services are commonly provided — learning disabilities, speech or language impairments, intellectual disabilities, health impairments and emotional disturbances.

From the beginning of kindergarten to the end of eighth grade, black children are less, not more, likely than white children with similar levels of academic performance and behaviors to be identified as having each of these disabilities.

In fact, our study statistically controlled for many possible factors that might explain these disparities. Examples included differences in children’s academic achievement, behavior, gender and age, birth weight, the mother’s marital status and the family’s income and education levels.

In contrast, many previous studies reporting over-representation have not adjusted for these factors. Instead, these prior studies have relied on school- or district-level data that did not adequately control for differences in risk factor exposure between black and white children.

It may be that black children are less likely to be identified and treated for disabilities because of a greater responsiveness by education professionals to white parents. Low expectations regarding black children’s abilities may also lead some professionals to ignore the neurological basis of low academic achievement and “problem” behavior. Even those black children who do receive a diagnosis are less likely to receive help.

For example, despite being more likely to experience symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, black children are less likely than white children to be given a diagnosis of A.D.H.D. And even among those who are given an A.D.H.D. diagnosis, black children are less likely than white children to receive medication to treat the condition.

The last thing we need is to compound these widespread disparities in disability diagnosis and treatment by making school officials reluctant to refer black children for special-education eligibility evaluations out of fear of being labeled racially biased.

Pamphlets describing a school district’s disability eligibility procedures are often written in dense legalese that may be hard for many parents to understand. Revising them might make it easier for parents to advocate for their children during the eligibility evaluation process. Community outreach programs can also help overcome cultural barriers to identifying children with disabilities.

Such programs have already been shown to reduce racial disparities in children’s health and health care access. We should be trying to identify children with disabilities and to provide them with an education adapted to their individual academic, physical or behavioral needs.


Paul L. Morgan is an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania State University. George Farkas is a professor of education at the University of California, Irvine.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Sorry, Tiger Moms - ‘Helicopter Parenting’ Hurts Kids Regardless of Love or Support, Study Says

From Science Daily
via Time Magazine

By Alissa Greenberg
June 2, 2015

So-called “helicopter parenting” is detrimental to children no matter how loving the parents might be, a new study by professors at Brigham Young University (BYU) finds.

The study, a follow up to 2012 research that suggested children of such controlling parents are less engaged in the classroom, surveyed 483 students from four American universities on their parents’ behavior and their own self-esteem and academics, Science Daily reports.

This time, researchers explored whether characteristics such as support and warmth might neutralize the negative effects of helicopter parenting. Not only did the study conclude that they do not, but it also suggested that lack of warmth can take the situation from bad to worse, amplifying low self-esteem and high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking.

For the purposes of the study, researchers defined “helicopter parenting” as including such over-involved habits such as solving children’s problems and making important decisions for them, while warmth was measured in terms of availability to talk and spending quality time.

The study contradicts popular parenting philosophies, such as the one espoused in the 2011 bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

“From our past work, we thought there might be something positive about helicopter parenting under certain conditions, but we’re just not finding it,” study author Larry Nelson told Science Daily. Instead, while the data indicated that warmth reduced the negative effects of controlling parenting, it did not nullify them completely.

“Overall, stepping in and doing for a child what the child developmentally should be doing for him or herself, is negative,” Nelson said.

Kids Who Remember Words Are Better Liars

From the University of Sheffield (U.K.)
via Futurity

By Shemina Davis
June 22, 2015

Kids who perform better on verbal memory tests are better at covering up lies, a hidden-camera experiment shows.

Researchers gave six- and seven-year-olds the opportunity to do something they were instructed not to: peek at the final answers on the back of a card during a trivia game. A hidden camera and correct answers to the question allowed researchers to identify who had peeked, despite denials.

Further questioning, including about the color of the answer on the cards, allowed researchers to identify who was a good liar—the children who lied to both entrapment questions—or a bad liar—those who lied about one or none of the entrapment questions.

During the experiment, researchers also measured two elements: verbal and visuospatial working memory in the children.

Verbal working memory is the number of words a person can remember all at the same time. Visuospatial working memory is the number of images a person can remember all at the same time.

Results showed the “good liars” performed better on the verbal working memory test in both processing and recall, compared to the “bad liars.”

“While parents are usually not too proud when their kids lie, they can at least be pleased to discover that when their children are lying well, it means their children are becoming better at thinking and have good memory skills,” says Elena Hoicka from the University of Sheffield’s psychology department.

Make Up a Cover Story

The link between lying and verbal memory is thought to stem from the fact that covering lies involves keeping track of lots of verbal information. As a result, kids who possessed better memories and could keep track of lots of information were able to successfully make and maintain a cover story for their lie.

In contrast, there was no difference in visuospatial working scores between good and bad liars. The researchers suspect this is because lying usually doesn’t involve keeping track of images, so visuospatial information is less important.

