Maine likes laptops, but do kids learn more?

Ten years after Maine started giving a tax-funded laptop to every public school student in grades 7 and 8, teachers and students are enthusiastic, but it’s not clear students are learning more, writes Ricki Morell of the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting on the Hechinger Report.

FREEPORT, Maine — At Freeport Middle School, students in algebra class play “Battleship” on their laptops as they learn to plot coordinates on a graph. At Massabesic Middle School, eighth-graders surf the web on their laptops to create their own National History Day websites. And at King Middle School, students carry their laptops into the field as they chronicle the civil rights movement through eyewitness interviews.

Laptops “revolutionized the classroom,” says Raymond Grogan, principal of Freeport Middle School, who was a teacher when the program started. Teachers stop lecturing and started individualizing lessons, Grogan says.

Middle school teachers said “the laptops have helped them teach more, in less time, and with greater depth, and to
individualize their curriculum and instruction more,” according to an August 2011 report. However, the program has been implemented unevenly.

“The benefits are difficult to quantify,” says David Silvernail, the report’s author and co-director of the nonpartisan Maine Education Policy Research Institute. “So many other things are going on in schools, it’s difficult to classify what makes the difference. The laptop is a tool, just like a pencil.”

Students can use the laptops at school and at home. There have been problems with “distraction from unrestricted access to the Internet,” educators say. Breakage problems have improved over time.

The free laptop idea spread to other states and school districts, but has faded because of funding pressures and mixed results, Morrell writes.

Beginning in 2004, the nonprofit Texas Center for Educational Research compared the test scores of students at 22 Texas middle schools where students and teachers received laptops with the scores of students at 22 middle schools where they did not. The study concluded that laptops had a positive effect on some math scores but generally not on reading scores.

In Maine, statewide evidence of how laptops affect achievement is scarce. Test scores for Maine from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, show that the percentage of students scoring proficient or above in eighth-grade mathematics rose from 30 percent in 2000 to 39 percent in 2011, but that was part of a national trend of rising math scores and can’t be linked directly to laptop use. Between 2002 and 2011, the percentage of Maine’s eighth-graders scoring at or above proficient on the national reading test barely changed, rising from 38 to 39 percent.

 Angus King, who pushed through the laptop program as governor, is now running for U.S. Senate. His opponent charges the free laptops have been a waste of money. The state pays Apple a discounted rate of $242 per laptop per year, which adds up to $10 million this year, less than half a percent of the state’s $2 billion education budget.

Can we make middle school less awful?

How Can We Make Middle School Less Awful? ask Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen on Slate. They call for giving  ”as much attention to emotions and values” as to academics.

Every morning, the sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders at Paul Cuffee Middle School in Providence, R.I. join together in what’s called a Circle of Power and Respect. In this “CPR,” they discuss anything from an upcoming science project to how to get boys to stop purposefully clogging the toilets.

Students write a social contract for the school.  Here’s this year’s version:

1. Respect the environment, yourself, and the community.
2. Cooperate: Teamwork makes the dream work.
3. Support each other even when the odds are against us.
4. Be yourself, do what you love, and try!
5. Be resilient: Fall 7 times, stand up 8.

When students behave badly, Principal Nancy Cresser asks which part of the contract they’ve broken.

“They know exactly which ones they’ve violated and they figure out how to fix it,” she says. Instead of storming off or pouting about the unfairness of the rules, Cresser says that Paul Cuffee students are OK with being held accountable. They’re the ones who created the rules, after all. So the students in question come up with a plan to fix what happened.

Creating a safe, supportive school pays off academically, write Glenn and Larsen. Although most students come from low-income families, Cuffee outscores a wealthier school across town in reading and math.

Start school later for more learning

Middle schoolers do better when school starts — and ends — later, according to a North Carolina study by economist Finley Edwards described in Education Next.

. . . delaying school start times by one hour, from roughly 7:30 to 8:30, increases standardized test scores by at least 2 percentile points in math and 1 percentile point in reading.

Starting early has the most effect on older middle schoolers, supporting the theory that hormonal changes make it hard for adolescents to get to sleep in the early evening, Edwards writes. Students get more sleep and have fewer absences. But late starts have other advantages:  With less unsupervised time after school, latebirds spend more time on homework and watch less TV.

“The effect of a later start time in both math and reading is more than twice as large for students in the bottom third of the test-score distribution than for students in the top third,” Edwards found.

Start times had no effect on elementary students, the study found, but elementary schools start later than middle schools, so that could obscure the effect.

Districts could swap elementary and secondary school start times to improve achievement without spending more on busing, Edwards suggests. Or districts could invest in more buses to start all schools at 8:30 or later. The achievement gain would be similar to the effect of cutting class sizes at a fraction of the cost.

