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Monday, April 30, 2018

The Perks of a Play-in-the-Mud Educational Philosophy

From The Atlantic

By Conor Williams
April 26, 2018

When did America decide preschool should be in a classroom?

Most American kids don’t spend large chunks of their day catching salamanders and poking sticks into piles of fox poop. In a nation moving toward greater standardization of its public-education system, programs centered around getting kids outside to explore aren’t normal.

But that’s precisely what students do at the Nature Preschool at Irvine Nature Center in Owings Mills, Maryland. There, every day, dozens of children ages 3 to 5 come to have adventures on Irvine’s more than 200 acres of woodlands, wetlands, and meadows.

These muddy explorers stand out at a moment when many American pre-K programs have become more and more similar to K–12 education: row after row of tiny kids, sitting at desks, drilling letter identification and counting.

Mention how anomalous this seems, though, and the teachers at the Nature Preschool can only express their wish that that weren’t the case: Why is it odd for 4-year-olds to spend the bulk of their time outside? When did America decide that preschool should be boring routines performed within classroom walls?

Today’s kids are growing up at a moment when American childhood—like much of American life—is increasingly indoors and technologically enhanced. Families spend more time indoors and on screens. Smartphones warp the teenage experience.

Perhaps as part of reaction to those trends, the United States is witnessing a budding movement to reintegrate childhood with the natural world. Nature preschools, outdoor pre-K, forest kindergartens—call them what you like: Early-education programs like these are starting in communities all over the country. The Natural Start Alliance, a group advocating for more outdoor experiences in early education, says that the number of “nature-based preschools” has grown at least 500 percent since 2012.

The ideas that underscore these programs trace back, in part, to a 2005 book by the journalist Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods. Louv argued that American childhood had become overly standardized, overly structured, and overly saturated with technology. He coined a term for the phenomenon: “nature-deficit disorder.”

Published just a few years after the adoption of No Child Left Behind—the federal education law that ramped up the emphasis on standardized testing and incentivized schools to focus on math and reading—Last Child received dazzling reviews and was passed around public schools as samizdat.

The book helped launch the Children and Nature Network, which describes itself as an “organization whose mission is to fuel the worldwide grassroots movement to reconnect children with nature.”

Louv and fellow advocates present outdoor early education as an answer to a gamut of child-rearing challenges. According to these advocates, a kid who suffers from anxiety doesn’t necessarily need medication, a child who can’t pay attention doesn’t need a computer program to reshape her development, and one who struggles to keep up physically doesn’t need a targeted summer-camp experience to build his muscles. Instead, what they need is more time outdoors.

Give young kids the opportunities to engage in hours of free, unstructured play in the natural world, and they develop just as organically as any other creature. They learn creativity as they explore and engage with complex ecological systems—and imagine new worlds of their own. Freed from playground guardrails that constrain (even as they protect), kids build strength, develop self-confidence, and learn to manage risks as they trip, stumble, fall, hurt, and right themselves.

Research shows that the freedom of unstructured time in open space helps kids learn to focus. It also just feels good: Nature reduces stress.

And yet, it’s not entirely clear whether or not these programs can deliver on these expectations. Sure, in a generic sense, time outdoors is obviously good for young kids. The hard part is to nail down how much time (and which activities) outside are particularly good for kids—which is to say, what should outdoor education actually look like in practice?

Are there particular types of outdoor experiences that kids really need? It’s not clear that anyone knows.

In a sense, outdoor education is right in line with a host of other educational trends. The basic conviction that children grow best when adults grant them space, time, and agency is central to many progressive-education models.

Karen Madigan, director of the Nature Preschool at Irvine, says her program draws from a hodgepodge of student-directed pedagogies, including the Montessori, Waldorf, and Reggio Emilia approaches. If these differ in the details, they overlap in the certainty that schools should give kids leeway to explore what they find interesting.

What sets the outdoor-education movement apart, though, is that it also engages certain traditionalist concerns—namely that kids these days are, frankly, getting too damn soft. The pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom attributes the relative physical frailty of today’s children—childhood obesity is up, and overall fitness is flagging—to their increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

“When we expect less from our children—instead of holding them to a higher standard—we could be setting them up for failure,” she writes. “Why are our children getting weaker?”

And yet, as research-based as it may be, there is something oddly paradoxical about the whole concept of outdoor early education. For the most part, the ideas that animate the American conversation around early education treat it as a targeted, structured intervention to foster children’s healthy development and eventual success. No wonder outdoor early education—with its counterintuitive promise that children will develop best if adults spend less time trying to intentionally develop them—seems so radical.

“I’m constantly having to unlearn my training as an educator … letting go of what I think makes sense,” said Emma Huvos, the founder of Riverside Nature School in Charles Town, West Virginia. “It’s more about giving children the freedom to take control of their own learning.”

