Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Now this is a Legacy to Leave Behind....

Here's to you, Grandma, as we remember your life and the incredible legacy you and Grandpa have left behind. Mary Vondracek lived to the age of 97, and here is what she and Frank Vondracek, who passed away in 1983 and in his prime was a world class football (he would roll in his grave if I called it soccer!) player for Czechoslovakia, were all about: 7 kids, 24 grandkids, 33 great grandkids, and 3 great-great grandkids. Now that is a legacy worth noting, and all of us will always love you both until we join you...and thank you...

Friday, August 18, 2006

Administration Surveillance Policy Fails First Legal Test

King Bush's, I mean President Bush's, secret and warrantless surveillance program has been ruled unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court. In my humble opinion, this is only a good thing as it will hopefully hold when the appeals are made by the administration. Ultimately, this will make it to the Supreme Court, where this decision may in fact be overturned now that it is stacked with a majority on the right, but time will tell. The District Court ruled a warrantless program violates free speech and privacy rights, which I realize will be attacked, but in my mind it is separation of powers that is most relevant.

A majority of Americans don't have a problem with wire-tapping suspected terrorists or their acquaintances, regardless if they are in or out of the country. The trouble is, just as the administration now has a doctrine of unilateral, first-strike, pre-emptive war (how has that turned out so far? Do you feel like the world is a safer place at the moment?), it has developed a similar view of its place in our government. Certainly in wartime the executive has stretched the boundaries stated in the Constitution in the name of national security, but in the end the reason for three branches is basic oversight and checks/balances. No one argues that there are national security concerns. No one argues that surveillance needs to be secret, because we don't want the bad guys to know when they are being tapped. But I think most will sleep better at night when there is a system in place where someone, such as the secret court already allowed under the 1978 FISA law, keeping an eye on the scope of the program. A Republican Congress has already come out and said it will work with the administration to modify FISA. What is the administration's issue at this point? What Americans want is simply a system for someone else to ensure there is a check to make sure it is only suspected terrorists and any associates within that network who are being monitored ( and keep that as secret as you want), and that flagrant abuses of executive power are not taking place on the general American public.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Research Showing Reading Gives Brain a Workout

Results of some recent research needs to be made available to parents, educators, and children everywhere: Reading gives the brain a more thorough workout than previously believed, and needs to remain a primary component of every classroom. This research comes at a critical time, as results of a landmark literacy study show that from 1992 to 2003, the overall illiteracy rates have increased (a summary of the studies in 1992 and the repeated study in 2003 is in the September, 2006, Scientific American, page 32). It is now estimated that by the standards of an information economy, about one-third of all American adults is functionally illiterate, rating as either "below basic" (12%) or "basic" (22%) skills.

Brain imaging technology shows that areas of the brain become active when reading that, up to now, were not known to be active. For instance, an example of reading the word 'cinnamon', activates olfactory portions of the brain (thanks to the Eides for posting this). Reading about 'kicking' activates that area of the brain responsible for leg motion, and reading about 'picking' activates the portion used for hand movements. This involvement of multiple areas of the brain during reading contributes, I would imagine, to the sense a reader gets of not being able to put a good book down because he/she is literally sensing what is happening...there is the mental imaging and reactions taking place in the brain similar to if the reader were actually doing what was being presented in print. As the Eides point out, it does not require virtual imaging experiences to activate the brain so fully, just a good book. These findings support the notion that reading is a tremendous way of learning because of such a dramatic response by the brain when processing the written word.

As for the illiteracy rates, some of this is almost certainly due to larger numbers of immigrants, meaning a larger number and percentage of immigrant children in schools in 2003 compared to 1992, as well as a continuously increasing number of elderly Americans. Age is known to contribute to a decline in literacy skills and abilities. My own experience in schools over the last decade causes me to suggest that kids do spend more time today with video games and other forms of entertainment that do not require any literacy skills than ten years ago, and therefore read less. But to say one in three adults will struggle with literacy in the workplace is still a staggering number. We need to make good use of this type of research to try and convince students and workers that reading is worth the effort and still needs to be a part of one's daily routine throughout life.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

If I were Education King for a day

If there is one good thing to No Child Left Behind, it is the notion that there should be a well-qualified teacher in every classroom. Now, what "well-qualified" means, exactly, has been and continues to be debated, but it does sound like a pretty basic component of a good education system to have professionals working with kids who have been trained in their subject areas as well as trained to work with kids in a particular age group. The trouble is, there is evidence that suggests neither is taking place often enough.

