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Why top-down reform won't save the education system
Countless top-down reforms haven't improved the U.S. education system; can community-based education make a difference?
- A new report from the RAND Corporation details another top-down initiative that failed to improve student achievement.
- Community-based education reform creates coalitions of stakeholders to support lifelong learning.
- Though barriers exist, such reform could synthesize the best of top-down and bottom-up reform.
If there's one constant in education, it's top-down reform. Long-time educators are as familiar with its ebbs and flows as a sailor the tide's. A new administration or organization promises sweeping changes aimed at enhancing effectiveness; they leave behind a dross of curriculum changes, administrative requirements, and new testing standards.
A few years later, a new administration comes to wash it away and start over.
This ebb and flow would be welcomed by educators and parents if these reforms achieved their goals of improving scholastic achievement, creating productive environments, and imbuing students with a sense of motivation and self-worth. But that's seldom the case.
Failing from the top down
There's a long history of studies showing top-down reform's lack of efficacy. In 2018, the RAND Corporation released a report looking at the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching Initiative, designed and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The initiative ran for seven years and cost roughly a billion dollars.
Three school districts and four charter management organizations participated in the initiative. Each adopted a rubric "that established a common understanding of effective teaching" and trained classroom observers. These observers scored teachers on their effectiveness and measured that alongside student achievement. The schools then used these measurements to determine recruitment, dismissal, compensation, and advancement criteria.
Unfortunately, the more than 500-page report found the initiative to be a failure. Across the years, few metrics in student achievement, teacher effectiveness, and dropout rate were improved at participating schools, while many saw negative dips when compared to similar schools who did not participate. Nor did the schools retain or hire more successful teachers.
The effective teacher initiative is just one study, but there have been many others. The most well-known example of this century (so far) was the No Child Left Behind Act, which was gutted by a bipartisan Congress after censure across the political spectrum. Smaller examples exist as well, such as a 2019 study that found local nudging strategies, such as text reminders to apply for financial aid, don't scale up effectively.
As evident by such frequent, fruitless attempts, top-down education has clearly not been successful. Then why do we continue to pursue it? Jay P. Greene, endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, believes it stems from a mistaken theory on education.
As he wrote for Education Next, "In its essence, that theory holds that there are policy interventions that could improve outcomes for large numbers of students if only we could discover them and get policymakers and practitioners to adopt them at scale."
Writing on the effective teacher initiative, Greene further adds that these failures aren't "inherently wrong." Individuals and societies can learn from failures, so even mistakes can serve a purpose. The problem with top-down education reforms is that the administrations and organizations pushing them aren't learning the appropriate lessons. (A disheartening irony given the subject at hand.)
Why? Merrill Vargo, former CEO emeritus at Pivot Learning Partners, argues such organizations champion top-down reform because that's what works in the closed-system of the business environment. But public education is an open system, where variables shift constantly through interactions with the environment.
It takes a village
It's here that we find a clue to lasting, beneficial education reform: community-based education reform. Like top-down reform, community-based learning doesn't describe a specific approach. It can refer to many different instruction methods and programs, such as youth apprenticeships, lifelong learning, and experiential learning programs.
It is instead a philosophy of where such reform should be centered. The key driver is an understanding that community engagement, decision-making, and reflection are integral to improving education. In turn, community members and institutions view education as both a responsibility and an asset.
"Schools and universities tend to focus, appropriately so, on the performance of their students. Yet another important aspect for schools to consider is the impact they can have as catalysts for the well-being of local communities," write Rosana G. Rodriguez and Abelardo Villarreal for the Intercultural Development Research Association. "The type of interaction between schools and universities and their constituent parents and communities has great potential to be a strong positive force for improving the quality of life for local citizens."
They point out that community-based reform brings sectors of a community together to form a unified coalition. These stakeholders should include schools, government, community institutions, community members, and, of course, parents. Each working toward the goal of creating a local environment that supports scholastic achievement and motivates students to learn.
Rodriguez and Villarreal further argue that community-based reform pays dividends in the form of economic gains, increased access to social benefits, and community empowerment.
