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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Schumer to Oppose DeVos for Education Secretary

From The Hill

By Paulina Firozi
January 26, 2017

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Thursday said he will oppose President Trump’s pick for Education secretary, writing in a biting statement that Betsy DeVos would “single-handedly decimate our public education system.”

“Her plan to privatize education would deprive students from a good public education, while helping students from wealthy families get another leg up,” Schumer said in his Thursday statement, the Huffington Post reported.

“The president’s decision to ask Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education should offend every single American man, woman, and child who has benefited from the public education system in this country,” Schumer added.

“Public education has lifted millions out of poverty, has put millions in good paying jobs, and has been the launching pad for people who went on to cure disease and to create inventions that have changed our society for the better.”

During DeVos’s confirmation hearing last week, Schumer said Democrats wanted a second hearing to question her.

"We feel very strongly there ought to be another hearing, and this will affect how the rest of the nominees will go forward because we need time on them," he said at the time. "I've never heard anything like this."

But the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions rejected the request Monday.

The committee plans to hold an executive session on January 31 to vote on DeVos’s nomination.

In his statement Thursday, Schumer cited DeVos’s refusal to divest from her companies as “all the proof one needs to know that she is in this for herself, and not for students.”

“I will vote no, and I will do it proudly.”

New School Funding Fairness Report Is Available, Showing Continued Stagnation Since the Recession

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
January 30, 2017

The Sixth Edition of the School Funding Fairness Report is now available. The report is a joint effort of the Education Law Center and the Rutgers University School of Education, with Bruce Baker serving as lead author.

To no surprise, the report "finds that public school funding in most states continues to be unfair and inequitable, depriving millions of U.S. students of the opportunity for success in school." It retains the same methodology of the past, analyzing "Funding Level, Funding Distribution, Effort and Coverage."

The report also highlights a major trend that I emphasized in Averting Educational Crisis--the failure of state funding systems to rebound since the Recession. The report,

"... shows almost no improvement since the end of the Great Recession in those states that do not provide additional funding to districts with high student poverty. There is also no change in the vast differences in levels of funding for K-12 education across the states, even after adjusting for cost."

Key findings include:
  • Funding levels show large disparities, ranging from a high of $18,165 per pupil in New York, to a low of $5,838 in Idaho.
  • Many states with low funding levels, such as California, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas, are also low “effort” states, that is, they invest a low percentage of their economic capacity to support their public education systems.
  • Fourteen states, including Pennsylvania, North Dakota, New York, and Illinois, have “regressive” school funding. These states provide less funding to school districts with higher concentrations of need as measured by student poverty.
  • Students in certain regions of the country face a “double disadvantage” because their states have low funding levels and do not increase funding for concentrated student poverty. These “flat” funding states include Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida in the Southeast, and Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico in the Southwest.
  • Only a handful of states – Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota and New Jersey – have “progressive” school funding. These states have sufficiently high funding levels and significantly boost funding in their high poverty districts.
  • States with unfair school funding perform poorly on key indicators of resources essential for educational opportunity. In these states, access to early childhood education is limited; wages for teachers are not competitive with those of comparable professions; and teacher-to-pupil ratios in schools are unreasonably high.

This year's report also comes with a huge bonus for researchers. They can now download data files on local education agencies, state equity indicators, and basic state fiscal numbers. This is also probably great for Bruce Baker, so that the rest of the world can figure out answers to questions themselves.

We really owe a great debt to group for doing this work and making it available. It is the exact type of fundamental analysis and data that I argued over a decade a ago the U.S. Department of Education should be doing as part of its monitoring of federally funded programs.

Get the full report here and the data files here.

DeVos Says She Will Protect Students with Disabilities, but Advocates Aren’t Convinced

From The Washington Post

By Emma Brown
January 26, 2017

Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s nominee for education secretary, has promised that she would enforce federal laws meant to protect students with disabilities, a move meant to reassure senators, advocates and parents who were unsettled by positions she seemed to stake out at her recent confirmation hearing.

“Thank you for the opportunity to more fully explain my position on the importance of protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring that they receive the quality education they deserve,” she wrote Tuesday in a letter to Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), a member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP).

DeVos went on to write that she is “eager to bring a sense of urgency” to enforcing the federal law, as well as to providing students with disabilities more school choices.

During her January 17 confirmation hearing, DeVos at one point suggested that states should be able to decide whether to enforce the federal law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees students with disabilities access to a free and appropriate education. Later, she said she had been “confused” about IDEA, a four-decade-old federal law that protects civil rights.

Disability-rights advocates were upset by what was either DeVos’s lack of understanding of the federal education law or her belief that states’ rights should take precedence over a federal civil rights law.

Not all of those advocates were satisfied with DeVos’s letter to Isakson. (Read the full letter below.)

[In Senate hearing, DeVos stoked activists’ fears that she will ignore civil rights.]

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates on Thursday said they oppose DeVos’s nomination due to her “appalling lack of knowledge of educational concepts, the difference between the federal and state statutes that govern education, and basic facts about public education.”

Executive Director Denise Marshall said DeVos’s letter was a “first step in the right direction. But so much is at stake for the future of our children, we need deeper commitment. We need the opportunity to hear directly from Mrs. DeVos how she plans to ensure equity and eliminate discrimination.”

In her letter to Isakson, DeVos emphasized that she understands that IDEA is a federal law that the Education Department is responsible for enforcing, and she said that she believes that Individual Education Programs — the blueprints that lay out each special-education student’s learning goals, services and accommodations — must be made stronger and more effective.

She also said that she wants to seek ways to expand educational opportunities for students with disabilities, a position in line with her longtime advocacy for charter schools and private-school vouchers.

