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Thursday, November 30, 2017

Schizophrenia May Start in the Womb

From Futurity

November 28, 2017

Schizophrenia begins very early in development, toward the end of the first trimester of pregnancy, new research suggests.

The finding opens up a new understanding of this devastating disease and the potential for new treatment possibilities in utero.

“This disease has been mischaracterized for 4,000 years,” says Michal K. Stachowiak, lead author and professor in the pathology and anatomical sciences department at the University at Buffalo, referring to the first time a disease believed to be schizophrenia appeared in the 1550 BCE Egyptian medical text, the Ebers Papyrus.

“After centuries of horrendous treatment, including even the jailing of patients, and after it has been characterized as everything from a disease of the spirit or moral values or caused by bad parental influence (a concept that appeared in psychiatric textbooks as recently as 1975) we finally now have evidence that schizophrenia is a disorder that results from a fundamental alteration in the formation and structure of the brain,” Stachowiak says.

Brain Organoids

The research builds on previous work by Stachowiak and his colleagues showing that although hundreds of different genetic mutations may be responsible for schizophrenia in different patients, they all converge in a single faulty genomic pathway called the Integrative Nuclear FGFR 1 Signaling (INFS) pathway, which the researchers reported on earlier this year.

When and how dysregulation of that pathway occurred and how it affected brain development, however, was unknown.

To find out, Stachowiak and colleague and spouse, Ewa Stachowiak, assistant professor of pathology and anatomical sciences, adapted mini-brain technology, growing in vitro miniature brain structures called cerebral organoids.

“The goal was to, in a sense, recapitulate important stages in brain formation that take place in the womb,” says Stachowiak.

Researchers reprogrammed the mini-brain structures into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) using skin cells removed from three controls and four patients with schizophrenia as described in earlier publications by the researchers and Kristen J. Brennand of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. In the developing embryo, Stachowiak explains, surface cells develop tissues and organs such as skin and brain structures.

“We mimic this process in the laboratory with stem cells, focused specifically on developing the cerebral organoids that resemble the developing human brain in its earliest stages of growth,” he says. The approach modifies a recently developed protocol for developing early brain structures in vitro.

For a few weeks, the researchers fed the stem cells nutrients, glucose, acids, and growth factors that enabled the development and formation of so-called embryoid bodies, which contain the first recognizable stage where tissues begin to differentiate. With the addition of new composition media, nutrients, and growth factors, they grew large enough to eventually develop the tissue out of which the brain forms, called the neuroectoderm.

After researchers remove these neuroectoderm cells, place them on a different substrate, and provide them with other chemicals and nutrients, they grow under kinetic (constantly moving) conditions, eventually developing into organoids, or mini-brains, containing brain ventricles, a cortex, and a region similar to the brain stem.

Schizophrenia’s Start

“At this stage, we discovered critical malformations in the cortex of the mini-brains formed from the iPSCs of the patients with schizophrenia,” says Stachowiak.

That made sense, he adds, since increasing evidence has recently linked schizophrenia to abnormal functioning in the cortex, the largest part of the brain, which is responsible for such critical functions as memory, attention, cognition, language, and consciousness.

They found that certain kinds of neural progenitor cells (which later become neurons) were abnormally distributed in the cortex of the mini-brains developed from patients. And while maturing neurons were plentiful in regions outside of the cortex, they were rare in the cortex, Stachowiak explains.

“Our research shows that the disease likely starts during the first trimester and involves accelerated cell divisions, excessive migration, and premature differentiation of the neuroectodermal cells into neurons,” he continues.

“Neurons that connect different regions of the cortex, the so-called interneurons, become misdirected in the schizophrenia cortex, causing cortical regions to be misconnected, like an improperly wired computer.

“We now can state that schizophrenia is a disorder of faulty brain construction that occurs early in development, corresponding to the first trimester, and involving specific malformation of neuronal circuits in the cortex,” he says. The experiments implicate the dysregulation of the INFS mechanism as a trigger for deconstructing gene networks in the developing brain cells of individuals who will later develop the disease.

“The next step is to investigate how to target the INFS pathway and even other pathways that interact with INFS using drugs or even dietary supplements that could prevent the dysregulation from taking place,” he continues, noting that this kind of supplementation has been effective with disorders such as spina bifida, for example.