Huvos began her teaching career in a public, urban pre-K classroom focused primarily on building historically underserved students’ academic skills—mostly poor, black kids. She thrived on building personal relationships with children, but was frustrated to see many flounder when they left her class. “They didn’t have, necessarily, the self-regulation [or] social-emotional skills they needed to thrive once the environment they were in shifted,” she says.

So, she founded Riverside in an effort to build an early-education program that prioritized those “noncognitive” skills—set on a West Virginia farm that had been passed down through generations in her family.

During a morning visit to Riverside, I saw a red-tailed hawk, a (literal) handful of worms, and the farms’ two pregnant goats. Two boys giggled as they wrestled over a grimy plank of wood they were using as a “pillow” for pretend naps. Other kids were debating whether an insect was a centipede, an earwig, or some other sort of beetle.

They were clearly having fun. But it was also clear why such programs are relegated to the category of “alternative” and accessible almost exclusively to parents who proactively seek them out. It would be hard to make outdoor preschool the rule, the government-sanctioned model, because its benefits are as abstract as its purpose is subjective.

When it comes to funding, it’s much easier to sell programs that promise academic rigor and a neat dovetail with kindergarten.

“[Riverside] is like my laboratory,” Huvos says. Her small, private program serves mostly “somewhat more affluent families.” In West Virginia, where the average monthly cost of center-based child care runs around $560, Riverside’s monthly $400 price tag is relatively steep, since that price only gets kids four days of care per week, and just three and a half hours each day. By and large, Riverside only works for parents who can afford to stop work and be available to pick kids up at 12:30 p.m. (or who have a full-time nanny or relative who can step in).

This bothers Huvos. “It’s become this unique, privileged thing: putting kids outside to play,” she says. Well-heeled parents realize, she says, that “this is what’s going to give your kid an academic advantage. This is what’s going to give your kid life success.”

She hopes that if “affluent folks [are] demanding it,” more early education programs will emerge to provide more kids—of all backgrounds—more time outside.

As this happens, getting the details right will be important. How can—how should—early-education programs balance the competing demands of academic development and outdoor play? Most kids could benefit from more time outside, but it’s hard to imagine that they don’t also need time with interesting, vocabulary-rich books.

Figuring out that balance matters even more when schools are welcoming populations that are likely to struggle academically down the line. In the United States, achievement gaps between children from wealthy and low-income families appear well before kindergarten, and evidence suggests that children who start elementary school behind on critical skills tend to stay behind. If children arrive in pre-K with weak language development and academic skills, early educators may rightly feel pulled to focus on these.

Sure, skilled educators can integrate math or reading instruction into time spent outdoors, but there are only so many hours in the day, and a recent study suggests that academically focused pre-K programs are particularly good at boosting children’s early math and reading abilities before—and into—kindergarten.

It also found that “high-dose academic” preschools were uniquely effective at raising African American children’s math and reading skills.

Is it possible to capture the benefits of unstructured time in nature within the structures of public early education? Mundo Verde, a Pre-K–5th-grade charter school in Washington, D.C., is trying. Its model is defined by three components: student-driven learning, a focus on sustainability, and a Spanish-English dual-immersion program.

The school gets kids outdoors by organizing learning into “expeditions”—students dive deeply into a topic, often culminating in an excursion that allows them to expand on what they’ve been doing in class. For example, when Mundo Verde second-graders study rocks, they visit the nearby Luray Caverns and collect fossils at Calvert Cliffs. At the end of a unit on balls, the school’s preschoolers design ball games to play with classmates in a nearby park.

Compared to private programs like Irvine’s Nature Preschool and Riverside, Mundo Verde is expanding who can access outdoor early education. It’s publicly funded, attendance is free, and enrollment is conducted by open lottery. Nearly one-third of its students come from low-income families, and 68 percent are students of color. But those numbers are actually low for a public school in D.C., where over 80 percent of students’ families are low-income and 90 percent are nonwhite.

The program’s executive director and co-founder, Kristin Scotchmer, said that Mundo Verde’s autonomy as a charter school makes it easier to experiment with outdoor education. “What was amazing about founding a school that I think is different from changing a school, is that it was a blank slate,” she said.

But Mundo Verde is just one unique school. Its institutional freedoms—inventing a new educational model and experimenting with it slowly, over time—are rare luxuries in public early-education systems, which tend to be enmeshed in mandates governing what students need to learn, the order they should encounter each element, and how most things ought to be taught. “Of course, we are doing reading and math,” Scotchmer said. “It’s fundamental and it’s built-in and baked into what we do.”

Mundo Verde’s challenge—a challenge that many educators across the country are also navigating—largely comes down to conflicting beliefs about what a school should be in the 21st century. Beliefs about where learning should take place and what that learning should look like. But these are debates about something deeper, too: the fundamental question of what childhood should be.

That’s not an easy question, and any proposal will have its flaws, but for the kids catching salamanders in the woods of Owings Mills, Maryland, the answer is obvious.

Federal Civil Rights Data Highlight Racial Disparities in Discipline as DeVos Mulls Guidance Rollback

From The 74 Million

By Mark Keierleber
April 24, 2018

Black students are more likely to be arrested at school than their peers — a racial disparity that appears to be widening, according to highly anticipated federal civil rights data released Tuesday.

