March ERR #13

Physical activity may strengthen children's ability to pay attention

As school districts across the nation revamped curricula to meet requirements of the federal “No Child Left Behind” Act, opportunities for children to be physically active during the school day diminished significantly.

Future mandates, however, might be better served by taking into account findings from a University of Illinois study suggesting the academic benefits of physical education classes, recess periods and after-school exercise programs. The research, led by Charles Hillman, a professor of kinesiology and community health and the director of the Neurocognitive Kinesiology Laboratory at Illinois, suggests that physical activity may increase students’ cognitive control – or ability to pay attention – and also result in better performance on academic achievement tests.

“The goal of the study was to see if a single acute bout of moderate

exercise – walking – was beneficial for cognitive function in a period of time afterward,” Hillman said. “This question has been asked before by our lab and others, in young adults and older adults, but it’s never been asked in children. That’s why it’s an important question.”

For each of three testing criteria, researchers noted a positive outcome linking physical activity, attention and academic achievement.

Study participants were 9-year-olds (eight girls, 12 boys) who performed a series of stimulus-discrimination tests known as flanker tasks, to assess their inhibitory control.

On one day, students were tested following a 20-minute resting period; on another day, after a 20-minute session walking on a treadmill. Students were shown congruent and incongruent stimuli on a screen and asked to push a button to respond to incongruencies. During the testing, students were outfitted with an electrode cap to measure electroencephalographic (EEG) activity.

“What we found is that following the acute bout of walking, children performed better on the flanker task,” Hillman said. “They had a higher rate of accuracy, especially when the task was more difficult. Along with that behavioral effect, we also found that there were changes in their event-related brain potentials (ERPs) – in these neuroelectric signals that are a covert measure of attentional resource allocation.”

One aspect of the neuroelectric activity of particular interest to researchers is a measure referred to as the P3 potential. Hillman said the amplitude of the potential relates to the allocation of attentional resources.

“What we found in this particular study is, following acute bouts of walking, children had a larger P3 amplitude, suggesting that they are better able to allocate attentional resources, and this effect is greater in the more difficult conditions of the flanker test, suggesting that when the environment is more noisy – visual noise in this case – kids are better able to gate out that noise and selectively attend to the correct stimulus and act upon it.”

In an effort to see how performance on such tests relates to actual classroom learning, researchers next administered an academic achievement test. The test measured performance in three areas: reading, spelling and math.

Again, the researchers noted better test results following exercise.

“And when we assessed it, the effect was largest in reading comprehension,” Hillman said. In fact, he said, “If you go by the guidelines set forth by the Wide Range Achievement Test, the increase in reading comprehension following exercise equated to approximately a full grade level.

“Thus, the exercise effect on achievement is not statistically significant, but a meaningful difference.”

Hillman said he’s not sure why the students’ performance on the spelling and math portions of the test didn’t show as much of an improvement as did reading comprehension, but suspects it may be related to design of the experiment. Students were tested on reading comprehension first, leading him to speculate that too much time may have elapsed between the physical activity and the testing period for those subjects.

“Future attempts will definitely look at the timing,” he said. Subsequent testing also will introduce other forms of physical-activity testing.

“Treadmills are great,” Hillman said. “But kids don’t walk on treadmills, so it’s not an externally valid form of exercise for most children. We currently have an ongoing project that is looking at treadmill walking at the same intensity relative to a Wii Fit game – which is a way in which kids really do exercise.”

Still, given the preliminary study’s positive outcomes on the flanker task, ERP data and academic testing, study co-author Darla Castelli believes these early findings could be used to inform useful curricular changes.

“Modifications are very easy to integrate,” Castelli said. For example, she recommends that schools make outside playground facilities accessible before and after school.

“If this is not feasible because of safety issues, then a school-wide assembly containing a brief bout of physical activity is a possible way to begin each day,” she said. “Some schools are using the Intranet or internal TV channels to broadcast physical activity sessions that can be completed in each classroom.”

Among Castelli’s other recommendations for school personnel interested in integrating physical activity into the curriculum:

• scheduling outdoor recess as a part of each school day;

• offering formal physical education 150 minutes per week at the elementary level, 225 minutes at the secondary level;

• encouraging classroom teachers to integrate physical activity into learning.

An example of how physical movement could be introduced into an actual lesson would be “when reading poetry (about nature or the change of seasons), students could act like falling leaves,” she said.

Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program

When choice and competition in education are expanded by offering families vouchers, how is the achievement of students who remain in traditional public schools affected? This is really the central policy question surrounding school choice. If choice works as its promoters have suggested, then student achievement in traditional public schools should rise as those schools experience greater motivation to attract students and the revenue those students generate. But if choice works as its detractors suggest, student achievement in traditional public schools should decline as talent and resources are drained from those public schools, making it harder for them to teach effectively.

Of course, one could support school choice even if it produced no improvement in traditional public schools as a “lifeboat” for individual students faring poorly in their prior public schools. But given the limited number of students likely to participate in even the largest school choice programs, the biggest policy potential (or peril) for school choice is in its effects on the whole school system, not in its effects on participating students.

This paper examines evidence on the “systemic effects” of expanding school choice in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Milwaukee is home to one of the nation’s largest and longest-running school choice programs. If there are systemic effects from expanding school choice we should be able to see them in Milwaukee.

This paper also introduces a novel method for analyzing systemic effects. Taking full advantage of student level data, we develop a new measure of those effects based on the extent of voucher options that each student has each year. The idea behind this measure is that school systems face greater competitive pressure to serve students well when students have more options to leave. This type of measure might be useful for future analyses of systemic effects.

Using this new approach, the authors find that students fare better academically when they have more options from Milwaukee’s voucher program. The effects are modest in magnitude, but they are robust to multiple specifications of the model.

Complete paper and related papers:

Observational methods to improve instruction

With the need for excellent teachers for every student becoming increasingly apparent, education researchers are studying classroom practices to determine those that lead to improvements in learning. The March issue of Educational Researcher, published by the American Educational Research Association, features four articles on observational tools that hold promise for advancing classroom instruction. Taken together, the Educational Researcher articles present evidence that classroom observers, software, and teacher logs can help teachers individualize and improve their instruction. Moreover, the use of such tools can facilitate future research studies that examine classroom practices and describe effective instruction.

• The ISI Classroom Observation System: Examining the Literacy Instruction Provided to Individual Students - Through use of an Individualizing Student Instruction (ISI) classroom observation and coding system, researchers examine whether children in ISI intervention classrooms receive recommended amounts of instruction, based on their language and literacy skills. They can then compare literacy growth in those students who received individualized instruction with the achievement of children receiving instruction that is not specifically individualized. Using the results, the researchers can begin to define how effective classrooms function to ensure achievement.

• "Where Is the Action?" Challenges to Studying the Teaching of Reading in Elementary Classrooms - The results of this 5-year longitudinal study of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers describe challenges researchers face in determining exactly how, in the complex environment of the classroom, students develop reading skills and the relationship of their reading instruction with literacy achievement. The demands of high-stakes testing with an emphasis on achievement require that researchers define how reading skills are best taught. But the pervasiveness of reading in the classroom makes it difficult for researchers to define the key factors leading to reading achievement, to determine the boundaries of reading instruction, and to assign responsibility for improvement. Noting the complexity of the classroom environment, the authors set determination of a thoughtful, systematic approach to examining reading instruction as a research priority.

• Conceptualization, Measurement, and Improvement of Classroom Processes: Standardized Observation Can Leverage Capacity - Classroom observations can be an important tool as researchers seek to better comprehend the components of effective teaching. Because classroom teaching is a vital factor in achievement, more evidence is needed to capture teacher-child interactions and identify specific processes that contribute to learning and positive social adjustment. Writing in support of observation in the classroom, the authors propose "that it is now feasible to focus on direct assessments of a teacher's performance in the classroom as an instructor, socializer, motivator, and mentor." Used for professional development, observation of classroom practices can lead to teaching and interventions better aimed at student improvement.

• Studying Reading Instruction With Teacher Logs: Lessons From the Study of Instructional Improvement - Researchers look at findings from the Study for Instructional Improvement and the issues that arise when researchers use teacher logs, another observational method, to measure classroom instruction. The researchers found that "teacher logs can be a cost-effective, reliable, and valid way to measure instruction." Logs frequently provided data nearly equivalent to that of trained observers, and their use is far less expensive.

Strengthening California’s System for Preparing and Supporting Principals: Lessons from Exemplary Programs

Current data shows that school leadership is a key factor in the recruitment and retention of teachers, and effective school leaders can be instrumental in creating a culture of learning within schools and supporting improvements in student learning and achievement.

This new research brief from the Center for the Future of Teaching and Learning describes the major challenges facing the education leadership workforce, reviews existing data about California principals, provides an overview of the state’s current principal efforts and draws upon what is known about promising programs in other states that can inform improvement of California’s education leadership system.