“We already know that adults lie in approximately a fifth of their social exchanges lasting 10 or more minutes, so it’s interesting to know why some children are able to tell more porkies than others,” says Hoicka. “We’ll now be looking to move the research forward to discover more about how children first learn to lie.”

The results are published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Researchers from the University of North Florida collaborated on the study.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

13 Helpful Phrases You Can Say to Calm an Anxious Child

From Lemon Lime Adventures

By Nicole Schwarz
June 19, 2015 

It’s time for school. The bus will arrive any minute. Maybe today will be the day!

But then you hear it: “Mom, I don’t want to go to school.”

Your heart sinks. Here we go again. Every day it’s the same conversation. The same conversation that usually ends up in tears, missing the bus and late for school again.

“You’ll be fine, honey!” you say cheerfully. “There’s nothing to worry about!”

But your words fall on deaf ears. Your child is fully convinced that everything will NOT be ok, and that there are PLENTY of things to worry about. Sighing, you sit down on the couch, wracking your brain for something more helpful to say.

If your child struggles with anxiety, you know the challenge of finding the right things to say when he or she is worried. It’s not easy to connect without making the fears worse, while at the same time offering support and encouragement.

Are you curious how you can help calm an anxious child? Rather than telling your child “You’ll be fine,” or “Don’t worry about it,” try one of these phrases the next time your child is feeling worried.

What to Say to Calm an Anxious Child
  • “I am here; you are safe.” Anxiety has a way of making things look worse and feel scarier than when we are not feeling worried. These words can offer comfort and safety when your child is feeling out of control, especially if they are at the height of their worry. If you’re not sure what to say, this is an excellent go-to phrase!
  • “Tell me about it.” Give your child room to talk about their fears without interrupting. Some children need to have time to process through their thoughts. Do not offer solutions or try to fix it. Children sometimes do better with a set amount of time: “Let’s talk about your worries for 10 minutes.”
  • “How big is your worry?” Help your child verbalize the size of their worry and give you an accurate picture of how it feels to them. They can represent their worry by using arm length (hands close together or arms stretched wide apart) or by drawing three circles on a paper (small, medium and large) and choosing the one that applies.
  • “What do you want to tell your worry?” Explain to your child that worry is like an annoying “worry bug” that hangs around telling them to be worried. Create a few phrases, then give them permission to talk back to this “worry bug.” They can even be bossy: “Go away!” or “I don’t have to listen to you!” Use silly voices, and try it loud and quiet.
  • “Can you draw it?” Many kids cannot express their emotions with words. Encourage them to draw, paint or create their worries on paper. When they are finished, make observations, and give them a chance to explain the significance: “That’s a lot of blue!”
  • “Let’s change the ending.” Anxious children often feel stuck in the same pattern without a way out. Help them see different options by telling their story, but leaving off the ending. Then, create a few new endings. Some can be silly, but at least one should be realistic for your child. Focus on your child conquering their fears with confidence!
  • “What other things do you know about (fill in the blank)?” Some children feel empowered when they have more information about their fear (especially things like tornadoes, bees, elevators, etc.). Grab a book from the library, do a science experiment, research together online: How often does your fear happen? How do people stay safe?
  • “Which calming strategy do you want to use?” Work proactively to create a long list of calming strategies your child enjoys. Practice them during the day, at random times when your child feels calm. When your child feels a worry sneaking into their thoughts, encourage them to pick something from the list.
  • “I’m going to take a deep breath.” Sometimes our children are so worried that they resist our encouragement to pick a calming strategy. In this case, use yourself as the calming skill! Verbalize what you are doing and how it makes you feel. Some people hold their children close so they can feel the rise and fall of their chest as they breathe.
  • “It’s scary AND…” Acknowledge your child’s fear without making it even more frightening by using the word “AND.” After the word “and” you can add phrases like, “You are safe.” or “You’ve conquered this fear before.” or “You have a plan.” This models an internal dialogue your child can use next time they are feeling worried.
  • “I can’t wait to hear about…” It’s hard to see our kids suffer with worry. Many parents rush in to rescue their child from an anxiety-producing situation. Encourage your child that they will survive this difficult feeling by bringing up a topic to talk about when you’re together later — what they did at recess, who they sat by at lunch, etc.
  • “What do you need from me?” Instead of assuming that you know what your child needs, give them an opportunity to tell you what would help. Older kids may be able to verbalize if they need you to listen, give a hug, or help them find a solution. If you can’t do it, give them their wish in fantasy: “I wish grown ups could go to kindergarten too!”
  • “This feeling will pass.” This may be a phrase you can both use when your child is at the height of panic. All feelings pass eventually. It often feels like they will never end, you won’t make it through, or it’s too hard. And that’s OK. Don’t let your brain get stuck in that moment; focus on the relief that is on the horizon.

Anxiety and worry look different for every child. Not every one of these strategies will work for your kids. You are the expert on your child. If you try something and it makes their worries worse, don’t panic. Just pick something else from the list to try next time. Eventually, you will find a few phrases that are effective for sending a calm, encouraging and empowering message to your child.

