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By Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson | New York Times – Tue, May 7, 2013
Technology has given us many gifts, among them dozens of new ways to grab our attention. It’s hard to talk to a friend without your phone buzzing at least once. Odds are high you will check your Twitter feed or Facebook wall while reading this article. Just try to type a memo at work without having an e-mail pop up that ruins your train of thought.
But what constitutes distraction? Does the mere possibility that a phone call or e-mail will soon arrive drain your brain power? And does distraction matter — do interruptions make us dumber? Quite a bit, according to new research by Carnegie Mellon University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab.
There’s a lot of debate among brain researchers about the impact of gadgets on our brains. Most discussion has focused on the deleterious effect of multitasking. Early results show what most of us know implicitly: if you do two things at once, both efforts suffer.
In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a meeting is really doing something called “rapid toggling between tasks,” and is engaged in constant context switching.
As economics students know, switching involves costs. But how much? When a consumer switches banks, or a company switches suppliers, it’s relatively easy to count the added expense of the hassle of change. When your brain is switching tasks, the cost is harder to quantify.
There have been a few efforts to do so: Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, foundthat a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between each interruption, while it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task after an interruption. But there has been scant research on the quality of work done during these periods of rapid toggling.
We decided to investigate further, and asked Alessandro Acquisti, a professor of information technology, and the psychologist Eyal Peer at Carnegie Mellon to design an experiment to measure the brain power lost when someone is interrupted.
To simulate the pull of an expected cellphone call or e-mail, we had subjects sit in a lab and perform a standard cognitive skill test. In the experiment, 136 subjects were asked to read a short passage and answer questions about it. There were three groups of subjects; one merely completed the test. The other two were told they “might be contacted for further instructions” at any moment via instant message.
During an initial test, the second and third groups were interrupted twice. Then a second test was administered, but this time, only the second group was interrupted. The third group awaited an interruption that never came. Let’s call the three groups Control, Interrupted and On High Alert.
We expected the Interrupted group to make some mistakes, but the results were truly dismal, especially for those who think of themselves as multitaskers: during this first test, both interrupted groups answered correctly 20 percent less often than members of the control group.
In other words, the distraction of an interruption, combined with the brain drain of preparing for that interruption, made our test takers 20 percent dumber. That’s enough to turn a B-minus student (80 percent) into a failure (62 percent).
But in Part 2 of the experiment, the results were not as bleak. This time, part of the group was told they would be interrupted again, but they were actually left alone to focus on the questions.
Again, the Interrupted group underperformed the control group, but this time they closed the gap significantly, to a respectable 14 percent. Dr. Peer said this suggested that people who experience an interruption, and expect another, can learn to improve how they deal with it.
But among the On High Alert group, there was a twist. Those who were warned of an interruption that never came improved by a whopping 43 percent, and even outperformed the control test takers who were left alone. This unexpected, counterintuitive finding requires further research, but Dr. Peer thinks there’s a simple explanation: participants learned from their experience, and their brains adapted.
Somehow, it seems, they marshaled extra brain power to steel themselves against interruption, or perhaps the potential for interruptions served as a kind of deadline that helped them focus even better.
Clifford Nass, a Stanford sociologist who conducted some of the first tests on multitasking, has said that those who can’t resist the lure of doing two things at once are “suckers for irrelevancy.” There is some evidence that we’re not just suckers for that new text message, or addicted to it; it’s actually robbing us of brain power, too. Tweet about this at your own risk.
What the Carnegie Mellon study shows, however, is that it is possible to train yourself for distractions, even if you don’t know when they’ll hit.
Bob Sullivan, a journalist at NBC News, and Hugh Thompson, a computer scientist and entrepreneur, are the authors of “The Plateau Effect: Getting From Stuck to Success.”
In ”don’t be a tourist” “Featured” “have you met“ on November 27, 2012 at 1:21 pm Today I learned there’s a skateboarding school in Afghanistan where 40% of its students are female. In a part of the world where little girls are … Continue reading
8th grader, Chloe Frelinghuysen, as part of her Making History project, is pleased to invite you to a limited release screening of the exceptional film: GirlRISING EDUCATE GIRLS, CHANGE THE WORLD a powerful, uplifting film Thursday, May 16th, 7pm Convent of … Continue reading
Here’s a fact that may not surprise you: the children of the rich perform better in school, on average, than children from middle-class or poor families. Students growing up in richer families have better grades and higher standardized test scores, on average, than poorer students; they also have higher rates of participation in extracurricular activities and school leadership positions, higher graduation rates and higher rates of college enrollment and completion.
Whether you think it deeply unjust, lamentable but inevitable, or obvious and unproblematic, this is hardly news. It is true in most societies and has been true in the United States for at least as long as we have thought to ask the question and had sufficient data to verify the answer.
What is news is that in the United States over the last few decades these differences in educational success between high- and lower-income students have grown substantially.
One way to see this is to look at the scores of rich and poor students on standardized math and reading tests over the last 50 years. When I did this using information from a dozen large national studies conducted between 1960 and 2010, I found that the rich-poor gap in test scores is about 40 percent larger now than it was 30 years ago.
To make this trend concrete, consider two children, one from a family with income of $165,000 and one from a family with income of $15,000. These incomes are at the 90th and 10th percentiles of the income distribution nationally, meaning that 10 percent of children today grow up in families with incomes below $15,000 and 10 percent grow up in families with incomes above $165,000.
In the 1980s, on an 800-point SAT-type test scale, the average difference in test scores between two such children would have been about 90 points; today it is 125 points. This is almost twice as large as the 70-point test score gap between white and black children. Family income is now a better predictor of children’s success in school than race.
