A brain in your pocket — but what’s in your head?

Carrying a brain in your pocket may weaken the brain in your head, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham

Thinking is hard work, so people have strategies to avoid it, known as “cognitive miserliness,” he writes. In familiar situations, they do whatever they did the last time. If memory won’t work, “you can often get away with heuristics—quick, cognitively inexpensive processing routines that provide an answer, often a good one.”

Nowadays, there’s a third strategy:  Look it up online. Currently, 64% of US adults own a smartphone.

Picture

According to three studies, “people who are more cognitively miserly are more likely to search information out on their smartphone,” effectively using it as an external memory.

Smartphone use is negatively related to cognitive ability (as measured by brief numeracy and verbal intelligence tests), Willingham adds.  “It may be that low-cognitive-ability people seek information—look up a word meaning, calculate a tip—that high-ability people have in their heads.”

It’s not clear whether smart phones are “making us more cognitively miserly” or whether misers are “simply taking advantage of a new opportunity,” he writes. “What are the costs and benefits of either change?”

Online, blended schools face critics

Photograph of Elizabeth Novak-Galloway
Elizabeth Novak-Galloway, 12, center, seen with mother Gabriela Novak and sister Kira, 8, was pulled from a K12 school by her dissatisfied mother. Photo: Dai Sugano, Bay Area News Group

Virtual (all-online) and blended learning schools aren’t doing as well as traditional schools, concludes a National Education Policy Center report. Performance is especially low at for-profit schools, researchers said.

The report recommends slowing or halting the growth of virtual and blended schools, writing rules that specify a student-teacher ratio and other measures, reports Hechinger’s Nichole Dobo.

Officials at K12 Inc., a for-profit company that operates a significant share of the nation’s online schools, said they had noticed flaws in the data – such as missing schools and inaccurate demographic numbers. They took issue with the report’s methodology, saying that high turnover rates in online schools make it difficult to compare these schools to more traditional models.

K12’s California Virtual Academies were accused of “cashing in on failure” by the San Jose Mercury News after a recent investigation. In particular, graduation rates are very low.

I think it’s hard to compare students who choose all-online schools with those in traditional schools. It’s not just apples and oranges. It’s apples and zucchini. Overall, though, research suggests that learning online requires maturity and motivation — or, at least, a parent’s close supervision. Students who couldn’t succeed with an in-person teacher aren’t likely to do better with a virtual teacher.

The report is way off base on blended learning, responds Julia Freeland Fisher, director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute, who questions what’s counted as a “blended learning school.”

Furthermore, “Does blended learning work?” is the wrong question, she writes.

That is tantamount to asking: Do textbooks work? Do lectures work? Do small group interactions work? Of course these delivery methods—like blended learning—vary widely in their effectiveness depending on how they are implemented. Instead, we need to evaluate specific blended learning models relative to acute problems that individual school systems are trying to solve.

Blended learning — a mix of online and face-to-face instruction — is spreading rapidly, she writes. By 2019, half of high school courses will incorporate online learning with “the vast majority of these using blended learning instructional models.” Christensen researchers predict.

Smartphones, slow students

Do Smartphones Help or Hurt Students’ Academic Achievement?  asks Paul Barnwell, who teaches English at a Louisville high school, in The Atlantic.

“Most students bring a mini-supercomputer to school every day, a device with vast potential for learning,” he writes. However, “using phones for learning requires students to synthesize information and stay focused on a lesson or a discussion.” For some students, phones are a distraction, not a help.

Technology “has the potential to shrink achievement gaps,” writes Rob Redies, a Fern Creek High chemistry teacher, in an email. However, “I am actually seeing the opposite take place within my classroom.”

Barnwell has had success getting students to edit each other’s writing “using cloud-based word processing on their phones,” he writes. “I’ve also heard and read about other educators using phones for exciting applications: connecting students to content experts via social media, recording practice presentations, and creating ‘how-to’ videos for science experiments.”

However, his high school, which has many students reading below grade level, is struggling to use smartphones for learning. “I see students using cellphones and earbuds as a way to disengage with their peers,” said Fern Creek Principal Nathan Meyer. “The isolation squanders opportunities for students to learn to engage and communicate with empathy.”

“We find that mobile phone bans have very different effects on different types of students,” concludes a recent study on phone access and the achievement gap. “Banning mobile phones improves outcomes for the low-achieving students … the most, and has no significant impact on high achievers.”