Meanwhile, racial disparities in school discipline persist, even as districts across the country reduce their reliance on suspensions and expulsions.

Those are the top findings from this year’s Civil Rights Data Collection, released by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights. The new data, released biennially, cover the 2014–15 school year and compile information from more than 17,000 school districts across the country serving 50.6 million students.

The new information comes as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos considers scrapping an Obama-era guidance document, released in 2014, that urged districts to reduce their reliance on exclusionary discipline. The document notified school leaders that disparate discipline rates, based on race or disability, could be the result of bias and therefore violate federal civil rights laws.


During the 2015–16 school year, black students represented 15 percent of K-12 school enrollment but 31 percent of law enforcement referrals and arrests, a 16 percent disparity. When the federal government last collected the data, during the 2013–14 school year, black students faced an 11-percentage-point disparity in arrests and law enforcement referrals.

Meanwhile, Latino, Asian, and white students did not face disproportionate run-ins with police at school, a finding that remained consistent with the last Civil Rights Data Collection.

As schools across the country embrace reforms that turn away from punitive discipline like suspensions and expulsions, the reduction plays out in the new data. During the 2015–16 school year, roughly 2.7 million K-12 students were subjected to one or more out-of-school suspensions, about 100,000 fewer than in 2013–14.

However, racial disparities remain. Black boys and black girls each made up just 8 percent of enrolled students, but black boys made up 25 percent of students suspended at least once, and black girls accounted for another 14 percent. Black boys accounted for 23 percent of students expelled, as did 20 percent of black girls.

When the civil rights data were released under the Obama administration, the findings became central to the president’s education agenda. This time around, it appears the Trump administration has placed less emphasis on the new numbers. DeVos didn’t hold a call with reporters about the new data on Tuesday, opting instead to announce the findings through a brief press release.

“Protecting all students’ civil rights is at the core of the Department’s mission,” DeVos said in the release. “We are pleased to produce the CRDC in a way that it can be reviewed, analyzed, and utilized by local, state, and federal education leaders.”

In the past few months, a heated debate around disparate discipline has escalated in Washington. DeVos held a series of “listening sessions” with educators, school leaders, and advocates earlier this month to hear a range of perspectives on the Obama-era guidance. Proponents of the guidance argue that suspensions and expulsions unfairly drive students of color into the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Some of the guidance document’s fiercest critics, however, maintain that efforts to reduce student punishments have thrown schools into chaos.

As the listening sessions were underway, the Government Accountability Office, the government watchdog agency, analyzed federal education data and found that black students, boys, and disabled students are disproportionately disciplined compared with their white, nondisabled classmates.

The report also highlighted a myriad of challenges students with disabilities confront in their schools.

Nationally, children with disabilities represent about 12 percent of the overall student population. However, they represent 28 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested, 26 percent of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension, and 24 percent of students who were expelled.

The latest data also highlight some schools’ reliance on restraint and seclusion to control school behavior, which overwhelmingly affected students with disabilities. In fact, 71 percent of restrained students and 66 percent of secluded students had a disability.

In recent months, the #MeToo movement has highlighted the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the workforce, and the latest Education Department data indicate that sex-based harassment and bullying permeate America’s K-12 schools.

During the 2015–16 school year, schools recorded about 135,600 harassment or bullying allegations. Of those allegations, 41 percent centered on sexual harassment. Girls were more likely than boys to report harassment or bullying based on sex, and boys were more likely than girls to report bias based on race or disability.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Breaking: CDC Report Finds Prevalence of Autism Increases

From Jim Gerl's Special Education Law Blog

By Jim Gerl, Esq.
April 27, 2018

One in 59 US children has autism, according to a report issued today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new estimate is a prevalence rate of 1.7%, up from one in every 68 children (1.5%) in the 2016 report, which was based on data from 2012.

Some excerpts from CDC Report:

  • For 2014, the overall prevalence of ASD among the 11 ADDM sites was 16.8 per 1,000 (one in 59) children aged 8 years. Overall ASD prevalence estimates varied among sites, from 13.1–29.3 per 1,000 children aged 8 years. ASD prevalence estimates also varied by sex and race/ethnicity. Males were four times more likely than females to be identified with ASD. Prevalence estimates were higher for non-Hispanic white (henceforth, white) children compared with non-Hispanic black (henceforth, black) children, and both groups were more likely to be identified with ASD compared with Hispanic children.
  • Among the nine sites with sufficient data on intellectual ability, 31% of children with ASD were classified in the range of intellectual disability (intelligence quotient [IQ] <70 25="" 44="" 71="" above="" and="" average="" borderline="" had="" i.e.="" in="" iq="" range="" scores="" the="" to="" were="">85). The distribution of intellectual ability varied by sex and race/ethnicity. Although mention of developmental concerns by age 36 months was documented for 85% of children with ASD, only 42% had a comprehensive evaluation on record by age 36 months.
  • The median age of earliest known ASD diagnosis was 52 months and did not differ significantly by sex or race/ethnicity. For the targeted comparison of DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 results, the number and characteristics of children meeting the newly operationalized DSM-5 case definition for ASD were similar to those meeting the DSM-IV-TR case definition, with DSM-IV-TR case counts exceeding DSM-5 counts by less than 5% and approximately 86% overlap between the two case definitions (kappa = 0.85).