Despite increasing demands for performance, principals in California generally have not received the support, preparation, mentoring or professional development needed. Based on a 2007 study conducted by Linda Darling-Hammond and Stelios Orphanos, the report is augmented with analysis on California school administrators prepared for the Center by SRI International.

Complete report:

Science Setback for Texas Schools

Somebody's got to stand up to experts!" cries board chairman Don McLeroy.

After three all-day meetings and a blizzard of amendments and counter-amendments, the Texas Board of Education cast its final vote Friday on state science standards. The results weren't pretty.

The board majority amended the Earth and Space Science, and Biology standards (TEKS) with loopholes and language that make it even easier for creationists to attack science textbooks.

"The final vote was a triumph of ideology and politics over science," says Dr. Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). "The board majority chose to satisfy creationist constituents and ignore the expertise of highly qualified Texas scientists and scientists across the country." NCSE presented the board with a petition from 54 scientific and educational societies, urging the board to reject language that misrepresents or undermines the teaching of evolution, which the board likewise ignored.

Although the "strengths and weaknesses" wording that has been part of the standards for over a decade was finally excised--wording that has been used to pressure science textbook publishers to include creationist arguments--a number of amendments put the creationist-inspired wording back in.

"What we now have is Son of Strengths and Weaknesses," says Josh Rosenau, a project director for NCSE. "Having students 'analyze and evaluate all sides of scientific evidence' is code that gives creationists a green light to attack biology textbooks."

For example, the revised biology standard (7B) reflects two discredited creationist ideas--that "sudden appearance" and "stasis" in the fossil record somehow disprove evolution. The new standard directs students to "analyze and evaluate the sufficiency of scientific explanations concerning any data of sudden appearance, stasis and the sequential nature of groups in the fossil records." Other new standards include language such as "is thought to", or "proposed transitional fossils" to make evolutionary concepts seem tentative when, in fact, such concepts are well-documented and accepted by the scientific community.

The changes will not immediately affect curricula in Texas high schools, but "the standards will affect standardized tests and textbooks," says Rosenau. Thanks to such laws as No Child Left Behind, ubiquitous standardized tests are central to measuring student progress and proficiency. Teachers teach to the test, notes Rosenau, and textbooks have to reflect this.

"Will publishers cave in to pressure from the Texas board to include junk science in their textbooks? It has happened before," says Scott. "But textbooks that please the Texas board will be rejected in other states. Publishers will have to choose between junk science and real science."

"Let's be clear about this," cautioned Dr. Scott. "This is a setback for science education in Texas, not a draw, not a victory. The revised wording opens the door to creationism in the classroom and in the textbooks. The decisions will not only affect Texas students for the next ten years, but could result in watered-down science textbooks across the U.S. There’s a reason creationists are claiming victory."

NCSE's Josh Rosenau summed up the frustration of scientists and educators alike: "This is a hell of a way to make education policy."

Education Researchers Gather in San Diego for 90th AERA Meeting

When the American Educational Research Association (AERA) hosts the AERA Annual Meeting next month, more than 14,000 education research scholars will convene in San Diego, California where 2,000 peer-reviewed sessions are scheduled from April 13 to17. The five-day meeting— the 90th Annual Meeting of the Association—is an opportunity to learn about the latest research on wide-ranging education topics.

“The 2009 Annual Meeting will be an opportunity for renewed discussion and expansion of the role of education research as a hub of interdisciplinary scholarship,” says Program Chair Michael J. Feuer, National Academy of Sciences. The theme this year is Disciplined Inquiry: Education Research in the Circle of Knowledge, a focus that celebrates a tradition of multi-disciplinary work and looks ahead to assess new ways that education research and disciplinary inquiry might be more effectively integrated.

“Education research has been inclusive in its application of disciplinary perspectives, and in its respect for quantitative and qualitative methods,” says AERA President Lorraine M. McDonnell. “The result has been a uniquely rich capacity for education research to draw on a broad range of humanistic and scientific disciplines, and to contribute widely to the improvement of education policy and practice.”

President McDonnell is an education policy expert who teaches political science at the University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB). Her research concentrates on the politics of student testing and the potential of deliberative democracy to engage the public in communities and schools. Speaking on Repositioning Politics in Education’s Circle of Knowledge, McDonnell will deliver the 2009 presidential address on April 15 at the Awards Presentation and Presidential Address session scheduled for 4:05 p.m. in the San Diego Convention Center, Ballroom 20BC.

Feuer notes that many of the Presidential Invited Lectures this year have been organized into cluster groupings. These cluster sessions, designed for intellectual and logistical efficiencies and listed below, “bring together scholars who share interests but who use divergent methods and modes of inquiry.”

• Explorations of Cognition _• Interdisciplinary Dialogues_• Education Research in a Changing Political World_• Research Spotlight on California_• Assessment and Accountability from Pre-K to the University_• International Perspectives and_• Research-based Innovations in STEM Education.

The 2009 Annual Meeting Program—with all sessions selected for presentation in San Diego—has been posted online at to supplement programs from 2004 through 2008, for year-round links to experts and the latest research. This year’s program, searchable by presenter name, affiliation, and session/presentation (keyword), includes an array of topics, many focused on knowledge creation and use that spans boundaries between academic disciplines.

The 2009 meeting has four headquarters locations: the San Diego Convention Center, the San Diego Marriott Hotel & Marina, the Omni San Diego, and the Manchester Grand Hyatt.
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March ERR #12

Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement

New Report Says America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Has Impeded Student Improvement

While other developed nations benefit by regularly comparing, or “benchmarking,” their educational performance and practices against each other, the United States largely ignores the world’s useful lessons in improving education, according to a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, DC nonprofit policy organization advocating high school reform. The report also provides recommendations to the U.S. Department of Education for immediately increasing participation in international comparisons that could boost student performance.

Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement notes that overall U.S. student performance on international comparisons is poor and continues to decline, emphasizing the urgency for the United States to examine what it could learn from other countries. For example, in the 1960s, the United States produced the highest high school completion rates among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member nations, but by 2005, it slipped to eighteenth out of twenty-three OECD member nations with available data. And in college graduation rates, America has fallen from second to fifteenth since 1995.

“U.S. Olympic teams don’t ignore the gains made by their competitors;” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia, “nor can the United States ignore international education gains. In a world where our nation’s ability to continue winning the global economic competition is so closely tied to the educational preparation of our citizens, the United States cannot afford to bury its head in the sand and ignore the innovations in education that occur outside of its borders.

“The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), developed by the world’s thirty most developed countries, is a respected tool for policymakers at all levels to learn from the highest-performing nations,” Wise continued. “For the last several years, the United States’ failure to take full advantage of PISA’s many lessons may well result in lost opportunities to improve student performance.”

In 2003, American fifteen-year-olds ranked nineteenth out of twenty-nine OECD member nations in science. On the most recent test, in 2006, Americans dropped to twenty-first. A similar trend is evident in mathematics, where fifteen-year-olds in the United States ranked twenty-third in 2003 but slipped to twenty-fifth out of thirty OECD member nations by 2006.

“Americans have a right to know how U.S. students stack up compared to their international peers and must demand that their political leaders take immediate action,” Wise said. “But the American public has been largely left in the dark about lackluster American performance on PISA and other international comparisons over the last few years. Now that President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have called for higher educational standards that reflect international demands, there is a wonderful opportunity to shine a spotlight on this issue and bring it to the forefront of the educational debate.”

The brief offers six recommendations for how the U.S. Department of Education (ED) can boost the nation’s involvement in international benchmarking and increase the visibility of American students’ performance. Specifically, ED should:

• immediately undertake a comprehensive analysis that (a) reviews its current policies and participation in international comparisons, (b) lists the ongoing international educational studies that have numerous nations’ involvement, (c) evaluates the possible benefits of participating for each study, and (d) prepares recommendations for Secretary Arne Duncan about what changes should be made;

• immediately create an advisory group that reviews current participation in international comparisons and submit recommendations to Secretary Duncan and the Institute for Education Sciences about future participation;

• commit to full U.S. participation in all major international benchmarking opportunities, including the OECD’s future education studies;

• consult with the OECD, the National Governors Association, and the Council of Chief State School Officers on how best to provide opportunities for states to participate in future OECD studies;

• work with the OECD to ensure that administrative errors do not compromise the release of future PISA results; and

• consult with organizations in fields such as education and business to create an ongoing public awareness and interest in the importance of international education comparisons.

• The brief also envisions a larger role for the U.S. Congress in the international benchmarking process and the performance of American students. It calls on Congress to:

• appropriate the full amounts necessary to participate fully in the PISA benchmarking and evaluation process as well as other relevant international benchmarking studies; and

• conduct periodic oversight hearings regarding the nation’s international education performance, efforts underway to learn from other nations’ success, and actual application of international practices that could benefit education in the United States.