“I have seen exciting changes in students with disabilities when they attend schools that meet their needs,” DeVos wrote to Isakson. She pointed to Sam Myers, a friend with Down syndrome who received a voucher via an Ohio program for students with disabilities, and said Ohio’s program is a model of how states can both “implement the federal law and use their flexibility to ensure parents can choose the learning environment in which their children with disabilities will learn and thrive.”

Vouchers are a particularly polarizing policy within special-education circles, in part because students with disabilities are often required to give up some of their IDEA rights when they enroll in private schools. That’s the case with the Ohio program that DeVos lauded, said Susan Henderson, executive director of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.

“I still have concerns,” Henderson said of DeVos.

[Sen. Alexander defends DeVos, says Dems are ‘desperately’ searching for reasons to reject her.]

Tera Myers, mother of Sam Myers, last week came to DeVos’s defense, calling her a “compassionate advocate for children with disabilities” in an opinion piece published in The Hill newspaper:

“I know Betsy DeVos because she came to Ohio and stood shoulder to shoulder with me and other parents of children with special needs to fight for access to better schools. While federal law is supposed to protect the rights of disabled children, parents like me know that the system too often fails to live up to its promises.”

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), who has a son with a disability, issued a statement Thursday in response to DeVos’s letter, saying that she will not vote to confirm DeVos:

“While I’m glad Mrs. DeVos clarified that she is no longer confused about whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act is a federal law and was able to define the basic tenets of this law, her letter does nothing to reassure me that she will enforce the IDEA or honor our commitment to ensuring that all students receive a free and appropriate public education. In addition, Mrs. DeVos failed to address the original question I posed to her in her confirmation hearing, which was about why she is comfortable with voucher programs that force parents and students to sign away their rights under IDEA.

“Between her lack of experience with public education, her support for diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools without accountability requirements, and her lack of understanding of the challenges facing students with disabilities, Mrs. DeVos has shown herself to be completely unqualified for this position – and her recent letter has only reinforced that she is unfit to serve as Secretary of Education. I will vote against Mrs. DeVos’ nomination and I urge my colleagues to do the same."

A spokesperson for Isakson, whose wife of nearly 50 years is a special-education teacher, said he wanted to share DeVos’s letter in light of criticism of her confirmation hearing performance.

“As someone who has been married to a special education teacher for almost 50 years and has also served as chairman of the Georgia Board of Education, the education of kids with disabilities has been a passion of mine for decades,” Isakson said in a statement. “During my one-on-one meeting with Mrs. DeVos, the first thing I stressed to her was the importance of the IDEA program and parental involvement in the Individualized Education Program process. I am very pleased to see that she has followed up on our conversation with this letter that clearly outlines her priorities and dedication to educating and protecting the rights of all students with disabilities.”

Monday, January 30, 2017

How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior

From the Child Mind Institute

By Caroline Miller

January 24, 2017

Kids who seem oppositional are often severely anxious.

A 10-year-old boy named James has an outburst in school. Upset by something a classmate says to him, he pushes the other boy, and a shoving-match ensues. When the teacher steps in to break it up, James goes ballistic, throwing papers and books around the classroom and bolting out of the room and down the hall.

He is finally contained in the vice principal’s office, where staff members try to calm him down. Instead, he kicks the vice principal in a frenzied effort to escape. The staff calls 911, and James ends up in the Emergency Room.

To the uninitiated, James looks like a boy with serious anger issues. It’s not the first time he’s flown out of control. The school insists that his parents pick him up and take him home for lunch every day because he’s been banned from the cafeteria.

Unrecognized Anxiety

But what’s really going on? “It turns out, after an evaluation, that he is off the charts for social anxiety,” reports Dr. Jerry Bubrick, director of the Anxiety & Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.

“He can’t tolerate any—even constructive—criticism. He just will shut down altogether. James is terrified of being embarrassed, so when a boy says something that makes him uncomfortable, he has no skills to deal with it, and he freaks out. Flight or fight.”

A child who appears oppositional or aggressive may be reacting to anxiety he can’t articulate.

James’s story illustrates something that parents and teachers may not realize—that disruptive behavior is often generated by unrecognized anxiety. A child who appears to be oppositional or aggressive may be reacting to anxiety—anxiety he may, depending on his age, not be able to articulate effectively, or not even fully recognize that he’s feeling.

“Especially in younger kids with anxiety you might see freezing and clinging kind of behavior,” says Dr. Rachel Busman, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, “but you can also see tantrums and complete meltdowns.”

A Great Masquerader

Anxiety manifests in a surprising variety of ways in part because it is based on a physiological response to a threat in the environment, a response that maximizes the body’s ability to either face danger or escape danger. So while some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, some react with overwhelming need to break out of an uncomfortable situation. That behavior, which can be unmanageable, is often misread as anger or opposition.

“Anxiety is one of those diagnoses that is a great masquerader,” explains Dr. Laura Prager, director of the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It can look like a lot of things. Particularly with kids who may not have words to express their feelings, or because no one is listening to them, they might manifest their anxiety with behavioral dysregulation.”

The more commonly recognized symptoms of anxiety in a child are things like trouble sleeping in his own room or separating from his parents, avoidance of certain activities, a behaviorally inhibited temperament.

“Anyone would recognize those symptoms,” notes Dr. Prager, co-author of Suicide by Security Blanket, and Other Stories from the Child Psychiatry Emergency Service. But in other cases the anxiety can be hidden.