Branching Out

Stachowiak notes that the brain organoid model he and his colleagues developed is already proving applicable to other diseases. The National Science Foundation has funded Stachowiak and Josef M. Jornet, assistant professor in the electrical engineering department in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences at the University of Buffalo, to use these models to explore what he calls brain-machine interfaces, treatments that would be useful in guiding the regeneration of brain tissue after trauma or a stroke.

“We are working on combining the organoid research with smart nanophotonic devices to develop a new generation of brain-machine interfaces,” explains Stachowiak.

“With this technology, one may eventually be able to control and correct development of cells in complex tissue of the developing brain. An important step toward developing such technologies will be testing them in cerebral organoids or mini-brains to see if they can actually direct and modify the developing brain in real time.”

Researchers report their findings in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

The paper’s other coauthors are from the University at Buffalo, the State University of New York at Fredonia, and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. The NYS Department of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Patrick P. Lee Foundation, the Nat'l. Institutes of Health, and the NY Stem Cell Foundation supported the research.

How to Get Your Mind to Read

From The New York Times' Sunday Review

By Daniel T. Willingham
November 25, 2017

Credit: Lilli Carré
Americans are not good readers. Many blame the ubiquity of digital media. We’re too busy on Snapchat to read, or perhaps internet skimming has made us incapable of reading serious prose. But Americans’ trouble with reading predates digital technologies.

The problem is not bad reading habits engendered by smartphones, but bad education habits engendered by a misunderstanding of how the mind reads.

Just how bad is our reading problem? The last National Assessment of Adult Literacy from 2003 is a bit dated, but it offers a picture of Americans’ ability to read in everyday situations: using an almanac to find a particular fact, for example, or explaining the meaning of a metaphor used in a story. Of those who finished high school but did not continue their education, 13 percent could not perform simple tasks like these.

When things got more complex — in comparing two newspaper editorials with different interpretations of scientific evidence or examining a table to evaluate credit card offers — 95 percent failed.

There’s no reason to think things have gotten better. Scores for high school seniors on the National Assessment of Education Progress reading test haven’t improved in 30 years.

Many of these poor readers can sound out words from print, so in that sense, they can read. Yet they are functionally illiterate — they comprehend very little of what they can sound out. So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge.

All prose has factual gaps that must be filled by the reader. Consider “I promised not to play with it, but Mom still wouldn’t let me bring my Rubik’s Cube to the library.” The author has omitted three facts vital to comprehension: you must be quiet in a library; Rubik’s Cubes make noise; kids don’t resist tempting toys very well. If you don’t know these facts, you might understand the literal meaning of the sentence, but you’ll miss why Mom forbade the toy in the library.

Knowledge also provides context. For example, the literal meaning of last year’s celebrated fake-news headline, “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President,” is unambiguous — no gap-filling is needed. But the sentence carries a different implication if you know anything about the public (and private) positions of the men involved, or you’re aware that no pope has ever endorsed a presidential candidate.

You might think, then, that authors should include all the information needed to understand what they write. Just tell us that libraries are quiet. But those details would make prose long and tedious for readers who already know the information. “Write for your audience” means, in part, gambling on what they know.

These examples help us understand why readers might decode well but score poorly on a test; they lack the knowledge the writer assumed in the audience. But if a text concerned a familiar topic, habitually poor readers ought to read like good readers.

In one experiment, third graders — some identified by a reading test as good readers, some as poor — were asked to read a passage about soccer. The poor readers who knew a lot about soccer were three times as likely to make accurate inferences about the passage as the good readers who didn’t know much about the game.

That implies that students who score well on reading tests are those with broad knowledge; they usually know at least a little about the topics of the passages on the test. One experiment tested 11th graders’ general knowledge with questions from science (“pneumonia affects which part of the body?”), history (“which American president resigned because of the Watergate scandal?”), as well as the arts, civics, geography, athletics and literature. Scores on this general knowledge test were highly associated with reading test scores.

Current education practices show that reading comprehension is misunderstood. It’s treated like a general skill that can be applied with equal success to all texts. Rather, comprehension is intimately intertwined with knowledge. That suggests three significant changes in schooling.

First, it points to decreasing the time spent on literacy instruction in early grades. Third-graders spend 56 percent of their time on literacy activities but 6 percent each on science and social studies. This disproportionate emphasis on literacy backfires in later grades, when children’s lack of subject matter knowledge impedes comprehension.