"[W]hat if our system's greatest strength is the thing that is most often cited as its fatal weakness? Proponents of top-down reforms prey on the alleged weakness of our decentralized school governance system, but what if this idea could be turned on its head?" wrote Dave Powell, associate professor of education at Gettysburg College and former "K-12 Contrarian" for Education Week.
He continues: "We can introduce more choice into our system and still keep it genuinely public, and we can also protect equity and opportunity while simultaneously holding school professionals accountable for student learning. We can even provide a more stable source of funding for schools if we want to. We just haven't figured out how to do it yet. I, for one, believe that careful planning in the communities where schools actually exist will help us get there."
While we haven't figured out how yet, there exists an extensive, years-long study in community-based learning that has shown tremendous results. It's called Finland.
Thirty years ago, Finland's education system looked a lot like the U.S.'s. It was top-down heavy, extensively tracked teacher effectiveness, and leaned heavily on test scores to grade efficacy. Then the country made a concentrated effort at reform.
The Finnish system is guided by a national core curriculum, but local municipalities, school administrators, and teachers have broad autonomy to steer education to meet local needs. They can decide timetables, what tests to give, and how to evaluate students. Education is viewed as a community initiative — for example, students support each other and teachers are seen as cornerstones in their communities. While standard tests are administered, they are tied neither to funding nor performance incentives.
Today, the country's education system is recognized as one of the world's best.
Reforming the next reform
Anyone familiar with education literature will know there's been much ink spilled over top-down versus bottom-up reform. If done correctly, community-based learning doesn't have to be top-down or bottom-up. It can facilitate a synthesis between the two.
So why hasn't it been attempted at scale in the United States? There are several barriers.
Some are practical. Teachers need to be trained away from standardized testing and toward working with students individually. Public funding and investment must be retooled for parity for all students, including access to transportation and essential technologies. Parents and community members need to be informed and oriented. And evaluations of student learning cannot be one-size-fits-all.
Others are ideological. Many still see education as imparting required knowledge — not as a creative, lifelong process we all engage in as a community. This can lead community-based learning to be seen as a distraction from traditional, if potentially outmoded, curricula.
These barriers, however, are not insurmountable. They only require planning, resources, support, and the will to work toward positive structural changes.
Pandemic rumors and information overload make separating fact from fancy difficult, putting people's health and lives at risk.
The dark side of the information age<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU1NzYwMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNjE3MzY3Nn0.0HveQP16MbMkj9HXE8miohSHXETOak7oFDtBdXtE7lM/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C400%2C0%2C256&height=700" id="60d48" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9085c1a7d5b3f81344c3002acdf1df68" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A South Korean church became a viral hotspot after church officials sprayed a salt water "cure" in congregants mouths, without disinfecting the nozzle between uses.
The cure for bad information is good<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="e0tfZ3YB" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="601aa46855087a4dfcf02a67a160e0c4"> <div id="botr_e0tfZ3YB_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/e0tfZ3YB-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/e0tfZ3YB-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p><strong></strong><strong></strong>That doesn't mean we are defenseless. The best cure for rumors, stigma, and conspiracy theories is good, evidence-based information. We just have to know how to recognize it when we find it. Unfortunately, that's difficult in the center of the infodemic vortex.</p><p>"Information overload is incredibly anxiety-provoking—which is true even when the information is accurate," Jaimie Meyer, a Yale Medicine infectious diseases specialist, <a href="https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/covid-19-infodemic/" target="_blank">told <em>Yale Medicine</em></a>. "But here, if people get the wrong information from unreliable sources, we may have more trouble slowing the spread of the virus. And we can't afford to get this wrong."</p><p>In their study, the researchers concluded that governments and health agencies should study the patterns of pandemic rumors, track the misinformation, and develop communication strategies to circumvent these messages. </p><p>In the <em>Yale Medicine </em>article, Meyer provides advice for helping individuals deal with information overload. She recommends looking at data and graphs carefully, considering how individual studies connect with established facts, and considering the whole story (not just the eye-catching headline). </p><p>When it comes to garnering information from social media, proceed with caution.</p><p>"Everything looks the same on Twitter," Meyer said. "When you have a tweet from Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Association of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, next to a tweet that says the opposite thing from a celebrity or some random person—and they all appear similar, you have to weigh the credibility of your sources." </p><p>She recommends following health agencies like <a href="https://twitter.com/who?lang=en" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the WHO</a>, <a href="https://twitter.com/CDCgov?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention</a>, and your local and state health agencies. When you come across a pandemic rumor or something that seems suspect, you can double-check it against these authoritative sources, such as the WHO's <a href="https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/myth-busters" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">COVID-19 mythbusters page</a>. And if you find yourself stressing out over the news and your social media feed, <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/mental-health-activities-coronavirus-lockdown" target="_self" rel="dofollow">take a mental break</a>.</p><p>We all would like a return to some form of normalcy, but that return will not emanate from a miracle cure. It will be a slow, steady course of handwashing, social distancing, and learning to navigate the infodemic.</p>
Carbon locked in soils can be emitted by bacteria.Turning up the heat on them releases more carbon.
