How can teachers teach if parents don't parent?

Question: How can teachers teach if parents don't parent?

Joel Klein: The first thing I want to say is I know it can be done, those children that you’re talking about who come from the most challenging backgrounds, I’ve seen those kids in schools succeeding in education. I’m not saying it’s easy. And I’m not saying there aren’t enormous complexities in the system.

The way you do it is a combination, in my view, of three things. And you got to get all of them right.

The first thing is you’ve got to have an environment in which you set high expectations. I’m going to come back and tell you a story about that, but if the adults in the building don’t believe that the kids, no matter what their family circumstance, that the kids are going on to do great things, the kids will internalize the message. If they believe that family circumstance is the kind of handicap that makes it impossible for them to succeed, they’ll internalize that, and they won’t succeed. So in the absence of high expectations that are felt, I don’t mean articulated, but deeply felt, it won’t happen.

Second thing is you need high quality teachers, teachers who understand math. If you don’t understand math, you cannot teach math. And we have far too many people in the system who aren’t sufficiently familiar with content. I’ve been in schools where people are teaching the Civil War and it’s superficial the level they’re teaching the Civil War. And if you don’t have people who are teaching at a sophisticated level, the kids won’t learn.

And the third thing you need is the kind of partnerships to bring in the psychosocial disciplinary supports. We have programs in New York, a program like Turn Around for Children [http://www.turnaroundusa.org/] that’s working with our schools to address at multiple levels those kind of issues that you articulated about. The fact that some kids come with lots of disciplinary issues, deprevations.

But if you can mix together expectations, excellence and support in an environment, you can make it work.

Let me give you an example because people don’t believe. A lot of my friends say, “Well it’s not going to happen” for just the reason you said. They say, “Well kids start with too many disadvantages.” There’s a school in Bedford Stuyvesant called Excellence Academy. It’s an all boy’s school and it’s overwhelmingly African American, with some Latino boys. It’s a school that you would expect would not be performing very well if you used traditional demographic analysis.

I went to the school and I happened to bump into a kid, just by happenstance, as I walked in, and the kid says to me, “Good morning Chancellor.” Now the mere fact that he knew who I was--he was in kindergarten--was surprising. And I said, “Good morning, what’s your name young man?” And he said “My name is Jamal.” And I said “Jamal, what do you do at Excellence Academy?” And he said “Chancellor, I’m in a University of Pennsylvania Program.” So right, your eyes just opened up wide right, so I had the exact same. I said, “Jamal, what are you talking about, you’re in kindergarten, what do you mean you’re in a University of Pennsylvania Program?” Jamal said, “Well you know, Chancellor, I’m going to college. It’s never too young to think about it.”

Now you see, in fact, he will soon visit colleges, they will become now-- I admit his family may have never taken him to college. When I grew up, my parents never took me to visit a college. But the school became the shoulders on which this kid can now stand to see a different world, and so from the day he arrived at Excellence, he’s thinking, “I’ve got a different vision from the vision that I once knew about.” And they’re making it happen and they’re not making excuses.

The number of kids, when they’re at Excellence, who show up every day, who when they’re sick want to go to school, which is not a common phenomenon, reflects the fact that those kids not only have high expectations set for them, but they’ve internalized it.

And then I went back and checked, because they got their first results last year, in the third grade, and you would have figured they’d maybe have 55, 60% proficiency in the third grade for a school like that. And they had a 100% proficient in math and 92% in English. That outperforms almost any school in the city, those proficiency levels. So this can be done.

Now Excellence is a school that chose very carefully, that has a very strong leader. And we have others like it. But it’s that combination, and even when you’re doing it, you constantly perfect it.

Just like when you do the work you’re doing here at Big Think, if you don’t get better and better and better, it won’t work, no matter how good you start, you got to get better. The same thing is true in a school that faces the kind of challenges we’re talking about.

Recorded on: March 30, 2008

Even kids from the most challenging backgrounds can still succeed.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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