“When the chief complaint is temper tantrums, or disruption in school, or throwing themselves on the floor while shopping at the mall, it’s hard to know what it means,” she explains. “But it’s not uncommon, when kids like that come in to the ER, for the diagnosis to end up being a pretty profound anxiety disorder.”

To demonstrate the surprising range of ways young children express anxiety, Dr. Prager mentions a case she had just seen of a young child who presented with hallucinations, but whose diagnosis she predicted will end up being somewhere on the anxiety spectrum.

“Little kids who say they’re hearing things or seeing things, for example, may or may not be doing that. These may not be the frank hallucinations we see in older patients who are schizophrenic, for example. They might be a manifestation of anxiety and this is the way the child expresses it.”

Problems at School

It’s not uncommon for children with serious undiagnosed anxiety to be disruptive at school, where demands and expectations put pressure on them that they can’t handle. And it can be very confusing to teachers and other staff members to “read” that behavior, which can seem to come out of nowhere.

Dr. Nancy Rappaport, a Harvard Medical School professor who specializes in mental health care in school settings, sees anxiety as one of the causes of disruptive behavior that makes classroom teaching so challenging.

“The trouble is that when kids who are anxious become disruptive they push away the very adults who they need to help them feel secure,” notes Dr. Rappaport. “And instead of learning to manage their anxiety, they end up spending half the day in the principal’s office.”

Dr. Rappaport sees a lot of acting out in school as the result of trauma at home. “Kids who are struggling, not feeling safe at home,” she notes, “can act like terrorists at school, with fairly intimidating kinds of behavior.” Most at risk, she says, are kids with ADHD who’ve also experienced trauma. “They’re hyper-vigilant, they have no executive functioning, they misread cues and go into combat.”

When a teacher is able to build a relationship with a child, to find out what’s really going on with him, what’s provoking the behavior, she can often give him tools to handle anxiety and prevent meltdowns. In her book, The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students, Dr. Rappaport offers strategies kids can be taught to use to calm themselves down, from breathing exercises to techniques for distracting themselves.

“When a teacher understands the anxiety underlying the opposition, rather than making the assumption that the child is actively trying to make her miserable, it changes her approach,” says Dr. Rappaport, “The teacher is able to join forces with the child himself and the school counselor, to come up with strategies for preventing these situations.”

If it sounds labor-intensive for the teacher, it is, she notes, but so is dealing with the aftermath of the same child having a meltdown.

Anxiety Confused with ADHD

Anxiety also drives a lot of symptoms in a school setting that are easily misconstrued as ADHD or defiant behavior.

“I’ll see a child who’s having difficulty in school: not paying attention, getting up out of his seat all the time, asking a lot of questions, going to the bathroom a lot, getting in other kids’ spaces,” explains Dr. Busman. “His behavior is disrupting other kids, and is frustrating to the teacher, who’s wondering why she has to answer so many questions, and why he’s so wrapped up in what other kids are doing, whether they’re following the rules.”

People tend to assume what’s happening with this child is ADHD inattentive type, but it’s commonly anxiety. Kids with OCD, mislabeled as inattentive, are actually not asking all those questions because they’re not listening, but rather because they need a lot of reassurance.
How to identify anxiety

“It probably occurs more than we think, either anxiety that looks disruptive or anxiety coexisting with disruptive behaviors,” Dr. Busman adds. “It all goes back to the fact that kids are complicated and symptoms can overlap diagnostic categories, which is why we need to have really comprehensive and good diagnostic assessment.”

First of all, good assessment needs to gather data from multiple sources, not just parents. “We want to talk to teachers and other people involved with the kid’s life,” she adds, “because sometimes kids that we see are exactly the same at home and at school, sometimes they are like two different children.”

And it needs to use rating scales on a full spectrum of behaviors, not just the area that looks the most obvious, to avoid missing things.

Dr. Busman also notes that a child with severe anxiety who’s struggling in school might also have attentional or learning issues, but she might need to be treated for the anxiety before she can really be evaluated for those.

She uses the example of a teenager with OCD who she’s “doing terribly” in school. “She’s ritualizing three to four hours a day, and having constant intrusive thoughts—so we need to treat that, to get the anxiety under control before we ask, how is she learning?”

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Op-Ed: Forget Charter Schools and Vouchers — Here Are Five Business Ideas School Reformers Should Adopt

From The Los Angeles Times

By Samuel E. Abrams
January 8, 2017

Mr. Trump never tires of reminding us that he is a businessman, and in Betsy DeVos, he has nominated a Secretary of Education who endorses a business model for improving elementary and secondary schooling. The problem is, it’s the wrong model.

Donald Trump reaches to shake hands with a student before a speech on
school choice at Cleveland Arts and Social Sciences Academy in
Cleveland on September 8, 2016. (Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

DeVos’ prescriptions include for-profit school management, taxpayer-funded vouchers to cover private school tuition and parental choice as the primary vehicle for regulation. Yet where such free-market remedies have been tried, they have yielded disappointing results.

The free-market model dates to an essay written by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman in 1955. Friedman contended that the role of government in education should be limited to providing parents with vouchers to cover a fixed amount of tuition at schools meeting minimum requirements.

If cost exceeded voucher value, payment by parents — or scholarship funding — would have to make up the difference.

To Friedman, vouchers would free students from inadequate neighborhood public schools and competition for students would improve school quality and variety. Likening education to groceries, Friedman wrote that much as consumers benefit from competition among supermarkets, parents and students would benefit from competition among schools.

Friedman also maintained that vouchers would grant minority students an exit from segregated schools and that competition among schools would generate better pay for good teachers by increasing demand for their services.

The fundamental problem with the free-market model for education is that schools are not groceries.