Short Sighted: How America’s Lack of Attention to International Education Studies Impedes Improvement is available at

New Brief On Federal High School Graduation Rate Policy

The Alliance for Excellent Education has released a new brief that describes how federal policy has progressed from early attempts to simply calculate an agreed-upon high school graduation rate to present-day efforts aimed at using commonly defined rates as part of a refined accountability system to drive school improvement. The brief, Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability, also includes a national and state-by-state analysis of the impact of the graduation rate regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education in October 2008.

“Because more states are doing a better job of measuring high school graduation rates, they’re beginning to discover that not as many students are receiving their diploma as they originally thought,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “But simply identifying the problem isn’t enough. If I go to the doctor and leave with a diagnosis but no medicine, I’m not going to see any improvement. Today, the medicine that states and high schools need is to be held accountable for improving graduation rates. And if more states make graduation rates an essential component of their accountability systems, it will trigger attention and resources to low-performing high schools and lead to improved outcomes for students.”

To help make graduation rates more useful in identifying and intervening in low-performing high schools, the brief, which was made possible through the support of the AT&T Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, makes the following recommendations to the federal government:

• Require consistent and accurate calculations of graduation rates based on data that can follow students through their high school career to ensure comparability;

• Include aggressive, attainable, and uniform requirements on how much schools, districts, and states should improve their graduation rates each year as part of the federal No Child Left Behind Act’s requirement of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) determinations to ensure a minimum, consistent increase in graduation rates, as is currently required for test scores;

• As opposed to current law, which holds schools accountable for test scores but not graduation rates, give equal weight to graduation rates and test scores in AYP determinations so that schools have balanced incentives, both to ensure that their students graduate and to raise test scores, instead of doing one at the expense of the other;

• Require graduation rates to be broken down by student subgroups (race, ethnicity, income, etc.) for reporting and accountability purposes to ensure that school improvement activities focus on all students and close achievement gaps.
The Every Student Counts Act (ESCA), which was introduced on March 17 in the U.S. Senate by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and in the U.S. House of Representatives by Representative Bobby Scott (D-VA), would create a graduation rate calculation that is consistent across states, require reporting of subgroup graduation rates, set meaningful graduation rate goals and targets, and remove incentives for schools to push out low-performing and at-risk students. (More information on ESCA is available at

“Great progress has been made in the last few years as researchers, advocates, and state leaders have worked to improve the way graduation rates are calculated,” Wise said. “And although the recent regulations from the U.S. Department of Education are a good next step, it is important to ensure that high school accountability includes high school graduation rates. Doing so is necessary to move beyond merely calculating and reporting graduation rates to improving them and ensuring that all students graduate with an education that prepares them for life after high school. I commend Senator Harkin and Representative Scott for introducing the Every Student Counts Act, which, if enacted, would bring this goal closer to a reality.

The state briefs that accompany the national brief examine the impact that the new graduation rate regulations will have on each individual state while also highlighting the policy concerns and hurdles that are unique to that state and must still be addressed.

Every Student Counts: The Role of Federal Policy in Improving Graduation Rate Accountability can be found at
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March ERR #11

Alternative Teacher Certification Programs Do Not Meet Expectations, MU Study Finds

More focus should be spent on teacher development and support

What began in the 1980s as a possible way to relieve teacher shortages and improve instructional quality in areas such as mathematics and science, alternative teacher certification programs (ATCP) have become a widespread strategy used in almost every state. In a new study, University of Missouri researchers have found that ATCPs, which are designed to allow industry professionals to become certified teachers, may not be meeting initial expectations and some experience in a learning profession seems to predict better teaching in schools.

"We found that career length, number of prior careers and career relevance to the subject area are not necessarily related to instructional quality," said Jay Scribner, associate professor of educational leadership and policy analysis in the MU College of Education. "However, we found that ATCP teachers whose prior career was related to education demonstrated a higher level of instruction."

Scribner found that most teachers in the study were unable to draw on their prior experience in ways that positively and substantively influenced their teaching practices. This disconnect appears to be attributed primarily to teachers' lack of understanding on how to translate their knowledge into the curriculum they are teaching. The researchers also found that teachers with prior education-related experience express more empathy for their students as learners and understand the importance of students' active engagement in the learning process.

"ATCP teachers with some kind of prior education experience were more focused on the importance of the teacher-student relationship as a foundation for an excellent teaching practice, not solely their content area," Scribner said. "Understanding the learner and the learning process were the overarching themes that emerged from our data that best described the difference between teachers with and without a prior educational-relevant career."

As more ATCPs develop around the country, Scribner suggests that policymakers strengthen ATCPs in ways that focus standards-based instruction and encourages school districts to do a better job supporting ATCP teachers once in the classroom. ATCP directors should focus on the types of past experience and education prospective teachers possess, not just that they have past experience.

The study, "Exploring the relationship between prior career experience and instructional quality among mathematics and science teachers in alternative teacher certification programs," was co-authored by Scribner and Motoko Akiba, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy analysis and will be published in Educational Policy.

Comparative Indicators of Education in the United States and Other G-8 Countries: 2009.

This report describes how the education system in the United States compares with education systems in the other G-8 countries--Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Russian Federation, and the United Kingdom. Twenty-seven indicators are organized in five sections: (1) population and school enrollment; (2) academic performance (including subsections for reading, mathematics, and science); (3) context for learning; (4) expenditure for education; and (5) education returns: educational attainment and income.

This report draws on the most current information about education from four primary sources: the Indicators of National Education Systems (INES) at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

Complete report:

Structure More Effective in High School Science Classes

Self-led, self-structured inquiry may be the best method to train scientists at the college level and beyond, but it's not the ideal way for all high school students to prepare for college science.

That's according to findings of a study conducted by University of Virginia professor Robert Tai and Harvard University researcher Philip Sadler. Their study appears in this month's International Journal of Science Education.

Data show that "autonomy doesn't seem to hurt students who are strong in math and may, in fact, have a positive influence on their attitude toward science" Tai said. However, "Students with a weak math background who engaged in self-structured learning practices in high school may do as much as a full letter grade poorer in college science," he said.

Tai, associate professor of education in U.Va.'s Curry School, and Sadler, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Science Education Department, conducted the study, which used data from a national survey of more than 8,000 high school science students.

"The findings suggest that students with lower levels of high school mathematics attainment had greater success in college science when they reported more teacher-structured laboratory experiences in high school," Tai and Sadler report in their study, "Same Science for All? Interactive Association of Structure in Learning Activities and Academic Attainment Background on College Science Performance in the U.S.A."

According to Tai, many secondary science classes are turning to a self-structured method of learning with the notion that students will discover science on their own. "Advocates should be sobered by this study's findings," Tai said.

"Self-structured instructional practices – sometimes referred to as self-led inquiry – have many advocates, but this study suggests that this approach does not fit all students," Tai said. "Giving more guidance to some science students and more freedom to others seems likely to pay off in college."

"Student-led projects and investigations do not appear to be as productive as other approaches to teaching science in high school," Sadler said. "Increasing student autonomy may be motivated by the goal of providing experiences more akin to scientific research, but only the strongest students appear to get much out of such opportunities in most classrooms."

Tai and Sadler point out in their report that it is important for a teacher to carefully decide how much guidance to provide in an inquiry-based teaching approach based on each student's achievement. They write: "Of primary concern is the quality of student work produced in these activities. For many teachers who assign independent inquiry activities and rely on students to design and conduct them, the reality is that while some students may do good work, others languish."

For more on the study, go to the International Journal of Science Education[link to:].

Social skills, extracurricular activities in high school pay off later in life

It turns out that being voted “Most likely to succeed” in high school might actually be a good predictor of one’s financial and educational success later in life.

According to a University of Illinois professor who studies the sociology of education, high school sophomores who were rated by their teachers as having good social skills and work habits, and who participated in extracurricular activities in high school, made more money and completed higher levels of education 10 years later than their classmates who had similar standardized test scores but were less socially adroit and participated in fewer extracurricular activities.

Christy Lleras, a professor of human and community development, says that “soft skills” such as sociability, punctuality, conscientiousness and an ability to get along well with others, along with participation in extracurricular activities, are better predictors of earnings and higher educational achievement later in life than having good grades and high standardized test scores.

“That’s not to say that academic achievement in high school doesn’t matter – it does,” Lleras said. “But if we only look at standardized test scores, we’re only considering part of the equation for success as an adult in a global marketplace. Academic achievement is part of the story, but it’s not the whole story. You’ve got to have the social skills and work habits to back those achievements up.”

With the generational shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service- and information-based one, employers value workers who can not only boast about their GPAs and SAT scores, but are also able to get along well with the public and co-workers, Lleras said.

“I think we’ve known this intuitively for a long time that employers are looking for something beyond cognitive skills,” Lleras said. “Leadership now is not an individual thing, it’s how well you get along in a team and get people organized.”

