Stress, race and the achievement gap

The stress of coping with racism may widen the achievement gap,writes Melinda D. Anderson in The Atlantic.

Blacks pump out more stress hormones than their white counterparts, researchers have found. That high level of stress can affect concentration, motivation and learning, according to a new Northwestern study.

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Zion Agostini, 15, worries about being stopped by police on the way to Nelson Mandela School for Social Justice in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, writes Anderson.

Once he arrives, the sophomore must go through a metal detector. He’s often late to his first-period class “because I’m being scanned four times because of the metal in my necklace or my keys,” he complains. “It does make it extremely hard to focus on the classwork … You’re upset, or sad, or just emotional about what just happened. It takes a while to settle.”

Blacks and Latinos encounter “perceived discrimination” and “the stress of confirming negative expectations about your racial or ethnic group,” researchers found.

. . . perceived discrimination from teachers was “related to lower grades, less academic motivation … and less persistence when encountering an academic challenge.”

The study also found that the anxiety surrounding the stereotype of academic inferiority undermined students performing academic tasks.

To reduce stress, some students decide they don’t care how they do in school, says co-author Emma Adam. That leads to lower performance. “Promoting positive ethnic racial identity would be one way to reduce those feelings of separation or exclusion and improve students’ ability to focus in the classroom.”

It takes ’30+ letters’ to be kinder ready

Kindergarten readiness includes knowing “30+ letters,” complains a Hamilton County, Ohio mother on Reddit.

Kinders also are supposed to start the year being able to “cut with scissors correctly” and follow two- to three-step instructions.

My father almost flunked kindergarten because he couldn’t cut with scissors. He didn’t have the coordination for it, even by the end of kindergarten. However, he could read, so they passed him along. My brothers had similar coordination issues that made art projects an ordeal.

I learned to read in kindergarten — my sister, who was in first grade taught me — but it was easier back in the 1950s . We only had 26 letters.

Kinders read more, play less

Kindergarteners are reading more and playing less, concludes a University of Virginia study.

In 1998, before No Child Left Behind put the focus on achievement gaps, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers expected their students to learn to read that year. By 2010, 80 percent believed kindergarteners should be learning to read.

Seventy-three percent of kindergarteners took a standardized test in 2010. That’s more than first graders took in 1998. Kindergarten teachers weren’t asked about testing. writes NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

Fewer teachers offer music and art every day and there were “notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Daphna Bassok, the study’s lead author.

There were large, double-digit decreases in the percentages of teachers who said their classrooms had areas for dress-up, a water or sand table, an art area or a science/nature area. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

However, children are more likely to have recess and just as likely to have a P.E. class.

With the sharp rise in preschool enrollment, teachers may expect more from students, writes Kamenetz. That leads to a sort of academic arms race: 1 in 5 kindergarteners is already six years old as more parents may wait a year to enroll a child who’s not ready for reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and testing.

Poor neighborhoods perpetuate poverty

Living in a poor neighborhood changes everything about your life, reports Alvin Chang on Vox.

“Research shows it’s like breathing in bad air; the more you’re exposed to it, the more it hurts you,” he writes. “And it isn’t just because of the lack of opportunity.”

Living in a high-stress environment changes your brain and your children’s IQ. 

Blacks are much more likely than whites to live in poor neighborhoods — and less likely to climb the economic ladder.

“If you’re black and your parents grew up in a poor neighborhood, then you probably ended up in a poor neighborhood too,” writes Chang, citing research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey.

Don’t grade me, bro


Erica Taicz, who just graduated from Johns Hopkins, and others want to retain “covered grades” in the first semester. From left are: Taicz; John Hughes, 20, a rising junior; Jonathan Liu, 21, who just graduated, and Kwame Alston, 20, a rising junior. Photo: Algerina Pena, Baltimore Sun

To ease pressure on new students, Johns Hopkins University hides their first-semester, first-year grades: Students know what they earned, but their transcript says only Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory (or the failed course is removed). Plans to change the decades-old policy in 2017, have distressed students, reports the Baltimore Sun.

A group of students who call their effort #ReCoverHopkins say reporting first-semester grades will cause mental-health problems.

Hopkins students experience anxiety, depression, and suicide at high rates which cannot continue to be tolerated for the sake of competitive academic performance.

Students from low-income backgrounds, first generation students, students struggling with mental health, students with disabilities, international students, and sexual assault survivors—as well as students whose experiences exist at intersections of marginalized race, gender, and sexuality—are disproportionately affected by the policy change.”

Students aren’t asking to be coddled, organizer Erica Taicz told the Baltimore Sun. “I’m paying to have a support network, academically and mentally. I can’t be expected to do well in class if I’m depressed and have anxiety.”