The same pattern is evident in other, more tangible, measures of educational success, like college completion. In a study similar to mine, Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski, economists at the University of Michigan, found that the proportion of students from upper-income families who earn a bachelor’s degree has increased by 18 percentage points over a 20-year period, while the completion rate of poor students has grown by only 4 points.
In a more recent study, my graduate students and I found that 15 percent of high-income students from the high school class of 2004 enrolled in a highly selective college or university, while fewer than 5 percent of middle-income and 2 percent of low-income students did.
These widening disparities are not confined to academic outcomes: new research by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam and his colleagues shows that the rich-poor gaps in student participation in sports, extracurricular activities, volunteer work and church attendance have grown sharply as well.
In San Francisco this week, more than 14,000 educators and education scholars have gathered for the annual meeting of theAmerican Educational Research Association. The theme this year is familiar: Can schools provide children a way out of poverty?
We are still talking about this despite decades of clucking about the crisis in American education and wave after wave of school reform.Whatever we’ve been doing in our schools, it hasn’t reduced educational inequality between children from upper- and lower-income families.
Part of knowing what we should do about this is understanding how and why these educational disparities are growing. For the past few years, alongside other scholars, I have been digging into historical data to understand just that. The results of this research don’t always match received wisdom or playground folklore.
The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.
Before we can figure out what’s happening here, let’s dispel a few myths.
The income gap in academic achievement is not growing because the test scores of poor students are dropping or because our schools are in decline. In fact, average test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the so-called Nation’s Report Card, have been rising — substantially in math and very slowly in reading — since the 1970s. The average 9-year-old today has math skills equal to those her parents had at age 11, a two-year improvement in a single generation. The gains are not as large in reading and they are not as large for older students, but there is no evidence that average test scores have declined over the last three decades for any age or economic group.
The widening income disparity in academic achievement is not a result of widening racial gaps in achievement, either. The achievement gaps between blacks and whites, and Hispanic and non-Hispanic whites have been narrowing slowly over the last two decades, trends that actually keep the yawning gap between higher- and lower-income students from getting even wider. If we look at the test scores of white students only, we find the same growing gap between high- and low-income children as we see in the population as a whole.
It may seem counterintuitive, but schools don’t seem to produce much of the disparity in test scores between high- and low-income students. We know this because children from rich and poor families score very differently on school readiness tests when they enter kindergarten, and this gap grows by less than 10 percent between kindergarten and high school. There is some evidence that achievement gaps between high- and low-income students actually narrow during the nine-month school year, but they widen again in the summer months.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t important differences in quality between schools serving low- and high-income students — there certainly are — but they appear to do less to reinforce the trends than conventional wisdom would have us believe.
If not the usual suspects, what’s going on? It boils down to this: The academic gap is widening because rich students are increasingly entering kindergarten much better prepared to succeed in school than middle-class students. This difference in preparation persists through elementary and high school.
My research suggests that one part of the explanation for this is rising income inequality. As you may have heard, the incomes of the rich have grown faster over the last 30 years than the incomes of the middle class and the poor. Money helps families provide cognitively stimulating experiences for their young children because it provides more stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.
But rising income inequality explains, at best, half of the increase in the rich-poor academic achievement gap. It’s not just that the rich have more money than they used to, it’s that they are using it differently. This is where things get really interesting.
High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.
With a college degree insufficient to ensure a high-income job, or even a job as a barista, parents are now investing more time and money in their children’s cognitive development from the earliest ages. It may seem self-evident that parents with more resources are able to invest more — more of both money and of what Mr. Putnam calls “‘Goodnight Moon’ time” — in their children’s development. But even though middle-class and poor families are also increasing the time and money they invest in their children, they are not doing so as quickly or as deeply as the rich.
The economists Richard J. Murnane and Greg J. Duncan report that from 1972 to 2006 high-income families increased the amount they spent on enrichment activities for their children by 150 percent, while the spending of low-income families grew by 57 percent over the same time period. Likewise, the amount of time parents spend with their children has grown twice as fast since 1975 among college-educated parents as it has among less-educated parents. The economists Garey Ramey and Valerie A. Ramey of the University of California, San Diego, call this escalation of early childhood investment “the rug rat race,” a phrase that nicely captures the growing perception that early childhood experiences are central to winning a lifelong educational and economic competition.
It’s not clear what we should do about all this. Partly that’s because much of our public conversation about education is focused on the wrong culprits: we blame failing schools and the behavior of the poor for trends that are really the result of deepening income inequality and the behavior of the rich.
We’re also slow to understand what’s happening, I think, because the nature of the problem — a growing educational gap between the rich and the middle class — is unfamiliar. After all, for much of the last 50 years our national conversation about educational inequality has focused almost exclusively on strategies for reducing inequalities between the educational successes of the poor and the middle class, and it has relied on programs aimed at the poor, like Head Start and Title I.
We’ve barely given a thought to what the rich were doing. With the exception of our continuing discussion about whether the rising costs of higher education are pricing the middle class out of college, we don’t have much practice talking about what economists call “upper-tail inequality” in education, much less success at reducing it.
Meanwhile, not only are the children of the rich doing better in school than even the children of the middle class, but the changing economy means that school success is increasingly necessary to future economic success, a worrisome mutual reinforcement of trends that is making our society more socially and economically immobile.
We need to start talking about this. Strangely, the rapid growth in the rich-poor educational gap provides a ray of hope: if the relationship between family income and educational success can change this rapidly, then it is not an immutable, inevitable pattern. What changed once can change again. Policy choices matter more than we have recently been taught to think.