  • Findings from the ADDM Network, on the basis of 2014 data reported from 11 sites, provide updated population-based estimates of the prevalence of ASD among children aged 8 years in multiple communities in the United States. The overall ASD prevalence estimate of 16.8 per 1,000 children aged 8 years in 2014 is higher than previously reported estimates from the ADDM Network. Because the ADDM sites do not provide a representative sample of the entire United States, the combined prevalence estimates presented in this report cannot be generalized to all children aged 8 years in the United States.
  • Consistent with reports from previous ADDM surveillance years, findings from 2014 were marked by variation in ASD prevalence when stratified by geographic area, sex, and level of intellectual ability. Differences in prevalence estimates between black and white children have diminished in most sites, but remained notable for Hispanic children. For 2014, results from application of the DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 case definitions were similar, overall and when stratified by sex, race/ethnicity, DSM-IV-TR diagnostic subtype, or level of intellectual ability.
  • Special Education Eligibility: Sites with access to education records collected information on the most recent eligibility categories under which children received special education services (Table 6). Among children with ASD who were receiving special education services in public schools during 2014, the proportion of children with a primary eligibility category of autism ranged from approximately 37% in Wisconsin to 80% in Tennessee. Most other sites noted approximately 60% to 75% of children with ASD having autism listed as their most recent primary special education eligibility category, the exceptions being Colorado (44%) and New Jersey (48%). Other common special education eligibilities included health or physical disability, speech and language impairment, specific learning disability, and a general developmental delay category that is used until age 9 years in many U.S. states.

You can review the entire CDC report here.

A CNN article concerning this report may be found here.

Mental Disorders Among Leading Causes of Illness in Children Worldwide

From BioMed Central
via ScienceDaily

April 11, 2018

While global rates of mental disorders in children have remained stable over time, the decline of infectious diseases will place mental disorders among the main causes of disease in children aged 4-15 years, according to a study published in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health.

Marie-Laure Baranne and Bruno Falissard at INSERM, France described the prevalence of mental disorders among children aged 5-14 years in each of the six regions of the World Health Organisation -- Africa, the Americas, South-East Asia, Europe, the Easter Mediterranean, and the West Pacific Region.

They found that even in emerging regions, the prevalence of mental disorders is high and constant over time.

Marie-Laure Baranne said: "We found that the prevalence of mental disorders in young people remained stable between 2000 and 2015, which suggests that mental disorders are not decreasing in young people despite the global improvement of their physical health. In the future, the decrease of other, preventable diseases, such as diabetes, will lead to an increase in the importance of treating mental disorders for public health."

The authors found that in 2000 in the Americas and Europe, mental disorders ranked third among the causes of disability adjusted life years (DALYs). DALYs can be thought of as lost years of healthy life due to disease or disability. They are a measure of disease burden -- the impact of a health problem in a population.

By 2015, mental disorders had reached second place as causes of DALYs in the Americas and Europe, while the impact of infectious diseases decreased.

The change from infectious diseases to mental disorders as the main cause of DALYs in children is called an epidemiological transition. The impact of mental disorders on child health is going to become more important in the future as more countries make the transition from infection diseases to mental disorders as major causes of ill-health, according to the authors.

Marie-Laure Baranne said: "Our study is intended as an urgent signal of alarm to international public health institutions and policy-makers. Given the impact of these mental disorders in the long term, organising a global policy to address this issue requires careful preparation."

In most regions, four mental disorders ranked among the 20 diseases associated with the most DALYs: conduct disorders, anxiety disorders, major depressive disorders and austism-Asperger syndrome. Among boys, the most common mental disorders associated with DALYs were conduct disorders, autism-Asperger syndrome and anxiety disorders. Among girls they were anxiety disorders, conduct disorders and major depressive disorder.

In addition to an effect over time, the authors also noticed an effect of income: regions with the highest gross domestic product were found to have fewer problems with infectious diseases and more problems with mental disorders.

The authors caution that that the calculation of DALYs relies on parameters that are only known as approximations and based on multiple sources of information containing potential errors that may introduce some uncertainty into estimates.

Journal Reference
  • Marie Laure Baranne, Bruno Falissard. Global burden of mental disorders among children aged 5–14 years. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 2018; 12 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s13034-018-0225-4

Saturday, April 28, 2018

New Report Shows Slight Uptick in Autism Prevalence

From Spectrum News

By Jessica Wright
April 26, 2018

About 1 in 59 children in the United States has autism, according to data released today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Four times as many boys as girls have the condition, according to the report (1).