Feds: Schools are safer

Schools are getting safer according to a new federal report. Violence, bullying and sexual harassment has declined, the survey found.

About 3 percent of students ages 12 to 18 said they were victims of crimes at school in 2014.schoolviolencephoto

“On college campuses, the number of sexual attacks more than doubled from 2001 to 2013,” reports CBS News. “There’s really no way to say whether those increases reflect an increase in actual forcible sex crimes or just that more people are coming forward and reporting them,” said Lauren Musu-Gillette, an author of the report.

I’d guess it’s an increase in reporting and a much broader definition of sexual assault.

Ken Trump of the National School Safety and Security Services thinks the numbers are fuzzy. “Federal and state stats underestimate the extent of school crime, public perception tends to overstate it and reality is somewhere in between,” he said in a presentation to the Education Writers Association national conference in Boston.

Black, brown boys need change — not grit

Schools are pushing “soft skills” such as “grit,” compassion and a “growth mindset” to prepare students for college and careers. Black and Brown Boys Don’t Need to Learn Grit; They Need Schools to Stop Being Racist, writes Andre Perry, an education consultant and writer, in The Root.

Soft-skills training is disguised bootstrapping, which insidiously blames youths for failing in racist systems designed to block their success, and it absolves the middle class of any responsibility to uproot inequality. It is racism that really keeps students out of college and careers, not a child’s lack of resilience. Students are ready for college and jobs. Postsecondary institutions and employers are not ready for black and brown youths.

“Men and boys of color need to learn how to deconstruct systems rather than adapt to broken ones,” writes Perry.

Louisiana students called for the state to stop prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults in an April 6 protest at the State Capitol.

Students called for juvenile-justice reform on April 6 at the Louisiana Capitol in Baton Rouge.

For example, the Louisiana Youth Justice Coalition organized teens to call for juvenile-justice reform at the State Capitol. They urged legislators and the governor to support a bill that would end the practice of prosecuting 17-year-olds as adults.

“Saying that a kid from Baltimore, St. Louis or New Orleans needs grit is like saying a mountain climber needs to get rid of her fear of falling,” Perry concludes.

That’s a good line. But is it really true that black and brown youths are ready for college and jobs, blocked only by racism? Do they already have the academic skills — and grit — needed to succeed?

Racial gaps are widest in liberal towns

ALI THANAWALLA - Matt Bremer helps freshmen at Community Partnerships Academy with their integrated math curriculum.
Matt Bremer helps freshmen at Community Partnerships Academy, one of five small schools within Berkeley High, study integrated math. Black students in the liberal college town scores 4.6 grade levels below white students. Photo: Ali Thanawalla, East Bay Express

Racial achievement gaps are widest in the most liberal towns writes Steve Sailer in Taki’s Magazine.

Ultra-liberal Berkeley has the largest black-white gap in the nation, according to the national database of school-district test scores created by Stanford and Harvard researchers. Black students in Berkeley are 4.6 grade levels behind their white classmates.

Yet, Berkeley is ferociously antiracist. It was the first to have a Black Studies Department at the high school level. In the 2012 election, Berkeley voted for Obama over Romney 90 to 5. Berkeley Unified school-district administrators obsess over any data showing that black students get punished more than other races.

White kids in Berkeley averaged 2.7 grade levels higher than the national average for all students, notes Sailer. Hispanics in the district’s public schools scored 1.1 grade levels below the national average and blacks scored 1.9 grade levels below.

. . . white students, who tend to be the children of professors, Pixar employees, or the idle rich, score well. But Berkeley’s blacks do poorly, even by the standards of blacks in general, averaging below African-Americans in Chicago and Philadelphia.

Berkeley High School was broken into five smaller schools in hopes of closing achievement gaps. However, the two academic schools are mostly white and Asian-American, while the other three schools have drawn most of the black and Hispanic students.

Out of 2121 school districts with enough blacks and whites to generate fairly reliable results, the largest black-white gaps are in liberal college towns and liberal big cities such as Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Oakland Seattle, Minneapolis and San Francisco, writes Sailer.

Some Atlanta suburbs, which have been attracting college-educated black families, have “small racial disparities with middle-of-the-road overall performance,” he writes.