But thanks to the strict accountability measures of the No Child Left Behind law, struggling schools are increasingly cutting the extracurricular programs and activities that foster soft skills in order to focus almost exclusively on achieving adequate yearly progress on state-mandated standardized tests, Lleras said.

Consequently, low-achieving schools are put in a bind: Measure up, or lose funding. Either way, it’s a zero-sum game for students, Lleras said.

“There’s this pervasive idea that if we just teach and test the basic skills, students are going to do much better in school and in life,” she said. “It would be great if we could just snap our fingers and tomorrow everyone could read, write and do math at grade-level. But an obsession with testing and routinized thinking doesn’t foster the non-cognitive soft skills that pay off as an adult.”

Inadequate funding for education also has meant that many schools are not able to reduce class sizes or hire more qualified teachers, two important factors for “creating the academic and social environment that foster these kinds of soft skills in schools,” Lleras said.

“In addition to testing, what high-performing schools do really well is provide the kinds of opportunities through extracurricular activities, rigorous course work and

high-quality teachers that help create good citizens and good workers and foster the kinds of work habits, behaviors and attitudes that we know employers value,” she said.

If high-stakes testing is the only remedy for low-performing schools, Lleras said, “then we may fail to help those students develop the soft skills they need to successfully complete higher levels of education and secure a better job in the labor market.”

Ironically, the original version of the No Child Left Behind law had a behavioral component.

“NCLB did have this notion that there are other things going on in education besides testing, but it was grossly underfunded and targeted drug, alcohol, tobacco and violence prevention activities,” she said.

Lleras sees access to high-performing schools not only as an educational issue, but also as a social justice issue. In the course of her research, she discovered that participation in fine arts programs was associated with “significantly higher earnings” for African-American and Hispanic students 10 years later, yet those students often attended schools with fewer opportunities for fine arts participation. The same measure had little effect on the earning power of white students.

If we care about those low-achieving schools and their effect on students, it’s imperative for schools and educators to go beyond No Child Left Behind, which is “only about testing,” Lleras said.

“Most of our students don’t go on to college, and our young adults today are entering a workforce that’s very different from what it was 30 years ago,” Lleras said. “It’s a very tenuous, volatile market, especially for workers with a high school education or less, and our schools are failing students by not providing enough opportunities to develop the skills, habits and knowledge we know employers are going to reward.”

So what can parents take away from her research?

“I think that incentives are very important, particularly for adolescents,” Lleras said. “Teens need to see that their efforts in high school matter and will eventually pay off. This gives parents evidence they can use to talk to their kids about the importance of working hard, getting along with others and participating in extracurricular activities.”

A Randomized Field Trial of the Fast ForWord Language Computer-Based Training Program

This article describes an independent assessment of the Fast ForWord Language computer-based training program developed by Scientific Learning Corporation. Previous laboratory research involving children with language-based learning impairments showed strong effects on their abilities to recognize brief and fast sequences of nonspeech and speech stimuli, but generalization of these effects beyond clinical settings and student populations and to broader literacy measures remains unclear.

The researchers instituted a randomized field trial in eight urban schools. They generated impact estimates from separate intent-to-treat and treatment-on-the-treated analyses of the literacy outcomes of second- and seventh-grade students who were more generally at risk for poor reading and language outcomes.

The Fast ForWord Language program did not, in general, help students in these eight schools improve their language and reading comprehension test scores.

Full report:

Visual learning study challenges common belief on attention

A visual learning study by scientists at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston indicates that viewers can learn a great deal about objects in their field of vision even without paying attention. The findings will appear in the April 14 print issue of the journal Current Biology.

Contrary to common belief, attention may actually impair the ability of people to draw conclusions based on the visual images or stimuli they observe, reports Valentin Dragoi, Ph.D., the study’s senior author and an assistant professor at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston.

“Even when you ignore environmental stimuli, your brain may still be sensitive to their content and store information that will influence subsequent decisions,” Dragoi said. “Paradoxically, paying attention may actually reduce learning during repeated exposure to visual images.”

This new insight into visual attention could lead to novel teaching strategies to help people with sensory impairment after stroke or attention deficit disorder, Dragoi said.

Six people participated in the multiple-day study designed to measure the ability of human subjects to process visual stimuli in the absence of attention.

Participants were asked to stare at a dot in the center of a computer monitor while paying attention to one flashing stimulus and ignoring another. To make sure they were paying attention, study subjects were asked to press the spacebar when the stimulus they were concentrating on varied in contrast.

In the subsequent sessions, participants were tested to see how well they could detect changes in the angles of the flashing stimulus at both the location they were supposed to attend and the one they were supposed to ignore. The flashing stimulus in the exposure part of the study was a circle with parallel bars. It was later replaced with fifteen natural images.

“Surprisingly when subjects were tested for their ability to discriminate fine orientation differences between new stimuli, their learning performance was greater at the unattended location,” Dragoi said. “That is, ignoring the stimuli presented over days of exposure was more effective than actually attending them. We believe this finding can be explained by the fact that, typically, attention filters out unwanted stimuli so they are not consciously processed. However, in the absence of attention, stimuli are able to escape the attentional mechanisms and induce robust learning after multiple exposures.”

The next step, according to Dragoi, is to learn more about the neurophysiological mechanisms associated with this phenomenon, as well as to conduct additional experiments to investigate the generality of the findings. “The same could hold true with other sensory modalities, such as auditory or tactile,” he said.

“It is conceivable that the brain has developed mechanisms to take advantage of the signals outside the spotlight of attention. … Although it is well accepted that ‘practice makes perfect,’ we show here that robust learning can arise from passive, effortless exposure to elementary stimuli,” the authors wrote.

“Our visual systems have evolved during millions of years,” said Diego Gutnisky, lead author and a graduate research assistant at The University of Texas Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at Houston (GSBS). “For instance, inhabitants in the poles can discriminate different white hues better than other people who are not commonly exposed to predominantly white environments. In this way, the visual system can learn, without the requirement of attention, to extract the most relevant features of the environment to be more efficient at representing it internally.
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March ERR #10

When Private Schools Take Public Dollars: What's the Place of Accountability in School Voucher Programs?

Voucher opponents often argue that it's unfair to hold public schools accountable for results under the No Child Left Behind Act and various state rules while allowing private schools that participate in voucher programs to receive taxpayer dollars without similar accountability.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute sought the advice of twenty experts in the school-choice world. This paper presents their thoughts and opinions, as well as Fordham's own ideas.

The majority of experts agree that participating private schools should not face new regulation of their day-to-day affairs. They also see value in helping parents make informed choices by providing data about how well their own children are performing.

However, experts are not of one mind when it comes to making academic results and financial audits transparent. Some would "let the market rule" and are averse to transparency or accountability around school-level results. Others would "treat private schools like charter schools" when it comes to testing, financial transparency, etc. Some would also like government (or its proxy) to intervene if individual schools aren't performing adequately.

Full report:

Math Software Research Reports

The National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance within the Institute of Education Sciences has released two new What Works Clearinghouse intervention reports.

The first report examines the research on "Odyssey Math", an interactive, software-based K-8 mathematics curriculum. It includes individualized instructional and assessment tools, and an administrative function that allows teachers to generate reports and tract student performance.

See the results of the Clearinghouse review at

The second WWC intervention report examines the research on "Destination Math", a series of computer-based curricula designed to be used for at least 90 minutes a week. Featuring sequenced, prescriptive, step-by-step instruction, this curriculum is designed for the development of fluency in critical skills, math reasoning, conceptual understanding, and problem-solving skills.

See the report now at

University of Colorado at Boulder Research Provides New View of the Way Young Children Think

For parents who have found themselves repeating the same warnings or directions to their toddler over and over to no avail, new research from the University of Colorado at Boulder offers them an answer as to why their toddlers don't listen to their advice: They're just storing it away for later.

Scientists -- and many parents -- have long believed that children's brains operate like those of little adults. The thinking was that over time kids learn things like proactively planning for and understanding how actions in the present affect them in the future. But the new study suggests that this is not the case.

"The good news is what we're saying to our kids doesn't go in one ear and out the other, like people might have thought," said CU-Boulder psychology Professor Yuko Munakata, who conducted the study with CU doctoral student Christopher Chatham and Michael Frank of Brown University. "It also doesn't go in and then get put into action like it does with adults. But rather it goes in and gets stored away for later."

A paper on their study titled "Pupillometric and Behavioral Markers of a Developmental Shift in the Temporal Dynamics of Cognitive Control" will appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of March 23.

"I went into this study expecting a completely different set of findings," said Munakata. "There is a lot of work in the field of cognitive development that focuses on how kids are basically little versions of adults trying to do the same things adults do, but they're just not as good at it yet. What we show here is they are doing something completely different."

During the study, the CU-Boulder researchers used a computer game designed for children, and a technique known as pupillometry -- a process that measures the diameter of the pupil of the eye to determine the mental effort of the child -- to study the cognitive abilities of 3-and-a-half-year-olds and 8-year-olds.