The middle school plunge

When students move from elementary to middle school, their scores drop significantly in the first year compared to students in K-8 schools, conclude Martin West and Guido Schwerdt in The Middle School Plunge in Education Next. Middle-school students don’t catch up with K-8 students in high school.

The transition to high school causes a small drop in student achievement, but the decline does not appear to persist beyond grade 9.

Middle schools were created to ease the transition to high school, but gathering large numbers of pubescent children in one place doesn’t seem to create a good learning environment.

A number of urban districts are creating K-8 schools. It’s a good idea,write West and Schwerdt.


‘Teetering on the ninth-grade cliff’

Washington D.C.’s middle schools are the real “dropout factories,” said HyeSook Chung of D.C. Action for Children, a non-profit advocacy group at a city council hearing. More than half of D.C. students who quit school leave in ninth grade. “If we want to improve graduation rates, we need to catch students before they are teetering on the ninth-grade cliff,” said Chung.

Chung, citing research by Johns Hopkins University, said a series of predictive markers, visible as early as sixth grade, can identify dropout candidates: a final grade of “F” in math or English, attendance below 80 percent for the year or a final “unsatisfactory” behavior mark in at least one class.

Sixth graders with one of the four markers had at least a 75 percent chance of dropping out,” Chung said. More than one drove the likelihood even higher.

She proposed an “early warning system” for students at high risk of dropping out.  I’d guess kindergarten teachers could predict who’s likely to succeed or fail.  Once warned, what next?

The District’s graduation rate is 43 percent.



What is this teacher stress study about?

I was a bit puzzled when I read the GothamSchools “remainder”: “Researchers in Houston are asking whether students can give teachers post-traumatic stress.” Post-traumatic stress? Is the study investigating whether teachers have bouts of depression, nightmares, etc. after they have stopped teaching?

I followed the link to the Edweek blog by Sarah Sparks, which bears the headline, “Can a Class of 7th Graders Give Teachers Post-traumatic Stress?” But the article itself made it seem as though this were a study of teacher stress, not post-traumatic stress. (Sometimes the headlines are written by someone other than the blog’s author.)

In diligent Internet-research style, I followed the Edweek link to the description of the study itself. There was no mention of post-traumatic stress at all, only stress.

So, what is this study about?

The study, to be conducted by researchers at the University of Houston, consists, at least in part, of a “prospective multi-method, multi-time scale investigation of the proposed mediational chain (i.e., stressors lead to teacher stress response which lead to teacher work and health stress outcomes which lead to teacher effectiveness which lead to student behavioral and academic outcomes).” It will follow 160 seventh- and eighth-grade math, science, or social studies teachers over three years.

The information gathered and analyzed during this project may be used “to guide future development of interventions to mitigate teacher stress and consequently improve teacher effectiveness and student behavior and learning.”

It’s pretty well known that teaching middle school is highly challenging, if not stressful from a medical perspective. (Granted, this depends a great deal on the school.) Moreover, it’s well known that certain kinds or levels of stress can affect the health. (A degree of stress can be a good thing.) So, what will the study uncover that is not well known or obvious? It seems that the researchers are most interested in the possible link between teacher stress and student outcomes (behavior and performance).

Because, you see, if teacher stress were bringing student performance down, then of course something would have to be done about that, and funds might appear. If teacher stress were not showing adverse effects on student performance, then it would be harder to convince funders and policymakers that any sort of intervention was needed.

My suspicion is that the findings will be mixed. Sometimes the teachers with the brightest outer face are the ones with the most stress. They may be delivering wonderful lessons and bringing their students to great heights–but they put intense pressure on themselves not to show their fatigue and bad moods in the classroom. Until they up and quit, they may seem to be doing fine.

Other teachers may let off a lot of steam in the classroom. They may seem to be under more stress than the others, but a medical test might show otherwise.

What if the study could not demonstrate a link between teacher stress and student outcomes? Or what if it correlated positively with student achievement? Or what if it were impossible to separate correlation from causation?

Stress (beyond a certain point) is a serious enough problem that it should be tackled for its own sake. A link between teacher stress and student outcomes may exist, but my guess is that it will be weak. We shall see.

I do hope that the study will consider curriculum, because it is much more stressful to teach without a curriculum (or with a bad one) than to teach with a good one. Some middle schools are curricular wastelands. I hope that it will also look at the schools’ discipline practices (not just policies). In other words, I hope it will look into the reasons for teacher stress in middle schools. Not all of this is inevitable, and not all of it is due to the kids’ ages.

K-8 beats middle school in study

Students in K-8 schools do better than students who move from elementary to a stand-alone middle school, according to a Columbia University study published in Education Next. The study followed New York City students from third through eighth grade.

In the year students moved to middle school — sixth or seventh grade — math and English scores fell substantially compared to K-8 counterparts. Their achievement continued to decline through eighth grade.