These ideas first took hold in Chile in 1981. The year before implementation, 78% of that nation’s schoolchildren attended public schools, 15% attended private schools with government aid, and 7% attended elite private schools with no such assistance. By 2008, the figures were 46%, 47%, and 7%, respectively.

Socioeconomic segregation had intensified, the academic achievement gap among disadvantaged children and their middle- and upper-class peers persisted, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay remained low.

A similar story unfolded in Sweden, which adopted a full-fledged voucher system a decade later. When investors financed the opening of hundreds of for-profit private schools there, many native-born Swedes opted for the new schools, leaving immigrant children behind. Sweden’s performance on international educational assessments declined, for-profit school management provoked protest and reform, and teacher pay fell.

Only a few cities in the U.S. implemented voucher systems, but results in these cities — notably, Milwaukee, leading the way in 1990, followed by Cleveland and Washington — have also not vindicated Friedman’s forecast.

A different way to offer school choice — publicly financed but independently managed charter schools — has proved much more popular. Introduced by Minnesota in 1992, charter schools now number nearly 7,000 across the country, yet they too have posted uneven results, led to greater student segregation and in large part depressed teacher pay.

In no state has this been more true than DeVos’ home state, Michigan, which thanks to her efforts is home to far more commercially managed charter schools than any state in the country. After controlling for demographics, Michigan, according to a recent Urban Institute study, ranks 47th out of all states in reading and math.

The fundamental problem with the free-market model for education is that schools are not groceries. Education is complex and the immediate consumer, after all, is a child or adolescent who can know only so much about how a subject should be taught. The parent, legislator and taxpayer are necessarily at a distance.

Groceries, by contrast, are discrete goods purchased by adults who can easily judge each item according to taste, nutritional value and cost. Supermarkets can likewise be easily judged according to service, atmosphere and convenience.

Although the free-market model isn’t a good fit for schools, there are five business concepts that should be embraced by education reformers and policymakers.

"... no other infusion of public dollars comes close to matching the rate of return of high-quality early childhood education."

Much as early stage investment in promising companies can deliver outsized rewards for investors, early stage investment in schooling can deliver significant rewards for society. Another Chicago economist, James Heckman, analyzed data from Michigan and North Carolina going back several decades and found that no other infusion of public dollars comes close to matching the rate of return of high-quality early childhood education.

Since the days of Henry Ford, business has understood “efficiency wage theory.” In 1914, Ford doubled the pay of assembly-line workers from $2.50 a day to $5. Economists later validated the results: It costs less to pay more, as employers attract and retain better workers and thus improve production and even reduce costs of both supervision and turnover. Studies show a similar tight relationship between teacher pay and educational outcomes.

An analysis of teacher salaries and student performance in science (at age 15) provides an example. The data come from the five Nordic and six English-speaking countries involved in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment. The U.S. and Norway paid teachers 68% and 71% as much as fellow citizens with university degrees, respectively, and posted scores just below the PISA average.

Finland and Canada, on the other hand, paid teachers 97% and 105% as much as fellow citizens with university degrees and posted scores far above the average.

Retaining good teachers and grooming administrators from within the ranks instead of handing over the reins to outsiders constitutes another significant lesson from the corporate playbook. As the business historian Alfred Chandler documented, great organizations develop talent internally.

Education researchers have repeatedly shown, in particular, that teacher turnover impairs student achievement. In addition, as Los Angeles may remember from its experience with David Brewer, superintendents without classroom experience tend to be out of step with pedagogical needs.

Pay for performance — another cardinal objective of business-minded reformers like DeVos — sounds logical but backfires. Instead, reformers should follow the lead of W. Edwards Deming, the father of the modern Japanese auto industry, who contended merit ratings and pay generate fear and undermine teamwork. “The organization is the loser,” he wrote.

Separate longitudinal studies of merit-based pay for teachers in Nashville and Chicago, completed in 2010 by researchers at Vanderbilt University and Mathematica, bear him out. They found no effect on student achievement.

“Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality,” Deming wrote. “Routine inspection becomes unreliable through boredom and fatigue.” 
That recommendation should be applied to the annual testing of students in reading and math mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 and reauthorized by the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015.

Instead of “routine inspection,” Deming urged detailed analysis of small samples. Bucking widespread practice, the Finns do exactly that, with high-quality exams administered to small groups of students. Teachers consequently feel no pressure to “teach to the test,” students get a well-rounded education and administrators gain superior understanding of student progress. Finnish teens score at or near the top of international educational assessments.

Samuel E. Abrams is the director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and the author of “Education and the Commercial Mindset.”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

DeVos-Backed Company Makes Questionable Claims on Autism, ADHD

From Education Week's Blog
"Digital Education"

By Benjamin Herold
January 24, 2017

President Donald Trump's nominee to head the federal Education Department is a major backer of a company claiming its neurofeedback technology can "fix" problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and has "proven and long-lasting" positive effects on children with autism.

Current scientific evidence does not support such claims, according to the clinical guidelines of the American Academy of Pediatrics and three leading researchers consulted by Education Week.

"It's misleading the public to say neurofeedback is effective in treating kids with ADHD and autism," said Nadine Gaab, an associate professor of pediatrics at the Boston Children's Hospital and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

"It's still an experimental treatment that needs more rigorous research," she said.

Launched in 2006, Neurocore is based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That's also the hometown of billionaire school-choice advocate Betsy DeVos, Trump's pick to become U.S. Secretary of Education.

