Science fairs aren’t open to everyone

President Obama reacts as Joey Hudy of Phoenix, Arizona, launches a marshmallow during the 2012 White House Science Fair. Photo: Kevin Lamarque, Reuters

At this week’s White House Science Fair, President Obama showcased young scientists and inventors and urged girls to pursue STEM fields. “We’re not going to succeed when we’ve got half the team on the bench,” he said. “Especially when it’s the smarter half.”

“Diversity is important,” said Jo Handelsman, associate director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “We need more STEM workers, and we need to recruit the best talent of the world, and some of the talent will come from people who have not been traditionally involved in STEM.”

Science fairs have “became an exercise in privilege,”writes Carl Zimmer, a science writer, in STAT. Girls aren’t excluded. But children who don’t have educated parents and access to high-quality labs won’t go very far.

Veronica was able to carry out her science fair experiment in a Yale lab.

Told her seventh-grade science fair experiment required expert supervision, the author’s daughter was able to use a Yale lab. Photo: Carl Zimmer

His daughter decided to compare different ways to clean a toothbrush for her seventh-grade science fair.  She planned to brush with a new toothbrush,  clean it with water, lemon juice or vinegar, then see how much bacteria grew on a Petri dish.

Her proposal required filling out “an avalanche of confusing paperwork,” Zimmer writes. It was considered “so potentially dangerous that Veronica would have to carry it out under the supervision of a trained expert, who would first have to submit a detailed risk assessment.”

Most kids would have quit there. But Zimmer knew a Yale microbiologist who agreed to let the seventh-grader work in his lab. She ended up winning an honorable mention at the stair fair.

“When you look over the projects that win the Google Science Fair and the Intel Science Talent Search these days, it’s clear that they’re mostly the products of very bright, motivated students lucky enough to work in university labs where they can take advantage of expertise and equipment,” Zimmer writes. Kids without those connections are out of luck.

College admissions: Why not a lottery?

Affirmative action is back in court — the U.S. Supreme Court — in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher is challenging racial preferences in admission to University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher is challenging racial preferences in admission to University of Texas at Austin.

Abigail Fisher, a white student rejected in 2008, claims her dream school used “holistic review” as a cover for racial discrimination. “There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, and who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,” Fisher said.

“Affirmative-action policies at selective colleges are very vulnerable,” writes Richard Kahlenberg in The Atlantic. Race is weighed “very heavily” in admissions decisions. That helps “fairly well-off African-American and Latino students.”

“By the 1990s, one study found that 86 percent of African American students on selective campuses were middle or upper class, and the white students were even richer,” he writes.

“Underrepresented minority students receive a 28-percentage-point increase in their chances of being admitted, according to one careful analysis,” he writes. ” Low-income students receive no boost whatsoever.”

University of Texas at Austin uses race as a factor in admission for up to 10 percent of students.

University of Texas at Austin admits the top 10 percent of students at each high school to ensure diversity; about 7 percent are admitted through “holistic review.”

Affirmative action based on economic disadvantage — help for low-income students of all races — could reproduce current levels of racial diversity at 193 selective colleges, a 2014 simulation concluded. “Socioeconomic diversity would rise substantially,” writes Kahlenberg.

Samuel Goldman, a poli sci prof at George Washington University, proposes a lottery open to all qualified applicants to replace the opaque, dishonest and expensive college admissions system.

The application would involve a checklist of more or less objective, externally verifiable criteria. These might include GPA above a certain cutoff, scores of 4 of 5 on a given number of AP tests, and so on. . . . there might be a box to be checked by applicants who played a varsity sport.  The application could even ask about socio-economic status, allowing applicants to indicate that their parents had not attended college or that they grew up in a high-poverty census tract.

Suppose the checklist contained ten criteria. Applicants who satisfied, say, six of them would be entered into a lottery for admission.

“Elite universities might lose a bit of their cachet,” he writes in The American Conservative. He’s OK with that.

A college-admissions lottery would reduce stress, writes Barry Schwartz, a Swarthmore psychology professor.