The large town with the highest test scores in the country for both blacks (+0.7 grade levels above the national average) and Hispanics (+1.1 grade levels) is Frisco, Tex., a rapidly expanding exurb 28 miles north of Dallas. . . . The median income is in the low six figures. The Frisco school district “looks like America” more than just about any other: It’s 11% black, 14% Hispanic, 11% Asian, and 59% white. That’s diversity.

Frisco’s white-black gap is 0.57 standard deviations and its white-Hispanic gap is 0.43, both a little below national averages and well below most other high-scoring districts.

Frisco-area voters gave 65% of their vote to Romney, Sailer points out.

The white-Hispanic gap numbers are about 75 percent as large as the white-black gaps, the Stanford study found.

Teachers lose clout without suspension

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio reads The Very Hungry Caterpillar as he and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña visit a pre-K class. Photo: Associated Press

In 32 years teaching in New York City, Arthur Goldstein has had only one student suspended, he writes in the New York Daily News. But suspension was part of his discipline “toolkit.” Now, new rules give teachers fewer tools to maintain a learning environment.

“In Mayor de Blasio’s New York, when a kid curses you out in a crowded hallway, all you can do is call the kid’s parents,” Goldstein writes.

A colleague of mine, a rather large man, saw a boy and a girl getting passionate and physical in the hallway. He asked them to go to class.

The boy instructed my colleague to perform a vulgar act that may or may not be possible. My colleague was able to handle it in a professional manner, but found the consequences for the kid’s act to be mild indeed.

Why? Because principals must now get explicit approval from the central Department of Education for suspensions involving student insubordination.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña wrote the new rules to “lessen suspensions that disproportionately remove black and Latino kids from school,” he writes. Suspensions are down by a third compared to last year.

Fewer kids are missing class, Goldstein writes. But teachers have less power to control their classrooms.

SEL for all or just for disruptive students?

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is the newest edu-fad, writes Katharine Beals on Out in Left Field. Believers say devoting time to SEL activities will raise academic achievement.

“Disruptive, distracting behavior imposes a tremendous drain on teaching/learning — for perpetrators and victims alike,” she writes. But, she wonders if SEL activities make sense for all students — or just those who are unable to behave properly in class.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

Students participate in a SEL program run by the Holistic Life Foundation.

She proposes splitting teaching and classroom management into two jobs with “highly qualified teachers up front, and highly qualified classroom managers in back.” Class sizes would be increased to pay for the extra adults.

In her scheme, the classroom manager would be able to remove disruptive students, temporarily or for the long term. The money that would have been spent on SEL instruction for the entire student body” would be spent to provide “special psychiatric and academic services for disruptive students.”

Can teachers develop students’ social-emotional strengths while teaching academics? Or will SEL inevitably be an add-on that competes with academics for time?

Teachers, what do you think?

No bells, many choices

In a Forensic Science class, students learn from police department forensic investigator Ryan Andrews how to calculate the angle of impact of individual bloodstains and use strings to determine the area the bloodstains would have originated.

Forensic investigator Ryan Andrews shows students how to calculate the angle of impact of bloodstains.

Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School uses personalized learning to put teenagers in charge of their education, I discovered in a visit last fall. My story is now up on Education Next.

There are no bells at Salt Lake City’s Innovations Early College High School, and no traditional “classes.” Students show up when they like, putting in six and a half hours at school between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Working with a mentor teacher, students set their own goals and move through self-paced online lessons. They can take more time when they need it or move ahead quickly when they show mastery.

Innovations, a district school, not a charter, is located on a community college campus, so it’s easy for students who qualify to take college classes. It also shares space with the district’s career-tech center, so students can take vocational classes in subjects ranging from web design and emergency medicine to cosmetology.

It seems very loosey-goosey, but mentors monitor students’ progress closely to make sure they’re on track for graduation.

It’s math anxiety, not gender inequality

Math anxiety, not gender bias, explains why girls are less likely to pursue education and careers in STEM fields, according to a new study of student performance by 15-year-olds in more than 60 countries.

In less-developed countries, boys and girls fear math, the study found. The anxiety gap appears in developed countries with more gender equality, writes Rebecca Klein in the Huffington Post

Many believe that “as society became more gender equal, with more women in politics … and [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] fields and so forth, this would provide more role models, and therefore the gender differences in math anxiety and math performance would disappear,” David Geary, a University of Missouri psychology professor told Klein. “We found the opposite.”

The study found no link between the proportion of women working in STEM fields and teenage girls’ math anxiety.

Even when researchers control for performance, girls “still have more math anxiety than they should,” he said.