For instance, something like a third of all new teachers leave the profession within the first three years of their teaching careers (and half leave after only four years). This begs for several questions to be asked, starting with: If new teachers were properly prepared for what they would be doing with kids in a classroom, would we expect such a large percentage of them to quit the profession in such a short period of time? A second question is: Would such a large percentage of new teachers quit if they had good support in the schools in which they went to work? In my mind, the answer to these questions probably not.

Ever since I went through a certification program twelve years ago, I often think back to those classes and try to figure out what I learned and how much I took awa from those courses, and to this day I can't think of many experiences that were useful to the reality I faced in an inner-city Chicago high school, where I began teaching. And I know for a fact I am not alone in having a severe disconnect between teacher training in college and reality in difficult schools. If I were Education King for a day, I would first get involved with reforming education programs in teaching colleges around the country. One example of reform would be to require professors and instructors who teach teachers how to teach to spend X weeks observing not top suburban schools, but some of the tougher schools in the area. Then, their classes would focus not on psychological theory, but rather the realities of actual classrooms and real problems and issues teachers face consistently, from day to day. Of all my professors I had in teaching certification classes, not a single one had ever taught high school, and I cannot remember any one professor who had spent more than a few days observing high school classes. Many of the courses focused on 'one size fits all' strategies and methodologies. I learned within the first two weeks of student teaching that most of what was taught to me was irrelevant, and that classroom teaching relies on figuring out, quickly, how to use multiple strategies simultaneously because of the range of ability and discipline from one student to the next. Teachers need to be prepared for the worst case scenarios in schools, and not ideal world models that do not exist in most places.

The next thing I would do as Education King would be to focus on teacher mastery of the subjects they are to teach. For instance, science teachers should have at least a semester's worth of actual science research under their belts, so they get a clear understanding of what science really is and how it really is done in a lab, and not just remembering a series of facts. Math teachers should have to take applied math courses in order to be able to explain to students why math is important in and relevant to modern life, so kids don't leave feeling like they simply are being forced to memorize a methodology to solving some type of problem, and then become lost when a slightly different problem (dealing with the same material) comes along. And math teachers should be trained to do simple experiments/hands-on activities where students collect data and use those data in solving a certain set of problems, again to make the math real and relevant.

I am using science and math for the moment largely because I teach science and there are some very good math related posts on Eideneuroloearning Blog. First, they note some reasons why children have difficulties learning math in the first place. A second gets into a comparison between how math is taught in China versus the United States, and also exam results taken by teachers. American teachers did far worse than their Chinese counterparts.

Often a goal of schools is to improve curriculum. Often, however, instruction is forgotten or takes a back seat to curriculum development. Instruction and preparedness is so important, though, that this needs to be the focus, especially in schools that are having academic troubles. One may have a worldclass curriculum, but if the teacher is terrible, it won't matter. Even if resources are limited and the curriculum is not demanding, a good teacher, with strong subject knowledge and preparation, can still work wonders in that situation. And if a teacher cannot answer the question "Why are we studying this?", chances are learning will suffer. There is much to be done to reform and improve education across all age groups and in all schools, and if teachers are not prepared our kids will continue to suffer the consequences. Much of that reform will not happen until we get serious about better teacher training from day 1 in the teacher colleges and universities. Contrary to much popular belief, teaching is far from an easy ob and profession; again, if it is so easy, we shouldn't be losing so many new teachers so quickly at the start of their careers.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Television Marketing of Food Affecting Children's Understanding of Health

A recently published study (the journal Speech Communication) by U. of Illinois communication professor Kristen Harrison caught my eye. She studied children's understanding of what foods would help make them healthy (and not just slim and trim), and the role television marketing plays in that understanding. Children's diets and health have made banner headlines in teh past coupe of years, as child obesity has been increasing steadily over the past decade, and studies such as this should help parents and educators decide on good strategies to get a child's awareness and healthy eating habits established.