Every selective school should establish criteria that students would have to meet to have a high likelihood of being successful. Then, the names of all applicants who meet these criteria would be put into a hat and the winners would be drawn at random.

Students wouldn’t have to be “best,” he writes. “Good enough” would be good enough.

Teach for America students become teachers

Sobella Quezada, a 2015 Teach for America corps member, reads to a student in her Head Start class at P.S. 152 in Manhattan. 

Fourteen years ago, Sobella Quezada’s eighth-grade English teacher, Nick Marinacci, a Teach for America corps member, introduced her to Shakespeare, persuaded her to make college plans and urged her to apply to a good Catholic high school.

An English major in college, Quezada is a “second-generation” TFA member. She teaches Head Start students at a Manhattan community school run by the Children’s Aid Society. Her class is made up of “15 economically disadvantaged 3- and 4-year-olds, many with special needs.”

“I feel like I’m living my purpose,” she told The 74.

Twenty-five years after TFA was founded, about 140 of this year’s 4,100 new recruits say they were once taught by TFA teachers themselves. In New York City, where the non-profit is looking for more ethnically diverse teachers, almost 1 in 10 new recruits this year are second generation.

Jessica Pena is a "second-generation" Teach for America teacher.

Jessica Pena is a “second-generation” Teach for America teacher.

A Bronx native, Jessica Pena, 23, knew she wanted to teach. She contacted her former TFA teacher-turned-mentor, seventh-grade science teacher, Anu Malipatil, to ask about applying to TFA.

Pena now teaches social studies at the Bronx Claremont International School.

There’s a lot of resistance to TFA on the Colby campus, writes Dylan Alles, who’ll graduate in 2016. She wishes Teach for America didn’t exist and that’s why she’s joining.

“In a perfect world,” there’d “be no need to rally new teachers to the most at-risk classrooms,” Alles writes. “A system would be in place to incentivize the best proven educators to serve and be supported in those spaces.”

In an imperfect world, Alles will begin teaching in Washington, D.C. in fall 2016.

Diversifying gifted, honors classes

Broward County, Florida more than doubled the number of low-income students and students of color identified as gifted — without changing eligibility criteria — by screening all second graders rather than relying on referrals from parents and teachers, a recent study found. Those who did well on a nonverbal cognitive test were given IQ tests.

Universal screening raised the percentage of gifted black students by 80 percent, Latinos by 130 percent and disadvantaged students by 180 percent, reports the Orlando Sun-Sentinel.

Sandi Peterson, middle school counselor in Elk Grove, congratulates a student for applying for honors classes.

Sandi Peterson, middle school counselor in Elk Grove, congratulates Kaianna Kelley for applying for honors classes. Credit: Hector Amezcua, Education Week

 The newly identified students “included many students with IQs significantly above the minimum eligibility threshold, implying that even relatively high-ability students from disadvantaged backgrounds were being overlooked under the traditional referral system,” according to researchers.

Schools elsewhere are trying to enroll more low-income, Latino and black students in gifted and honors classes, reports Education Week.

In Elk Grove, a Sacramento suburb, 3.5 percent of lower-income students (based on eligibility for a free lunch) are in gifted and advanced classes, compared to 11 percent of non-poor students. The district has spent “more than $860,000” to rethink procedures for identifying high-potential students.

Screening all third graders has nearly doubled the number identified as gifted.

The district’s Elitha Donner Elementary School, for example, identified 12 low-income students as gifted this year, up from only three last year, and narrowed the white-black gap in gifted education from 4-to-1 in favor of whites to 2.5-to-1 in the last year alone.

Next year, the district will roll out the rest of the changes to the identification system, with teachers and principals developing new rubrics for identifying exceptional creativity and leadership, both in class and in outside activities, such as community volunteering and church youth groups.

“We’re looking at our students differently,” said Michelle Jenkins, Donner Elementary’s principal. “It’s training your brain that ‘gifted’ is not always your top academic students.”

Screening all students for high IQ makes sense. Redefining “gifted” to mean “good kid” does not.

