Top 10 zero tolerance follies of 2014

Among Hit & Run’s 10 Outrageous ‘Zero Tolerance’ Follies of 2014:

A 13-year-old boy at Weaverville Elementary School in California shared his school lunch (a chicken burrito) with a hungry friend. For this, he got detention. Superintendent Tom Barnett explained, “Because of safety and liability we cannot allow students to actually exchange meals.”

. . . A second grade teacher at Chicago’s Washington Irving Elementary School was suspended for four days without pay for bringing screwdrivers, wrenches and other shop tools to class, and demonstrating how to use them.

A 79-year-old substitute teacher in Claremont, New Hampshire gave up her job rather than “un-friend” about 250 current students on Facebook.

The dress code rebellion

My sister was sent home from high school for wearing culottes. They were considered too close to shorts, which were banned. Girls had to wear a dress or skirt that hit no higher than mid-knee. Flip-flops weren’t banned because it never occurred to anyone to wear them to school. These were the rebellious ’60s. All our energy went into our hair.

Dress code rebellions are springing up across the U.S. and Canada, reports the Huffington Post.

Two dozen Georgia middle school students were suspended on charges of “terroristic threats” a Facebook post urged classmates to violate the dress code on the last week of school.

 By Thursday, the post escalated to, “Everything they say we can’t wear, wear,” and, “We need the hallways packed and out of control” with everyone participating.

The end of the post threatens whoever might snitch.

Every student who shared or commented was suspended.

This is just one of many outbreaks, reports the Huffington Post. Girls are rejecting the idea that their clothing — or lack thereof — might distract boys.

In March, over 500 students at Haven Middle School in Evanston, Illinois, signed a petition opposing what they’d been told was a full ban on leggings and yoga pants.

Seventh grader Sophie Hasty explained to local news that teachers said the clothing was distracting for other students — rather, the boys. “We just want to be comfortable!” Hasty wrote to the Evanston Review.

Students at Wauwatosa West High School in Wisconsin want to wear short shorts. “They are just legs,”  sophomore Elizabeth Kniffin told the local TV news. “Is that really too distracting? I understand that girls shouldn’t be coming to school with their butts or chests hanging out, but there has to be a happy medium.”

Does Facebook need ethics education?

There has been outrage over Facebook’s psychological experiment on 700,000 unwitting users. In order to test its ability to manipulate users’ posts, Facebook used an algorithm that altered the emotional content of their news feeds. (In half of the cases, it omitted content associated with negative emotions; in the other half, positive emotions.)

According to an abstract, “for people who had positive content reduced in their News Feed, a larger percentage of words in people’s status updates were negative and a smaller percentage were positive. When negativity was reduced, the opposite pattern occurred.” The findings were published in the March 2014 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (and reported in numerous places, including the Wall Street Journal article that informed this post).

Now, these findings aren’t surprising–who wants to be all cheery when your “friends” are down in the dumps?–but they left many people angry. An experiment of this kind isn’t just a misuse of data; it deliberately provokes people to post things they might not otherwise have posted, in a “space” (i.e., the news feed) that many consider their own, since it includes only what they want to include. (Yes, they’re mistaken in considering it their own, but Facebook does a lot to feed that illusion.)

Did Facebook have the right to conduct this experiment in the first place? Kate Crawford, visiting professor at MIT’s Center for Civic Media and principal researcher at Microsoft Research, says no. Moreover, she holds that ethics should be part of the education of data scientists. (For a more detailed exposition of this view, see danah boyd and Kate Crawford, “Critical Questions for Big Data,” Information, Communication & Society, 15:5, 662-679.)

What would “ethics education” look like in this context? Would it focus on the issues at hand, or would it examine ethics more broadly, with readings  and analysis of ethical problems? Would it take the form of a professional development course, or would it start in high school or earlier?

It is possible that the Facebook controversy (and others like it) will lead to a greater emphasis on ethics in education. That could be promising if handled well. One pitfall of ethics education is that it may be reduced to specific issues and even mistaught. That is, those studying the “Ethics of Big Data” may never consider ethics outside of Big Data, or ancient ethical problems that relate to their own, or even the distinction between ethics and morality (which has been articulated in different ways but is worth considering in any case).

So ethics education, if taken up by “big data” and other nebulous entities, will need to go beyond a crash course or PD. Study ethics, but study it well. How do you do that? Read seminal texts, raise questions boldly, stay aware of your errors and fallacies, and put your principles and reasoning into practice. That’s just a start.