DeVos sat on Neurocore's board from 2009 until November, when she resigned the position to avoid potential conflicts of interest should she be confirmed. As part of her divestiture plan, which has been approved by the federal Office of Government Ethics, DeVos and her husband will maintain an indirect financial interest in the company. On her disclosure forms, DeVos valued that stake at between $5 million and $25 million.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee is scheduled to vote on DeVos' nomination on January 31. Democrats have unsuccessfully pushed for a second chance to publicly question DeVos, whose plan to shed potential conflicts of interest had not been approved and made public at the time of her January 17 hearing before the committee.

Critics have also questioned DeVos' grasp of federal special education law and commitment to evidence-based science, among other complaints.

A spokesman for the DeVos family declined to respond to Education Week's inquiries about their investment in Neurocore.

"Currently, questions such as this and others submitted by senators are being answered and will be provided to the committee," John Truscott, the president and principal of Michigan public-relations firm Truscott Russman, wrote in an email.

The Trump administration did not respond to Education Week's request for comment.

Neurocore CEO Mark Murrison defended his company's work and marketing. He pointed to an emerging body of research in which neurofeedback in general has shown promise, as well as information Neurocore collects from its clients.

"What we provide to our clients truly makes a difference, and our internal outcomes data and testimonials bear that out," Murrison said in an interview.

An Area of Interest for the FTC

Over the past two years, the Federal Trade Commission has cracked down on a number of other companies for making unsubstantiated and misleading claims about "brain training" products and services, such as digital learning games.

That work is ongoing, said Michelle Rusk, a lawyer in the FTC's division of advertising practices. In an interview, Rusk declined to comment on whether the commission is looking at companies promoting neurofeedback treatments as part of that effort. In general, she said, investigating companies claiming to help children with neurological disorders and elderly consumers worried about memory loss remain a priority.

"Autism and ADHD are serious, and we would expect there to be high-quality scientific support for any claim of cognitive benefits in treating those conditions," Rusk said.

Neurocore's service is based in part on analyzing clients' brainwaves and other biological signs, then providing "neurofeedback sessions" through which users can ostensibly train their brains to function better.

A complete 30-session cycle costs $2,200. Neurocore partners with a health-care-lending firm to help clients finance those charges.

The company says it has worked with more than 10,000 children and adults at eight centers in Michigan and Florida. Another site is scheduled to open in Florida next month, and Murrison said he hopes to expand by as many as seven additional centers in the coming year.

Neurocore has "no plans to work with K-12 schools," he said.

The company does work extensively with children and families.

Questionable Claims of Effectiveness

On its website, Neurocore makes a number of claims about how its technology can help individuals, including children, with conditions such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, anxiety, depression, memory loss, migraines, and sleeplessness.

With regard to ADHD, for example, the company repeatedly describes its treatment as "proven and approved," saying that 76 percent of users "achieve nonclinical status" and 90 percent "report improvement."

"Overcome ADHD—without drugs," Neurocore's website says. "As you or your child progress through our natural treatment for ADHD using biofeedback and neurofeedback, you may find it possible to reduce or even eliminate medication."

The company makes similar claims with regard to autism, presenting itself as a "drug-free solution to curb the negative behaviors" associated with the condition.

"There is currently no cure for autism, but the symptoms can greatly improve through Neurocore's proven, natural autism treatment program," the website says. "Research shows that biofeedback can be an effective treatment."

Neurocore also claims that users of its neurofeedback training improve their IQ by an average of 12 points.

A "Why It Works" page purports to help potential customers "explore the science and research behind our brain-based program and life-changing results."

But many of the links direct readers to preliminary studies or popular news articles. The rigorous, independent, peer-reviewed studies referenced are about neurofeedback and biofeedback more generally, not Neurocore specifically.

Murrison, Neurocore's CEO, said his company "employ[s] protocols demonstrated to be effective in research such as this."

He acknowledged that there have to date not been any such high-quality studies conducted about Neurocore specifically. The first peer-reviewed study of the company's outcomes, for clients with anxiety and depression, "should be going to press in the next few months," he said.

Another peer-reviewed study of Neurocore's impact on clients with ADHD is in the works.

When asked why his company would make direct claims of effectiveness prior to such research being completed and published, Murrison cited internal company data. Neurocore administers surveys to clients in which they self-report on their conditions before and after treatment.

"We've been in business for 10 years," Murrison said. "If we weren't able to make a difference in people's lives, we wouldn't be able to keep serving communities and expanding."

Neurocore also points to a document from a third-party company called PracticeWise, which indicates that biofeedback has been rated by the American Academy of Pediatrics as a high-quality support for treatment of ADHD.

But that document is not accurate, according to a letter sent by the academy to other companies making similar claims.

The letter, which had not previously been sent to Neurocore, states that the academy's official position is that "more research is needed" on neurofeedback as a treatment for ADHD. It asks companies using the document referenced by Murrison to support claims of approval from the American Academy of Pediatrics to correct their websites and promotional materials.

A Step Back for Science?

Scientific research frequently lags behind the private sector when it comes to evaluating new commercial applications for new technologies, said Michael Dougherty, a professor of psychology and the director of the Decision, Attention, and Memory Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park.

And innovation isn't a bad thing, Dougherty said.

The problem, he maintained, is when companies go too far in their marketing.

In 2015, for example, the Federal Trade Commission agreed to a $2 million settlement with Lumos Labs, Inc., the creators of Lumosity, a hugely popular suite of computer- and app-based brain-training programs and games. The company had claimed its technology had "the potential to change lives" and was effective at improving children's working memory and protecting against cognitive impairments associated with attention-deficit disorders and other conditions.

The commission also reached smaller settlements with a number of other brain-training companies. Among them: LearningRx, which the FTC cited for making "false and deceptive claims about improved cognition" for a wide variety of populations, including children with autism and attention-deficit disorders.