Diversity vs. democracy in middle school

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Principal Lena Van Haren chats with former students Kayla Rash (left) and Honesty Williams outside Everett Middle School. Photo: Connor Radnovich, San Francisco Chronicle

San Francisco’s Everett Middle School is two-thirds Latino and black, but students voted for white, Asian and mixed-race students for four top student council posts in an Oct. 9 election. Upset that the results weren’t sufficiently “diverse,” Principal Lena Van Haren withheld the results for more than a week, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

Under pressure from parents and the district administration, she released the winners’ names — along with plans to expand the 10-member student council and appoint Latinos and blacks to the new slots.

“It’s not OK for a school that is really, really diverse to have the student representatives majority white,” Van Haren told the Chronicle.

“Their good intention got in the way of their common sense,” said parent Todd David. “It’s really, really disturbing to me that withholding the results somehow equals social justice or equity.”

Adding positions for “children of a particular race would likely violate the Equal Protection Clause and federal civil rights law,” writes Eugene Volokh, a UCLA law professor.  It also “violates the California Constitution’s categorical ban on ‘discriminat[ing] against, or grant[ing] preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race … in the operation of … public education’.”

And it’s creepy for an adult to interfere in a student council election.

A+ Asians: Are they diverse?


Students on the Berkeley campus. Photo: Eric Risberg, AP.

University of California schools rank high for educating diverse, first-generation students, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. Banned from considering race or ethnicity, UC has kept tuition low, enrolled community college transfers and targeted recruitment at lower-income and first-generation students, she writes. “Latinos are now the fastest growing and second-largest ethnic group admitted to the UC system, making up close to three in 10 of last year’s freshmen class.”

But focusing on economic diversity lets UC win points while admitting many Asian-Americans, complains Wong.

The highly selective UC campuses are known, sometimes bitterly, to serve especially disproportionate numbers of Asian students; Asians famously make up half of the undergraduates at UC Irvine, for example . . .

California has taken in many Vietnamese refugees and low-income Chinese immigrants. They speak English as a second language, go to public schools in their working-class neighborhoods — and often qualify for state universities.

Other high scorers are the children of Indian and Chinese engineers, who aced tests in their home countries. (Check out the winners in Google’s Science Fair. Six of eight have Indian names.)

Lalita Prasida Sripada Srisai invented a way to use corn cobs to filter water.

Lalita Prasida Sripada Srisai, 13, invented a way to use corn cobs to clean pollutants from waste water.

Not all Asian-Americans — or those grouped with them in diversity data — excel in school, reports the Campaign for College Opportunity in a new report on the “model minority stereotype.”

Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have much lower success rates than students of Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese ancestry. Southeast Asians from Laotian, Hmong and Cambodian families also tend to struggle in school.

There’s lots of individual variation in any group. Look at Cuban-Americans vs. Puerto Ricans or black immigrants from the West Indies vs. American-born blacks. We could be more precise about divvying people into racial/ethnic/cultural groups. I think it makes more sense to focus on socioeconomic disadvantage.

My niece is an 11th grader starting to look at colleges. Should she declare her 1/4 Mexican heritage on applications? It has no bearing on who she is as a student or as a person. If asked, my advice would be: Don’t.

Princeton’s discrimination against Asian-American applicants is OK with the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, writes John Rosenberg on Minding the Campus. He analyzes a 20-page September 9 letter to Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber.

Colleges go ‘test-optional’ to fool rankings

When colleges go “test-optional” — applicants need not submit SAT or ACT scores — they claim it’s a way to increase diversity. That’s not the reason, writes Stephen Burd on the Hechinger Report. It’s a way to boost college rankings.

“Test-optional policies overall have not been the catalysts of diversity that many have claimed them to be,” concludes a 2014 University of Georgia study.

When applicants don’t need to submit SAT or ACT scores, more students apply, especially those with poor scores, writes Burd. “For the colleges, more applicants mean more students they can reject, which lowers their acceptance rate and raises the institution’s perceived selectivity.”

Only students with good scores send them in. “Many schools then use only these scores to calculate their average scores,” writes Burd.

Mean SAT scores rise by 26 points on average when a college goes test-optional, concludes the University of Georgia study.