Another positive step would be to use high-information texts in early elementary grades. Historically, they have been light in content.

Second, understanding the importance of knowledge to reading ought to make us think differently about year-end standardized tests. If a child has studied New Zealand, she ought to be good at reading and thinking about passages on New Zealand. Why test her reading with a passage about spiders, or the Titanic?

If topics are random, the test weights knowledge learned outside the classroom — knowledge that wealthy children have greater opportunity to pick up.

Third, the systematic building of knowledge must be a priority in curriculum design. The Common Core Standards for reading specify nearly nothing by way of content that children are supposed to know — the document valorizes reading skills.

State officials should go beyond the Common Core Standards by writing content-rich grade-level standards and supporting district personnel in writing curriculums to help students meet the standards. That’s what Massachusetts did in the 1990s to become the nation’s education leader. Louisiana has recently taken this approach, and early results are encouraging.

Don’t blame the internet, or smartphones, or fake news for Americans’ poor reading. Blame ignorance. Turning the tide will require profound changes in how reading is taught, in standardized testing and in school curriculums. Underlying all these changes must be a better understanding of how the mind comprehends what it reads.

Daniel T. Willingham (@DTWillingham) is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of “The Reading Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding How the Mind Reads.”

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Education Issues at Stake as Senate Takes Up Tax Reform: State and Local Deductions, Teacher Supplies, Choice

From The 74 Million

By Carolyn Phenicie
November 27, 2017

Congress returns from recess this week, with the Senate set to turn its attention to tax reform, and education advocates are watching several key provisions.

Public school supporters are most concerned about Republicans’ efforts to remove federal deductions for state and local taxes.

The Senate bill would end federal deductions for those taxes entirely, while the House measure would limit deductions to $10,000 in property taxes. Any increase in federal taxes could put pressure on state and local leaders to cut taxes at that level, imperiling the largest sources of school funding.

Ending the deduction, as the Senate bill proposes, would mean a loss of $370 billion in state and local tax revenue over 10 years, endangering 370,000 education jobs, according to an analysis by the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers union.

“It is irresponsible to put funding for 370,000 education jobs at risk. It is outrageous to give massive tax breaks for the wealthy and corporations paid for by students and working families. This is not normal. This is a terrible bill for the American people and Congress should soundly reject it,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said in a statement.

The direct impact to school districts probably would come in the 2019–20 school year, though school officials may begin bracing for it and budgeting more conservatively earlier than that, said Noelle Ellerson Ng, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at AASA: The School Superintendents Association. Residents of high-tax states like New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and California would see the highest tax increases if the state and local deductions are repealed.

Ellerson Ng isn’t optimistic that a final version of the bill would save the deductions.

There aren’t good policy arguments for overturning the federal break for state and local deductions, she said, but it provides a huge amount of revenue that Republicans can use to offset the other large cuts they’re making. Other substantial savings, like ending tax breaks for retirement savings, have been considered and rejected.

“That’s a huge obstacle that we need to overcome, and other big-ticket items are off the table in the way that [the state and local tax deduction] isn’t,” she said.

She’s also concerned about big deficits in future years, ones that could mean cuts to federal education funding.

A drop in state and local revenues would also affect public colleges, one of several concerns higher education advocates are raising, alongside fears about taxing graduate students’ tuition waivers and ending a tax break on student loan interest, Axios reported.

Other K-12 education issues lawmakers will have to settle in any final version of the bill include:

Charter School Buildings

The House bill would end key provisions used by charter schools to finance new school buildings, in some cases making new construction costs prohibitive, charter leaders told The 74.


The Senate bill doesn’t eliminate two of the key provisions charters most often used, but it, like the House bill, ends Qualified Zone Academy Bonds, which public schools use to finance renovations.

Teacher Supplies

The House bill eliminated the $250 deduction educators can take for out-of-pocket classroom expenses, a move that’s been particularly pilloried as a counterweight for the generous deductions given to high-income earners. The Senate bill, meanwhile, doubles the deduction to $500.

Teachers spent anywhere between $495 and $672 of their own money on classroom supplies a year, depending on their school’s poverty level, according to a survey by Scholastic. Principals spent between $514 and $1,014 on average.


The deduction, which reduces taxable income rather than providing a credit, yields most teachers about $40, according to The New York Times. House Republicans have argued that a simpler tax code with better benefits would save teachers more in the long run, according to the Times.