When My Worries Get Too Big is a great addition to add to any library if you have a child who worries or is anxious. Engaging and easy to read, this illustrated children s book is filled with opportunities for children to participate in developing their own self-calming strategies. Children who use the simple strategies in this charming book, illustrated by the author, will find themselves relaxed and ready to focus on work or play!

Note: If your child’s worries are impacting their school functioning, sleep or eating habits, or are negatively impacting their daily routine, seek support from a mental health professional.


Nicole Schwarz is a mom to 3 little girls, a Licensed Therapist and Parent Coach. Check out her blog, Imperfect Families for more positive parenting tips and learn more about how Parent Coaching can help you find solutions to your parenting challenges.

Maryland Officials: Letting ‘Free Range’ Kids Walk or Play Alone is Not Neglect

From The Washington Post

By Donna St. George
June 11, 2015 

Supporters of free range parenting gather in Ellsworth Park on
May 9, 2015, in Silver Spring, Md. (Bill O'Leary/Washington Post)

Maryland officials have taken steps to clarify their views about children playing or walking alone outdoors in a new policy directive that says Child Protective Services should not be involved in such cases unless children have been harmed or face a substantial risk of harm.

The directive, part of a public statement to be issued Friday, follows a nationally debated case involving “free range” parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, who let their young children walk home alone from parks in Montgomery County.

The Meitivs say they have gradually allowed their son, Rafi, 10, and daughter, Dvora, 6, more freedom to walk on their own in areas they know. But police twice picked up the siblings as they made their way home in Silver Spring, and CPS neglect investigations ensued.

The Meitivs were cleared on appeal last month in one neglect case. They are awaiting a decision in the other, they say.

State officials did not comment Thursday on the Meitivs’ experiences, saying such matters are confidential by law. But they stressed that they have no interest in trumping the individual choices parents make.

“We are not getting into the business of opining on parenting practices or child-rearing philosophies,” said Katherine Morris, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Human Resources. “We don’t view that as our role. We see our role as responding when a child is harmed or at a significant risk of harm. It’s all about child safety.”

The statement echoes that thought, saying the state agency is “mindful that every family applies its members’ personal upbringing, life experiences and expectations to parenting, and it is not the department’s role to pick and choose among child-rearing philosophies and practices.”

Morris said the updated directive, which focuses on CPS screening practices, does not reflect a new position. It instead comes from a regular agency review process as “additional clarification” to the public and local departments of social services, she said. It aims to ensure consistency and alignment with laws and regulations.

The document replaces a similar one issued last year and includes new sections on unattended and unsupervised children.

Touching on an issue central to the Meitiv case, it says: “Children playing outside or walking unsupervised does not meet the criteria for a CPS response absent specific information supporting the conclusion that the child has been harmed or is at substantial risk of harm if they continue to be unsupervised.”

The document lists factors that CPS considers, including the nature of any injury, any parental actions taken to manage risks, a child’s age, and the period of time and setting involved.

Danielle Meitiv said Thursday that the state’s move could be a positive development but that it does not go far enough.

“I’m glad they’re clarifying it, but it still doesn’t give reassurance to parents that their desire to give their children freedom will be respected,” she said.

The state directive comes two months after the Meitivs’ last involvement with CPS, on April 12, when CPS and police held the Meitiv children for more than five hours. The family has said it intends to file a lawsuit.

Matthew Dowd, the family’s attorney, said the state’s updated policy “validates our position all along that there was never any neglect or potential neglect with the Meitiv children.”

Dowd said that although the directive could provide CPS workers with guidance, it remains short on detail. It lists factors that CPS would consider, for example, with “no insight as to how CPS will apply those factors,” he said.

“I think it’s written so broadly it will depend on how CPS implements this policy moving forward,” he said. “It doesn’t give you any guidance where they will draw the line in the future.”

Morris, the state DHR spokeswoman, said each potential neglect scenario is unique and CPS staff are trained to go through an extensive interview process. “I don’t think communities would want us to do a one-size-fits-all approach to assess whether a situation requires CPS to respond,” she said.

The new directive also addresses a state law on unattended children that says children younger than 8 in a building, enclosure or vehicle must be with a responsible person who is at least 13.

When the Meitiv case came to light, county CPS officials said they could look to that state law for guidance during investigations. But many who have followed the case have questioned whether the law applies because it does not mention children outdoors.

The new policy directive says the law was originally written as part of a fire code.

“The statute does not apply to children left unattended outdoors,” it says.

Dowd said CPS told the Meitivs the law did apply to their circumstances. The position that it does not apply is “long overdue,” he said, and “doesn’t undo the harm already caused by CPS’s improper investigations and detainments.”