The computer game involved teaching children simple rules about two cartoon characters -- Blue from Blue's Clues and SpongeBob Squarepants -- and their preferences for different objects. In the directions for the game, children were told that Blue likes watermelon, so they were to press the happy face on the computer screen only when they saw Blue followed by a watermelon. When SpongeBob appeared, they were told to press the sad face on the screen.

"The older kids found this sequence easy, because they can anticipate the answer before the object appears," Chatham said. "But preschoolers fail to anticipate in this way. Instead, they slow down and exert mental effort after being presented with the watermelon, as if they're thinking back to the character they had seen only after the fact."

Using pupillometry to determine the time at which children exerted mental effort, the speed of their responses for each type of sequence and the relative accuracy of those responses, the researchers found that children neither plan for the future nor live completely in the present. Instead, they call up the past as they need it.

"For example, let's say it's cold outside and you tell your 3-year-old to go get his jacket out of his bedroom and get ready to go outside. You might expect the child to plan for the future, think 'OK it's cold outside so the jacket will keep me warm,'" said Chatham. "But what we suggest is that this isn't what goes on in a 3-year-old's brain. Rather, they run outside, discover that it is cold, and then retrieve the memory of where their jacket is, and then they go get it."

Munakata doesn't claim to be a parental expert, but she does think their new study has relevance to parents' daily interactions with their toddlers.

"If you just repeat something again and again that requires your young child to prepare for something in advance, that is not likely to be effective," Munakata said. "What would be more effective would be to somehow try to trigger this reactive function. So don't do something that requires them to plan ahead in their mind, but rather try to highlight the conflict that they are going to face. Perhaps you could say something like 'I know you don't want to take your coat now, but when you're standing in the yard shivering later, remember that you can get your coat from your bedroom."

Munakata said the findings have broader implications for research in the field of cognitive development.

"Further study could help people figure out why kids are doing poorly or well in different educational settings," she said.

To view a short video highlighting the research finding visit and click on the cognitive development story.

Mayo Researchers Find Link Between Anesthesia Exposure and Learning Disabilities in Children

Mayo Clinic researchers have found that children who require multiple surgeries under anesthesia during their first three years of life are at higher risk of developing learning disabilities later. Several studies have suggested that anesthetic drugs may cause abnormalities in the brains of young animals. This is the first study in humans to suggest that exposure of children to anesthesia may have similar consequences. The finding is reported in the current issue of the journal Anesthesiology

Using data from the long-term Rochester Epidemiology Project (, researchers studied the medical records of 5,357 children from Olmsted County who were born between 1976 and 1982.

The research team, led by Robert Wilder, M.D., Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist, found that although one exposure to anesthesia was not harmful, more than one almost doubled the risk that a child would be identified as having a learning disability before age 19. The risk also increased with longer durations of anesthesia.

"It's very important for parents and families to understand that although we see a clear difference in the frequency of learning disabilities in children exposed to anesthesia, we don't know whether these differences are actually caused by anesthesia," says Randall Flick, M.D., a Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist and co-author of the study.

"The problem is that anyone who underwent an anesthetic also had surgery," says Dr. Wilder. "It's unclear whether it's the anesthetic, the physiological stress of surgery or perhaps the medical problems that made surgery necessary that are responsible for the learning disabilities."

Young children's brains are more vulnerable to a variety of problems because they are undergoing dynamic growth. The brain is rapidly forming connections between cells and trimming excess cells and connections, says Dr. Wilder.

The general anesthesia chemicals in use during the study period were primarily halothane and nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Although halothane is no longer used in the U.S., it has been replaced by newer agents that have similar effects on the brain. Nitrous oxide is widely used throughout the U.S. and the world.

Debate exists about the developmental correlation between the animal (rodent) and human studies. Some think that the related exposure period would be perinatal in humans (the last month of pregnancy and first six months after birth), so the researchers repeated their analysis, examining anesthetic exposure before age 2, and found similar results.

"Parents and physicians need to balance this information along with the normal decisions that we all go through when we decide to have surgery for one of our children," says Dr. Flick. "Although alternatives to the use of these medications exist, they are limited. Certainly, performing surgery without appropriate use of anesthesia is unacceptable."

The children in the study were tested as a natural part of the educational process in the Rochester school system. They did not perform as well in reading, writing or math as their IQ tests indicated.

Other studies have linked anesthesia exposure in young children to behavioral problems. Dr. Flick says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is aware of the possible problems with anesthesia. "They've been very proactive in trying to gather information as quickly and thoughtfully as possible," Dr. Flick says, "but much more research is needed before we could conclude that anesthesia itself causes problems." He also encourages families with questions to go to the Web sites of the American Society of Anesthesiology and the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia.

The research team is working to obtain funding to extend the database for 10 more years (1982-1992), a period that would include the use of more modern anesthetics. They are also working with the FDA to complete a study that matches children who had an anesthetic with children who have a similar medical problem but did not receive an anesthetic.


Higher levels of hyperactivity, impulsivity correlate to inconsistent reaction times

Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) show more variable or inconsistent responses during on ‘working’ or short-term memory tasks when compared with typically developing peers, a study by UC Davis M.I.N.D. Institute Julie Schweitzer has found.

“We think poor working memory is a characteristic present in many children and adults with ADHD,” said Schweitzer, an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

“Our study helps explain why working memory may be fine at one moment and poor at another, just as one day a child with ADHD seems to be able to learn and focus in class and on another day seems distracted and not paying attention,” Schweitzer said.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 4.4 million youth, ages 4 to17, have been diagnosed with ADHD by a healthcare professional. In 2003 nearly 8 percent of school-aged children were reported to have an ADHD diagnosis by their parent. The current study, published online in February in the journal Child Neuropsychology, supports the idea that what underlies impaired working memory is a problem in how consistently a child with ADHD can respond during a working memory task.

“We have known for some time that children with ADHD vary in how fast they are able to complete working memory tasks when compared to normally developing control subjects,” Schweitzer explained .

Previous studies have suggested that children with ADHD might be slower at responding to tasks. The current study took a closer look at their performance using a relatively newer statistical analytical approach, to determine whether the children with ADHD were indeed faster, slower, or if perhaps another, more complicated process was occurring. The hypothesis was that children with ADHD were actually mostly responding at the same rate as healthy children, but with more frequent very slow responses than the control subjects.

To test this hypothesis, the study authors presented 25 children with ADHD and 24 typically developing peers with the Visual Serial Addition Task, a computerized program that presents children with a number on one screen and then asks them to mentally add it to another number shown on a second screen. The children are then asked to decide whether or not a given sum is correct. From session to session, the task is presented at different speeds and at different levels of difficulty.

“We found that the children with ADHD were much less consistent in their response times,” said Wendy Buzy, study lead author and a graduate student when the experiments were conducted.

Schweitzer and Buzy were both at the University of Maryland at the time. Buzy said that the children with ADHD had more frequent longer response times when compared with their typically developing peers, but the responses they did give were just as accurate.

“Once we controlled for omission errors, the accuracy of the two groups was the same,” she said.

Buzy and Schweitzer pointed out that one of the unique things about their study was the way in which their data were analyzed. Previous studies compared only the range of reaction times and average reaction times for children with ADHD and controls. The method used in the current study allowed researchers to compare variation in response times within and between individuals, as well as within and between the two groups. The researchers also showed that working memory variability correlated with ADHD symptoms as scored by parent surveys (using the Conners’ ADHD rating scale) prior to testing.

“We found that higher levels of hyperactivity and restlessness or impulsivity correlated with slower reaction times,” Schweitzer said.

The current results led another Schweitzer laboratory member, postdoctoral fellow Catherine Fassbender, to design a study looking at variability in response time during a working memory task in the brains of children with ADHD using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

“This study increases our understanding of what might be happening at a physiological level that underlies the inconsistency in responding in ADHD,” she said.

Schweitzer also hopes to look at whether behavioral interventions and/or medications can help reduce the kind of variability observed in the current study. Variability in working memory, she said, means children cannot generalize what they learn in one situation to another.

“Improving consistency in how children with ADHD respond to the environment should help them generalize what they learn in clinical interventions improving their skills across situations.”

Peer Victimization in Middle and High School Predicts Sexual Behavior Among Adolescents

Peer victimization during middle and high school may be an important indicator of an individual's sexual behavior later in life. These are the findings of Binghamton University researchers Andrew C. Gallup, Daniel T. O'Brien and David Sloan Wilson, and University at Albany researcher Daniel D. White. The study will be published in an upcoming issue of Personality and Individual Differences, the official journal of the International Society for the Study of Individual Differences (ISSID).

According to Gallup, peer aggression and victimization during adolescence is a form of competition for reproductive opportunities. Female college students who were frequently victimized during middle and high school reported having sex at earlier ages and more sexual partners than their peers, while males reported just the opposite.