As states, districts, and schools across the country seek to implement and adjust to the new Every Student Succeeds Act, the question of what kind of evidence companies can use to justify claims of effectiveness will continue to grow in importance.

Given that, it's worrisome that the country's new education secretary nominee would remain closely tied to a company that has apparently made exaggerated and misleading claims about its service, said Ken Koedinger, a professor of psychology and human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

"The department of education has made a lot of progress in the last 10 years or so in trying to help people in the field distinguish snake oil from the real thing," Koedinger said.

"I'd hate to see a step backwards with respect to the importance of scientific evidence in improving education."

A New Movement to Treat Troubled Children as ‘Sad, Not Bad’

From The Hechinger Report
Covering Innovation & Inequality in Education

By Katy Reckdahl
January 25, 2017

Sherlae, 13, is now on the Crocker honor roll. Just before Thanksgiving,
when she went to her mother’s latest court appearance, she brought her
report cards to show off. “I want her to be proud,” Sherlae said.
“I want her to be happy. And I want to show her that I’m
going to succeed.” Photo: Clarence Williams

On dress-down days, Sherlae’s outfits almost always include sequins and sparkles. Whenever she passes a window, she lights up, in a way that matches her sunny personality and big, dimpled smile.

But for years, because of strife at home, she had to force herself to look cheerful each morning as she walked into her school, Lawrence D. Crocker College Prep in uptown New Orleans. “I always try to put on a happy, smiling — not sad — face,” said Sherlae, 13, whose middle name is used here to protect her privacy.

Today, that smile more often reflects an authentic happiness, or “sunshiny-ness,” as Sherlae describes it. But when her mood clouds, she knows how to address it. After a recent sleepless night when her mom visited, talking loud, a bottle of whiskey in hand, Sherlae walked off the yellow bus and into Crocker’s social-work office, with its comfy rocker and bean bag chairs.

29 percent — Percent of New Orleans youth surveyed who said they worried about not being loved.

Her favorite confidante is social worker Rochelle Gauthier. “She’ll talk to me. Or just give me tissues and hugs,” Sherlae said.

All day long, a steady stream of Crocker students, feeling overwhelmed and needing to talk, ask teachers for passes to Gauthier’s office. Some students want reassurance that they’ll be okay after water or electricity is shut off at home; others are burdened with worries about a loved one who is sick, has been arrested, or even killed. Some, like Sherlae, are coping with a family mental-health crisis.

In New Orleans, Crocker is at the vanguard of a collaborative of five schools launched in 2015 by the city’s health department. At each school, educators, experts in psychiatry and development, and mental-health providers work together to improve academic achievement by establishing a place where students can feel a sense of belonging and safety.

The concept behind these so-called “trauma-informed schools” is supported by research showing that traumatized students — those who have been exposed to repeated violence, abuse and deprivation — maintain such high levels of vigilance and anxiety that they cannot flourish at school until they can calm themselves.

In the past, this group of misunderstood students — even those within Crocker’s own charter network, New Orleans College Prep — often faced harsh punishment. Five years ago, Crocker’s sister schools, Cohen College Prep and Sylvanie Williams College Prep, suspended more than half their students, 51 percent, during the school year.

(Parallel data wasn’t available for Crocker, which was run by a different charter operator at the time.)

Crocker College Prep is located in Uptown New Orleans. Students at Crocker,
like those at most schools in New Orleans, have often experienced serious
trauma, such as shootings and other violence. Photo: Clarence Williams

The rigid “no excuses” disciplinary approach kept students out of class, not learning. It simply didn’t work for about a third of suspended students, said Amanda Aiken, a College Prep administrator who was Crocker’s principal when the school began to implement a trauma-informed model in 2015.

Armed with new knowledge, Aiken now keeps trauma foremost in her mind, even when interviewing teachers. “I always ask, ‘What is your struggle?’ Because if you can’t understand struggle, you can’t work here,” she said.

20 percent — Percent of New Orleans children in survey who said they had personally witnessed a murder.

All too often, New Orleans students have experienced serious trauma, such as shootings and other violence, said Denese Shervington, a board-certified psychiatrist who heads the local Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies and works closely with Crocker. “Over half of the kids we surveyed in middle school had someone close to them who had been murdered,” Shervington said.

Almost 20 percent of the children surveyed said that they had personally witnessed a murder in their community; 54 percent experienced the murder of a close family member or friend; nearly 40 percent had been exposed to domestic violence, and 29 percent worried about not being loved.

The Institute found that rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in New Orleans youth were nearly four times the national average.

For Tulane University psychology chair Stacy Overstreet, a leader of the five-school collaborative, work with Crocker and other trauma-sensitive schools flows from her work in New Orleans’ public-housing projects, where she found shockingly high rates of children suffering the psychological effects of being exposed to violence. And when trauma and chaos are ongoing and chronic, the effects are even worse, she concluded.

Teacher Katie Murray announces in advance what the class will be doing
each hour and gives gentle reminders about any upcoming schedule changes.
This helps children who have been through trauma. “Some of our students
can get upset about things that are seemingly small,” Murray said.

Not a day passes at Crocker where violence doesn’t impact someone. Recently, middle-school teacher Katie Murray walked into her first class of the day with red-rimmed eyes, after hearing that a former student, Tyre Smith, 18, had been found shot dead. “I told them, ‘This is really hard for me; he was someone I taught for three years,’” Murray said. Throughout that hour, she said, students came forward to hug her and tell her similar things had happened to them.