Morris said she could not say whether such an assertion was made and declined to comment.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

TED Video (13:51): Steve Silberman - The Forgotten History of Autism

From TED Talks 
via left brain right brain

June 17, 2015

Steve Silberman has been researching the history of autism for 5 years. I met him at the start of this journey, at IMFAR in San Diego and even then he had a good grasp of autism. Since then he has unearthed a great deal and I am eagerly awaiting his book (which I have already pre-ordered).

Recently, Mr. Silberman gave a TED talk: The Forgotten History of Autism.

Decades ago, few pediatricians had heard of autism. In 1975, 1 in 5,000 kids was estimated to have it. Today, 1 in 68 is on the autism spectrum. What caused this steep rise? Steve Silberman points to “a perfect storm of autism awareness” — a pair of doctors with an accepting view, an unexpected pop culture moment and a new clinical test.

But to really understand, we have to go back further to an Austrian doctor by the name of Hans Asperger, who published a pioneering paper in 1944. Because it was buried in time, autism has been shrouded in misunderstanding ever since.

What You Thought About Minority Students and Special Ed Is Wrong

From U.S. News & World Report

By Allie Bidwell
June 24, 2015

A Penn State study says societal hurdles mean too few – instead of too many – minorities are receiving special education help. 

Despite common perceptions, minority students may actually
be underrepresented in special education programs.

Minority students are significantly less likely than their white peers to be identified as disabled and may lack access to special education services, despite claims they are disproportionately tracked into and placed in such programs, according to new federally funded research.

In a report published Wednesday in the journal Educational Researcher, Paul Morgan of Pennsylvania State University and his colleagues show that racial-, ethnic- and language-minority students are underrepresented in special education. Yet federal efforts still exist to curb what some say is an excessive number of minority students who are identified as having a learning or intellectual disability, speech or language impairment, or as suffering from emotional issues.

In fact, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states are required to use federal funding to intervene with students sooner in hopes of reducing the proportion of minority students in special education.


But those federal efforts might be misdirected, according to Morgan, because previous research on the topic hasn't controlled for factors that put minority children at greater risk for qualifying conditions, nor has it considered circumstances that result in minority families being less likely to access special education services.

"These well-intentioned policies instead may be exacerbating the nation's education inequities by limiting minority children's access to potentially beneficial special education and related services to which they may be legally entitled," Morgan said in a statement.

Unadjusted research, then, would appear to show an over-representation of minority students in special education. For example, African-American children make up 14 percent of the school-age population but 19 percent of the special education population, Morgan explains in a video discussing his work. This type of disparity has caused some to label special education as a racially biased or discriminatory sector.

In truth, per Morgan's research, not only is the perception of too many minority students receiving special education services wrong, the need for more minority students to have those services is even greater.

"What hasn't always been satisfied is this condition of all other things being the same. Because of the nation's long and sad history of racial discrimination and segregation, it's unfortunate but well-established that minority children are much more likely to be exposed to risk factors themselves that increase the likelihood of having a disability," Morgan said in the video. "Exposure to lead, low birth weight [and] other risk factors for disability have often not been accounted for in the analyses when investigating minority disproportionate representation."

The under-representation of minority students also could stem from social and cultural obstacles.

"Education professionals should be attentive to cultural and language barriers that may keep minority children with disabilities from being appropriately identified and treated," Morgan said in the statement.

To reach their conclusions, Morgan and his colleagues used federal data to track a nationally representative group of students from kindergarten in the fall of 1998 through the spring of their eighth-grade year. They found minority students in the group were underrepresented in terms of being identified as needing special education services throughout elementary and middle school.

In fact, compared with otherwise similar white children, African-American children were 77 percent less likely to be identified as having health impairments, 63% less likely to be identified as having speech or language impairments and 58% less likely to be identified as having learning disabilities, the researchers found.

Hispanic children were more likely than African-American children to be identified as having a disability, but were still significantly less likely – by as much as 73 percent in some cases – to be identified with one than white children. Children from families without health insurance and those with a higher level of academic achievement and greater impulse control were less likely to be identified as having a disability.

"Untreated disabilities increase children's risk for many adversities, including persistent academic and behavioral difficulties in school," Morgan said.

"As a matter of social justice, we should work to ensure that all children with disabilities, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or language use, receive the care they need."

Friday, June 26, 2015

MGH Study Suggests Genetic Link in Autism

From The Boston Herald

By Lindsay Kalter
June 11, 2015

A leading autism expert at Mass. General Hospital says his ongoing study is suggesting a strong genetic link in high-functioning autism cases — with multi­-generational cases within families — as he identifies a growing number of adults who share the disorder with their children. 

Dr. Gagan Joshi’s study at Mass. General Hospital shows
multigenerational cases of high-functioning autism.

Dr. Gagan Joshi, a psychiatrist and medical director of MGH’s Alan & Lorraine Bressler Clinical and Research Program for Autism Spectrum Disorders, said about 250 of the roughly 1,000 children, or 25 percent, seen at the center have at least one parent with a form of autism.