In a sample of over 100 college students, surveys showed that over 85 percent of all victimization occurred between members of the same sex, and that indirect victimization (e.g., teasing, demeaning, isolating) predicted sexual behavior, while physical aggression did not.

According to the researchers, the relevance of victimization and sexual behavior may be embedded in our evolutionary past. "Aggression may resolve intrasexual competition for the same resources, often including members of the opposite sex" said Gallup. "Adolescence serves as a premier age in which to study competition for reproductive access. As the life span of our ancestors was greatly diminished, those who began having children at younger ages would have been selected over those who postponed their sexual behavior."

Competition among peers for a boyfriend or girlfriend may be influenced by these socially aggressive behaviors. Interestingly, study results indicate different effects for males and females.

"Nearly inverse outcomes were observed between the sexes in terms of victimization and sexual behaviors," said Gallup. "And according to evolutionary theory, these types of aggressive and socially dominant strategies operate by different means between males and females. For instance, females preferentially seek status when choosing mates, while males place a larger emphasis on physical attractiveness."

The researchers believe that victimization acts to lower social status in males, and thus females find these males less attractive. It is also proposed that limited physical prowess or physical immaturity may be contributing to this effect, by promoting both an increased likelihood of being victimized and reduced sexual opportunity.

The study presents multiple explanations for females as well. One interpretation is that females who are highly victimized by other girls may have lower self-esteem and could be more susceptible to male sexual pressure. Therefore, the heightened sexual activity of female victims could be an artifact of male coercion.

Another possibility is that attractive girls may simply be the target of aggression by other girls out of envy and resentment over male attention. For instance, research has shown that females often try to slander good-looking girls in front of men in an attempt to make them less desirable. As males focus on physical appearance and not status, attractive female victims do not suffer reduced sexual opportunities. It is important to note however, that this study did not measure physical attractiveness.

School kids 'wagging' breakfast are missing healthy brain fuel

The national MBF Healthwatch survey has revealed that a disturbing number of children 'wag' breakfast claiming there is 'no time' to eat, they are 'too tired' or 'can't be bothered' having a meal before going to school.

The survey found that 22% of parents interviewed said their children skip breakfast on three to five school days of each week, and a further 20% skip breakfast on one or two school days.

The remaining 58% of parents said their school aged children always ate breakfast before school.

Bupa* Chief Medical Officer Dr Christine Bennett said, "It is disturbing to find that 42% of children are sent to school on one or more days on an empty stomach because it sends a clear message at an early age that breakfast isn't important.

"Wagging breakfast is the healthy lifestyle equivalent of driving your car on an empty petrol tank – it inevitably runs out when you most need it.

"Research shows that skipping breakfast results in reduced learning, reduced attention and poor food choices for the rest of the day. Children who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight which in the long term can lead to the development of chronic health issues.

"Children who miss out on breakfast are also less likely to get the recommended intake of dairy, fruit and vegetables," she said.

Asked why their children missed out on breakfast before school, just over half (51.6%) of parents said there was no time because of the pressures of being late for school or work or because of sleeping in.

"Parents should encourage their children to eat breakfast. Storing a few simple ingredients in the cupboard or fridge or organising breakfast the night before can help in the morning rush. Healthy shakes and cereal bars are great for eating on the way to school. Toast, yoghurt and fruit are also quick, easy options," Dr Bennett said.

Viewed nationally, the MBF Healthwatch survey showed that children missed breakfast at an average rate of 1.2 days a week – Tasmanian children were least likely to miss breakfast at 0.6 while Queensland and Western Australia had the worst record for breakfast 'wagging' at 1.4 and 1.5 days respectively.

"With many competing demands, we know that Australian families live in a 'time poor' society but the importance of making time for children to enjoy a healthy breakfast before going to school cannot be overstated," Dr Bennett said. "It can be the start of a lifetime of healthy eating habits," she said.

For more information on the MBF Healthwatch Survey, please visit:
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March ERR #9

Portland OR Charter Schools: Success in improving student achievement is mixed

Charter school enrollment has grown significantly over the past eight years. Student enrollment in public charter schools has increased steadily both statewide and in Portland since 2000-01. PPS charter school enrollment increased from 66 students in 2000-01 to 1,080 students in 2007-08. Statewide charter school enrollment experienced similar increases growing from 622 students to 11,592 students. As of 2007-08, charter school enrollment represents about 2.0 percent of total statewide enrollment and 2.3 percent of total enrollment in Portland.

Portland charter school students on average are less likely to be low-income, minority, or English language learners. Compared to Portland schools district-wide, Portland charter schools have fewer minority students (35% vs. 44%), fewer students that qualify for free or reduced lunch (35% vs. 45%), and fewer students that are classified as Englishlanguage learners (1% vs. 10%). Students with disabilities receiving special education are enrolled in Portland charters at about the same rate as district-wide schools (14%). Charter schools nationally have enrollments that are predominately low-income (52%) and minority (60%), and other charter schools in Oregon have more low income students but fewer minorities.

Success in improving student achievement is mixed. Four of the six Portland public charter schools rated met federal Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) standards. However, overall student academic achievement is mixed. Charter schools with only elementary grades generally perform as well or better than comparable schools on reading and math achievement tests. However, reading and math scores for charter students at the middle and high school levels are generally below the average scores of comparable schools. Only three of seven charters meet or exceed statewide and district averages in writing and only one charter has achieved an increase in writing scores over time. In addition, most charter school students have smaller average annual gains in reading and math achievement than PPS students.

Portland charters have comparable attendance rates, teacher/student ratios, and class sizes. PPS charter schools have generally achieved goals related to enrollment, teacher/student ratio, and class sizes. Most charter schools have stable student populations as evidenced by attendance rates and late enrollee indexes that are comparable to district averages. Charter schools are also achieving the minimum amounts of annual hours of instruction required by state regulations.

Lack of timely financial reports inhibits assessment of charter school financial stability. Three of seven charter schools failed to submit annual audited financial reports as required by charter contracts. Consequently, it is not possible to fully assess the budget performance and financial position of all charter schools for the year ending June 30, 2008. Of the four schools submitting audited financial statements, three had positive ending fund balances and reasonably healthy balance sheets.

Little evidence of innovation transfer from charters to public schools. There is little evidence that PPS charter schools have developed innovative educational practices that have been transferred to other public schools in Portland. While some charter schools have implemented instructional practices and developed student achievement measurement tools that are often different than PPS schools, it is unclear that all the methods used by the charters are either innovative or can be transferred to other public schools.

Charter school parents, staff, and students highly satisfied. Parents, staff, and students that responded to the annual Oregon Department of Education surveys feel very positive about their charter school experience and are generally satisfied with the operations of their charter school. Ninety-six percent of parents feel the charter school met their initial expectations and 84% of teachers believe their charter has a bright future. Both charter parents and staff expressed dissatisfaction with facilities and limited financial resources. Student academic achievement is difficult to fully assess due to lack of specific,

measurable charter contract goals and insufficient annual reporting. PPS charter schools have a myriad of academic goals and expectations that are often not clearly defined, measurable, nor always reflected in charter contracts. Annual reports often provide too little information to assess student achievement. Neither the district nor charter schools seem entirely sure of the academic goals they are accountable for nor the annual reporting requirements related to these goals. As a result, the accountability process for charter schools in Portland is less than optimal.

Touch Helps Make The Connection Between Sight And Hearing

The sense of touch allows us to make a better connection between sight and hearing and therefore helps adults to learn to read. This is what has just been shown by the team of Édouard Gentaz, CNRS researcher at the Laboratoire de Psychologie et Neurocognition in Grenoble (CNRS/Université Pierre Mendès France de Grenoble/Université de Savoie).

These results, published March 16th in the journal PloS One, should improve learning methods, both for children learning to read and adults learning foreign languages.

To read words that are new to us, we have to learn to associate a visual stimulus (a letter, or grapheme) with its corresponding auditory stimulus (the sound, or phoneme). When visual stimuli can be explored both visually and by touch, adults learn arbitrary associations between auditory and visual stimuli more efficiently. The researchers reached this conclusion from an experiment on thirty French-speaking adults.

They first compared two learning methods with which the adults had to learn 15 new visual stimuli, inspired by Japanese characters, and their 15 corresponding sounds (new auditory stimuli with no associated meaning). The two learning methods differed in the senses used to explore the visual stimuli. The first, "classic", method used only vision. The second, "multisensory", method used touch as well as vision for the perception of the visual stimuli. After the learning phase, the researchers measured the performances of each adult using different tests (1). They found that all the participants had acquired an above-chance ability to recognize the visual and auditory stimuli using the two methods.

The researchers then went on to test the participants by two other methods (2), this time to measure the capacity to learn associations between visual and auditory stimuli. The results showed that the subjects were capable of learning the associations with both learning methods, but that their performances were much better using the "multisensory" learning method. When the subjects were given the same tests a week after the learning phase, the results were the same.