So how can we move toward a society in which educational success is not so strongly linked to family background? Maybe we should take a lesson from the rich and invest much more heavily as a society in our children’s educational opportunities from the day they are born. Investments in early-childhood education pay very high societal dividends. That means investing in developing high-quality child care and preschool that is available to poor and middle-class children. It also means recruiting and training a cadre of skilled preschool teachers and child care providers. These are not new ideas, but we have to stop talking about how expensive and difficult they are to implement and just get on with it.
But we need to do much more than expand and improve preschool and child care. There is a lot of discussion these days about investing in teachers and “improving teacher quality,” but improving the quality of our parenting and of our children’s earliest environments may be even more important. Let’s invest in parents so they can better invest in their children.
This means finding ways of helping parents become better teachers themselves. This might include strategies to support working families so that they can read to their children more often.. It also means expanding programs like the Nurse-Family Partnership that have proved to be effective at helping single parents educate their children; but we also need to pay for research to develop new resources for single parents.
It might also mean greater business and government support for maternity and paternity leave and day care so that the middle class and the poor can get some of the educational benefits that the early academic intervention of the rich provides their children. Fundamentally, it means rethinking our still-persistent notion that educational problems should be solved by schools alone.
The more we do to ensure that all children have similar cognitively stimulating early childhood experiences, the less we will have to worry about failing schools. This in turn will enable us to let our schools focus on teaching the skills — how to solve complex problems, how to think critically and how to collaborate — essential to a growing economy and a lively democracy.
Sean F. Reardon is a professor of education and sociology at Stanford.
IN the spring of 2010, a new patient came to see me to find out if he had attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He had all the classic symptoms: procrastination, forgetfulness, a propensity to lose things and, of course, the inability to pay attention consistently. But one thing was unusual. His symptoms had started only two years earlier, when he was 31.
Though I treat a lot of adults for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, the presentation of this case was a violation of an important diagnostic criterion: symptoms must date back to childhood. It turned out he first started having these problems the month he began his most recent job, one that required him to rise at 5 a.m., despite the fact that he was a night owl.
The patient didn’t have A.D.H.D., I realized, but a chronic sleep deficit. I suggested some techniques to help him fall asleep at night, like relaxing for 90 minutes before getting in bed at 10 p.m. If necessary, he could take a small amount of melatonin. When he returned to see me two weeks later, his symptoms were almost gone. I suggested he call if they recurred. I never heard from him again.
Many theories are thrown around to explain the rise in the diagnosis and treatment of A.D.H.D. in children and adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of school-age children have now received a diagnosis of the condition. I don’t doubt that many people do, in fact, have A.D.H.D.; I regularly diagnose and treat it in adults. But what if a substantial proportion of cases are really sleep disorders in disguise?
For some people — especially children — sleep deprivation does not necessarily cause lethargy; instead they become hyperactive and unfocused. Researchers and reporters are increasingly seeing connections between dysfunctional sleep and what looks like A.D.H.D., but those links are taking a long time to be understood by parents and doctors.
We all get less sleep than we used to. The number of adults who reported sleeping fewer than seven hours each night went from some 2 percent in 1960 to more than 35 percent in 2011. Sleep is even more crucial for children, who need delta sleep — the deep, rejuvenating, slow-wave kind — for proper growth and development. Yet today’s youngsters sleep more than an hour less than they did a hundred years ago. And for all ages, contemporary daytime activities — marked by nonstop 14-hour schedules and inescapable melatonin-inhibiting iDevices — often impair sleep. It might just be a coincidence, but this sleep-restricting lifestyle began getting more extreme in the 1990s, the decade with the explosion in A.D.H.D. diagnoses.
A number of studies have shown that a huge proportion of children with an A.D.H.D. diagnosis also have sleep-disordered breathing like apnea or snoring, restless leg syndrome or non-restorative sleep, in which delta sleep is frequently interrupted.
One study, published in 2004 in the journal Sleep, looked at 34 children with A.D.H.D. Every one of them showed a deficit of delta sleep, compared with only a handful of the 32 control subjects.
A 2006 study in the journal Pediatrics showed something similar, from the perspective of a surgery clinic. This study included 105 children between ages 5 and 12. Seventy-eight of them were scheduled to have their tonsils removed because they had problems breathing in their sleep, while 27 children scheduled for other operations served as a control group. Researchers measured the participants’ sleep patterns and tested for hyperactivity and inattentiveness, consistent with standard protocols for validating an A.D.H.D. diagnosis.
Of the 78 children getting the tonsillectomies, 28 percent were found to have A.D.H.D., compared with only 7 percent of the control group.
Even more stunning was what the study’s authors found a year after the surgeries, when they followed up with the children. A full half of the original A.D.H.D. group who received tonsillectomies — 11 of 22 children — no longer met the criteria for the condition. In other words, what had appeared to be A.D.H.D. had been resolved by treating a sleeping problem.
But it’s also possible that A.D.H.D.-like symptoms can persist even after a sleeping problem is resolved. Consider a long-term study of more than 11,000 children in Britain published last year, also in Pediatrics. Mothers were asked about symptoms of sleep-disordered breathing in their infants when they were 6 months old. Then, when the children were 4 and 7 years old, the mothers completed a behavioral questionnaire to gauge their children’s levels of inattention, hyperactivity, anxiety, depression and problems with peers, conduct and social skills.
The study found that children who suffered from sleep-disordered breathing in infancy were more likely to have behavioral difficulties later in life — they were 20 to 60 percent more likely to have behavioral problems at age 4, and 40 to 100 percent more likely to have such problems at age 7. Interestingly, these problems occurred even if the disordered breathing had abated, implying that an infant breathing problem might cause some kind of potentially irreversible neurological injury.
CLEARLY there is more going on in the nocturnal lives of our children than any of us have realized. Typically, we see and diagnose only their downstream, daytime symptoms.