“What Hopkins students are actually paying for is a rigorous education and, eventually, a degree that demonstrates their intellectual competence in some area of study, responds Robby Soave on Reason.

“Having to receive letter grades is not a traumatic experience, it’s a normal one,” responds Katherine Timpf on National Review. “Any potential students who think they can’t handle it should really just go somewhere else.”

When my daughter was looking at colleges — it was awhile ago — I noticed that Johns Hopkins had a reputation for unhappy students, possibly because so many are competing to get into medical school. Apparently, it’s the anti-party school.

I don’t think hiding first-semester grades is a terrible policy — or terribly effective at sheltering students from academic pressures. A few other elite colleges do it. But, gee, is this the Intersectional Snowflake Generation?

Parenting and the poverty gap

Poor kids are behind — way behind — on the first day of school, said Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor, at an Education Writers Association discussion on equity, poverty, and education. Seventy percent of the achievement gap at age 11 was there when lower-income children started kindergarten, she said.

Boston has launched a campaign called “The Boston Basics,” led by Ronald Ferguson’s Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard, to help parents nurture their children in the first three years of life.

There are five basics: maximize love and manage stress; talk, sing, and point; count, group, and compare; explore through movement and play; and read and discuss stories.

Paul Tough, author of Helping Children Succeed, talked about improving children’s environment at home and at school.

When kids grow up in a calm, nurturing environment their brains send them signals to relax, and that encourages them to be curious and take risks, Tough explained. In contrast, kids who live in chaotic environments get brain signals that fire up “fight-or-flight” responses, he said.

“It’s hard for them to concentrate,” Tough explained. “They’re distracted by the emotions and anxieties that are flooding their nervous systems.”

Grit and resilience can’t be taught like math or reading, writes Tough in The Atlantic. However, some teachers and schools are able to reach stressed students.

The central premise of EL schools is that character is built . . .  through the experience of persevering as students confront challenging academic work.

. . . In general, when schools do try to directly address the impact that a stress-filled childhood might have on disadvantaged students, the first—and often the only—approach they employ has to do with their students’ emotional health, with relationships and belonging.

That’s not enough, writes Tough. “For a student to truly feel motivated by and about school, he also has to perceive that he is doing work that is challenging, rigorous, and meaningful.”

Stresssssss

. During the lunch period, Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, both San Ramon Valley High students from Danville, visit with Max, a Shih Tzu mix therapy dog, in the school quad in Danville, Calif., on Monday, March 14, 2015. San Ramon Valley High\'s PTSA is hosting a \"Low Stress Week\" March 14-18 with therapy dogs and a hot breakfast served to students. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)
Skylar Relova, 15, left, and Bailey Smith, 14, meet Max, a therapy dog, in the San Ramon Valley High quad during the lunch period. Photo: Susan Tripp Pollard, Bay Area News Group

Student stress is worrying educators at top-performing Silicon Valley schools, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News. “They’re pushing back school start times, re-examining homework loads, coordinating tests and warning parents about buying into college myths.”

Two suicide clusters in Palo Alto have raised fears. Around the Bay Area, there are more reports of panic attacks and eating disorders, students cutting themselves, suicide attempts and other mental-health issues.

In a recent two-week period at Irvington High in Fremont, mental health authorities or parents were summoned because nine students were suffering so much distress they needed to be involuntarily confined for protection, assistant principal Jay Jackson said.

A (St. Louis University) survey last spring found 54 percent of Irvington students suffering from depression and 80 percent showing moderate to severe anxiety levels.

Students think their life is over if they don’t get into a “great college,” say counselors.

“The better you are, the better the college you get into, and the better your life will be,” said Ella Milliken, a sophomore at Los Altos High.

Palo Alto schools have “added counselors and trained staff to spot troubled students,” reports Noguchi.

Dr. Grace Liu, a psychiatry resident, plays the part of an embarrassed teen with Dr. Rona Hu, psychiatry, playing the role of Liu's mother, during a skit at Jane Lathrop Middle School in Palo Alto. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

Psychiatrists Grace Liu and Rona Hu play a teen and her mother in a skit at a parenting forum at a Palo Alto middle school. Photo: Jim Gensheimer, Bay Area News Group

San Ramon Valley High “staged a low-stress week” with hot breakfasts of quiche and oatmeal, supplied by parent volunteers, and therapy dogs at lunchtime. “Relaxing music wafted over the quad, where students did yoga” and “email was banned for a day.”

Four of the last nine Palo Alto teens to kill themselves were Asian and Asian youths have killed themselves in San Jose, Fremont and Contra Costa County in recent years. Palo Alto school and community leaders have started conversations on “parenting, expectations and a traditionally taboo topic — mental illness,” with Asian parents, Noguchi writes.