Zuckerberg gives another $120 million

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan will give $120 million to Bay Area schools in “underserved communities,” reports the San Jose Mercury News.Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, will donate $120 million to public schools in the Bay Area.

Helping improve the quality of public education in this country is something we both really care about,” write Zuckerberg and Chan in an op-ed essay. Chan was a teacher and is now a pediatrician.

They live in Palo Alto, which has excellent public schools, within easy walking distance of East Palo Alto, a perennially low-performing district.

Zuckerberg gave $100 million gift to Newark public schools and was criticized for spending too much on consultants and failing to raise test scores. But there are signs of progress, the op-ed argues.

Newark now has the leading teacher contract in the country that was developed with teachers to reward good performance. New district and charter schools run by organizations with a track record of success have started, as well as 50 new principals. Across the district, the graduation rate has grown by 10%. It’s still too early to see the full results in Newark, but we’re making progress and have learned a lot about what makes a successful effort.

In the Bay Area, the first $5 million will go to high-poverty school districts in East Palo Alto and Redwood City and to “high-need” San Francisco schools, reports the Mercury News. (East Palo Alto’s Ravenswood district has received millions of dollars from high-tech donors over the years with few results.)

They’ll work with partners “to start new district and charter schools that give people more high-quality choices for their education,” Zuckerberg and Chan write. They also pledge to listen to “local educators and community leaders so that we understand the needs of students.” Priorities are providing computers and connectivity, teacher and principal training and parent outreach.

Photo not worth 1,000 words

chokehold
A Facebook photo of a principal restraining a girl who’d been fighting resulted in suspensions — for 10 students who “cyber-bullied” the girl.

Principal Todd Whitmire isn’t in trouble, despite a Facebook photo that appears to show him choking a ninth-grade girl. Ashley Johnson, 15, fell as he was pulling her away from a fight, Whitmire told the Contra Costa Times.

Ten students were suspended for “racist and derogatory comments” about the photo, the principal said. “It was the reposting, the retweeting, and keeping it alive and assigning negative comments to it and creating a hostile environment.”

The fight apparently had been planned on social media, which is why the principal was right there.

Johnson and the boy she was fighting also were suspended. She’s now wearing a neck brace and blaming Whitmire. In an at-home interview, she claimed to be “unable to move,” but a classroom video taken the day before by a school resource officer shows her moving easily, the Times reports.

District monitors students’ social media posts

In hopes of preventing violence, drug abuse, bullying and suicide, a suburban Los Angeles school district is monitoring middle and high school students’ social media posts, reports CNN.

Glendale is paying $40,500 to Geo Listening to track middle and high school students’ posts on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

When the idea was piloted last spring, monitoring identified a suicidal student. “We were able to save a life,” said Superintendent Richard Sheehan.

Recently, a student posted a photo of what appeared to be a gun, but turned out to be fake, Sheehan said.

“We had to educate the student on the dangers” of posting such photos, Sheehan said. “He was a good kid. … It had a good ending.”

Geo Listening sends a daily report to principals on which students’ comments could be causes for concern.

A 12-year-old Florida girl committed suicide after months of bullying on social media, her mother says.

Tech-distracted students study — for 2 minutes

Asked to “study something important,” students stayed on task for two minutes before they “began responding to arriving texts or checking their Facebook feed,” reports a study, published in the May issue of Computers in Human Behavior by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills. The middle, high school and college students spent only 65 percent of the 15-minute observation period doing their schoolwork.

“We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching,” Rosen says. “It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices,” adding, “It was kind of scary, actually.”

Media multitasking while learning means less learning, writes Annie Murphy Paul on the Hechinger Report.

. . .  evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts. So detrimental is this practice that some researchers are proposing that a new prerequisite for academic and even professional success—the new marshmallow test of self-discipline—is the ability to resist a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.

In “Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds,” a 2010 survey, almost a third of those surveyed said that when they were doing homework, “most of the time” they were also watching TV, texting, listening to music, or using some other medium.

College students are used to texting, emailing and surfing the web in class. Eighty percent of college students admit to texting in class.

Young people think they can do two challenging tasks at once, but they’re “deluded,” says David Meyer, a University of Michigan psychology professor. “Listening to a lecture while texting, or doing homework and being on Facebook—each of these tasks is very demanding, and each of them uses the same area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.”

He adds,“There’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

It’s all going on your permanent record

Data mining kids crosses the line, argues Joy Pullmann, a Heartland Institute fellow, in an Orange County Register commentary.

The U.S. Department of Education is investigating how public schools can collect information on “non-cognitive” student attributes, after granting itself the power to share student data across agencies without parents’ knowledge.

