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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.
Several experts have weighed in on our sometimes morbid curiosity and fascination with true crime stories.
- True crime podcasts can get as many as 500,000 downloads per month. In the Top 100 Podcasts of 2020 list for Apple US, several true crime podcasts ranked within the Top 20.
- Our fascination with true crime isn't just limited to podcasts, with Netflix documentaries like "Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" scoring high popularity with viewers.
- Several experts weight in on our fascination with true crime stories with theories including fear-based adrenaline rushes to the inherent need to understand the human mind.
Why are we fascinated with true crime stories?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzODA1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzkwOTAzOX0.7WqeWaf-odtEJV5XB2jdEG1uPU5d6Uaujw6iy6MKMbw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="d99fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4d3cc24145f6a0f324162f1cf1dfe83" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="woman standing in front of crime scene notes true crime stories true crime podcasts" />
Several experts and psychologists weigh in on why we could be so fascinated by violence, destruction and true crime stories...
Photo by Motortion Films on Shutterstock<p>Several experts have weighed in on this topic over the years, as the spike in popularity of true crime media has continued at an astonishing rate.</p> <p><strong>Psychopaths are charismatic.</strong> </p><p>One of the <a href="https://www.scienceofpeople.com/psychopath/#:~:text=Psychopathy%20researchers%20found%20that%20psychopaths,defer%20gratification%20and%20control%20behavior" target="_blank">defining qualities of a psychopath</a> is that they have "superficial charm and glibness", which could explain part of our fascination with podcasts, tv shows, and movies that cover the lives of famous serial killers. </p> <p><strong>Our psychology demands we pay attention to things that could harm us.</strong></p><p>Psychology can play a large role in why we like what we like, and our fascination with true crime stories is no exception. When it comes to potential threats or things that could be threatening to humanity, perhaps we've been conditioned to pay those things extra attention. </p> <p>According to Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at <a href="http://www.doctorondemand.com/" target="_blank">Doctor on Demand</a> who spoke about the process <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">in an interview with NCB News</a>, seeing destruction, disaster, or tragedy actually triggers survival instincts in us. </p> <p><em>"A disaster enters into our awareness - this can be from a live source such as driving by a traffic accident or from watching a news report about a hurricane, a plane crash or any disaster. This data from our perceptual system then stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat to you, thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the 'fight or flight' response is evoked." </em></p> <p><strong>Could it just be morbid curiosity? </strong></p><p>Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., and professor at De Sales University explained <a href="https://www.bustle.com/p/why-are-people-so-obsessed-with-true-crime-experts-reveal-the-evolutionary-reasons-why-18138062" target="_blank">in an interview with Bustle</a>:</p> <p><em>"Part of our love of true crime is based on something very natural: curiosity. People reading or watching a true crime story are engaged on several levels. They are curious about who would do this, they want to know the psychology of the bad guy, girl, or team. They want to know something about the abhorrent mind. They also love the puzzle - figuring out how it was done." </em></p> <p><strong>Perhaps it's a way of facing our fears and planning our own reactions without risking immediate harm. </strong></p><p>Psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson spoke with NBC News on this topic, suggesting that we may be fascinated with violence, destruction or crime as a way of assessing how we would handle ourselves if put into that situation.</p> <p><em>"Witnessing violence and destruction, whether it is in a novel, a movie, on TV or a real life scene playing out in front of us in real time, gives us the opportunity to confront our fears of death, pain, despair, degradation and annihilation while still feeling some level of safety. This sensation is sometimes experienced when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or look through the glass at a ferocious lion at the zoo. We watch because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: 'If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? Would I be the hero or the villain? Could I endure the pain? Would I have the strength to recover?' We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control."</em></p> <p><strong>Psychologically, negative events activate our brains more than positive events. </strong></p><p><a href="http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0033-2909.134.3.383" target="_blank">A 2008 study</a> published by the American Psychological Association found that humans react to and learn more from negative experiences than we do positive ones. The term "negative bias" is the tendency to automatically give more attention (and meaning) to negative events and information more than positive events or information. </p> <p><strong>A forced perspective may trigger empathy and act as a coping mechanism. </strong></p><p>Viewing destruction (or listening to/watching true crime stories) could be beneficial. How? According to Dr. Mayer (who explained this stance in <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">his interview with NBC News</a>), <em>"the healthy mechanism of watching disasters is that it is a coping mechanism. We can become incubated emotionally by watching disasters and this helps us cope with hardships in our lives…" </em></p> <p><a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">Dr. Stephen Rosenburg points out</a>, however, that this empathetic response can also have a negative impact.<em> "Being human and having empathy can make us feel worried or depressed." </em></p> <p>Dr. Rosenberg goes on to explain that this can also impact the negativity bias.<em> "We tend to think negatively to protect ourselves from the reality. If it turns out better, we're relieved. If it turns out worse, we're prepared." </em></p> <p><strong>Perhaps the adrenaline of fear that comes from listening to or watching true crime can become addicting. </strong></p><p>Similarly to how runners get a "runners high" from exercise or feel depressed when they have missed a scheduled run, the adrenaline that pumps during our consumption of true crime stories <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201508/can-you-be-addicted-adrenaline" target="_blank">can become addictive</a>. </p> <p>According to sociology and criminology professor Scott Bonn, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201605/the-delightful-guilty-pleasure-watching-true-crime-tv" target="_blank">in an interview with Psychology Today</a>: <em>"The public is drawn to these stories because they trigger the most basic and powerful emotion in us all: fear." </em></p>
Apparently the Catholic Church is a small business.