The data are based on a 2014 survey of 325,483 children across 11 states. The data were collected by the CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network (ADDM).

These numbers show an increase of nearly 16 percent from the previous prevalence of 1 in 68 children. That estimate was based on data collected in 2012 and had a gender ratio of 4.5 to 1.

The trend from that analysis and another one in 2010 had suggested that autism prevalence in the U.S. was leveling off. Another CDC study published earlier this year also suggested that autism rates are no longer increasing.

The new findings buck this trend. But they do not necessarily mean the actual number of children with autism in the U.S. is rising, says Catherine Rice, director of the Emory Autism Center in Atlanta and principal investigator for the ADDM from 2001 to 2010.

“The current ADDM report seems to indicate that awareness of [autism] characteristics is broadening and this contributes to increases in [autism] prevalence overall,” Rice says.

For example, autism prevalence is consistently higher in white children than in black or Hispanic children — a pattern researchers attribute to disparities in access to medical care. This difference has been trending downward since 2002.

The 2012 analysis identified 20 percent more white children with autism than black children and 50 percent more than Hispanic children. In the new analysis, researchers identified 7 percent more white children with autism than black children, and 22 percent more than Hispanic children.

This suggests that the rise in prevalence may be the result, in part, of improved services for children who were previously missed.

“We have no reason to think there’s some biologic basis for a difference in [autism] prevalence among these populations,” says Deborah Christensen, team lead for surveillance in the CDC’s developmental disabilities branch. “So when we see those differences narrow, that is encouraging to us.”

Robust Records

The new survey focused on 8-year-olds, as most children are likely to have had a medical or school evaluation by that age.

Expert reviewers in the ADDM look for signs of autism in the medical records of children living in select counties and states across the U.S.

The reviewers may include children who show signs of autism, even if they do not have an official diagnosis. And they may choose to exclude children who are diagnosed with autism if their features do not meet criteria for autism as outlined in the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders” (DSM).

The CDC report shows dramatic differences in autism prevalence among states. The highest prevalence is 2.93 percent in New Jersey, whereas the lowest is 1.31 percent in Arkansas.

This divergence may reflect real differences in the number of children who have autism.

Alternatively, it may reflect a disparity in access to healthcare and in autism awareness among different counties, says Radley Sheldrick, associate professor of health law, policy and management at Boston University. States with a lower prevalence may have more children with unrecognized autism, for example.

“Symptoms of [autism] are more likely to be documented in medical and educational records in some states than in others, and this affects results,” he says.

For 10 states, the reviewers looked at education records for evidence of special needs or services. Having access to this information may boost states’ prevalence, says Christensen.

The reviewers had access to education records in one state — Wisconsin — for the first time, and to more records for Colorado than they had previously. These two states showed the highest increase in prevalence: The reported prevalence in Wisconsin rose by 31 percent between 2012 and 2014, and the prevalence in Colorado rose by 29 percent.

What’s more, all of the states with robust special education records show prevalence estimates over the national average.

Catching Up

Despite the rising awareness, only 42 percent of children with autism had a diagnostic evaluation by age 3, even though about 85 percent showed some signs of the condition by that time. This discrepancy is of concern, says Rice.

“It is way past time of accepting the long wait from concern to evaluation to services as an okay standard in the United States,” she says.

The average age for a diagnostic evaluation has stayed relatively consistent over the years. However, states may be able to take steps to improve this. For example, for more than a decade, North Carolina has implemented state-wide initiatives to improve early screening for developmental delays. Perhaps as a result, 66 percent of children identified with autism in this state had received a diagnostic evaluation before age 3.

Local factors can have a big impact on prevalence. Sheldrick and his colleagues have found that the disparity in prevalence among U.S. states has steadily increased between 2000 and 2012 (2).

For example, data for two of the states with the highest prevalence — Maryland and Minnesota — come from small sampling areas clustered near a diagnostic center. And New Jersey is well known for providing strong access to medical and special education services.

New Jersey also does not show significant disparities in prevalence among ethnic groups, suggesting that as autism identification improves, these disparities disappear.

“People think of [national prevalence] as true prevalence, and I think we need to be careful of that interpretation,” Sheldrick says. “If New Jersey represents the true rate, that’s a lot higher than [the average], and that has real implications.”

The variation across states also reveals how dependent the CDC estimate is on the sites that provide the data, says Eric Fombonne, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland.

“Where services are located and how people access services in particular states varies enormously from site to site, and that affects tremendously the prevalence estimate that they have,” Fombonne says. “It shows very clearly that the methods are not as robust as you would like them to be.”

Going Forward

The new report looks at prevalence for a subset of the participants, using diagnostic criteria outlined in the DSM-5, the current version of the DSM, released in 2013. The criteria for autism in the DSM-5 may be more stringent than those in the DSM-IV. This suggested that basing the prevalence on children who met the DSM-5 criteria would lower prevalence estimates.