- A new study shows that an increase in temperature can increase the amount of carbon released by the soil.
- This is in line with previous studies, though this one demonstrates a larger increase than the older experiments.
- The risk is that increasing temperatures cause a positive feedback loop.
The dirty details of an aggravated carbon cycle<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="CabkeAzx" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="169377c88f392a86f6c42180b74820a5"> <div id="botr_CabkeAzx_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/CabkeAzx-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/CabkeAzx-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>There is a lot of carbon in the dirt. The world's soil contains more carbon than the atmosphere, all the plants, or all the animals<a href="https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/" target="_blank"></a>. A third of this trove of carbon resides in the soils of the <a href="https://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/26866/20200813/tropical-soils-highly-sensitive-climate-change.htm" target="_blank">tropics</a>. Under normal circumstances, this works as a carbon <a href="https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/features/CarbonCycle" target="_blank">sink</a>, keeping carbon in storage and out of the atmosphere. Some of this carbon is used by bacteria in the soil to provide the building blocks of new microbes. They expel surplus carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. </p><p>Many of these microbes are known to be more active when exposed to higher temperatures. To determine what this could mean for carbon emissions, a team from The University of Edenborough and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute turned up the heat in tropical soils to see what would happen. </p><p>The researchers went to an undisturbed plot of forest on Barro Colorado Panama, the home of the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute. They placed heating rods just over a meter into the soil and turned up the heat, warming the earth by four degrees centigrade. They then measured the carbon emissions from the heated ground and another nearby patch left at ambient temperature. These measurements covered two years.</p><p>Their findings, published in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2566-4" target="_blank">Nature</a>, show that the heated soil emitted 55% more carbon than the control plot<a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/08/200812144102.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow"></a>. <br> <br> Study lead author Andrew Nottingham commented on these findings to the <a href="https://phys.org/news/2020-08-global-tropical-soils-leak-carbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">AFP</a>. "Carbon held in tropical soils is more sensitive to warming than previously recognized. Even a small increase in respiration from tropical forest soils could have a large effect on atmospheric CO<sub>2</sub> concentrations, with consequences for global climate."</p><p>You can probably also spot the potential feedback loop here: If the global temperature increases too much, more carbon will be released from tropical soils, which then increase the greenhouse effect, which causes global temperatures to rise. </p>
Once is happenstance, twice is a coincidence, thrice is evidence of a pattern.<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="8PLWDgcM" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="378380d273bf4a1c9606370acea15e58"> <div id="botr_8PLWDgcM_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/8PLWDgcM-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/8PLWDgcM-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>Previous studies on this topic point in the same direction. Those studies and the models they inspired suggested that increased temperatures could increase soil-based carbon emissions, but they all underestimated how much carbon would be involved.</p><p>A 2016 study focusing on temperate soils also concluded that increasing soil temperatures would increase their carbon <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature20150" target="_blank">emissions</a>. They predicted that, if left unchecked, these emissions would equal the amount produced by a country similar to the United States over the next few <a href="https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">decades</a>. Another experiment in Colorado found similar <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6332/1420" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">results</a>. Both of these studies found lower increases in carbon emissions by percentage than the study on Barro Colorado. </p><p>However, these studies did not take place in the tropics, and the differences in the soils between temperate and tropical zones could explain the differences between the studies. Moreover, the dirt on Barro Colorado Island differs from the dirt in the Amazon and may be more inclined to produce more emissions when the heat is turned up. The same can be said of tropical soils <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/12/climate/tropical-soils-climate-change.html?searchResultPosition=3&utm_campaign=Hot%20News&utm_medium=email&_hsmi=93170710&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-8McWKRhE8U9ChcWW2qkqNyp2Qndzr1aJmGlrMUwK_h1bM8RDQukWcM8r2OcBKW2Y0bWlRr9o4WUixKDzIo4HzKkVv19g&utm_content=93170710&utm_source=hs_email" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">elsewhere</a>. </p><p>Another <a href="https://www.forestwarming.