School Choice

The two chambers’ bills also treat tax-preferred school choice programs differently. The House bill proposes ending the Coverdell program, a small, income-limited tax-free savings plan for K-12 education, and instead expanding the popular 529 programs already in existence to help families save for college.

The Senate plan, like the House’s, allows families to begin saving during pregnancy rather than at birth, but doesn’t change the limitations on 529 plans.

School choice advocacy groups, while expressing disappointment that there isn’t a large-scale tax credit scholarship program in either bill, have urged the Senate to adopt the House’s idea.

“For those elected officials committed to the idea of doing something about income equality, the best policy toward that end would be to empower non-wealthy Americans to have the education options they want for their children. That will ensure the next generation is better equipped to prosper in a 21st century economy,” Peter Murphy, vice president of Invest in Education, a nonprofit education group, wrote in The Hill.

The Senate returned to Washington Monday and was expected to take up the tax bill later this week. Its chances look rocky, with as many as a half-dozen Republicans expressing reservations, Politico reported.

Additionally, there are limited session days before the end of the year, the Republicans’ self-imposed deadline for tax reform, and numerous other issues, like spending bills, to consider in the interim.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Women Who Don’t Know They’re Autistic

From The Conversation

By Fabienne Cazalis
July 19, 2017

NOTE: This article was co-written by Adeline Lacroix, who works with Fabienne Cazalis and was recently diagnosed with Asperger syndrome. A second year master’s student in psychology, she is working on a scientific literature review about the characteristics of high-functioning autistic women.

Let’s call her Sophie. The description we’ll give could be that of any woman who is on the autistic spectrum without knowing it. Because they’re intelligent and used to compensating for communication impediments they may not be consciously aware of, these women slip through the cracks of our still-too-inefficient diagnostic procedures.

Studies reveal one woman for every nine men is diagnosed with so-called “high-functioning” autism, that is, autism without intellectual disability. If we compare this to the one woman for every four men diagnosed with the more readily identified “low-functioning” autism, we can easily imagine many autistic women are left undiagnosed.

Today, Sophie, who lives in France, has a job interview. If you could see her nervously twisting her hair, you might think she’s anxious, like anyone would be in the circumstances. You would be wrong. Sophie is actually on the verge of a panic attack. At 27, she just lost her job as a salesperson due to repeated cash-register mistakes – and it’s the eighth time in the last three years. She loved maths at university and is deeply ashamed. She hopes the person hiring will not bring up the subject – she has no justification for her professional failures and knows that she is incapable of making one up.

Learning Accounting by Herself at Home

Sophie’s wish is granted: the interviewer asks her instead about her time at university. Relieved, she happily launches into an explanation of her masters thesis on meteorological modelling, but he cuts her off abruptly, clearly irritated. He wants to know why she is applying for a temporary job as an accounting assistant when she has no experience or training. Although her heart is racing wildly, Sophie manages to keep her composure, explaining that she taught herself accounting at home in the evenings. She describes the excellent MOOC (online course) she found on the website of the French Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, and tells him how one of the questions she asked the teacher on the forum led to a fascinating debate on the concept of depreciation expenses.

Sophie is not good at guessing what people are thinking, but she understands from the way the man is staring at her that he believes she is lying. Overwhelmed, she feels weaker by the minute. She watches his lips move but does not understand what he’s saying. Ten minutes later she’s in the street, with no memory of how the interview ended. She is shaking and holding back tears. She curses herself, wondering how anyone could be so stupid and pathetic.

She climbs into a crowded bus, swaying under the heavy odours of perfumes worn by those pressed up around her. When the bus brakes suddenly, she loses her balance and bumps into a fellow passenger. She apologises profusely and hurriedly gets off. In her rush, she trips again and falls to the pavement. “I must get up, everyone is looking,” she thinks, but her body refuses to obey. She can no longer see properly and doesn’t even realise her own tears are blinding her.

Someone calls an ambulance. Sophie wakes up in a psychiatric facility. She will be misdiagnosed with a psychological disorder and given medication that will solve none her problems.

A Unique Way of Thinking, a Taste for Solitude, Intense Passions

Sophie’s story is typical of the chaotic lives led by women whose autism remains undiagnosed because they are on that part of the spectrum where the signs are less obvious. In spite of her impressive cognitive capacities – like the ability to teach herself a totally new field of knowledge – Sophie has no idea of her own talents, and neither do those around her, or only rarely.