Autism seems to be “a highly, highly genetic disorder,” Joshi said. “A lot of times, in the clinic, we will diagnose children and then see their parents also show signs.

“The numbers are way higher than expected, and they’re growing,” Joshi said. About five years ago, he said, the number of diagnosed multi­generational cases in his clinic was 44 out of 300 families — or about 15 percent.

Past studies have found a link between autism and mutations in SHANK3, a gene that plays a key role in the communication between neurons, suggesting that autism could be passed on genetically.

As Joshi diagnoses more adults with the disorder, he said it is often the answer to a lifelong mystery for them.

“It’s social blindness, and for many people, it’s undiagnosed for a long time,” Joshi said. “Telling someone they have it is like telling a colorblind person they’re colorblind. The diagnosis helps them make sense of things.”

Joey Mele, 56, of Williston, VT — a father of three children with autism — told the Herald that his own diagnosis “was sort of like all the pieces falling together.”

“I came to that realization a long time ago in my late-30s that I was missing something really big,” said Mele, who studied physics and engineering and now owns an IT consulting company.

The Meles came to Joshi in 2011 seeking answers for their children, who were having problems relating to their peers. But Joey Mele exhibited some superficial telltale signs, Joshi said, such as problems maintaining eye contact.

“One of the spectrum traits he has is that he cannot take somebody else’s perspective,” Joshi said. “He cannot make social judgments, relationship judgments.”

Lori Mele, 48, said that for many years, she chalked up her husband’s behavior to insensitivity.

“Now I really have an understanding and more of a respect for those differences,” she said.

Julian, the couple’s oldest child, said of his father’s diagnosis, “It makes me want to cry — not from sadness, but from joy. That my dad had it his whole life and became successful ... it kind of gives me a little bit of a good path to look down.”

Joshi said the link between parents and children with high-functioning autism needs further research, which has largely been focused on the more extreme cases.

“Most of the autism measures we know are for low-functioning autism,” Joshi said. “We are creating some measures to figure out more about high-functioning autism, so we can better understand that population.”

Down syndrome screening isn’t about public health. It’s about eliminating a group of people.

From The Washington Post

By Renate Lindeman
June 16, 2015 

Upon delivering my first child 11 years ago, I heard the words “Down syndrome,” and my world collapsed. Visions of children sitting passively in a corner watching life go by, not participating, kept me awake those first nights as a mom.

It didn’t take me long, though, to figure out that my ideas were based on negative, outdated information that had nothing to do with the reality of life with Down syndrome today. My daughter April is an active, outgoing girl. She’s my nature child, wildly passionate about anything with four legs. Although April uses few words, she’s a master communicator.

Through her, I’ve learned that Down syndrome is not the scary, terrible condition it’s made out to be.

But while governments (rightly) ban gender selection, selective abortion continues to be encouraged for children with Down syndrome. In the United States and abroad, screenings are a routine part of health-care programs, and the result is the near-elimination of these children.

When pregnant with my daughter Hazel, tests showed she, too, would be born with Down syndrome. I was shocked when an acquaintance asked me why I did not choose abortion — as if she were a mistake that could be easily erased. Although my personal prejudices have radically changed since the birth of my first daughter with Down syndrome, I realized that negative attitudes about the condition remain deeply rooted.

To many, my children and their cohort are examples of avoidable human suffering, as well as a financial burden. Knowing that individuals look at my daughters this way hurts, but seeing governments and medical professionals worldwide reinforce these prejudices by promoting selection is horrendous.

Denmark was the first European country to introduce routine screening for Down syndrome in 2006 as a public health-care program. France, Switzerland and other European countries soon followed. The unspoken but obvious message is that Down syndrome is something so unworthy that we would not want to wish it for our children or society. With the level of screening among pregnant Danish women as high as 90 percent, the Copenhagen Post reported in 2011 that Denmark “could be a country without a single citizen with Down syndrome in the not too distant future.”

In 2011, the newest feat in prenatal testing was introduced: the NIPT (Non Invasive Prenatal Test). This DNA test can, with reasonable accuracy, detect Down syndrome in early pregnancy from a single drop of blood taken from the mother. Hailed by medical professionals as the holy grail in prenatal testing, the NIPT has quickly spread across the globe.

Recent research in Britain indicates that introducing the NIPT leads to a higher uptake of screening. With termination rates varying around the world from about 67 percent in the United States to an average of 92 percent in Europe, this will promote even more intensive de-selection of fetuses with Down syndrome, which in turn will negatively affect their position in society.

I don’t judge the women who make the choice to terminate. It must be hard to withstand the bias of medical professionals, people you trust most with your health and well-being, when you’re pregnant and vulnerable. A 2013 study reports that parents are 2.5 times more likely to have a negative experience on receiving the initial Down syndrome diagnosis than to have a positive one. One in four participants said they had been encouraged by a medical professional to abort, and many received inadequate information and little compassion.