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">experiment</a>, very similar to the one in Panama, is currently underway in Puerto Rico. However, this experiment is taking the extra step of also heating the plants near the heated soil to see what the effect of warmer temperatures is on their ability to absorb carbon.</p><p>The current study also did not heat the soil past the one-meter mark and cannot provide us with predictions of what more comprehensive heating of the soil would do to emissions. It was also comparatively short, and the effect may be reduced in the long run as the nutrients in the soil are depleted by the increased activity of the microbes, which are using the carbon and other resources to <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02266-9" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">reproduce</a>. </p><p>The team behind the most recent study will continue their experiment to try and understand how tropical ecosystems respond to increased <a href="https://www.earth.com/news/billions-of-tons-of-co2-could-be-released-from-tropical-soils/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">temperatures</a> over more extended periods of time. </p><p>As we increase our understanding of the planet and its various environmental systems, the potential consequences of climate change become clearer and more horrifying. This new study supports previous findings that suggest disrupting soils can increase carbon emissions. While it may be too soon to tell if the eye-popping increases found by this study are typical or an outlier, they do re-enforce the notion that a breakdown in the systems that keep the climate stable is possible if nothing changes. </p>
A study published Friday tested how well 14 commonly available face masks blocked the emission of respiratory droplets as people were speaking.
- The study tested the efficacy of popular types of face masks, including N95 respirators, bandanas, cotton-polypropylene masks, gaiters and others.
- The results showed that N95 respirators were most effective, while wearing a neck fleece (aka gaiter) actually produced more respiratory droplets than wearing no mask at all.
- Certain types of homemade masks seem to be effective at blocking the spread of COVID-19.
Fischer et al.<p>A smartphone camera recorded video of the participants, and a computer algorithm counted the number of droplets they emitted. To establish a control trial, the participants spoke into the box both with and without a mask. And to make sure that the droplets weren't in fact dust from the masks, the team conducted more tests by "repeatedly puffing air from a bulb through the masks."</p>
Fischer et al.<p>The results, published Friday in <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/early/2020/08/07/sciadv.abd3083" target="_blank">Science Advances</a>, showed that some masks are pretty much useless. In particular, neck fleeces (also called gaiters) actually produced more respiratory droplets compared to the control trial — likely because the fabric breaks down big droplets into smaller ones.</p><p>The top three most effective masks were N95 respirators, surgical masks and polypropylene-cotton masks. Bandanas performed the worst, but were slightly better than wearing no mask at all.</p>
Fischer et al.<p>Research on mask efficacy is still emerging. But the new results seem to generally align with <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">prior tests</a>. For example, a study from June published in <a href="https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0016018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Physics of Fluid</a> found that bandanas (followed by folded handkerchiefs) were least effective at blocking respiratory droplets. That same study also found, as <a href="https://newsroom.wakehealth.edu/News-Releases/2020/04/Testing-Shows-Type-of-Cloth-Used-in-Homemade-Masks-Makes-a-Difference" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">others have</a>, that masks made from multiple layers of quilter's fabric were especially effective at blocking droplets.</p><p>The researchers hope other institutions will conduct similar experiments so the public can see how well different masks can block the spread of COVID-19.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"This is a very powerful visual tool to raise awareness that a very simple masks, like these homemade cotton masks, do really well to stop the majority of these respiratory droplets," Fischer told CNN. "Companies and manufacturers can set this up and test their mask designs before producing them, which would also be very useful."</p>
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