Is Obama Flunking on Education?

Question: Why do you believe No Child Left Behind contributes to de facto segregation in the schools?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well basically No Child Left Behind doesn’t address it, hasn’t touched it.  You know here we have a law that you know if you look at the law itself it’s literally hundreds of pages long and no mention at all over about the need to create integrated schools.  Think about this.  By the year…  Most demographers project by the year 2040 or 41 we will be a country where people of color make up the majority.  To not prepare kids to function in a world where they’re going to need to interact with diverse groups of people I think is to deprive them and to deny them a good education.  There was a time in this country where we thought that was important, where we were willing to risk a high degree of polarization by busing people and you know finding ways to integrate communities and schools.  We’ve retreated from that.  Some of that is because of the courts.  A lot of that is because the lack of political will.  Where we are now as a country is accepting the idea of segregated schools and I think it’s like Plessy.  The idea of Plessy vs. Ferguson was separate but equal.  I think that’s where we are now.  We’re still not at equal, but I think that many people are satisfied with separate.  I think that that is a huge political problem.  I think they will never be equal because the way we educate our kids is directly related to the way we value not only the children, but also their parents and the communities they live in and so I see this as a major political challenge that there is not much leadership to address right now.

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Question: If there were the political will to solve the problem, how would you recommend solving it?

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Pedro Noguera:  Well I think we’ve had major setbacks in the courts, which have limited the ability to integrate schools, so you can’t cross district lines, for example, to create more diverse schools, so there are legal limitations out there, but beyond that one of the major reasons why schools are so segregated is because in many cities the public schools disproportionally serve the poorest kids, and what ends up happening when that is the case is that middle class people, affluent people don’t put their kids in the public schools, so you end up with a two-tiered system, a private one for the white and the affluent and a public one for the poor.  That’s New York City.  That’s Chicago.  That’s most cities across the United States.  The only way to address that is to significantly invest in the public schools, so that the public schools can really offer an education that the middle class would choose for their children, so I think that’s got to be part of the strategy.  You can’t attract white middle class parents unless you address the quality of the schools.  Now it’s also true that there is still bias.  There is prejudice and there are a lot of white parents who don’t want their kids in school with poor black and brown kids, and so I mean creative ways you could address that through magnet programs and other issues, but ultimately it does change of beliefs and my hope is that with time some of those attitudes will change too.

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Question: Has national education policy changed or remained the same under Obama?

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Pedro Noguera:  I think there is a lot of continuity from Bush to Obama in terms of education policy.  There haven’t been many major changes and I’m disappointed about that.  I think that neither the president nor the secretary is clear what was wrong with No Child Left Behind, and what I see coming from the administration so far is too much emphasis on charter schools and a tendency to frame it as a competition between charters and traditional public schools.  When you consider the fact that the vast majority of kids are in public schools I think that is a big mistake.  I just think if you don’t have a strategy for addressing the quality of education that children receive in public schools then you don’t really… you can’t really innovate and improve those schools, and so far I haven’t heard the administration come up with any ideas that sound particularly innovative.  They say they want to encourage innovation.  They never define what that means or what it looks like or anything else.

Recorded on January 28, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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Why the President and his Education Secretary may be compounding the flaws of No Child Left Behind with new mistakes.

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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.

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