Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Head Start: The Answer, but Also the Question

by Catherine Martin, Spring 2013 Intern

During his 2013 State of the Union address, among the many plans he laid out for improving America, Obama managed to frame a very controversial topic in very neutral, accessible terms: He declared that his administration would “make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” Sounds pretty great, right? Almost everyone would have a hard time arguing with rhetoric like that.

Even without his catchy speech style, there isn’t much ideological controversy in Obama’s premise; after all, who would be opposed to giving children better opportunities to succeed in education? Yet Obama’s proposal has caused a debate, but it’s not a debate over the merits of the American dream of high-quality education for three-year-olds everywhere. Instead, people are all riled up over how Obama’s proposed plan will be executed.

A version of this utopian vision of preschool education already exists. It’s called the Head Start program, established in 1965, and has provided comprehensive educational and parent involvement services to nearly 30 million low-income preschool-age children and their families throughout the United States and Puerto Rico. In 2007, it extended its services to homeless children. However, a study published in 2011 by the Department of Health and Human Services has raised serious doubts about the effectiveness of the program.

The study reflected some positive effects of the program: children who had received preschool education from Head Start “manifested less hyperactive behaviors and more positive relationships with parents” than their peers, they tested significantly better on vocabulary and oral comprehension, and parents of children in the program were more likely to read to them and involve them in cultural enrichment. However, the study also showed that although “the program had a ‘positive impact’ on children’s experiences through the preschool years, ‘advantages children gained during their Head Start and age 4 years yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of 1st grade for the sample as a whole.’” After first grade, Head Start did not seem to have any significant overall social–emotional impact on its students.

The results of the study have brought strong anti–Head Start sentiments into public forums. Many argue against continuing a program that, at $7.6 billion a year, they say is much too ineffective for its price tag. Another concern is that the way in which the program is implemented simply does not yield the results that are expected of it.

The president wants to expand Head Start as well as have the federal government work with states directly to provide high-quality education to children in low- and moderate-income families. The question is not whether or not an Extended Head Start program should be implemented, but rather how it will be implemented. The best that education reform advocates—and people who believe in equal opportunities for everyone—can hope for is that Obama’s administration will work to solve the major problems existing in Head Start’s system and will build a preschool program that provides even more disadvantaged children with better education.

Further Reading

“Can Obama Sell Universal Preschool to the GOP?” The Atlantic Wire, http://www.theatlanticwire.com/politics/2013/02/obama-universal-preschool-gop/62156/.

“Head Start Impact: Department of Health and Human Services Report,” Journalist’s Resource, http://journalistsresource.org/studies/government/civil-rights/head-start-study/.

“In Alabama, a Model for Obama’s Push to Expand Preschool,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/15/education/details-emerge-on-obamas-call-to-extend-preschool.html.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Students Get Hands-On Science Experience with Inquiry

by Emeli Warren, Spring 2013 Intern

It’s been almost twelve years since I went to science camp, but I still vividly remember my experiences. I had never been that engaged in my science classes, as I was more interested in reading and writing, but the week I spent in the outdoors with my fellow elementary students was one of my favorites. Why? you might ask. I was allowed to “play” outside with my friends in the dirt, exploring the woods and examining banana slugs—while learning! At the time I may not have realized it, but I was engaging in a hands-on version of science, now being referred to with the word inquiry.

According to the National Science Education Standards, “Scientific inquiry refers to the diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on the evidence derived from their work.” In terms of education, this method allows students to understand scientific concepts through a personal lens, testing and developing their own theories. Inquiry science is a free-form learning experience that does not rely directly on textbooks and step-by-step procedures. Instead, students build from data-gathering techniques and factual information they have learned in the classroom or from previous textbook studies; they then take the learning outside to engage in science without the constraints of a lab. The students are responsible for finding credible solutions to their questions as well as developing the best way to present and synthesize the information.