In the new study, the ADDM researchers tried to gauge the impact of switching to the new manual. They found that using the DSM-5 criteria yields 4 percent fewer cases of autism than with the DSM-IV criteria — a difference they say is negligible.

However, any child who had an autism diagnosis with DSM-IV criteria is automatically given an autism diagnosis with the DSM-5. This rule artificially inflates the number of DSM-5 diagnoses, says Fombonne: Roughly 15 percent of children who received a DSM-5 diagnosis did not have sufficient behaviors to warrant this status based on DSM-5 criteria alone.

The comparison is “completely bogus because they are comparing two things, which are not independent; they are comparing a definition that includes the other one,” Fombonne says.

The ADDM plans to rely only on DSM-5 criteria when they report prevalence for 2016. That analysis may reveal whether switching to the manual lowers prevalence, says Christensen.

The new survey also collected data on 4-year-old children, which the CDC plans to publish separately. This analysis may clarify the average age at which children with autism are identified.

  1. Baio J.B. et al. MMWR Surveill. Summ. 67, 1-23 (2018) Full text
  2. Sheldrick R.C. and A.S. Carter J. Autism Dev. Disord. Epub ahead of print (2018) PubMed

The Value of Failing

From The Atlantic

By Isabel Fattal
April 25, 2018

A new research center at Columbia University is committed to figuring out how to turn failure into success.

Every kid has that moment when she realizes that the adults she admires aren’t perfect. Few children ever learn, however, that the same is true for the inventors and intellectual giants whose distinguished portraits permeate their history textbooks.

As it turns out, recognizing that visionaries such as Albert Einstein experienced failure can actually help students perform better in school.

In 2016, the cognitive-studies researcher Xiaodong Lin-Siegler of Columbia University’s Teachers College published a study that found that high-school students’ science grades improved after they learned about the personal and intellectual struggles of scientists including Einstein and Marie Curie. 

tudents who only learned about the scientists’ achievements saw their grades decline.

On Monday, the Teachers College announced the creation of the interdisciplinary Education for Persistence and Innovation Center, which will be dedicated to studying failure’s educational purpose.

Lin-Siegler, who’s overseeing the center, will expand on her own research into the failures of successful people, starting by interviewing Nobel laureates. The center will convene researchers from various academic fields and countries in its effort to better understand how failure can facilitate learning and success.

Research on failure as a motivator is limited, though the evidence that does exist suggests that students can grow both from learning about the failures of other successful people and from experiencing failure themselves. Crucially, for failure to “work,” research indicates that educators and parents need to encourage students to figure out what went wrong and try to improve.

“Failure needs to give people a chance to regroup and rewind the clock,” Lin-Siegler explained. Her main goal, she said, is to help students realize that failure is a normal part of the process of learning.

The notion that struggle is key to success has become popular in education circles in recent years. As buzzwords like “grit” garnered attention, they also became controversial: Some psychologists and teachers assert that perseverance and passion are invaluable academic skills that can be learned by anyone, while others argue this emphasis on those values disregards the socioeconomic barriers that can hamper certain students’ achievement.

But Lin-Siegler’s research adds a different dimension to the debate, suggesting that there is a much simpler problem at hand: Many kids today see failure as inherently bad, and success as beyond their reach.

Her 2016 study, which tested more than 400 ninth- and 10th-graders at four low-income New York City schools, found that many of the kids viewed success as a result of some kind of natural aptitude that they simply didn’t have.

The students didn’t tend to think of famous scientists like Albert Einstein as actual, imperfect people like themselves—students who didn’t learn about the scientists’ struggles were more likely to say that those scientists had innate talent and aptitude which separated them from everyone else.

This mentality has been shown to be particularly detrimental to students in STEM fields, where droves of kids who originally seemed interested end up dropping out after they struggle in a class or fail a test.

Lin-Siegler emphasized how widespread misconceptions about success and failure can be, citing her personal experiences. Growing up in a remote village in China, she didn’t even attend school for part of her childhood. She eventually became a tenured professor at Columbia, an accomplishment that dazzled friends and family back home who interpreted her success strictly as the outcome of her intelligence.

They didn’t know, she said, that one of her studies was rejected by five academic journals before getting published.

Of course, the value of failure can vary depending on the nature of the task—and the center will explore how educational institutions can navigate those nuances. For example, researchers will investigate strategies for helping medical students think about failure given that, for them, failure can mean another person’s death.

Lin-Siegler hopes such strategies will empower medical students to fail in smaller ways, for example, and to decide if and when the medical profession isn’t right for them.

Failure’s value is something of a tough sell in an education system in which the emphasis on test scores puts teachers under immense pressure to prioritize getting things right, right away. “To let kids fail,” Lin-Siegler acknowledged, “is a really hard thing [for teachers] to do.”