Trapped in a social environment highly critical of what makes her unique, such as her unusual way of thinking, taste for solitude, and the intensity of her passions, Sophie is acutely aware that these are seen as shortcomings.

If Sophie could be given the correct diagnosis of high-functioning autism, she would at last understand the way her mind works. She could meet other autistic adults and learn from their experience to help her overcome her own difficulties.

Autism is characterised by social and communicative difficulties, specific interests that people with autism are capable of speaking about for hours (like meteorological modelling, in Sophie’s case), and stereotyped behaviours. There are also differences in perception, such as hypersensitivity to smells or sounds, or, conversely, reduced sensitivity to pain. Autism is thought to affect around one in one hundred people.

70% of people with autism have either normal or superior intelligence. This form of autism is generally referred to as high-functioning autism, as per the latest version of the “bible” of psychiatric disorders, the DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). In this version, all reference to older categories has been removed, including Asperger syndrome.

The term Asperger’s is still used today in some countries, however, even though all types of autism are now grouped under a single spectrum and classified according to the severity of symptoms.

Appropriate Support Throughout Schooling

Ideally, Sophie would have been diagnosed as a child. She could have benefited from specialised support throughout her schooling, as is legally required in France and other countries. This support would have made her less vulnerable, giving her the tools to defend herself from bullying in the schoolyard and helping her learn with teaching methods adapted to her way of thinking.

Upon leaving school, her diagnosis would have opened up access to labour rights, such as disabled worker status, which would have helped her find an adapted employment. Sophie’s life would have been simpler and she would be more at peace with herself.

But Sophie’s problems are twofold. Not only is she autistic, but she’s also a woman. If getting a diagnosis is already tricky for men, it’s even more difficult for women. Originally, autism was thought to only rarely affect women. This erroneous idea, which emerged from a 1943 study conducted by Léo Kanner (the first psychiatrist to describe the syndrome), has been reinforced by the long-dominant psychoanalytical approach. The criteria defining autistic symptoms were based on observations in boys.

Later, when science replaced psychoanalysis as the dominant model, studies were largely conducted on male children, thus reducing the chances of recognising autism as it’s manifested in females. This phenomenon, also present in other areas of science and medicine, has far-reaching implications today.

Similar Test Results for Boys and Girls

To diagnose autism spectrum disorder (ASD), doctors and psychologists evaluate quantitative criteria using tests and questionnaires, but also qualitative criteria, like interests, stereotyped movements, difficulties with eye contact and language and isolation. But while autistic girls show similar test results to autistic boys, the clinical manifestation of their condition differs, at least in cases where language has been acquired.

With social-imitation strategies, for example, autistic girls have fewer troubles making friends than autistic boys ; they have seemingly more ordinary interests than boys (for example horses, rather than maps of the subway); while less restless than boys, they are more vulnerable to less-visible anxiety disorders, and more adept at camouflaging their stereotyped and soothing ritual behaviors.

In other words, their autism is less obtrusive, which means their symptoms are less obvious to their families, teachers and doctors.

Biology and environment explain these differences, and in this case it’s impossible to separate nature from nurture. On the nature side of the argument, some hypothesise that girls are better equipped for social cognition and more apt at caring roles. This would explain why they appear to be more interested in the animate (cats, celebrities, flowers) than the inanimate (cars, robots, rail networks).

When it comes to nurture, girls and boys are not brought up in the same way. Socially acceptable behaviours differ according to sex. Although autistic children are more resistant to this phenomenon, the pressure to conform is so strong it still ends up influencing their behaviour, as illustrated by the case of Gunilla Gerland.

As a girl, this Swedish woman didn’t want to wear rings or bracelets because she hated the way metal felt on her skin. Observing that adults could not fathom that a little girl might not like these things, she resigned herself to getting gifts of jewellery, and even learned to thank the giver, before stashing the object away in a box at the earliest opportunity.

Skilled in the Art of Camouflage

As autistic girls grow up, the gap between how their condition and that of boys manifests widens. As adults, some autistic women can become highly skilled in the art of camouflage, which explains the use of the term “invisible disability” to describe certain types of high-functioning autism. Incidentally, this is the meaning of the title of Julie Dachez’s 2016 graphic novel, The Invisible Difference (Delcourt).