There has been less research into sleep and A.D.H.D. outside of childhood. But a team from Massachusetts General Hospital found, in one of the only studies of its kind, that sleep dysfunction in adults with A.D.H.D. closely mimics the sleep dysfunction in children with A.D.H.D.
There is also some promising research being done on sleep in adults, relating to focus, memory and cognitive performance. A study published in February in the journal Nature Neuroscience found that the amount of delta sleep in seniors correlates with performance on memory tests. And a study published three years ago in Sleep found that while subjects who were deprived of sleep didn’t necessarily report feeling sleepier, their cognitive performance declined in proportion to their sleep deprivation and continued to worsen over five nights of sleep restriction.
As it happens, “moves about excessively during sleep” was once listed as a symptom of attention-deficit disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. That version of the manual, published in 1980, was the first to name the disorder. When the term A.D.H.D., reflecting the addition of hyperactivity, appeared in 1987, the diagnostic criteria no longer included trouble sleeping. The authors said there was not enough evidence to support keeping it in.
But what if doctors, before diagnosing A.D.H.D. in their patients, did have to find evidence of a sleep disorder? Psychiatric researchers typically don’t have access to the equipment or expertise needed to evaluate sleep issues. It’s tricky to ask patients to keep sleep logs or to send them for expensive overnight sleep studies, which can involve complicated equipment like surface electrodes to measure brain and muscle activity; abdominal belts to record breathing; “pulse oximeters” to measure blood oxygen levels; even snore microphones. (And getting a sleep study approved by an insurance company is by no means guaranteed.) As it stands, A.D.H.D. can be diagnosed with only an office interview.
Sometimes my patients have resisted my referrals for sleep testing, since everything they have read (often through direct-to-consumer marketing by drug companies) identifies A.D.H.D. as the culprit. People don’t like to hear that they may have a different, stranger-sounding problem that can’t be fixed with a pill — though this often changes once patients see the results of their sleep studies.
Beyond my day job, I have a personal interest in A.D.H.D. and sleep disorders. Beginning in college and for nearly a decade, I struggled with profound cognitive lethargy and difficulty focusing, a daily nap habit and weekend sleep addiction. I got through my medical school exams only by the grace of good memorization skills and the fact that ephedra was still a legal supplement.
I was misdiagnosed with various maladies, including A.D.H.D. Then I underwent two sleep studies and, finally, was found to have an atypical form of narcolepsy. This was a shock to me, because I had never fallen asleep while eating or talking. But, it turned out, over 40 percent of my night was spent in REM sleep — or “dreaming sleep,” which normally occurs only intermittently throughout the night — while just 5 percent was spent in delta sleep, the rejuvenating kind. I was sleeping 8 to 10 hours a night, but I still had a profound delta sleep deficit.
It took some trial and error, but with the proper treatment, my cognitive problems came to an end. Today I eat well and respect my unique sleep needs instead of trying to suppress them. I also take two medications: a stimulant for narcolepsy and, at bedtime, an S.N.R.I. (or serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor) antidepressant — an off-label treatment that curtails REM sleep and helps increase delta sleep. Now I wake up without an alarm, and my daytime focus is remarkably improved. My recovery has been amazing (though my wife would argue that weekend mornings are still tough — she picks up the slack with our two kids).
Attention-deficit problems are far from the only reasons to take our lack of quality sleep seriously. Laboratory animals die when they are deprived of delta sleep. Chronic delta sleep deficits in humans are implicated in many diseases, including depression, heart disease, hypertension, obesity, chronic pain, diabetes and cancer, not to mention thousands of fatigue-related car accidents each year.
Sleep disorders are so prevalent that every internist, pediatrician and psychiatrist should routinely screen for them. And we need far more research into this issue. Every year billions of dollars are poured into researching cancer, depression and heart disease, but how much money goes into sleep?
The National Institutes of Health will spend only $240 million on sleep research this year. One of the problems is that the research establishment exists as mini-fiefdoms — money given to one sector, like cardiology or psychiatry, rarely makes it into another, like sleep medicine, even if they are intimately connected.
But we can’t wait any longer to pay attention to the connection between delta sleep and A.D.H.D. If you’re not already convinced, consider the drug clonidine. It started life as a hypertension treatment, but has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat A.D.H.D. Studies show that when it is taken only at bedtime, symptoms improve during the day. For psychiatrists, it is one of these “oh-we-don’t-know-how-it-works” drugs. But here is a little-known fact about clonidine: it can be a potent delta sleep enhancer.
Vatsal G. Thakkar is a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine.
“When I was younger,” a remarkably self-assured, soft-spoken 15-year-old kid named Aaron tells the camera, “I suffered from bullying because of my lips—as you can see, they’re kind of unusually large. So I would kind of get [called] ‘Fish Lips’—things like that a lot—and my glasses too, I got those at an early age. That contributed. And the fact that my last name is Cheese didn’t really help with the matter either. I would get [called] ‘Cheeseburger,’ ‘Cheese Guy’—things like that, that weren’t really very flattering. Just kind of making fun of my name—I’m a pretty sensitive kid, so I would have to fight back the tears when I was being called names.”
It’s hard not to be impressed with—and not to like—young Aaron Cheese. He is one of the kids featured in the new Cartoon Network special “Stop Bullying: Speak Up,” which premiered last week and is available online. I myself am a former geekish, bespectacled child whose lips were a bit too full, and my first name (as other kids quickly discovered) rhymes with two of the most-popular slang terms for male genitalia, so I also identified with Mr. Cheese. My younger years were filled with precisely the sort of schoolyard taunts that he recounts; they led ultimately to at least one fistfight and a lot of sour moods on my part.