These results support those already found by the same team, in work done with young children. The explication lies in the specific properties of the haptic sense (3) in the hands, which plays a "cementing" role between sight and hearing, favoring the connection between the senses. What goes on in the brain remains to be explored, as does the neuronal mechanism: the researchers plan to develop a protocol that will let them use fMRI (4) to identify the areas of the cortex that are activated during the "multisensory" learning process.

(1) The first two tests respectively measured the learning capacity for visual and auditory stimuli using recognition tests. In a visual test, a visual stimulus had to be recognized among 5 new visual stimuli. In an auditory test, the target had to be recognized among 5 new sounds.

(2) In the "visual-auditory" test, the subject was presented with a visual stimulus and had to recognize its corresponding sound among 5 other sounds. In the "auditory-visual" test, the opposite was done.

(3) Or tactile-kinesthetic. "Haptic" corresponds to the sense of touch, used to feel the letters.

(4) Functional magnetic resonance imaging: the application of magnetic resonance imagery to study the function of the brain.
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March ERR #8

Instruction time for arts education stayed the same

According to data from Education’s national survey, most elementary school teachers--about 90 percent--reported that instruction time for arts education stayed the same between school years 2004-2005 and 2006-2007. The percentage of teachers that reported that instruction time had stayed the same was similarly high across a range of school characteristics, irrespective of the schools’ percentage of low-income or minority students or of students with limited English proficiency, or the schools’ improvement under NCLBA.

Full report:

Nine of the 10 software products had statistically insignificant effects on test scores

In the No Child Left Behind Act, Congress called for the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to conduct a rigorous study of the conditions and practices under which educational technology is effective in increasing student academic achievement. Such a study was conducted. The study’s main objective was to assess the effects that using software products may have had on reading or math scores on standardized achievement tests.

Nine of the 10 products had statistically insignificant effects on test scores for the full sample (two years of student data) and the second-year sample. One product had a positive and statistically significant effect for the full sample. The magnitude of this effect is equivalent to moving the average student from the 50th percentile to the 54th percentile (an effect size of 0.09).

Full report:

Technology's Edge: The Educational Benefits of Computer-Aided Instruction

A new report present results from a randomized study of a well-defined use of computers in schools, a popular instructional computer program for pre-algebra and algebra.

Students randomly assigned to computer-aided instruction score significantly higher on a pre-algebra and algebra test than students randomly assigned to traditional instruction. The researchers hypothesize that this effectiveness arises from increased individualized instruction as the effects appear larger for students in larger classes and in classes with high student absentee rates.

Article Citation

Barrow, Lisa, Lisa Markman, and Cecilia Elena Rouse. 2009. "Technology's Edge: The Educational Benefits of Computer-Aided Instruction." American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 1(1): 52–74.

MSU-led study: Charter school students more likely to graduate, attend college

Students at charter schools graduate and attend college at significantly higher rates than students at traditional public schools, according to a RAND Corp. study led by a Michigan State University scholar.

The study, which offers mixed overall results for charter school advocates, comes amid a national debate over President Obama’s endorsement of charter schools, which are experimental public schools that operate independently of the local school board. Obama recently said he would oppose limits on the number of charter schools.

Ron Zimmer, MSU associate professor of education, and colleagues are the first to conduct a long-term investigation of graduation and college-attendance rates at charter high schools. They found that charter students are 7 percent to 15 percent more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than students at traditional public schools.

“These are some of the most positive results so far for charter schools,” Zimmer said. “It may suggest that evaluations up to this point have not been broad enough to capture what’s going on in charter schools.”

Zimmer said further research is needed to explore the factors behind the higher graduation and college-attendance rates.

Other findings from the study, which looked at eight U.S. locations:

• There is little evidence that charter schools are producing, on average, test score gains that differ substantially from those of traditional public schools. Zimmer said much of the previous research has shown similar results.

• Charter schools do not generally draw the top students away from traditional public schools. In fact, Zimmer said students transferring to charter schools generally have below-average test scores.

• Charter schools do not appear to substantially help or harm student achievement in nearby traditional public schools.

“This study provides evidence that charter schools might be moving in the right direction in terms of high school graduation and college attendance, but test scores and other outcomes might not be as promising,” Zimmer said. “So policymakers need to think more broadly about outcomes when evaluating how to proceed with charter schools.”

The first U.S. charter school opened in 1992. Since then the number of charters has grown to more than 4,000 in 40 states, serving 1.2 million students, according to RAND, a nonprofit research organization based in Santa Monica, Calif.

The study examined charter schools in Chicago, Denver, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, San Diego, and the states of Florida, Ohio and Texas.

Complete report:

Cognitive Decline Begins in Late 20s

A new study indicates that some aspects of peoples' cognitive skills – such as the ability to make rapid comparisons, remember unrelated information and detect relationships – peak at about the age of 22, and then begin a slow decline starting around age 27.

"This research suggests that some aspects of age-related cognitive decline begin in healthy, educated adults when they are in their 20s and 30s," said Timothy Salthouse, a University of Virginia professor of psychology and the study's lead investigator.

His findings appear in the current issue of the journal Neurobiology of Aging.

Salthouse and his team conducted the study during a seven-year period, working with 2,000 healthy participants between the ages of 18 and 60.

Participants were asked to solve various puzzles, remember words and details from stories, and identify patterns in an assortment of letters and symbols.

Many of the participants in Salthouse's study were tested several times during the course of years, allowing researchers to detect subtle declines in cognitive ability.

Top performances in some of the tests were accomplished at the age of 22. A notable decline in certain measures of abstract reasoning, brain speed and in puzzle-solving became apparent at 27.

Salthouse found that average memory declines can be detected by about age 37. However, accumulated knowledge skills, such as improvement of vocabulary and general knowledge, actually increase at least until the age of 60.

"These patterns suggest that some types of mental flexibility decrease relatively early in adulthood, but that how much knowledge one has, and the effectiveness of integrating it with one's abilities, may increase throughout all of adulthood if there are no pathological diseases," Salthouse said.

However, Salthouse points out that there is a great deal of variance from person to person, and, he added, most people function at a highly effective level well into their final years, even when living a long life.

One of the unique features of this project in the University of Virginia Cognitive Aging Laboratory is that some of the participants return to the laboratory for repeated assessments after intervals of one to seven years.

"By following individuals over time, we gain insight to cognition changes, and may possibly discover ways to alleviate or slow the rate of decline," Salthouse said. "And by better understanding the processes of cognitive impairment, we may become better at predicting the onset of dementias such as Alzheimer's disease."

Salthouse's team also is surveying participants' health and lifestyles to see if certain characteristics, such as social relationships, serve to moderate age-related cognitive changes.

They hope to continue their studies over many more years, with many of the same participants, to gain a long-term understanding of how the brain changes over time.

Digest of Education Statistics, 2008

The 44th in a series of publications initiated in 1962, the Digest's primary purpose is to provide a compilation of statistical information covering the broad field of American education from prekindergarten through graduate school. The Digest contains data on a variety of topics, including the number of schools and colleges, teachers, enrollments, and graduates, in addition to educational attainment, finances, and federal funds for education, libraries, and international comparisons.

Full report:

Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States: Results from the 2007-08 Private School Universe Survey

This report on the 2007-08 Private School Universe Survey presents data on private schools in the United States for grades kindergarten through twelve by selected characteristics such as school size, school level, religious orientation, geographic region, urbanicity type, and program emphasis.

Full report:
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March ERR # 7



California Academy of Sciences conducted omnibus survey

Are Americans flunking science? A new national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive® reveals that the U.S. public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test.

Over the past few months, the American government has allocated hundreds of billions of dollars for economic bailout plans. While this spending may provide a short-term solution to the country's economic woes, most analysts agree that the long-term solution must include a transition to a more knowledge-based economy, including a focus on science, which is now widely recognized as a major driver of innovation and industry. Despite its importance to economic growth, environmental protection, and global health and energy issues, scientific literacy is currently low among American adults. According to the national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences:

∑ Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.

∑ Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.

∑ Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water.*

∑ Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

Knowledge about some key scientific issues is also low. Despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues over the coming years, less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet's water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%). Nearly half didn't even hazard a guess. Additionally, 40% of U.S. adults say they are "not at all knowledgeable" about sustainability.

Despite this lack of knowledge, U.S. adults do believe that scientific research and education are important. About 4 in 5 adults think science education is "absolutely essential" or "very important" to the U.S. healthcare system (86%), the U.S. global reputation (79%), and the U.S. economy (77%).

"There has never been a greater need for investment in scientific research and education," said Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington. "Many of the most pressing issues of our time—from global climate change to resource management and disease—can only be addressed with the help of science."

To test your own scientific knowledge, please visit the California Academy of Sciences' website at

Performance pay is a good lesson for education, MU expert finds

K-12 merit-pay system usually found to benefit students

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced a new education reform, calling for a merit-pay system for teachers in hopes of improving student performance. As the nation's public schools spend $187 billion in salaries, based on the latest Department of Education data, University of Missouri researcher Michael Podgursky has found a link between teacher pay and student achievement.