For example, Adam Flynn, chair of William M. Davies Career & Technical Center’s science department, may ask his juniors where they think the next earthquake will strike. Rather than basing their answers purely on speculation derived from what they’ve read in their textbooks about why and how earthquakes occur, students build upon their previous knowledge and perform research to support it. As long as the students provide a logical explanation for their hypotheses, the method of obtaining exterior research is up to them—some may comb through the news, while others may explore the US Geological Center or other online sources.

Julia Steiny’s interview with Adam Flynn in Education News reveals three questions Flynn asked each science teacher:

  1. What are the desired results? What, exactly, should students know and be able to do?
  2. How will you assess your teaching so you’re sure the kids got it?
  3. And only lastly, given numbers 1 and 2, what’s the lesson plan?

By answering these three questions, teachers are driven to assess student learning, rather than solely planning and implementing activities. For those who are wary about the effectiveness of inquiry science, Synergy Learning also offers a variety of reasons to why it works, from helping students reflect with their peers and increasing communication to connecting sequences and events, which allows them to predict and notice change. Through implementing inquiry science, students are encouraged to answer questions and critique their own work—skills that are crucial in any environment, both in and out of the classroom.

Further Reading:

“Scientific Inquiry,” National Science Teachers Association, accessed February 12, 2013 http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/inquiry.aspx
“Julia Steiny: Inquiring Minds Want To Know Science,” Education News, accessed February 12, 2013, http://www.educationnews.org/k-12-schools/julia-steiny-inquiring-minds-want-to-know-science/
“Inquiry Based Science: What Does it Look Like?” Institue for Inquiry, accessed February 12, 2013, http://www.exploratorium.edu/ifi/resources/classroom/inquiry_based.html

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Training Our Brains

by Victoria Elliott, Spring 2013 Intern

There’s a new trend in learning aids, and this one may be able to raise your IQ. “Brain training” facilities claim they can improve both IQ and cognitive skills through a regimen of games aimed at promoting brain elasticity and fluid intelligence. Though there are many companies specializing in brain training, the most notable is LearningRx, the only brick-and-mortar brain trainer, numbering 83 franchises. The rest of the trainers are either web-based or software-based, and include industry players such as Lumosity, Cogmed, Posit Science, and MindSparke.

Brain training seems deceptively simple: play games either online or with trainers and quickly increase your processing speed, logic, memory, and attention. But there is a heavy dose of science behind it. The n-back, introduced in 1958 and the most popular game in the business, challenges memory, asking users to recall things such as the color of an image or the location of a letter. The item that has been presented immediately before is 1-back, the time before last is 2-back, and the time before that is 3-back. This continues further backwards if the trainee successfully remembers the requested detail or moves to an easier level if the detail is missed. The n-back is used to improve fluid intelligence, which is the ability to both reason quickly and think abstractly; some other brain training tactics are not quite as science based, such as clapping to teach trainees to ignore distractions. It may sound a touch crude, but it seems to work.

Erin Matlock, the editor-in-chief of BrainTraining101.com, a Web site dedicated to the promotion of brain and mental health products, completed a 19-day trial of MindSparke’s Brain Fitness Pro as a test to see just how well brain training works. Ms. Matlock, a registered member of Mensa, spent around 30 minutes a day in computer-based training sessions for her trial run. She took an IQ test both before and after she completed the nearly three weeks of training, and came up with a twelve-point increase.

Because research on the programs is quite new, scientists disagree whether one can truly improve through brain training or if trainees are merely learning to take tests. However, LearningRx reports IQ leaps of up to 15 points after 24 weeks and 20 points in less than 32 weeks of training. The web-based trainers do not claim that their programs improve IQ, but they definitely believe the programs increase cognitive performance.

Matlock can certainly attest to that claim. She acknowledges that her second IQ test was an approximation, as it was online and not professionally done. However, she could not ignore the improvements she noticed in her day-to-day life, including increased brain stamina, short-term memory, and productivity levels. With such quick results, Matlock thoroughly endorses the product.

Further Reading:

“The Brain Trainers,” The New York Times, accessed February 6, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/04/education/edlife/a-new-kind-of-tutoring-aims-to-make-students-smarter.html.