As the parent now of two school-age boys, I also worry that my own kids will have to deal with such ugly and destructive behavior. And I welcome the common-sense antibullying strategies relayed in “Stop Bullying”: Talk to your friends, your parents and your teachers. Recognize that you’re not the problem. Don’t be a silent witness to bullying.
Is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis”? That’s doubtful, says Reason.tv’s Nick Gillespie. He tells WSJ’s Ryan Sager that over-protective parents and a rising wave of laws and regulations don’t really reflect a boom in meanness among kids. In fact, they may be safer and better behaved than ever.
But is America really in the midst of a “bullying crisis,” as so many now claim? I don’t see it. I also suspect that our fears about the ubiquity of bullying are just the latest in a long line of well-intentioned yet hyperbolic alarms about how awful it is to be a kid today.
I have no interest in defending the bullies who dominate sandboxes, extort lunch money and use Twitter to taunt their classmates. But there is no growing crisis. Childhood and adolescence in America have never been less brutal. Even as the country’s overprotective parents whip themselves up into a moral panic about kid-on-kid cruelty, the numbers don’t point to any explosion of abuse. As for the rising wave of laws and regulations designed to combat meanness among students, they are likely to lump together minor slights with major offenses. The antibullying movement is already conflating serious cases of gay-bashing and vicious harassment with things like…a kid named Cheese having a tough time in grade school.
How did we get here? We live in an age of helicopter parents so pushy and overbearing that Colorado Springs banned its annual Easter-egg hunt on account of adults jumping the starter’s gun and scooping up treat-filled plastic eggs on behalf of their winsome kids. The Department of Education in New York City—once known as the town too tough for Al Capone—is seeking to ban such words as “dinosaurs,” “Halloween” and “dancing” from citywide tests on the grounds that they could “evoke unpleasant emotions in the students,” it was reported this week. (Leave aside for the moment that perhaps the whole point of tests is to “evoke unpleasant emotions.”)
And it’s not only shrinking-violet city boys and girls who are being treated as delicate flowers. Early versions of new labor restrictions still being hashed out in Congress would have barred children under 16 from operating power-driven farm equipment and kept anyone under 18 from working at agricultural co-ops and stockyards (the latest version would let kids keep running machines on their parents’ spreads). What was once taken for granted—working the family farm, October tests with jack-o-lantern-themed questions, hunting your own Easter eggs—is being threatened by paternalism run amok.
Now that schools are peanut-free, latex-free and soda-free, parents, administrators and teachers have got to worry about something. Since most kids now have access to cable TV, the Internet, unlimited talk and texting, college and a world of opportunities that was unimaginable even 20 years ago, it seems that adults have responded by becoming ever more overprotective and thin-skinned.
Kids might be fatter than they used to be, but by most standards they are safer and better-behaved than they were when I was growing up in the 1970s and ’80s. Infant and adolescent mortality, accidents, sex and drug use—all are down from their levels of a few decades ago. Acceptance of homosexuality is up, especially among younger Americans. But given today’s rhetoric about bullying, you could be forgiven for thinking that kids today are not simply reading and watching grim, postapocalyptic fantasies like “The Hunger Games” but actually inhabiting such terrifying terrain, a world where “Lord of the Flies” meets “Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior,” presided over by Voldemort.
Even President Barack Obama has placed his stamp of approval on this view of modern childhood. Introducing the Cartoon Network documentary, he solemnly intones: “I care about this issue deeply, not just as the president, but as a dad. … We’ve all got more to do. Everyone has to take action against bullying.”
The state of New Jersey was well ahead of the president. Last year, in response to the suicide of the 18-year-old gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, the state legislature passed “The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.” The law is widely regarded as the nation’s toughest on these matters. It has been called both a “resounding success” by Steve Goldstein, head of the gay-rights group Garden State Equality, and a “bureaucratic nightmare” by James O’Neill, the interim school superintendent of the township of Roxbury. In Congress, New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt have introduced the federal Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act.
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has called the Lautenberg-Holt proposal a threat to free speech because its “definition of harassment is vague, subjective and at odds with Supreme Court precedent.” Should it become law, it might well empower colleges to stop some instances of bullying, but it would also cause many of them to be sued for repressing speech. In New Jersey, a school anti-bullying coordinator told the Star-Ledger that “The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” has “added a layer of paperwork that actually inhibits us” in dealing with problems. In surveying the effects of the law, the Star-Ledger reports that while it is “widely used and has helped some kids,” it has imposed costs of up to $80,000 per school district for training alone and uses about 200 hours per month of staff time in each district, with some educators saying that the additional effort is taking staff “away from things such as substance-abuse prevention and college and career counseling.”
One thing seems certain: The focus on bullying will lead to more lawsuits against schools and bullies, many of which will stretch the limits of empathy and patience. Consider, for instance, the current case of 19-year-old Eric Giray, who is suing New York’s tony Calhoun School and a former classmate for $1.5 million over abuse that allegedly took place in 2004. Such cases can only become more common.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t kids who face terrible cases of bullying. The immensely powerful and highly acclaimed documentary “Bully,” whose makers hope to create a nationwide movement against the “bullying crisis,” opens in selected theaters this weekend. The film follows the harrowing experiences of a handful of victims of harassment, including two who killed themselves in desperation. It is, above all, a damning indictment of ineffectual and indifferent school officials. No viewer can watch the abuse endured by kids such as Alex, a 13-year-old social misfit in Sioux City, Iowa, or Kelby, a 14-year-old lesbian in small-town Oklahoma, without feeling angry and motivated to change youth culture and the school officials who turn a blind eye.