"The evidence certainly suggests when you offer appropriate pay incentives to teachers, you're likely to get better results," said Podgursky, professor of economics in the MU College of Arts and Science. "In addition, the single-salary pay schedule is particularly inefficient because the factors it rewards, teacher experience and level of education, are not strong predictors of teacher productivity. Without consideration of the logic or unintended consequences of current teacher compensation policies, school systems will continue to face financial and performance efficiency challenges."

Podgursky has conducted many studies on the effect of teacher pay and has surveyed all research studies of merit-pay systems in the United States, as well as programs in Israel, Africa and the United Kingdom. He has found that single-salary pay schedules can cause a shortage of teachers in specific subject areas like science and math, an inequitable distribution of novice teachers and makes it harder to recruit and retain effective teachers.

"Because single-salary pay schedules does not adapt to teaching field demands, the teacher market adjusts in terms of quality," Podgursky said. "The pay schedule also allows teachers with more seniority to exercise the option to move to better working conditions, migrating away from high-poverty schools. Novice teachers frequently fill the subsequent openings in these high-poverty schools. Economic theory also suggests that if more effective teachers are rewarded on the basis of performance, incumbent teachers would have an incentive to work more effectively to raise their performance."

Traditionally, teacher pay is based on a salary schedule – years of experience and education level. Nationwide, there are roughly 3.1 million public school teachers. Podgursky said the current salary system increases expenditures without directly impacting student achievement. He advocates school districts to emulate private sector employers, who understand that strategic pay policies are a very important lever in raising firm performance.

Music tuition can help children improve reading skills

Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC (16 March 2009) -- Children exposed to a multi-year programme of music tuition involving training in increasingly complex rhythmic, tonal, and practical skills display superior cognitive performance in reading skills compared with their non-musically trained peers, according to a study published today in the journal Psychology of Music, published by SAGE.

According to authors Joseph M Piro and Camilo Ortiz from Long Island University, USA, data from this study will help to clarify the role of music study on cognition and shed light on the question of the potential of music to enhance school performance in language and literacy.

Studying children the two US elementary schools, one of which routinely trained children in music and one that did not, Piro and Ortiz aimed to investigate the hypothesis that children who have received keyboard instruction as part of a music curriculum increasing in difficulty over successive years would demonstrate significantly better performance on measures of vocabulary and verbal sequencing than students who did not receive keyboard instruction.

Several studies have reported positive associations between music education and increased abilities in non-musical (eg, linguistic, mathematical, and spatial) domains in children. The authors say there are similarities in the way that individuals interpret music and language and "because neural response to music is a widely distributed system within the brain…. it would not be unreasonable to expect that some processing networks for music and language behaviors, namely reading, located in both hemispheres of the brain would overlap."

The aim of this study was to look at two specific reading subskills – vocabulary and verbal sequencing – which, according to the authors, are "are cornerstone components in the continuum of literacy development and a window into the subsequent successful acquisition of proficient reading and language skills such as decoding and reading comprehension."

Using a quasi-experimental design, the investigators selected second-grade children from two school sites located in the same geographic vicinity and with similar demographic characteristics, to ensure the two groups of children were as similar as possible apart from their music experience.

Children in the intervention school (n=46) studied piano formally for a period of three consecutive years as part of a comprehensive instructional intervention program. Children attending the control school (n=57) received no formal musical training on any musical instrument and had never taken music lessons as part of their general school curriculum or in private study. Both schools followed comprehensive balanced literacy programmes that integrate skills of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

All participants were individually tested to assess their reading skills at the start and close of a standard 10-month school year using the Structure of Intellect (SOI) measure.

Results analysed at the end of the year showed that the music-learning group had significantly better vocabulary and verbal sequencing scores than did the non-music-learning control group. This finding, conclude the authors, provides evidence to support the increasingly common practice of "educators incorporating a variety of approaches, including music, in their teaching practice in continuing efforts to improve reading achievement in children".

However, further interpretation of the results revealed some complexity within the overall outcomes. An interesting observation was that when the study began, the music-learning group had already experienced two years of piano lessons yet their reading scores were nearly identical to the control group at the start of the experiment.

So, ask the authors, "If the children receiving piano instruction already had two years of music involvement, why did they not significantly outscore the musically naïve students on both measures at the outset?" Addressing previous findings showing that music instruction has been demonstrated to exert cortical changes in certain cognitive areas such as spatial-temporal performance fairly quickly, Piro and Ortiz propose three factors to explain the lack of evidence of early benefit for music in the present study.

First, children were tested for their baseline reading skills at the beginning of the school year, after an extended holiday period. Perhaps the absence of any music instruction during a lengthy summer recess may have reversed any earlier temporary cortical reorganization experienced by students in the music group, a finding reported in other related research. Another explanation could be that the duration of music study required to improve reading and associated skills is fairly long, so the initial two years were not sufficient.

A third explanation involves the specific developmental time period during which children were receiving the tuition. During the course of their third year of music lessons, the music-learning group was in second grade and approaching the age of seven. There is evidence that there are significant spurts of brain growth and gray matter distribution around this developmental period and, coupled with the increased complexity of the study matter in this year, brain changes that promote reading skills may have been more likely to accrue at this time than in the earlier two years.

"All of this adds a compelling layer of meaning to the experimental outcomes, perhaps signalling that decisions on 'when' to teach are at least as important as 'what' to teach when probing differential neural pathways and investigating their associative cognitive substrates," note the authors.

"Study of how music may also assist cognitive development will help education practitioners go beyond the sometimes hazy and ill-defined 'music makes you smarter' claims and provide careful and credible instructional approaches that use the rich and complex conceptual structure of music and its transfer to other cognitive areas," they conclude.

Complete article:

Researchers Find Sustained Improvement in Health in Experience Corps Tutors Over 55

Tutors over 55 who help young students on a regular basis experience positive physical and mental health outcomes, according to studies released by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. The tutors studied were members of Experience Corps, an award-winning organization that trains thousands of people over 55 to tutor children in urban public schools across the country.

Researchers at Washington University's Center for Social Development assessed the impact of the Experience Corps program on the lives of its members and found that, compared with adults of similar age, demographics and volunteer history, Experience Corps tutors reported improvements in mental health and physical functioning (including mobility, stamina and flexibility) and maintained overall health longer. In addition, Experience Corps members reported more physical activity, larger social networks and higher self-esteem as a result of their participation.

Other key findings:

• The comparison group's levels of depression and functional limitations increased over a two-year period, while Experience Corps members experienced a significant decrease in both of those categories.

• Both the comparison group and the Experience Corps group reported a decline in health over the two-year study period, but the Experience Corps members reported significantly less decline, suggesting that the program postpones age-related loss of health.

• After a year with Experience Corps, about two-thirds of the least active members reported that they became significantly more physically active and more engaged in social and community events.

• 84% of Experience Corps members report that their circle of friends — a key measure of social well-being, particularly for aging adults — increased as a result of their involvement in the program.

• 86% of Experience Corps members say their lives have improved because of their involvement with the program.

A separate study released in the March issue of the Journal of Gerontology by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine also found lasting, positive health impacts from participation in the program. The findings built on previous studies by the Hopkins researchers that have shown older adults who were physically inactive when they joined Experience Corps nearly doubled their activity level after just four to eight months of volunteering. The new Hopkins study found that for Experience Corps tutors in Baltimore — primarily African-American women over 60 — the women continued their increased level of activity for at least three years.

An earlier study, published by Johns Hopkins researchers in the Journal of Gerontology in January 2008, also found improvements in memory and executive function among Experience Corps tutors.

Lester Strong, CEO of Experience Corps, says the new research underscores the value of doing meaningful work in the second half of life. "Our members know that they are making a difference in the lives of students who desperately need academic help and encouragement. That keeps them going — and healthy."

Experience Corps members are diverse in many ways.

• Age: The average age of Experience Corps members is 65, but the age range of members in this study extends from 50 to 87.

• Race: About half (53%) of Experience Corps members are African American; 39% are white.

• Background: One-third of Experience Corps members have some higher education, and one in five is a retired educator (teacher, professor, administrator or classroom assistant).

• Income: 20% of Experience Corps members earn less than $15,000 per year, while 15% earn more than $75,000 per year.

Washington University researchers also studied the impact of Experience Corps tutoring on students' reading ability. The results, which demonstrate significant, positive gains in student learning, will be made available in April.

About Experience Corps

Experience Corps (, an award-winning program, engages people over 55 in meeting their communities' greatest challenges. Today, in 23 cities across the country, 2,000 Experience Corps members tutor and mentor elementary school students struggling to learn to read. Independent research shows that Experience Corps boosts student academic performance, helps schools and youth-serving organizations become more successful, and enhances the well-being of the older adults in the process.
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