With DNA tests called MaterniT21 being popularly referred to as the “Down test,” the primary aim of testing needs no further explanation. I detest the fear that is cultivated by medical professionals, the medical industry and politicians about giving birth to a child with Down syndrome.

Down syndrome does not cause human suffering. The real danger lies in voices that claim our children need to be tested before we can decide who is worthy of life. Women are not incubators of socially preferable descendants.

As a mom, former president of a Down syndrome society and spokesperson for Downpride, a grass-roots parent group, I find most people with Down syndrome possess an enormous zest for life, making them very pleasant company, and there are many firsthand accounts describing the ability of people with Down syndrome to bring simplicity and openness to communities. But these aspects of the condition remain understudied.

One 2011 study did show that the brothers and sisters of people with Down syndrome overwhelmingly feel love and pride toward their siblings; participants also credited having a sibling with Down syndrome with enhancing their lives and increasing their empathy.

Nevertheless, like other European governments, the Netherlands is currently considering permanently including the NIPT, primarily aimed at Down syndrome, in its prenatal screening program. An American-European-Canadian study on DNA screening for Down syndrome was published in the New England Journal of Medicine this year. Dick Oepkes, chairman of the Dutch NIPT consortium, called results “positive,” stating in a recent interview: “Surveys show women experience waiting for test results arduous. Offering the DNA test as a first step will allow women who consider terminating the pregnancy to make their choice before they have felt the fetus move.”

The irony is that for a baby with Down syndrome born today, the outlook has never been better. Medical and social advances have radically changed what it means to live with Down syndrome. Most people with Down syndrome are included in schools and communities. They live healthier, longer lives, and many adults live independently, have jobs and enjoy a rich social life. In 2013, a young woman with Down syndrome became Spain’s first councilor. One study showed that the majority of people with Down syndrome report being happy and fulfilled, regardless of their functional skills.

This is why Downpride is calling on the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to stop systematic screening for Down syndrome as part of public-health programs and to regulate the introduction of prenatal genetic testing — testing should be used to enhance health and human well-being instead of discriminating against people based on their genetic predisposition.

Screening and selection say nothing about the inherent worth of people with Down syndrome. They say everything about the elevation of the capacity for economic achievement above other human traits. My children are fascinating, demanding, delightful, present, annoying, dependent, loving, cuddly, different, unpredictable and completely human, just like other children. They are not a mistake, a burden or a reflection of my “personal choice,” but an integral part of society.

If we allow our governments to set up health programs that result in the systematic elimination of a group of people quite happy being themselves, under the false pretense of women’s rights, than that is a personal choice — one we have to face honestly.


Renate Lindeman is the spokesperson for Dutch parent group Downpride. She lives in the Netherlands.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

At the Movies: Films Focused on Education Reform (with Trailers!)

From Edutopia

By Amy Erin Borovoy (aka VideoAmy) and Ashley Cronin
Originally published September 15, 2010; Updated June 10, 2015

There's been quite a bit of buzz about documentary films that take a look at issues within the American education system. Whether you agree with the point of view of any of these films or not, they are sure to get you thinking.

The Road to Teach (2015)

The Road to Teach follows three young aspiring teachers as they embark on a cross-country roadtrip in an effort to learn about the state of education in America today. Along the way they interview current teachers about the challenges and rewards of the profession and speak to their own feelings about their future career choices. The film includes a Q&A with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. (Source: The Road to Teach website).

The Road to Teach premiered at SXSWedu in March, 2015, and you can watch the full documentary online here.

Finding the Gold Within (2014)

Director Karina Epperlein follows six young black men from Akron, Ohio as they navigate the end of high school and their first two years of college. Working through a local character-education program called Alchemy, they struggle to balance the effects of their upbringing with their drive to succeed academically. This film is an introspective meditation on what it means to be young, black, and male in America. (Source: Finding the Gold Within website).

Find more information about the film and screenings in your area on the film's website.

Finding the Gold Within - a film by Karina Epperlein - 2014 Trailer from Karinafilms on Vimeo.

Doing it for Me (2013)

Although the dropout rate is steadily declining, 7% of high school students dropped out in the year 2014. This student-produced film offers much-needed insight into how and why students leave school, and what might motivate them to stay. Over the course of one year, student co-directors Precious Lambert and Leah Edwards interviewed three of their friends about their lives after dropping out, bringing an important student voice component to the conversation around school retention. (Source: Meridian Hill Pictures website).

Doing it for Me is currently being shown at film festivals. Check out the website for information about a screening near you. 

The Homestretch (2014)

The Homestretch, from directors Anne de Mare and Kirsten Kelly, chronicles the lives of three homeless teens as they fight to stay in high school and transition beyond graduation. In the process, this film encourages audiences to reexamine stereotypes about homelessness and consider the realities and challenges faced by homeless youth in America today. (Source: The Homestretch website).

Pledge to take action to fight to #EndYouthHomelessness. The film’s discussion guide may help facilitate conversations about issues discussed in the film. In addition, information about upcoming screenings can be found on the film’s website.