A page from ‘The Invisible Difference’ (Delcourt), by Julie Dachez. Delcourt/Mirages

More and more women are discovering their condition later in life and sharing their experience. Since September 2016, the Francophone Association of Autistic Women (Association francophone des femmes autistes, or AFFA) has been fighting for recognition of the specific ways autism manifests in women. A learned society on autism in women is also being created in France, bringing together the general and scientific communities, with the goal of promoting dialogue between researchers and autistic women.
A specific questionnaire for girls

Historically, major figures in autism research believed there was significant prevalence in women. The Austrian Hans Asperger (for whom the syndrome is named) put forward the idea as early as 1944, as did British psychiatrist Lorna Wing, as early as 1981. But it’s only in recent years the scientific community has really started examining the evidence.

Some researchers aim to better understand the specific characteristics of autism in women. Since the beginning of this year, volunteers are invited to participate in a study on “autism in women” conducted by Laurent Mottron, a professor in the department of psychiatry at the University of Montreal (Canada), and Pauline Duret, a doctoral student in neuroscience, in collaboration with myself and Adeline Lacroix, working at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris (France). Adeline Lacroix is a master’s student in psychology and has herself been diagnosed with autism.

Other studies are attempting to adapt diagnostic tools for use with female subjects. A team made up of Australian scientists Sarah Ormond, Charlotte Brownlow, Michelle Garnett, and Tony Attwood, and Polish scientist Agnieszka Rynkiewicz, is currently perfecting a specific questionnaire for young girls, the Q-ASC (“Questionnaire for autism spectrum conditions”). They presented their work in May 2017 at a conference in San Francisco.

While there has been an initial trove of interesting results, current research into the specific characteristics of autism in women is raising more questions than it answers. However, the confusion could be considered a necessary step toward the acquisition of knowledge, provided the women affected can contribute to the research and share their point of view on the direction the work should take.

Ordinary citizens can also work towards ensuring autistic girls have the same rights as their male counterparts. By gaining a better understanding of the different forms of autism, everyone can contribute to a world in which children and adults with autism can find their place, and help fight exclusion by creating an inclusive society.

Monday, November 27, 2017

'Precious Little Evidence' That Vouchers Improve Achievement, Recent Research Finds

From Education Week's Blog
"Charters & Choice"

By Arianna Prothero
November 17, 2017

There's been surging national interest in private-school-voucher programs with the Trump administration's embrace of the idea.

But newer research on large-scale voucher programs has complicated the debate over private-school choice—policies which allow families to use public money or aid to attend private schools, including religious ones.

What does the research say? In a nutshell: The most recent findings are mixed, but they lean more toward negative.

I spoke at length with researchers from most of these studies for story I did on how private schools receiving public money in Florida face little state oversight.


Studies out of Indiana, Louisiana, Ohio, and the District of Columbia have found that students, most of whom are low-income, fare worse academically after leaving their public schools.

But a separate study that looked at low-income students attending private school in Florida with state aid, found that students enrolled in college at higher rates than their peers in public school.

"I think the best evidence from the best recent research ... if anything, it looks like that maybe kids going to private school on voucher programs might do worse in reading and math than they do in public [schools]," said David Figlio, an economist at Northwestern University, whose study of vouchers in Ohio for low-income students attending poor-performing districts found voucher students performed significantly worse on state tests than their peers who were eligible for vouchers but remained in public schools.

His research on Florida's biggest private-school choice program—the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship—found that on average, attending a private school on an FTC scholarship had zero effect on student academic achievement—which was generally true of most early voucher research, said Figlio.

"There are possible explanations: they're getting a worse education ... they're getting a different form of education ... and I don't think we really know the truth," Figlio said. "But I think there's precious little evidence so far that these kids do better academically."

Similarly, negative results were found in a recent study of Washington D.C.'s voucher program as well—the only federally funded voucher program in the nation.

Students, at least in the Indiana and Louisiana voucher programs, recouped their academic losses after being in private schools for a few years.

Oversight and Demand

Indiana and Louisiana have something else in common that makes these findings even more interesting: They have some of the strictest oversight rules for private schools receiving voucher money in the country.

So at least in those two cases, increased oversight doesn't necessarily guarantee students will do better academically, nor do low test scores dampen parental demand.