However, plans to ease pressure are controversial. Saratoga High considered limiting AP classes, but students and parents rejected the idea.

. . . a proposal to push back Saratoga High’s start time by nearly an hour, to 8:40 a.m., ran into furious opposition, especially from Asian parents. The idea was to coordinate times with the district’s other school, Los Gatos High, and to give students a chance to get more sleep — a benefit that some researchers tout as the single most effective tool to improve student health.

The plan, the product of monthslong research by a 28-member committee, was enthusiastically backed by many teachers and counselors, alarmed at rising stress disorders they see among students.

But the proposals were never publicly debated. And the committee itself, while intended to be broad-based, lacked Asian-American parents — even though Saratoga High is about three-fifths Asian. Criticism spread by social media saw the plan as an attack on academic rigor, in part by shaving five minutes from each class period.

Test scores are higher at Saratoga than Los Gatos, said parent Becky Wu. “Why ask Saratoga to match Los Gatos’ and not the other way around?”

Saratoga will compromise on a 8:15 a.m. start time.

The all-powerful U.S. News rankings reward colleges for selectivity, writes Alia Wong in The Atlantic. Mid-level colleges recruit students — including those they have no intention of admitting — to push up their rejection stats.

Is social media fueling teen suicide?


Credit: Victor Kerlow

Parents blame stress for the suicides of two 17-year-old girls in Plano, Texas. Two boys at New York City’s Fordham Prep jumped in front of trains a few weeks apart. The youth suicide rate has been rising since 2007, reports the Centers for Disease Control.

Social media may be fueling teen suicide by encouraging young people to become “disconnected from the reality of their own existences,” writes Dr. Keith Ablow.

Facebook, Twitter, Tinder and the like have made them think of themselves as mini-reality-TV versions of themselves. Too many of them see their lives as a series of flickering photos or quick videos. They need constant doses of admiration and constant confirmation of their tenuous existence, which come in the form of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets.”

Heroin use is spreading, writes Ablow. “Heroin is just the powdered equivalent of text messaging, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and the rest of the technology drugs Americans— especially American teen— are mainlining every single day.”

Young people are “increasingly fascinated with dramas about vampires and zombies,” he adds. “They know something about the walking dead.”

CDC to study teen suicide ‘epidemic’

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will conduct an  epidemiological study of teen suicides in affluent Palo Alto, reports Sharon Noguchi in the San Jose Mercury News.  Four high school students took their own lives in 2014 and 2015 and six killed themselves in 2009 and 2010. Most stepped in front of a train.

Hanna Rosin write about the “Silicon Valley suicides” in the December Atlantic.

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

Suicide prevention signs are posted by Palo Alto train tracks. Photo: Dai Sugano, San Jose Mercury News

In response to the suicides and concern about student stress, Palo Alto “schools are starting later so that students can get more sleep,” writes Noguchi. “Gunn High School students created a student support group. New fencing rims the Caltrain tracks. The school district and city have offered sessions on parenting and mental health issues. And counseling services have been expanded.”

The CDC conducted an “Epi-Aid” assessment last year in Fairfax County, Virginia, where “85 youths and young adults ages 10 through 24 killed themselves from September 2010 through October 2014,” she reports.

The CDC’s Fairfax study listed a variety of risk factors, including “parents’ pressure for success, parental denial of children’s mental health issues, high counselor-to-student ratios at school, the occasional cruelty of social media and the stigma of mental illness,” writes Noguchi. Media coverage of suicides may have encouraged suicidal behavior.

Untimed tests: ‘not such a crazy idea’

Untimed tests — aren’t such a crazy idea, opines Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News. In response to the opt-out movement — 20 percent of students skipped New York’s state exams — this spring’s test takers will be allowed as much time as they want.

Dropping time limits won’t invalidate the results, writes Pondiscio. Research shows extra time helps students with learning disabilities, but has no significant effect for students without disabilities.

Most state math and reading tests are “power” tests rather than “speed” tests, according to University of Pennsylvania psychometrician Andrew Porter. Power tests “are designed so that nearly all students will be able to complete all items within the allotted time.”

“Education officials seem to think that allowing unlimited time will give parents one less reason to complain about test pressure,” writes Pondiscio. He doubts it will work. “The real source of test pressure is not the clock, it’s adults pressuring kids to perform.”

Any leveling or reduction in the number of parents refusing to let kids sit for state tests this year will likely be a function of New York’s moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. School administrators and teachers are less likely to transfer their anxieties to students, wittingly or unwittingly.

The moratorium ends in 2020.

I’ve worked under deadline for most of my life. I do the best I can in the time and space I’ve got. Then I stop. I find unlimited time very stressful.