“We’re trying to get schools to respond differently to children. Instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ which usually leads to punishment, ask ‘What happened to that kid?’”
--Tulane University Psychology Chair Stacy Overstreet

Crocker’s work is part of a national trend, driven by a massive, landmark public-health study called Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, which showed that trauma, even among the study’s relatively middle-class participants, is far more common than previously believed. The study found that almost two-thirds of adults experienced at least one traumatic event during childhood, through exposure to violence or personal abuse and neglect, findings since replicated by a number of other large studies.

Educators’ shift in attitude toward traumatized students has been hastened by parallel research showing that repeated or prolonged trauma can actually change a child’s brain.

Neuroscientists have found that those altered brains — adapted for survival in the worst conditions — may cause traumatized children to react differently, struggling to connect with peers and adults and wrestling with basic language development and learning.

In other words, unaddressed trauma is an educational problem. Students consumed by sadness or anger are often unable to focus on learning.


Gauthier routinely helps out with students who are having
a hard day. And last year, Gauthier began to actively seek
out the school’s quieter — and possibly “shut down” —children,
after several became suicidal. Photo: Clarence Williams

While “trauma-informed” schooling might sound idealistic and even touchy-feely, it’s actually rooted in a series of practical steps, based on a significant body of research.

The intervention begins with each school’s adults.

At Crocker, teachers and staff were trained to recognize trauma and learn how it affects children’s development. They learned to structure each day so that students always know what’s coming next, because unexpected changes can rattle traumatized children.

At a school-wide level, administrators shelved mandatory, zero-tolerance suspension-expulsion requirements, replacing them with more flexible procedures that try to get at the root of misbehavior.

Students also became part of the change, learning how to support each other through one-on-one sessions with Gauthier and through classroom curricula devoted to teaching them how to be good friends, by asking questions and listening when others seem sad or angry.

Traumatized children often can’t express what’s going on inside them, so they throw tantrums and disrupt classrooms. “Those students are trying to tell you something,” Shervington said. Others shut down. “The kid with her head down on her desk may be more at risk than the child who is acting out,” Shervington said.

Teachers at Crocker have found that, once trained in trauma’s effects, they can detect them from even subtle clues. For example, the other day Murray sensed a change in an A student. Although usually diligent, he’d failed to turn in a project. When she asked him about it, he didn’t have an explanation. Other small things also seemed out of character, she said.

Murray tapped into the computerized system teachers use to rate every student during each class period, a requirement of the trauma-informed framework. Teachers award each child a total of five possible points, for five different factors: how a student enters the classroom and exits to the next class, along with behavior, participation and completion of classwork.

Murray found that the A student had dropped from five points to three or four in nearly all of his classes. She referred him to Gauthier, and now knows that the student had gone through some upheaval at home and was adjusting to living with his grandma, not his mother.

Last year, Gauthier began to actively seek out the school’s quieter — and possibly “shut down” —children, after several, including Sherlae, became suicidal.


Sherlae has lived with her grandmother since she was about three, when her mother, who is bipolar and schizophrenic, stopped taking her medicine and turned to alcohol. There have been some periods of sobriety and calm, at these times Sherlae and her mom go on lengthy bike rides or walk to the library to research Sherlae’s book reports. “It can be so joyful,” Sherlae said.

But it can change quickly. A few years ago, during a lengthy bender, Sherlae’s mother became physically abusive and cruel.

“She put her hands on me. She told me didn’t want me in the world,” Sherlae said. Her grandmother remembers Sherlae’s reaction. “It crushed her,” she said.

Ashamed, Sherlae told no one. For weeks, she did nothing at school but put her head on her desk. She couldn’t pay attention. Her grades plunged to Fs. She wanted to hurt herself. When she told a teacher she felt suicidal, the teacher sent an S.O.S. through the school’s message system, reaching Gauthier, who pulled Sherlae out of class.

At first, Sherlae wondered if she was in trouble. Then Gauthier asked her, “What makes you sad?” Sherlae initially resisted, then spilled everything. “I let all my feelings and emotions out with her,” Sherlae said. “That was when my grades started going up.”

Crocker is part of a collaborative of five New Orleans schools striving to
improve academic achievement by establishing a place where students
can feel a sense of belonging and safety. Photo: Clarence Williams

Sherlae is now on the honor roll. And just before Thanksgiving, on her way out the door to attend her mother’s latest court appearance, for disturbing the peace, she grabbed her impressive report cards. She wanted her mother to see them, partly because her mother had once promised her a new phone if she got good grades. “Also, I want her to be proud,” Sherlae said. “I want her to be happy. And I want to show her that I’m going to succeed.”

Sherlae used to keep her emotions to herself. But now, thanks to guidance from Gauthier, she writes poems in her journal or talks with her two closest friends when she feels upset. Or she seeks out music, usually the song, “Cry,” by Alexx Calise, she says, digging in her sparkly aqua backpack for her small smartphone with its shattered screen. She hits play, then sings quietly along. “It speaks to me,” she said.

“Young people try to normalize violence, but inside they’re very frightened and worried,” Shervington said. And though research has shown that strong extended-family and community networks can help mitigate the effects of violence for children, in New Orleans such networks were scattered by the massive, unprecedented evacuations 11 years ago after Hurricane Katrina and are still incomplete. Networks are especially strained in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, where recovery has been slowest, Shervington said.

(Ironically, though teams of post-Katrina social workers arrived from out of town with tool kits about trauma-sensitive approaches, many of the city’s burgeoning charter networks instead embraced popular models based on zero-tolerance discipline policies.)