The feds want to use schools to catalogue “attributes, dispositions, social skills, attitudes and intrapersonal resources – independent of intellectual ability,” according to a February DOE report, all under the guise of education.

To get stimulus funds in 2009, states had to agree to share students’ academic data with the Education Department, Pullmann writes. But federal databases could expand to include “health care history, disciplinary record, family income range” and more — potentially lots more.

The department recommends schools start tracking and teaching kids not just boring old knowledge but also “21st Century Competencies” – “recognizing bias in sources,” “flexibility,” “cultural awareness and competence,” “appreciation for diversity,” “collaboration, teamwork, cooperation,” “empathy,” “perspective taking, trust, service orientation,” and “social influence with others.”

What will the feds do with all this information? It’s a “disturbing question,” writes Pullmann.

Data miners can figure out your intelligence, sexual orientation, politics, religion and more by looking at what you “like” on Facebook, according to University of Cambridge researchers. Men who “like” Glee tend to be gay! Who knew? People who “like” curly fries tend to be intelligent. That’s because curly fries are tasty.

Stopping cyberbullies

Predatory adults are rare on social media, compared to mean girls and crude boys, writes Emily Bazelon in How to Stop the Bullies in The Atlantic.

Facebook gets millions of complaints a week about cyberbullying, she finds. Employees are expected to decide in a few seconds which have merit.

Henry Lieberman, an MIT computer scientist, is working on a program to spot nasty posts immediately. In middle school, he  was a “fat kid with the nickname Hank the Tank,” he tells Bazelon.

. . . he and his graduate students built a “commonsense knowledge base” called BullySpace—essentially a repository of words and phrases that could be paired with an algorithm to comb through text and spot bullying situations. Yes, BullySpace can be used to recognize words like fat and slut (and all their text-speak misspellings), but also to determine when the use of common words varies from the norm in a way that suggests they’re meant to wound.

In tests, BullySpace caught 80 percent of the insults flagged by human testers.

Lieberman also hopes to use “ladders of reflection” to persuade kids not to harass others.

Think about the kid who posted “Because he’s a fag! ROTFL [rolling on the floor laughing]!!!” What if, when he pushed the button to submit, a box popped up saying “Waiting 60 seconds to post,” next to another box that read “I don’t want to post” and offered a big X to click on? Or what if the message read “That sounds harsh! Are you sure you want to send that?” Or what if it simply reminded the poster that his comment was about to go to thousands of people?

“Ash” and “Katherine,” members of the hacker group, Anonymous, publicized the identities and vicious tweets of four high school boys who were harassing a 12-year-old girl with rape threats and suggestions she commit suicide. She’d followed one of the boys on Twitter, then angered him by un-following him.

At first the boys railed against Ash on Twitter, and one played down his involvement, denying that he had ever threatened to rape the girl. But after a while, two of the boys began sending remorseful messages. “For two solid days, every time we logged on, we had another apology from them,” Ash said. . . . Katherine thought the boys hadn’t understood what impact their tweets would have on the girl receiving them—they hadn’t thought of her as a real person. “They were actually shocked,” she said. . . . we started talking to them about anti-bullying initiatives they could bring to their schools.”

“When i found out she was hurt by it i had felt horrible,” one of the boys e-mailed Bazelon. Perhaps a few seconds of reflection would have helped.

Anti-bullying laws can conflict with free-speech rights, argues Eugene Volokh, a law professor. A proposed Minnesota law bans “interfering” with an individual’s ability “to participate in a safe and supportive learning environment.”

Say that students are talking over lunch about how a classmate committed a crime, cheated, said racist things, treated his girlfriend cruelly, or whatever else, which causes people to feel hostile towards the classmate. That interferes with his ability “to participate in a … supportive learning environment.”

Bullying may include speech or conduct that “relates to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age” of the individual or his/her associates.

Unplugged — and unheated

Superstorm Sandy forced digital kids to unplug, notes a lifestyle piece in the New York Times.

BLANK screens. Cellphones on the fritz. Wii games sitting dormant in darkened rec rooms. For a swath of teenagers and preteens on the East Coast, the power failures that followed Hurricane Sandy last month represented the first time in their young lives that they were totally off the grid, without the ability to text, play Minecraft, video-chat, check Facebook, or send updates to Twitter.

And so on. Some poor teens were forced to talk to their parents.

Unmentioned are thousands of kids and their parents who’ve been freezing in the dark for nearly two weeks. They don’t have running water or toilets that flush. No wonder they think they’ve been forgotten.