Friday, April 27, 2018

Dad Talk: 8 Tips on Reading to Your Kids, a Comforting Constant in a Time of Parenting High Anxiety

From The 74 Million

By Conor Williams
April 19, 2018

Conor Williams reads to his son, 2, and his daughter, 6 months.
(Photo courtesy Conor Williams)

It’s a tough time to be a parent. A movement has bizarrely arisen to question the value of vaccinating our children. We’re working more hours now than ever before — each of us setting up our own version of “Cat’s in the Cradle.” Academic scores appear to be largely flat.

What’s more, parents are bombarded with expert advice on how to “prepare kids for a 21st century economy” and “foster creativity in children.” The other day my kids and I came into a large quantity of cardboard boxes. No doubt about it — it was fort-building time.

And yet, I was paralyzed. Should I take the design lead and make something that was at once 1) cool and 2) safe? Should I let them trash the boxes (and the house)? How did something as basic as playing with your kids start to feel like something a dad can do “wrong?”

Yeah, it’s tough out there.


I’ve got some good news for you. After you feed, clothe, and shelter your kids, the next best thing you can do is read to them. And, better yet, it’s not like those boxes. Unless you’re opening up your toddlers to
Infinite Jest, Being and Time, or presidential tweets, there’s almost no wrong way to do it.

Still, if you can’t shake the anxiety, I’ve got a few concrete tips to help you feel confident (as a former first-grade teacher who spent 2.5 years as his own children’s primary caretaker). They’re the core of what I did while teaching my kids to read. They might help you and yours as well.

But if they don’t, that’s no big deal — just make sure you read with them!
  • Read all the time. I tried to read to my kids at least 30 minutes each day, but there’s no magic number. More is better than some, and some is better than none. Read fiction. Read nonfiction. Read poetry. Read the comics, the sports section, and/or travel guides.
  • Read repetitively. When you find a book your kid likes, read it as many times as she’ll let you. It can wear on your sanity to run through The Lorax a dozen times a day, sure, but when you repeat a book, your kid starts to get comfortable with the language. Each time you run through it, she learns the rhymes, the plot, the vocabulary, and other nuances a little better. After you’ve read a book five or six times, try stopping short during key sentences and looking to see if your child knows the next word(s). This works especially well with books that rhyme.
  • Go to the library. When you need a break from The Lorax, hit your local public library. Children’s literature, like many things in the United States, is increasingly stratified by wealth. Good books with rich pictures and text often cost a lot, and you don’t want to spend too much on outfitting your kids’ early reader library. The cost of a four-year public university degree is estimated to be over $200,000 by the 2030s. You can’t be spending all your money on signed, special-edition hardcover kids’ books.
  • Goof around with voices. This is a must for some of the early children’s literature. Lots of board books are boring. But they’re also formulaic, which means that sometimes you can fit them to a song instead of just reading. As kids get older and books’ characters get more interesting, try making up voices for each one. I wasn’t good at figuring out voices, so I started picking random famous people to do—Bill Clinton, Christopher Walken, Jeff Bridges as The Dude, etc.
  • Model sounding words out. It’s lame, but it seems to help. The cadence goes like this: “Hey, James, here’s a word. What’s that first sound? That’s right, it’s duh. Try that! Duh! And the next one is ahh. Let’s put them together. Duh-ahh. Last sound? Yes! Guh! Duh-ahh-G. Duh-ahh-g. Dog!” And speaking of sounding words out …
  • Memorize books. Because I was reading the same books over and over, I memorized a few of them (especially One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish). Then I’d holler them to my kids while we drove around town, or while we walked back from the park, or whenever. Not kidding: I once recited One Fish, Two Fish to my son for a 45-minute drive back from Dulles Airport because it was the only way to get him to stop bawling.
  • Make connections. Reading another book about dragons? Ask your kid if it reminds him of the last 10 dragon books you’ve read together. Reading books about dogs? Point out a dog while you’re walking around and ask him if it reminds him of any of the dog characters.
  • Teach your kids the alphabet’s sounds, rather than its letters. Think about this for a second. My name is spelled C-O-N-O-R. Say the first letter’s name: “see.” But my name’s not pronounced “SEE-ONOR.” Kids who are learning to read need to recognize that letters represent sounds so that they can then combine those sounds into words. In their early schooling, the primary reason to teach them the names of the letters is so they can sing the Alphabet Song. Why don’t we teach them the sounds that letters make first … and teach them the names of letters later? Note: For vowels that make more than one sound, I taught my kids the “short” sounds. So they learned the letter “E” as the sound “eh.”


There you go. Try those out. They might help, and they certainly won’t hurt.


Conor P. Williams is a senior researcher in New America’s Education Policy Program and founder of its Dual Language Learners National Work Group. Williams is a former first-grade teacher who holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University, a master’s in science for teachers from Pace University, and a B.A. in government and Spanish from Bowdoin College. He has two young children and an extremely patient wife. His children attend a D.C. public charter school.

Highest Court in Massachusetts Finds Cap on Charter Schools Constitutional

From WBUR 90.9 FM's Blog "Edify"

By Max Larkin
April 24, 2018

In an opinion issued Tuesday, Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court dismissed a complaint that the cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in state violates students' rights under the state's constitution.