In Indiana's voucher program for low- and middle-income students, the state assigns private schools letter grades—just like it does for public schools—and boots low-performers out of the program. All private schools in the state are required to be accredited.

But researchers from Notre Dame and the University of Kentucky examined data for Indiana voucher students in grades 5 through 8 and found that their math scores dropped significantly in the first few years of attending a private school. By the fourth year, students had recouped their losses, but about 25 percent of students in the researchers' sample had returned to public school in that period.

"We know that on average, those kids that switch back are lower-achieving and their achievement drops even more when they return to a public school, and that's not good," said Mark Berends, a sociology professor at Notre Dame and the director of the Center for Research on Educational Opportunities. But he is hesitant to draw conclusions. "This is still an analysis we are still working out ... It's intriguing, but we have more work to do."

In Louisiana's program for low-income students attending low-performing public schools, private schools that accept voucher students aren't allowed to pick and choose who they admit. Students must also take the state's standardized tests.

Similar to Indiana, students in Louisiana's voucher program performed much worse in both reading and math than their low-income peers who remained in low-performing public schools, according to two separate studies.

But low-test scores don't appear to deter parents from enrolling their students in the programs.

"[D]espite having very negative impacts on student performance, it's over supplied," said Christopher Walters, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley who studied Louisiana's vouchers with researchers from Duke University and MIT.

"The parents could be interested in other school attributes [such as] religious instruction ... But one takeaway is that we shouldn't expect parents to make choices that improve student academic achievement."

Nor has it deterred lawmakers from expanding such programs.

Too Much Regulation?

Regulations could be part of the problem: they may actually drive down student academic performance in voucher programs by discouraging high-quality private schools from participating. At least that's one theory for what's happening in Louisiana, where state schools chief John White believes that private schools accepting vouchers be held to the same accountability standards as regular public and charter schools.

Only low-quality schools that are struggling to attract students may see vouchers—whatever the cost in autonomy—as an attractive deal, said Patrick Wolf, a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas.

"It really is a bit of a Catch-22. I think good arguments can be made on either side of the regulation question," said Wolf, who co-authored the other study on Louisiana vouchers.

"Certainly one way to attract more high quality private schools is to offer more money and the other is to limit the regulations. The question is, is there really a stomach for that in the public community?"

A Silver Lining?

There is a silver lining to this cloud of negative findings, and it's in the Sunshine State. There, a recent study of the Florida Tax-Credit Scholarship, which gives hefty tax incentives to businesses that donate money to fund scholarships for low-income students to attend private schools, found that those students were more likely to go to college after high school than their peers that remained in public schools.

The longer students were enrolled in private schools, the larger the effects.

However, there are a couple of caveats.

"The kids who stick around longer are probably the kids for whom the program is more successful," said Matthew Chingos, the director of the Urban Institute's Education Policy Program. "That could manifest itself as just ... parents are not pulling them out because they feel it's working, but it could also manifest itself through the school being more likely to encourage them to stick around."

Additionally, Chingos' study couldn't eliminate selection bias—the idea that the most motivated families are likely to opt into school choice programs. (That was not an issue in the Louisiana studies because vouchers are awarded to students using a random lottery.)

Finally, researchers couldn't track students who attended private colleges or colleges outside of Florida, so more students could be going on to pursue a post-secondary education than counted in the study.


Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Best and Worst Education News in 2017

From EduBlogs

By Larry Ferlazzo
November 24, 2017

Here is my annual recap of the year’s Best & Worst Education News. As usual, I don’t presume to say it’s all-encompassing, so I hope you’ll take time to share your own choices. I’ll list the ones I think are the best first, followed by the worst. It’s too hard to rank them within those categories, so I’m not listing them in any order.