- Churches and ministries received up to $10 billion in federal assistance during the first round of stimulus.
- The Catholic Church exploited a loophole to be considered a "small business" and received up to $3.5 billion in forgivable loans.
- With stimulus measures ending last week, up to 40 million Americans are in danger of losing their homes.
People wait for Pope Francis to give a short speech followed by the Angelus from the window of his apartment over St. Peter's Square on September 02, 2018 in Vatican City, Vatican.
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images<p>Catholic institutions in America employ over <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/03/13/the-new-pope-will-be-one-of-americas-biggest-employers/" target="_blank">one million people</a>, over <a href="https://www.statista.com/statistics/234488/number-of-amazon-employees/#:~:text=This%20statistic%20represents%20the%20combined,-%20and%20part-time%20employees." target="_blank">200,000 more</a> workers than on Amazon's payroll. Quite a small business.</p><p>The Catholic Church wasn't the only non-taxpaying entity to receive a boon. A campus ministry subsidiary of the Presbyterian Church of America <a href="https://ministrywatch.com/churches-and-religious-non-profits-received-6-10-billion-in-covid-relief-funds/" target="_blank">received between $5-$10 million</a>. Another $5 million went to Willow Creek Community Church, a megachurch whose longtime pastor was <a href="https://ministrywatch.com/a-ministrywatch-analysis-what-happened-at-willow-creek/" target="_blank">accused of sexual misconduct</a> in 2018. </p><p>The First Baptist Church of Dallas <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-ppp-religious/televangelists-megachurches-tied-to-trump-approved-for-millions-in-pandemic-aid-idUSKBN2480CB" target="_blank">received up to $5 million</a>. The church's leader, Robert Jeffress, <a href="https://www.dallasobserver.com/news/top-10-things-first-baptist-dallas-pastor-robert-jeffress-thinks-8326587" target="_blank">believes</a> abortion caused 9/11, gay sex can make you explode, and pedophilia and homosexuality are inherently related. Jeffress also sits on Trump's evangelical advisory board. </p><p>Churches and ministries receiving at least $2 million include ministry group, Jews for Jesus (<a href="https://www.ecfa.org/MemberProfile.aspx?ID=6322" target="_blank">total assets</a>: $39,596,245); evangelical book and music publisher, David C Cook (<a href="https://www.ecfa.org/memberprofile.aspx?id=7737" target="_blank">total assets</a>: $87,871,425); Mariners Church, an Irvine-based megachurch (<a href="https://www.ecfa.org/ComparativeFinancialData.aspx?ID=23142&Type=Member" target="_blank">total assets</a>: $107,026,283); The Summit Church, a North Carolina-based Southern Baptist church (<a href="https://www.ecfa.org/MemberProfile.aspx?ID=44905" target="_blank">total assets</a>: $60,694,442); and Orlando-based Ligonier Ministries (<a href="https://www.ecfa.org/MemberProfile.aspx?ID=5396" target="_blank">total assets</a>: $46,203,410).</p><p>Another <a href="https://ministrywatch.com/ministries-and-churches-receiving-more-than-1-m-in-paycheck-protection-program-funds/" target="_blank">400 ministries received at least $1 million</a> in forgivable loans under the CARES Act. </p><p>To reiterate, up to 40 million Americans may lose their home this year. </p><p>While churches already save <a href="https://bigthink.com/21st-century-spirituality/how-to-make-71-billion-a-year-tax-the-churches" target="_self">$71 billion</a> in tax relief every year, both Republican and Democratic proposals allow religious organizations to participate in the next round of stimulus funding. </p><p>Blessed are the meek, unless you have a lobbyist. Then you're just blessed. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
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