The unanimous opinion, authored by Justice Kimberly Budd, affirmed a lower-court decision made in October, 2016. It holds that even when public schools under-serve their students, that doesn't mean state actors are failing in their constitutional duties — or that opening more charter schools is the only way to make it right.

The decision represents a third and possibly decisive setback for the proposal to lift the longstanding cap. In 2015, legislators decided against advancing Gov. Charlie Baker's bill for more charter schools, instead leaving the choice to voters — who then voted it down by a 24-point margin in 2016.

It's cause for disappointment and frustration among supporters of those schools, and for students and families who hoped to get in off their wait lists.

"Watching your own children have to suffer in a school that's under-performing -- and knowing that it's the result of a political turf war... it's crushing. It's devastating."
-- Keri Rodrigues

Keri Rodrigues is one of those people. She's an education activist who supported Question 2 in 2016. Now, she runs Massachusetts Parents United, an advocacy group supported in part by the pro-charter Walton Foundation. She has two sons who have tried and failed to get seats in a charter school.

"Watching your own children have to suffer in a school that's under-performing — and knowing that it's the result of a political turf war... it's crushing. It's devastating."

The five anonymous student-plaintiffs in the case dismissed by the SJC are in that same cohort. All five attend traditional public schools in Boston that rank in the bottom 20 percent of all state public schools when it comes to test scores.

And, all five students tried — and failed — to gain admission to better-performing charter schools with many more applicants than they have seats.

The plaintiffs argued that missed opportunity amounted to a violation of their shared right to an adequate public education, or to equal protection under the laws, as laid out in the state constitution.

The SJC opinion accepts the plaintiffs' arguments that, under the Massachusetts Constitution, state leaders must provide all students with an "adequate education," and that "the education provided at their schools is, at the moment, inadequate" based on testing data. But the court rejected the plaintiffs' conclusions.

The opinion holds that state officials and lawmakers must be allowed to work to improve poorly performing schools, and that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate that the state's current approach -- including oversight and takeover of chronically under-performing schools — couldn't jump-start progress "over a reasonable period of time."

Rodrigues wasn't persuaded. "Over what period of time are we talking about? Because parents get roughly 12 years to get their kids an adequate education," she said. "So are we just supposed to roll the dice and hope the commonwealth is able to figure this out?"

But the SJC opinion goes further. It argues that even ifstudents' constitutional rights were definitively being violated, it still wouldn't mean the chart r program must be expanded.

The opinion states, "There is no constitutional entitlement to attend charter school," and further, that the court is barred from enforcing any "fundamentally political" remedy of that kind.

The issue has been almost entirely political in Massachusetts in recent years — especially since Baker's election in 2014. Baker, a longtime charter advocate, played a prominent role in the "Yes on Two" campaign two years ago.

But the argument advanced by teachers' unions and then-City Councilor Tito Jackson won out at the polls. Jackson and others held that charter schools — which attract local and state funding in proportion to their enrollment — were already draining too much money from traditional public schools.

As the SJC deliberated, attorney Matt Cregor, who runs the education project of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, filed a brief making that argument again. Cregor was representing his own student-clients — English learners and students with disabilities that are still under-represented at charter schools.

Cregor suggested that students in those sensitive populations tend not to thrive at charter schools. For them, he said, lifting the cap would be "doubly harmful": "First, it takes money from the schools that are required to serve everybody. And second, it eliminates the number of choices they have available, as their schools shrink or close and the number of charters increase."

What's Next After The SJC's Opinion?

For Cregor, Tuesday's opinion was an invitation to move on from the now years-old fight over these caps. "We need solutions as a state that positively improves education for all of our students, across the board," he said.

It's unclear what options are left for those who want to see charter schools expand their presence in Massachusetts after this series of political setbacks.

In a statement, Tim Nicolette, executive director of the state's charter school association, complained that the cap will "continue to arbitrarily deny families the high-quality choices that charter public schools offer." He added that many communities still have not met their charter cap, and that the sector will continue to expand "in the slow, steady way we have for the past 20 years."

Rodrigues said she hasn't given up the fight. "Our children have a constitutionally protected right to an adequate education," she said.

"I haven't seen a definitive plan — from anyone — with concrete steps as to how we're going to overcome the achievement gap. Until I see those steps, I don't have any assurance that if I send my kid to a traditional district school, they're going to get that adequate education."

It's worth noting that litigation of this kind did spark comprehensive change back in 1993. In the famous McDuffy case, plaintiffs headed by Brockton sixth-grader Jami McDuffy argued that state under-funding meant that some students weren't getting the "adequate education" to which they were entitled. The court supported the claim, ushering in a wave of new spending and comprehensive education reform.

Now, Brockton is weighing another such suit as it faces a budget shortfall. The SJC signaled an openness to that complaint in Tuesday's opinion. And Rodrigues, speaking for her organization, says she would support that initiative, too — anything that would make an "adequate education" available to more young people throughout Massachusetts.