The gap isn’t explained by spending or by class size, researchers Jonah Rockoff and Benjamin Lockwood write. Cohort size — the number of students in the same grade — was a factor. The K-8 schools averaged 75 students in the same grade; the middle schools averaged more than 200.

Developmental psychologists have shown that adolescent children commonly exhibit traits such as negativity, low self-esteem, and an inability to judge the risks and consequences of their actions, which may make them especially difficult to educate in large groups. The combining of multiple elementary schools and their students also disrupts a student’s immediate peer group. And middle schools often serve a more diverse student population than many students encountered in elementary school.

Rockoff and Lockwood aren’t sure why the transition to a larger middle school is so difficult. But they believe New York City children aren’t much different from students elsewhere.

After interviewing the study’s lead author, Columbia Business School professor Jonah Rockoff,  Martin West observes that Americans rate their local middle schools far lower than elementaries in the EdNext-PEPG Survey. “Rockoff and Lockwood’s research suggests that parents are onto something – and that the emerging trend toward shuttering middle schools and replacing them with K-8s is an encouraging development.”

Middle-school math and the graduation gap

On Community College SpotlightCollege math starts in middle school. To prevent the need for remedial classes five or six years from now,  Foothill College is working with middle-school math teachers to get students on track.

Also, the Education Trust looks at the graduation gap for black and Hispanic college students. At some colleges and universities, the difference is huge; at others, the gap is gone.

Schools try to control cyberbullying

Schools — especially middle schools — are trying to figure out how to respond to cyberbullying, reports the New York Times. Educators are reluctant to assert authority over what students do on their own time. Some parents wants schools to intervene; others say it’s none of the school’s business.

. . . one 2010 study by the Cyberbullying Research Center, an organization founded by two criminologists who defined bullying as “willful and repeated harm” inflicted through phones and computers, said one in five middle-school students had been affected.

The law is unsettled. So far, “rulings have been contradictory,” the Times reports.

The principal of Benjamin Franklin Middle School in New Jersey asked parents to ban social networking for their children. Meredith Wearley, the school’s seventh-grade guidance counselor, spends much of her time dealing with “cyberdrama.”

“In seventh grade, the girls are trying to figure out where they fit in,” Mrs. Wearley said. “They have found friends but they keep regrouping. And the technology makes it harder for them to understand what’s a real friendship.”

Because students prefer to use their phones for texting rather than talking, Mrs. Wearley added, they often miss cues about tone of voice. Misunderstandings proliferate: a crass joke can read as a withering attack; did that text have a buried subtext?

The girls come into her office, depressed, weeping, astonished, betrayed.

. . . They show Mrs. Wearley reams of texts, the nastiness accelerating precipitously.

“It’s easier to fight online, because you feel more brave and in control,” an eighth-grade girl tells the Times. “On Facebook, you can be as mean as you want.”

Online harassment can begin in fourth grade. By high school, cyberbullies are craftier but their victims tend to be more resilient.

A few families have successfully sued schools for failing to protect their children from bullies. But when the Beverly Vista School in Beverly Hills, Calif., disciplined Evan S. Cohen’s eighth-grade daughter for cyberbullying, he took on the school district.

After school one day in May 2008, Mr. Cohen’s daughter, known in court papers as J. C., videotaped friends at a cafe, egging them on as they laughed and made mean-spirited, sexual comments about another eighth-grade girl, C. C., calling her “ugly,” “spoiled,” a “brat” and a “slut.”

J. C. posted the video on YouTube. The next day, the school suspended her for two days.

Cohen, a music industry lawyer in Los Angeles, won a $107,150 in costs and legal fees  from the district after a federal judge ruled the video hadn’t caused the school “substantial” disruption.

Judge Wilson also threw in an aside that summarizes the conundrum that is adolescent development, acceptable civility and school authority.

The good intentions of the school notwithstanding, he wrote, it cannot discipline a student for speech, “simply because young persons are unpredictable or immature, or because, in general, teenagers are emotionally fragile and may often fight over hurtful comments.”

The lawyer father said he told his daughter the video “wasn’t a nice thing to do,” but kept it on  YouTube “as a public service” so viewers can see “what kids get suspended for in Beverly Hills.”

Music students excel in algebra

Middle school students who study music do better in algebra, concludes a study by Barbara Helmrich of Baltimore’s College of Notre Dame. From Miller-McCune Online:

Students who studied a musical instrument did the best, followed by students who sang in a choir. Those who didn’t study music had the lowest algebra scores.  The effect was especially strong for black students.

Middle-school music instruction “takes place during a time (age 10-12) in which a proliferation of new synapses occurs in the developing brain,” Helmrich writes. She thinks music helps form and strengthen new synapses.

The particularly robust results for African-American students suggests “offering music education in middle school might present an alternative strategy for narrowing the achievement gap” between students of different races, Helmrich writes in the Journal of Adolescent Research.

Of course, there could be correlation-causation issues lurking.