New Orleans child-poverty rates stand at nearly 44 percent — more than double the national average. “These young people are in survival mode,” said Shervington, who talks every day with children who face unrelenting worries about basic needs like food, shelter, clothing, or love. “They tend to be hypervigilant, a little bit on edge. And they can feel a mild paranoia: ‘Am I okay? Will I make it today?’”

To help explain the link between trauma and children’s misbehavior, the Institute began to describe children’s struggle through a public-education campaign that uses the hashtag “sad, not bad.”

All day long, a steady stream of Crocker students, feeling overwhelmed
and needing to talk, ask teachers for passes to visit Rochelle Gauthier
at the school’s social-work office. Photo: Clarence Williams

When students are viewed as “sad, not bad,” they can let down their guard and relax, said longtime New Orleans youth advocate Kathleen Whalen, another leader in the five-school collaborative. “School can be a good place to give your hippocampus a chance to catch up,” she said, referring to an area of the brain that is particularly sensitive to traumatic stress and essential to learning and memory.

Research to date shows that most — maybe 80 percent — of children who have trauma histories will thrive in a trauma-informed environment without further interventions, Whalen said. When students need individual support, the collaborative’s mental-health providers step in.

54 percent — Percent of New Orleans children in a local survey who experienced the murder of someone close to them.

At least 20 states have implemented trauma-informed schools at some level. Since 2014, the National Conference of State Legislatures has supported a “strong state-federal partnership” for trauma-informed education and awareness; last year, the concept was referenced for the first time in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Massachusetts, Washington, and Oregon, among other states, have established wide-ranging resolutions or initiatives, as have some city school districts, such as San Francisco. In other states, like Louisiana, mere clusters of schools are trying it.

The approach is an about-face from the punitive, “no-excuses” mindset that became common in many schools in the mid-1990s and led to a national spike in suspensions and expulsions.

“We’re trying to get schools to respond differently to children,” said Overstreet, the Tulane psychology chair. “Instead of asking, ‘What’s wrong with that kid?’ which usually leads to punishment, ask ‘What happened to that kid?’”

In some ways, it was the sheer ineffectiveness of the no-excuses model that created an opening for the diametrically different, trauma-sensitive practices. “We realized that you can’t suspend your way out of trauma,” Aiken said.

So, at Crocker, punishment is no longer automatic. A teacher must discuss students’ behavior with a dean before putting them out of class or giving them a detention.

Crocker student Evan, visiting his barber. For years, Evan’s mother could
rely on almost-daily phone calls from teachers at each of the six schools
he had attended. Those phone calls have stopped. Photo: Clarence Williams

Murray feels her training helps her interact more effectively with students. After learning that a girl prone to tantrums had been raped at a young age, Murray suspected that the girl’s development might have been halted by the trauma.

“I began addressing her as someone who was emotionally younger,” said Murray, who found that the girl flourished when given rewards such as bright stickers, something most middle-school students no longer respond to.

Murray also announces in advance what the class will be doing each hour and gives gentle reminders about any upcoming schedule changes. “Some of our students can get upset about things that are seemingly small,” Murray said. “If we are dismissing from a different room that day and a student’s jacket is in the other room and he can’t go get it, that can lead to a blowup,” she said.

Crocker teachers have also learned to acknowledge their own triggers — how, for instance, a certain hairstyle or fashion can cause them to see a child as defiant. They learn to call in help when they recognize they’re angry. Whenever Murray feels herself becoming exasperated, she can send an instant message that brings a fellow teacher to her classroom within minutes to take the situation off her hands.

“The kid with her head down on her desk may be more at risk than the child who is acting out.”
--Denese Shervington, a board-certified psychiatrist at the Institute of Women and Ethic Studies in New Orleans

Overstreet and her team recently began gathering baseline data as part of a controlled $2.6 million National Institute of Justice study focused on schools in the New Orleans collaborative. Using a number of criteria, including reduced school violence, fewer expulsions and suspensions, lower rates of teacher burnout, and several measures of academic success, the study will determine what factors make trauma-informed approaches effective.

Evan’s mom can’t single out the factors that made the phone calls stop once her son transferred to Crocker. All she knows is that something changed. “I will give Crocker credit beyond credit,” she said.

Evan (his middle name), is only 11, but his mother spent his entire school career fielding phone calls from teachers at each of the six schools he had attended. Things got even worse a few years ago, after Evan’s father finished medical school and moved out of state for a residency.

Eventually, his mother’s work – first as a student in law school and then as a lawyer – began to take second place to Evan’s school emergencies. “For years, I deliberately and strategically structured my day around my ability to get to where he was,” she said.

Evan, a physically restless child with an extraordinary vocabulary, can recount each of the six schools he’s attended. The one where he loved his teacher but was expelled after having a tantrum and throwing his shoes at a librarian’s head. The Catholic school where he was expelled for flipping over a desk.

The mother had enrolled Evan’s older brother at Crocker while she searched for a school with higher academic scores. But, with no other options, she eventually settled on Crocker for Evan as well. And that was when her phone stopped ringing, she said.

At first, Evan still flew off the handle, especially if his Crocker classmates made any cracks about his family. “I would start feeling like my stomach is a bottomless pit and my heart would stop a little bit,” he said. He was once a near-daily visitor to Gauthier’s office. Not anymore. That’s because of expanded coping skills, Gauthier says.

Recently, Evan flopped happily into a beanbag in Gauthier’s office after a Donuts with Dads event that his father had driven in for, as a surprise.

Still, when his dad is two states away, he knows that he will occasionally feel that sensation in his stomach. At that moment, he’ll turn to the support network he’s built for himself at Crocker. “If I’m down, there are at least 10 people who can run to my side, asking ‘What’s wrong?’” he said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about education in New Orleans.