With lower acceptance rates and higher average SAT/ACT scores, test-optional colleges move up in U.S. News rankings of the “best” colleges. That draws more applicants and allows the college to reject even more people.

College reading focuses on diversity, equality 

When colleges suggest a “common reading” book for new students, it’s usually a non-fiction book on diversity or racial equality, according to an Inside Higher Education survey of 121 colleges and universities.

The top pick, used by 10 colleges and universities,  was Bryan Stevenson’s memoir, Just Mercy: A Story of Redemption and Justice Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and a law professor at New York University, he writes about trying to overturn death and prison sentences for criminals — most are black men — he believes to be wrongly convicted.

(I see the jacket blurb compares Stevenson to Atticus Finch.)

Other titles on the freshman reading list this year range from The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People and Communities at Ohio State University to Bad Feminist at the University of California at Los Angeles and Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair With Trash at Rowan and Lock Haven Universities. Texts on economics, sustainability and food remained popular, but were second to books dealing with topics such as diversity and race relations.

At least six schools will ask new students to read The Other Wes Moore, a popular choice for the past three years.

Author Wes Moore was an Army officer, Johns Hopkins graduate and newly chosen Rhodes Scholar when he saw that another Wes Moore, born a few blocks away in Baltimore, had been arrested for murdering a police officer.

Both were raised by black single mothers, but one Wes Moore was born to married, educated parents (his father died when he was 3).  His mother worked long hours to send her children to private school, then sent Wes to a military boarding school when she thought he was being influenced by street culture.

The other Wes was the son of a never-married woman and an absent father.

Also popular is Enrique’s Journey, which tells the story of a Honduran boy searching for his mother, who’s gone to the U.S. to find work.

Few colleges assign literature, but the University of Kansas will ask freshmen to read Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

AP computer science — hold the Java


Hoping “to increase the number and diversity of high school students taking computer science, the College Board will launch a new Advanced Placement course in fall 2016 that teaches a broader range of computing skills,” reports Education Week.

AP Computer Science Principles is less focused on programming.

. . .  teachers can choose which programming language (or languages) they’d like to teach. For instance, rather than teaching a text-heavy language like Java, teachers can choose a block-based language like Scratch, Alice, or Snap! that can be more accessible for new coders.

. . . Students in the principles course will also study how the Internet works, the global impact of computing, and the ways computational processes can be applied to large datasets.

For those of you who are computer science professionals, does the new course make sense to you?

Parents don’t choose diversity

Parent choice is making San Francisco schools more segregated, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mural at San Francisco's Cleveland Elementary School.

Mural at San Francisco’s Cleveland Elementary School.

One third of the city’s public schools are “racially isolated,” which means 60+ percent of students are of the same racial or ethnic group.

Overall, 41 percent of the city’s public school students are Asian-American, 27 percent are Latino, 13 percent are white, 10 percent black and the rest “other.” About 30 percent of the city’s young people attend private or parochial schools.

Here’s a non-surprise:

Diversity and integration are rarely cited as top factors in choosing a public school. Instead, district surveys of parents show the safety of a school’s neighborhood, the quality of its staff and its reputation are paramount.

Clarendon, the high-achieving school in the story is about one third Asian, one third white and the rest Latino, black and mixed. It offers a Japanese bilingual program for some students; the rest learn Italian.

At the low-achieving school, Cleveland, 82 percent of students come from low-income and working-class Latino families. Parents choose the school because it’s close to home. It offers a Spanish bilingual program.

Cleveland receives $360,000 more than Clarendon from the state each year — $1,000 per student — because its students are so poor and so many of them don’t speak English. The idea is to direct more resources to the neediest schools, but Clarendon more than offsets that through avid parent fundraising and donations from the Japanese and Italian consulates.

(Cleveland Principal March)Sanchez uses the extra state money for basic support, including separate Spanish and English literacy coaches, a technology teacher, tablet computers and laptops.

After being trained by a nonprofit to be an activist, mother Ana Hodgson is “done with public schools,” reports the Chronicle. She got her son into a summer program for low-income achievers that helped him get a scholarship at a private middle school.