But is bullying—which the stopbullying.gov website of the Department of Health and Human Services defines as “teasing,” “name-calling,” “taunting,” “leaving someone out on purpose,” “telling other children not to be friends with someone,” “spreading rumors about someone,” “hitting/kicking/pinching,” “spitting” and “making mean or rude hand gestures”—really a growing problem in America?
Despite the rare and tragic cases that rightly command our attention and outrage, the data show that things are, in fact, getting better for kids. When it comes to school violence, the numbers are particularly encouraging. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 1995 and 2009, the percentage of students who reported “being afraid of attack or harm at school” declined to 4% from 12%. Over the same period, the victimization rate per 1,000 students declined fivefold.
When it comes to bullying numbers, long-term trends are less clear. The makers of “Bully” say that “over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year,” and estimates of the percentage of students who are bullied in a given year range from 20% to 70%. NCES changed the way it tabulated bullying incidents in 2005 and cautions against using earlier data. Its biennial reports find that 28% of students ages 12-18 reported being bullied in 2005; that percentage rose to 32% in 2007, before dropping back to 28% in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available). Such numbers strongly suggest that there is no epidemic afoot (though one wonders if the new anti-bullying laws and media campaigns might lead to more reports going forward).
The most common bullying behaviors reported include being “made fun of, called names, or insulted” (reported by about 19% of victims in 2009) and being made the “subject of rumors” (16%). Nine percent of victims reported being “pushed, shoved, tripped, or spit on,” and 6% reported being “threatened with harm.” Though it may not be surprising that bullying mostly happens during the school day, it is stunning to learn that the most common locations for bullying are inside classrooms, in hallways and stairwells, and on playgrounds—areas ostensibly patrolled by teachers and administrators.
None of this is to be celebrated, of course, but it hardly paints a picture of contemporary American childhood as an unrestrained Hobbesian nightmare. Before more of our schools’ money, time and personnel are diverted away from education in the name of this supposed crisis, we should make an effort to distinguish between the serious abuse suffered by the kids in “Bully” and the sort of lower-level harassment with which the Aaron Cheeses of the world have to deal.
In fact, Mr. Cheese, now a sophomore in high school with hopes of becoming a lawyer, provides a model in dealing with the sort of jerks who will always, unfortunately, be a presence in our schools. At the end of “Stop Bullying,” he tells younger kids, “Just talk to somebody and I promise to you, it’s going to get better.” For Aaron, it plainly has: “It has been turned around actually. I am a generally liked guy. My last name has become something that’s a little more liked. I have a friend named Mac and so together we are Mac and Cheese. That’s cool.”
Indeed, it is cool. And if we take a deep breath, we will realize that there are many more Aaron Cheeses walking the halls of today’s schools than there are bullies. Our problem isn’t a world where bullies are allowed to run rampant; it’s a world where kids like Aaron are convinced that they are powerless victims.
—Mr. Gillespie is editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason.tv and the co-author of “The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America.”
Jan. 2, 2013 — Why do girls get better grades in elementary school than boys-even when they perform worse on standardized tests?
New research from the University of Georgia and Columbia University published in the current issue of Journal of Human Resources suggests that it’s because of their classroom behavior, which may lead teachers to assign girls higher grades than their male counterparts.
“The skill that matters the most in regards to how teachers graded their students is what we refer to as ‘approaches toward learning,’” said Christopher Cornwell, head of economics in the UGA Terry College of Business and one of the study’s authors. “You can think of ‘approaches to learning’ as a rough measure of what a child’s attitude toward school is: It includes six items that rate the child’s attentiveness, task persistence, eagerness to learn, learning independence, flexibility and organization. I think that anybody who’s a parent of boys and girls can tell you that girls are more of all of that.”
The study, co-authored by Cornwell and David Mustard at UGA and Jessica Van Parys at Columbia, analyzed data on more than 5,800 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. It examined students’ performance on standardized tests in three categories¬¬-reading, math and science-linking test scores to teachers’ assessments of their students’ progress, both academically and more broadly.
The data show, for the first time, that gender disparities in teacher grades start early and uniformly favor girls. In every subject area, boys are represented in grade distributions below where their test scores would predict.
The authors attribute this misalignment to what they called non-cognitive skills, or “how well each child was engaged in the classroom, how often the child externalized or internalized problems, how often the child lost control and how well the child developed interpersonal skills.” They even report evidence of a grade bonus for boys with test scores and behavior like their girl counterparts.
This difference can have long-reaching effects, Cornwell said.
“The trajectory at which kids move through school is often influenced by a teacher’s assessment of their performance, their grades. This affects their ability to enter into advanced classes and other kinds of academic opportunities, even post-secondary opportunities,” he said. “It’s also typically the grades you earn in school that are weighted the most heavily in college admissions. So if grade disparities emerge this early on, it’s not surprising that by the time these children are ready to go to college, girls will be better positioned.”
Research about gender differences in the classroom and beyond has grabbed headlines recently. Titles like Hannah Rosin’s “The End of Men and the Rise of Women” and Kay Hymowitz’s “Manning Up” have spent months on best-seller lists and inspired countless discussions in the media.
“We seem to have gotten to a point in the popular consciousness where people are recognizing the story in these data: Men are falling behind relative to women. Economists have looked at this from a number of different angles, but it’s in educational assessments that you make your mark for the labor market,” Cornwell said. “Men’s rate of college going has slowed in recent years whereas women’s has not, but if you roll the story back far enough, to the 60s and 70s, women were going to college in much fewer numbers. It’s at a point now where you’ve got women earning upward of 60 percent of the bachelors’ degrees awarded every year.”
But despite changing college demographics, the new data may not be reflecting anything fundamentally new.