Previously Featured Films

Most Likely to Succeed (2015)

Dissatisfied with his daughter’s schooling, director Greg Whitely documented his exploration of alternatives in this documentary about the project-based learning approach at High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, California. Through interviews with students, parents, and teachers, viewers are asked to consider what types of educational environments will best equip students to succeed in the 21st century. (Source: Most Likely to Succeed website).

The Address (2014)

This documentary by Ken Burns provides a glimpse into an annual tradition at The Greenwood School, a tiny boarding school in Vermont that serves young men with learning differences and disabilities in grades 6-12. Each year, educators encourage students to study and memorize the Gettysburg Address in order to recite it publicly in front of parents and other community members. In the process, the boys learn lessons about courage and overcoming challenges. (Source: The Address website). 

I Learn America (2013)

From directors Jean-Michel Dissard and Gitte Peng, I Learn America follows five students through one school year at International High School at Lafayette, a small, public, alternative high school in Brooklyn, New York, dedicated to teaching foreign-born, non-native English speakers who are newly arrived to the United States. Through their stories, viewers gain insight into situations and challenges faced by immigrant students and their families. (Source: I Learn America website).

Underwater Dreams (2014)

Written and directed by Mary Mazzio, Underwater Dreams tells the story of four sons of undocumented Mexican immigrants and how they learned to build an underwater robot from Home Depot parts while still in high school, defeating college students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) at an underwater-robotics competition in the process. (Source: Underwater Dreams website).

The Rule (2014)

Saint Benedict’s Preparatory School, a high school in Newark, New Jersey, run by the Benedictine monks of Newark Abbey, has recorded a near 100 percent college-acceptance rate for their predominantly African American and Latino young men -- a rate that soars well above the average for the city. Filmmakers Marylou and Jerome Bongiorno profile the school and the monks to learn how and why they achieve what they do. (Source: The Rule website).

I’m Not a Racist . . . Am I? (2013)

How will the next generation confront racism? This feature-length documentary, produced by Point Made Films in partnership with The Calhoun School, attempts to offer a roadmap through the story of 12 teens in New York City who come together for one school year to talk about race and privilege. (Source: I’m Not a Racist . . . Am I? website). 

180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School (2013)

Produced by the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School tells the story of the first graduating class at Washington Metropolitan High School (DC Met), an alternative school for at-risk youth. 2 two-hour episodes follow the day-to-day lives of five students and the efforts of parents, teachers, and school leaders to help students stay on track to graduation. (Source: 180 Days website).

Who Cares About Kelsey? (2012)

Kelsey Caroll, a high school senior, has one goal: graduation. But the road there has not been easy. She’s dealt with homelessness, abuse, and ADHD -- and attends a school with one of the highest dropout rates in New Hampshire.

Filmmaker Dan Habib’s story of Kelsey's transformation from a disruptive "problem student" to a motivated and self-confident young woman raises important questions about how to best support students with emotional and behavioral challenges and empower them to reach their goals. (Source: Who Cares About Kelsey? website). 

Yuck: A 4th Grader’s Short Documentary About School Lunch (2012)

Zachary Maxwell, a fourth grader at a New York City public elementary school, went on an undercover, six-month mission to capture video footage highlighting the discrepancies between school lunches as described by the official Department of Education lunch menu and the food actually being served in his elementary school lunchroom. The result is this short and spirited documentary about school lunch that has been discussed by numerous news outlets and featured in several film festivals. (Source: Yuck website).

If You Build It (2013)

Directed by Patrick Creadon and produced by Christine O’Malley and Neal Baer, If You Build It tells the story of designer Emily Pilloton, architect Matt Miller, and the students in their in-school design and build class in Bertie County, the poorest county in North Carolina. Through the process of their year-long collaborative project, Pilloton’s and Miller’s students research, prototype, engineer, and build a farmer’s market pavilion, all the while discovering how design thinking can help them transform their community and re-imagine what’s possible. (Source: If You Build It website).

Listen (2013)

College student Ankur Singh spent the spring semester of his freshman year researching the flaws in the American education system from a student perspective; the result of these efforts is Listen, a film about public education in the United States by students, for students. (Source: Listen website).

Room to Breathe (2013)

From filmmaker Russell Long, the documentary Room to Breathe follows a group of seventh-grade students at San Francisco’s Marina Middle School -- a school with the highest number of disciplinary suspensions in its district -- as they learn mindfulness techniques through training conducted by Mindful Schools.

Though the new strategies are not a panacea for all of their challenges, the film highlights the potential of mindfulness practices to help students combat distraction and develop the social and emotional skills they need to succeed. (Source: Room to Breathe website). 

GO PUBLIC (2012)

GO PUBLIC: A Day in the Life of an American School District is a 90-minute documentary that explores events during one day in the Pasadena Unified School District. For this unique film, fifty small camera crews followed teachers, students, principals, volunteers, and others across 28 public school campuses. The result is a compelling window into this district’s daily struggles and successes.