The Best Education News of 2017
  • Speaking of using test scores to evaluate teachers, Bill Gates announced that his foundation would no longer fund projects that promote that practice. Instead, he says the foundation will focus on “local ideas.” That’s good news though, of course, the devil will be in the details.
  • An attempt by the state of New Mexico to water down teaching of evolution and climate science was largely beaten back by grassroots opposition.
  • A federal judge in Arizona ruled that the state’s stopping a Mexican-American Studies program was wrongly driven by “racial animus.” The termination of the course ended up being a perfect example of the community organizing adage that “your opponents often do the best organizing for you” as it helped create momentum for ethnic studies courses to expand rapidly throughout the United States.
  • Federal data was released showing a decrease in school violence and an increase in students feeling safer at their schools.
  • The high school drop-out rate has continued to decrease for all ethnic groups. Education researcher Kirabo Jackson points out that this positive development also has an often un-reported effect on standardized test scores – while various test scores used to label schools might not be increasing rapidly, that “slow” growth coincides with that substantial reduction of the drop-out rates across all ethnic groups. So, the overall student population taking the tests now has different, and more challenging, characteristics than the student population who formerly took the test.
  • The New Teacher Center released an important report finding that increased levels of teacher leadership in schools led to increased student academic achievement. It would be nice if Central Offices and principals read it.
  • Millions of students had great learning experiences in their schools this year.

The Worst Education News of 2017
  • President Trump kicked things off at his inauguration by saying that schools are “flush with cash” and our “beautiful students are deprived of all knowledge.” He got the “beautiful students” part right, but blew it on everything else.
  • President Trump announced the repeal of DACA, which could result in 20,000 teachers in the program facing deportation, along with 780,000 others.
  • The Supreme Court announced that it will hear a case next year that will likely lead to the prohibition of required payment of union fees and a terrible blow to teacher unions and others (not to mention students and their families)
  • In what might be the most offensive school-related comment by a public official this year (during a time where there has been a lot of competition for that title), an Oklahoma state legislator suggested the state save money by turning over all English Language Learners to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “Identify them and then turn them over to ICE to see if they truly are citizens — and do we really have to educate noncitizens?” said Republican Rep. Mike Ritze.
  • As the PBS News Hour reports, “In 30 states, geographic communities can legally break away from large public school districts and form their own. As a result, a growing number of white and wealthier neighborhoods are creating their own schools and siphoning property taxes away from poorer, more diverse districts.” I guess we all have to replicate the work of Nikole Hannah-Jones and others like her.
  • Millions of students should have gotten a better education than they did this year.

The Most Important Education News of 2016 That Isn’t Good or Bad
  • Most states have submitted plans to the U.S. Department of Education about how they are going to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. It’s easy for plans to look good on paper. Let’s see how they are implemented….

You might also be interested in previous editions of this list:

Saturday, November 25, 2017

In Case You Doubt That the School-to-Prison Pipeline Still Operates at Full Steam . . .

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By Derek Black
November 14, 2017

"Courts must re-engage on issues of school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. Courts have stood on the sideline for the past four decades. In their absence, students have been deprived of their last line of defense--their constitutional rights."

The Washington Post recently reported on a mass campus lock down at Worth County High School in Georgia. Over the course of four hours,

"... 40 uniformed officers — the entire staff of the Worth County Sheriff’s Office — fanned through the school in Sylvester, ordering students against the walls of classrooms and hallways, demanding the students hand over their cellphones.

All 900 students were searched, part of a drug sweep ordered by Sheriff Jeff Hobby, according to court documents.

He did not have a warrant. He had a 'target list' of 12 suspected drug users. Only three of the names were in school that day, April 14."

When all was said and done, no drugs were found. And when controversy later arose, the attorney for the Sheriff's Department argued that the searches were legal because they were carried out while school administrators were present.

"In a statement released on April 18, Hobby elaborated that in 'the weeks leading up to April 14, the Sheriff’s Office received information and complaints from the citizens of Worth County regarding illegal drugs at the high school. The Sheriff contacted the Superintendent of the Worth County School District and the Principal of the high school to inform them of the situation and the Principal and the Sheriff agreed on the day of the pat down.'”

As crazy as that sounds, it was not a bad lob, as courts have vacillated on whether searches require reasonable suspicion or probably cause, depending on schools' involvement with these searches.

Regardless, school officials have since pushed back on the idea that they were participants in the searches. And now a grand jury has indicted the sheriff and two deputies for their role in the searches.

Courts have recently begun recognizing limits on police and school practices in cases such as these, but such outcomes are never a given. Victims lose these cases more often than the win them. Yet, this mass search offers another confirmation in a long line of examples of my basic thesis in Ending Zero Tolerance: Courts must re-engage on issues of school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Courts have stood on the sideline for the past four decades. In their absence, students have been deprived of their last line of defense--the one that is supposed to stand strong and politics waiver--their constitutional rights.