“My argument is that this has always been true about boys and girls. Girls didn’t all of a sudden become more engaged and boys didn’t suddenly become more rambunctious,” Cornwell said. “Their attitudes toward learning were always this way. But it didn’t show up in educational attainment like it does today because of all the factors that previously discouraged women’s participation in the labor force, such as a lack of access to reliable birth control.”
What remains unclear, however, is how to combat this discrepancy.
“The most common question we’ve gotten is whether or not the gender of the teacher matters in regards to grading students,” Cornwell said. “But that’s a question we can’t answer because there’s just not enough data available. As you can probably guess, the great majority of elementary school teachers are women.”
Annisa Nurul Jannah, 11, left, says science lessons teach her ‘‘a lot.’’
By SARA SCHONHARDT
JAKARTA — Annisa Nurul Jannah, 11, was learning about how devices transmit heat, sound and electricity. “I like science because it teaches me a lot,” the sixth grader at Petamburan 04, a school in a working-class part of Jakarta, said about her favorite subject. “I’d be sad if it was removed from school.”
Millions of children in Indonesian elementary schools may no longer have separate science classes starting in June, the beginning of their next school year, if the government approves a curriculum overhaul that would merge science and social studies with other classes so more time can be devoted to religious education.
A draft of the proposal was posted online in November and December for public comment. The government is analyzing the feedback and will meet with a team of experts shortly to develop new lesson plans.
Ibnu Hamid, an Education Ministry spokesman, said feedback showed that people generally agreed with the curriculum changes but were worried that there would not be enough time to train teachers and prepare new books. The comments have not been released to the public, however, and some critics question whether they truly reflect broader opinion.
Officials who back the changes say that more religious instruction is needed because a lack of moral development has led to an increase in violence and vandalism among youths, and that could fuel social unrest and corruption in the future.
“Right now many students don’t have character, tolerance for others, empathy for others,” Musliar Kasim, the deputy minister of education, said in an interview in November. He proposed the changes in September.
He is part of a team of officials, academics and advisers from the office of Vice President Boediono working to streamline the curriculum in 2013.
Mr. Hamid said that the aim was to create a “balance between attitude, skills and knowledge.”
The draft curriculum released to the public in November was light on details. It did not outline how science and social studies would be taught once their dedicated classes were eliminated, or describe how religion and civics would contribute to character building.
Indonesia is a Muslim-majority country with a secular government that recognizes the rights of six different faiths, including Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.
Religion is taught to students according to their own faiths, meaning that Muslim students are instructed in Islam, while Christian students study Christianity in separate classes. Reflecting the country’s demographics, most religious instruction is Islamic.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs, which advises the Education Ministry, is proposing that religious education be increased to four hours a week from two. It will remain a compulsory subject, along with mathematics, arts and crafts, physical education, Indonesian language and civics.
Just days after the ministry went public with the draft, parents, civil society organizations and members of the teachers’ federation began an online petition calling the changes unfounded.
“Instead of improving the curriculum, these changes dismantle the existing curriculum and do not guarantee better education in Indonesia,” states the petition, which has received more than 780 signatures.
The proposal to eliminate dedicated science and social studies classes has led to an outcry among parents and educators who worry that it could lead to a dumbing down of the country and make it less competitive.
Indonesia, a vast archipelago with more than 240 million people, has one of Asia’s fastest growing economies. Its attempt to improve its manufacturing and service industries is tied to its efforts to produce more skilled workers. Officials in the trade and manpower ministries have urged more training in areas like computer science.
Critics say the proposed changes will take the country in the opposite direction.
“We’re going to have a lost generation,” said Srisetiowati Seiful, executive director of the Surya Institute, a private foundation that develops alternative math and science teaching materials. “It’s going to mean fewer researchers, less technology development. It’s Indonesia entering the Dark Ages.”
Teachers at Annisa’s school in Petamburan say science and social studies are practical classes that teach children to ask questions, identify problems and find solutions. They would be difficult to integrate into other instruction.
“Children learn to understand new things through science,” said Edi Kusyanto, principal of Petamburan 04. “It stimulates their spirit to learn, their curiosity.”
One criticism of the proposed changes is that they overlook more crucial reforms needed in the education system.
“Our government is being reactive,” said Itje Chodidjah, an education expert who has advised the government on previous curriculum changes. “They think the solution to violence is more religious education, when there are a lot of causes and one of them is problems in the schools themselves.”
In much of rural Indonesia, teachers often fail to turn up to school, local administrations do little to monitor the quality of instruction, and books are dated or inadequate. Education experts say that many teachers lack basic knowledge about the current curriculum and are ignorant of the fact that they are allowed to develop their own course plans. Even in cities like Jakarta, schools in poor neighborhoods like Annisa’s lack resources and well-trained teachers.
Teachers need to be better trained on how to implement the current curriculum and teach religion in a way that is not dogmatic, said Ms. Chodidjah. She added that officials had little understanding of the conditions in most schools and failed to recognize that low teaching quality had made Indonesia a global laggard. A report released in November by Pearson and the Economist Intelligence Unit, which ranked national education systems, placed Indonesia at the bottom of its list of 40 countries.
But officials who back the proposal say that the government has a responsibility to prepare children to be better citizens, which means providing them with them moral and religious instruction.
Over the past year, analysts have noted a rise in religiously motivated violence, with recent clashes between hardline Islamists and minority religious groups including Christians, Shiites and the Muslim sect Ahmadiyah. A recent survey by the Setara Institute, a human rights group, recorded 371 acts of religious violence in 2012, marking a 25 percent increase from the previous year.
Some officials blame such incidents on a lack of character development in schools.
“You can see that we are getting more intolerant,” said Bambang Widianto, a member of the advisory team from the vice president’s office. “Students cannot accept that there are people that have different religions and come from different backgrounds. It’s scary, actually.”