Check out Edutopia’s Five Minute Film Festival: A Day in the Life of a Public School District for more information about the film and the filmmakers. (Source: GO PUBLIC website).

American Promise (2013)

American Promise, a film by Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, captures the experiences of two middle-class African-American boys who enter a prestigious, historically white, private school in Manhattan. Recorded over 12 years of the boys’ journey from kindergarten through high school graduation, this film explores issues of race, class, and opportunity in America and raises provocative questions. (Source: American Promise POV page from PBS)

The Graduates/Los Graduados (2013)

In The Graduates/Los Graduados, a two-part bilingual film from Quiet Pictures, important educational issues are explored through the eyes of three Latino and three Latina students from across the United States. Their stories, which have a running theme of civic engagement, help the filmmakers explore issues and challenges facing Latino high school students and their families, educators, and community leaders.

In "The Graduates: Another Film That Shouldn't Be Missed," Edutopia blogger Mark Phillips shares why he was so inspired by this film. (Source: The Graduates/Los Graduados on the Independent Lens PBS page).

TEACH (2013)

TEACH, a new film by Waiting for Superman director Davis Guggenheim, profiles four very different elementary, middle, and high school teachers and their public school classrooms. Filmed during the 2013 school year, this year-in-the-life story follows the struggles and achievements of these educators as they mentor their students to overcome challenges and do their best. (Source: TEACH website).

The New Public (2012)

How do you reinvent urban education? The New Public is a documentary that takes a personal look into the lives of teachers, parents, and students who are part of a new high school community in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Through the story of their experiences, this film highlights some of the complexities faced by urban public schools and communities. (Source: The New Public website).

Best Kept Secret (2013)

Administrators at John F. Kennedy High School, in Newark, N.J., a public school dedicated to students with special needs, answer the phone by saying, “This is John F. Kennedy High School, Newark’s Best Kept Secret.” Directed by Samantha Buck, Best Kept Secret tells the story of three young men living with autism, their families, and the efforts of JFK High teacher Janet Mino to help her students transition into life beyond school. (Source: Best Kept Secret website). 

First Generation (2011)

First Generation tells the story of four high school students - an inner city athlete, a small town waitress, a Samoan warrior dancer, and the daughter of migrant field workers - who set out to break the cycle of poverty and bring hope to their families and communities by pursuing a college education. This documentary explores the problem of college access faced by first generation and low-income students and how their success has major implications for the future of our nation. (Source: First Generation website).

Mitchell 20 (2011)

This education reform documentary, produced and directed by Randy Murray and Andrew James Benson, follows twenty of the twenty-nine teachers at a Phoenix, Arizona public school who set out on a journey toward improving the quality of their teaching by attempting to achieve National Board Certification. You can request screenings or get a copy of the film on their website. (Source: Mitchell 20 website).

Bully (2011)

Director Lee Hirsch's film Bully follows young Americans across the US as they battle their way through the confusing terrain of the American school system. The powerful film gives voice to the 5 million kids who are bullied each year. (Source: Bully website).

Check out Edutopia's roundup page "Resources to Fight Bullying and Harassment at School." 

American Teacher and The Teacher Salary Project (2011)

The Teacher Salary Project encompasses the feature-length documentary film American Teacher, an interactive online resource, and a national outreach campaign that delves into the core of our educational crisis as seen through the eyes and experiences of our nation's teachers. Directed and produced by Vanessa Roth; and produced by Ninive Calegari and Dave Eggers, co-founders of the 826 National writing programs.

Read an Edutopia review of the film. (Source: The Teacher Salary Project website).

Project Happiness (2011)

With the unspoken epidemic of stress and depression infiltrating every community, how can kids (of all ages) learn to generate their own happiness regardless of the situations they face? Follow three groups of high school students from three continents on a quest to understand the nature of lasting happiness.

Read the first blog in a series by filmmaker Randy Taran for Edutopia. (Source: Project Happiness website).

Waiting for Superman (2010)

Filmmaker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) follows a handful of promising kids through a system that he suggests inhibits, rather than encourages, academic growth. (Source: Waiting for Superman website).

Race to Nowhere: The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture (2009)

Director Vicki Abeles' documentary is about the pressures faced by American schoolchildren and their teachers in a system and culture she describes as obsessed with the illusion of achievement, competition and the pressure to perform. (Source: Race to Nowhere website). 

The Lottery (2010)

Madeleine Sackler's film The Lottery endeavors to uncover the failures of the traditional public school system by following four families from Harlem and the Bronx who have entered their children in a charter school lottery. (Source: The Lottery website).

The Cartel (2009)

The Cartel shows us our educational system like we've never seen it before. Balancing local storylines against interviews with education experts, this film explores what dedicated parents, committed teachers, clear-eyed officials, and tireless reformers are doing to make our schools better for our kids. (Source: The Cartel website).