The study found that television has largely stopped touting foods that are rich in nutrients, and rather focus on what ingredients a product does not have, such as fat or carbohydrates. Many children as well as parents have begun to think that, because of the emphasis on obesity, a skinny kid is equated to a healthy kid, when in fact some skinny kids may actually be malnourished. As is typical, a balance is needed and the study shows that there are severe misunderstandings in actual nutritional value of foods among many children. What's more, Harrison found correlations between a child's weight and their understanding (or lack thereof) of nutrition. For example, heavy kids who watch a lot of TV (her study included a panel of 134 1st-3rd graders, who averaged 28 hours of television viewing per week) are more likely to to think Diet Coke is healthier than orange juice, because I suspect, they have been exposed to diets by the adults in their lives. They also think fat-free ice cream is healthier than cottage cheese. Harrison also discovered that in nutritional reasoning, where children were interviewed and had to explain their answers, the more TV the children watched, the worse their nutritional reasoning. One example is the kid who says a particular food is not healthy because "his sister hates it," rather than any legitimate reason such as it is a fatty food or because parents said it was not healthy.

In the end, this study shows that parents need to be the main line of defense when it comes to a child's health. Limiting television viewing and the number of commercials children watch should help according to these results, and paying attention to pediatricians and public service announcements about what a truly healthy diet looks like is essential. Schools do need to pay attention to what is served in cafeterias, and this is happening at an accelerated rate; many schools in my area are replacing soda machines with juice and other healther drinks, and healthier snacks have begun to appear in vending machines in a number of schools, replacing potato chips and some candy bars. These are steps in the right direction, but it is a major challenge because of the sophisticated marketing various companies now use to hook the largest number of youngsters on their products.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Using Mediciexity to Define the Future of U.S. Particle Physics

In modern scientific research, we find more and more often groups put together in a very multidisciplinary way. What can happen from a mix of people who are trained in a variety of fields is often rapid progress and new findings, and has been referred to as the Medici effect. Recently, a panel was put together to discuss and make recommendations to Congress about the future of American high energy physics. The U.S., which has been at the forefront of particle physics for decades, will lose its lead when the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is commissioned in 2007 at CERN. The LHC will replace Fermilab as the world's most powerful accelerator, and numerous American physicists will center their research overseas (they have been doing so in larger and larger numbers for the past 8-10 years already).

Since 2004, a panel (EPP2010) was put together by the National Research Council, following a request by the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, to set the course for U.S. high energy physics. Their report came out this past April. What is interesting about the panel, though, beyond their final report and recommendations, is the make-up of the panel. In the past, advisory panels consisted of high energy physicists and some administrators of national labs. This time around, knowing that our loss of the lead in this type of research was a certainty for many years to come, the NRC took a new approach and formed a multidisciplinary panel. The chair was Harold Shapiro, an economist and president emeritus of Princeton, and the other members included 3 Nobel winners (2 in physics, 1 in medicine), an astronomer, a former CEO of a technology firm, a former director of Brookaven National Lab, a former White House OMB official (expert in budgets), a former Presidential science advisor, a condensed amtter physicist, and then several high energy experts.

I think this is an important step not only for high energy physics, which historically has been viewed many non-physicists as a waste of time and vast sums of money, but for American science in general. I believe this panel will become (at least I hope it does) the model for how to map out the future of U.S. science in all areas of research because of the nature of science today. It is incredibly expensive, and more often than not research programs are emerging as multidisciplinary entities that require the efforts of numerous fields of study. I also think the make-up of the EPP2010, for instance, gives the science more credibility in the eyes of Congress and the public, because it addresses not only the particle physics/science issues, but applications in and out of the field and cost effectiveness. In the past, we (high energy physicists) have not been very good of communicating why the work is important and the many benefits that arise directly and indirectly from the research. This approach should begin to improve the communication, and should emphasize that the two types of science, applied and pure, cannot live without each other. Trying to take advantage of mediciexity is the way of the future.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Check out Your State's Status for NCLB

Here is the link to the letters sent to each state Board of Education, regarding the state's status for standards and assessments. Most states have failed to meet deadlines for having 'qualified teachers' in every classroom, and most states have had issues gearing all the testing to meet the criteria laid out in the No Child Left Behind law. Some states are losing some of the Title I money as punishment (including my state of Illinois).