Kamaruddin Amin, secretary of the directorate general of Islamic education at the Ministry of Religious Affairs, said religious values could prevent misbehavior.
“Right now religion doesn’t contribute significantly to building character because the time allotted to religious education is very limited,” he said.
He brushed off concerns that more religious instruction would have a negative impact on the education system.
“Indonesians are religious people, they are very much attached to their religious teachings, their religious values,” he said. “That is why religion must be taught in school.”
Some lawmakers on the House of Representatives commission overseeing education and youth affairs agree that prayer and worship should be promoted in school.
But critics of the proposal do not think that a curriculum overhaul is the answer. Some teachers worry that government and religious leaders are oversimplifying the problem and are using terms like “character building” and “morality” to justify more religious education.
Indonesia has set aside 171 billion Indonesian rupiah, or almost $18 million, to draft a new curriculum, but many worry that the money will be wasted if attention is not put toward improving the education system as a whole.
“To change the curriculum, you have to train the teachers, you have to provide the books,” said Lestia Primayanti, who teaches first grade at Kembang Elementary School in Jakarta. “Indonesia is a very big country. Change is not as easy as flipping your hand.”
Superintendent Charles P. Littlefield with an iPad displaying a battered algebra book, as an example of the books being used.
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Budget cuts have eliminated about 95 full-time teachers from the school district here over the past year, swelling class sizes and prompting parents to cry foul. Members of Manchester’s school board after a meeting last week concerning high school classroom overcrowding.
“We had students sitting on the floor with a clipboard,” said Jim O’Connell, the president of the Parent-Teacher Organization at Hillside Middle School. “It’s one degree separated from a 1700s classroom with chalk and a slate.”
Officials, seeking an overhaul, began to wonder if a 21st-century technology might help allay their struggles: having some students take courses online during the school day, without a teacher physically present.
But a plan to institute “blended learning labs,” which allow students to do just that, is stoking concern among parents and teachers. Some doubt the efficacy of online learning. Others say the proposed solution barely scratches the surface of systemic problems here.
“It’s smoke and mirrors; it’s a high-tech baby sitter,” said David Fischer, a community college instructor who has two children set to attend Central High School next year.
The plan, which Superintendent Thomas J. Brennan Jr. presented to the district’s school board last month, would expand the district’s current use of New Hampshire’s online charter school, the Virtual Learning Academy, by putting a virtual learning lab in each of the district’s three high schools, allowing students to take courses there during the school day under the supervision of a “facilitator” who would be present in the lab. It would also add a remote classroom to each high school, where students in undersubscribed courses could participate in classes taught at one of the other schools via an interactive monitor, and expand the school’s collaboration with the University of New Hampshire at Manchester.
In an interview, Dr. Brennan said class-size issues were not the main motivation for the project, which he hopes will expand student opportunity and increase technology literacy among pupils and staff alike. But it could, he said, provide a new alternative for students in oversubscribed classes without the schools’ having to hire part-time teachers to pick up extra course sections.
“It deals with the reality of budgets and the limited resources we have, and the need for students and school districts to catch up with technology,” Dr. Brennan said of the plan. “I believe the class sizes will diminish, and it will allow more opportunities for teachers to work with students that are struggling.”
With more than 15,000 students, Manchester is the largest school district in the state, serving about 1 in 12 of its public school students, district officials say. Once, the city drew money from the large business tax base of its mill economy, now defunct. Since then, the district’s growth has not kept up with its tax revenues, and Manchester now has some of the state’s lowest per-pupil spending, at $10,283.77 per student (the state average is $13,159.15). Some frustrated school officials and parents also blame underfinancing on a tax cap, finalized last year, that limits what the city can spend.
The question of underfinancing and overcrowding drove the school board in tiny Candia, N.H., to request a face-to-face meeting with Manchester’s school board late last month. Candia has its own public schools through eighth grade, but it contracts with Manchester to send its students to their Central High School.
Assistant Superintendent Michael Tursi presented the new plan, including the learning labs, to Candia’s board, but it was unimpressed. “This is not a solution,” said Candia’s superintendent, Charles P. Littlefield, to applause. Later, he added, “I’d like to think I’m a 21st-century superintendent, but I’m not sure anything substitutes for high-quality interaction between teachers and students.”
Parents bristled at the idea that online learning could begin to close the gap they see in the schools. “What you’re seeing in Manchester is a postage stamp, a fig leaf, to cover the fact that politicians in our city will not increase taxes to fund our schools,” said Mr. O’Connell, who is president of an advocacy group called Citizens for Manchester Schools.
Yet the use of online learning in high schools is growing nationwide; a 2008 survey by the Sloan Consortium, an organization that advocates for online learning, estimated that 1.3 million high school students took an online course during that academic year, and the number is likely to have grown since. Some states, like Florida, require students to take an online course to graduate.
Steve Kossakoski, the chief executive of the Virtual Learning Academy, New Hampshire’s online charter school, said that the program was often used for accelerated or remedial courses or increased flexibility, but that he did not know of schools using his program to ease overcrowding.
But Crystal Howard, of Florida Virtual School, said school districts like Miami-Dade, one of the nation’s biggest, did look to online learning when a 2002 voter referendum that went fully into effect in 2010 limited class sizes statewide. “When they said that there would be a mandatory class size and they could only have a certain number of students in the classroom, we did become a solution,” Ms. Howard said.
Officials in Manchester expect to spend about $80,000 on the blended and remote classrooms, which they aim to begin putting in place next semester.
“I don’t want people to think we’re trying to divert resources so that we don’t have to hire teachers,” Dr. Brennan said. “The intent is to maximize the learning and to minimize the financial impact on Manchester School District.”