“How I Improved My Productivity, Strengthened My Working Memory and Increased My IQ Score by 12 Points in 19 Days,” Brain Training 101, http://www.braintraining101.com/increased-my-iq-score-by-12-points-in-19-days/.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Tolkien Hype Gets in the Way of Serious Consideration

by Catherine Martin, Spring 2013 Intern

You could say that his literary presence is as resilient as the One Ring’s will to conquer Middle-earth. More than 40 years after his death, J.R.R. Tolkien’s unfinished manuscripts are still being discovered and dusted off for public consumption. Last year, in an article entitled “An Unexpected Journey: Hobbits in the Heartland,” New York Times reporter Lawrence Downes let everyone in on the secret that all of Tolkien’s archives—from notes to original manuscripts of The Lord of the Rings written in longhand—have been living peacefully in the Raynor Memorial Libraries at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, since 1957.

This year, Tolkien’s son Christopher will publish one of his father’s many unfinished manuscripts he has “squirreled away” in his home: a book-length poem called The Fall of Arthur, about the king’s last days. The poem, which will be published under J.R.R. Tolkien’s name and listed as edited by Christopher Tolkien, is highly anticipated.
But if the excerpt of the poem that accompanies Sarah Sloat’s Speakeasy article is any indication, such anticipation may not be warranted. Which leaves the question: Why exactly are people so excited?

Whether you’re a fan of Middle-earth or not, the educational benefits Tolkien’s books cannot be denied. Their all-ages appeal stems from their complexity: they’re epic fantasy adventures that present good and evil in a unique and thought-provoking way. But Tolkien’s distinct, heavily academic writing style adds another layer of meaning to his work. Some people, especially children, find his tone prohibitive to read, but regardless of how unappealing his writing may be, he demonstrates that it’s possible to approach intellectual pursuit with any attitude you want. Myths and legends don’t always have to be Disney-fied to have widespread appeal; you can write about whatever you want to, in whatever style best suits you, and if you do it well enough, it won’t matter whether you use practically indecipherable slang or are so formal you refuse to use contractions in your writing.

However giant a literary figure Tolkien may be, his work still does not all occupy a single tier of readership ability: The Hobbit, originally written for children, is the most accessible installment of his Middle-earth saga, and, therefore the most appealing; The Lord of the Rings, with its overextended genealogies and many languages, is a history or language nerd’s dream, but plenty more people would rather watch the movies; The Silmarillion, probably the least well-known of his well-known books (and also edited and published by Christopher Tolkien), doesn’t even have a narrative, but is rather a collection of stories offering deeper insight into Middle-earth’s history.

Yet, with the rediscovery of Tolkien’s yards of unpublished, unfinished manuscripts, the academic community and, more enthusiastically, The Lord of the Rings fandom, seem to have forgotten one of the most important rules of considering the full breadth of any author’s work: whenever you come across the extra stuff that was left out of the final published product, there is a reason the extra stuff was left out in the first place.

Of course we shouldn’t limit public access to Tolkien’s work. There are good reasons to publish The Fall of Arthur and any other manuscripts the Tolkien estate sees fit to make available. But within all the enthusiasm for these new manuscripts lies an important lesson about appreciating an author’s work: each piece should be treated on its own terms and never assumed to be equally good. It’s unfair to both reader and writer to hold every new manuscript up to the standards of the gems in Tolkien’s (or anyone’s) rather large repertoire, and to forget that for every genius idea on center stage, there are one hundred extra ideas waiting in the wings, where they should probably remain.

Further Reading:

“An Unexpected Journey: Hobbits in the Heartland," New York Times, accessed February 12, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/09/opinion/sunday/hobbits-in-the-heartland.html?_r=1&

"J.R.R. Tolkien Moves From Middle-Earth to Camelot," Wall Street Journal, accessed February 12, 2013, http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/10/16/j-r-r-tolkien-moves-from-middle-earth-to-camelot/ "J.R.R. Tolkien Collection," Marquette University, accessed February 12, 2013, http://www.marquette.edu/library/archives/tolkien.shtml

"How the Hobbit Came to Milkwaukee (Excerpts from the Q&A)," YouTube, accessed February 12, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFY534kSm90