Kids Need Sleep

From a new paper in the Journal of School Health:

We used data from the 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS). Logistic regression analyses evaluated the association between insufficient sleep and school violence behaviors, controlling for demographic factors. In addition to examining main effects, interaction terms were entered into the models to examine whether potential associations varied by sex or race/ethnicity…Students with insufficient sleep had higher odds of engaging in the majority of school violence-related behaviors examined compared to students with sufficient sleep. Males with insufficient sleep were at increased risk of weapon carrying at school, a finding not observed for females with insufficient sleep. White students with insufficient sleep had higher odds of missing school because of safety concerns, a pattern that did not emerge among Black and Hispanic/Latino students.

Nothing too earth shattering, but it’s a reminder that we could do a better job with school scheduling. For example, in many places starting the school day later would allow kids to get more sleep and leave them with less unsupervised time after school.

There Is No Hypothetical “Other” Common Core

Over the last few months there’s been an uptick in critiques of the Common Core. Some are legitimate (implementation!), some are asinine (indoctrination!), and some fall somewhere in between. One complaint that slots into the third category is that the Common Core simply isn’t the right collection of standards and curricular guidelines for getting the kind of teaching and learning we want. For example, here’s Shaun Johnson at HuffPo:

Without getting into the weeds of curriculum theory, information from the CCSSI makes it very plain that we’re dealing with something much more precise than generic standards. The mission of the CCSS is very clear that the ultimate purpose of education and schooling is to transfer the “knowledge and skills” in order to “compete successfully in the global economy.” Preparation for the world of work and economic competitiveness, increased productivity and efficiency, limit the kinds of conversations educators can have with students. It defines what knowledge and skills are important and admits unmistakably that an educated person is a productive worker.

This interpretation of the CCSS exhibits an incredible level of naiveté regarding political discourse in America. The official goal of the standards is to help students “compete” in the “global economy” because that’s the rhetoric people in focus groups want to hear. In the last five years every political contest has been about proving you care or know more about job creation, and so the proponents of the CCSS couched its justification in rhetoric about jobs. But that’s all it is. Relatively empty rhetoric. Is Johnson really arguing that delineating what type of algebraic transformations a 7th grader should know will limit what that student ultimately can learn and accomplish?

What Johnson hints at but doesn’t actually address is the question of what would have happened if the CCSS mission was to “develop well-rounded citizens who posses the skills needed to strengthen our Democracy.” Does Johnson believe that in an alternate universe we could have had a radically different group of curriculum experts design a radically different set of standards? I think the answer is a resounding no. The CCSS had buy-in from a diverse group of our best organizations and was designed by our best people. It was based on state-of-the-art thinking that emerged from a wide range of beliefs and life experiences. Regardless of the actual words used to talk about the CCSS, a large scale effort to create new standards between 2010 and 2015 was always going to give us something similar to what we got. The idea that there is some other type of “less-curricular” standards we realistically could have come up with doesn’t hold water.

School Choice Is Associated With More Student Engagement

One thing I harp on a fair amount is that it’s a shame the concept of school choice has been bound to divisive rhetoric about competition and free markets. Every student is different, and therefore the presence of more choices always makes it more likely that a student will find a school that meshes with their personal characteristics. Studies suggest that students have the potential to benefit from a particular school’s composition of social groups, use of technology, academic expectations, or starting time, and those are just a few of many areas where more choices could allow students to find a better fit.

Yet there hasn’t been a lot of research on whether school choice leads to better matches between students and schools. Obviously there has been a lot of research in the “choice” genre, but these studies generally purport to reveal the benefits of choice by showing that public schools of choice (i.e. charter schools) perform better than traditional public schools. What these studies miss is that sometimes the traditional public school is the best fit for a student, and so a student who excels in a traditional public school may also be a school-choice success story. Therefore determining the effect of school choice on student-school matches shouldn’t involve comparing types of public schools within a particular region, it should involve comparing levels of school choice across regions.

That’s exactly what a group of Saint Louis University researchers attempted to do in a new study that examines the relationship between school choice and student engagement. After controlling for factors such as class size, ethnicity, and SES status, the researchers looked at how the number of schools in a county influenced academic engagement. Their findings suggest that school choice is not simply a means to the end of having better schools, it’s an end in and of itself.

We consider how the amount of educational choice of different types in a local educational marketplace affects student engagement using a large, national population of 8th grade students. We find that more choice of regular public schools in the elementary and middle school years is associated with a lower likelihood that students will be severely disengaged in eighth grade, and more choices of public schools of choice has a similar effect but only in urban areas. In contrast, more private sector choice does not have such a general beneficial effect.


Our evidence is consistent with the argument that more choices lead to the more efficient matching of students and schools. In the entire sample and urban areas, more choice in the regular public sector improves student engagement. Regular public schools may offer the advantage of providing choice, while permitting schools to be embedded in the local community, which may provide some benefits for student engagement (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987, p. 7). In central cities, charters may produce more efficient matching of students and schools, producing more highly engaged students. These results do not necessarily imply that we should create more regular public or charter schools since the benefits from more choice must be weighed against the costs associated with expanding choice, such as more racial/ethnic stratification (Bischoff, 2008, p. 207).

While the study suggests that charter schools have a positive impact, one could argue that if the issue is merely the quantity of schools, districts could potentially provide more choice via an increase in traditional public schools. Thus the solution is not necessarily more charter schools, but better urban planning that creates neighborhoods with enough density for a variety of traditional public schools to thrive.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that, for better or worse, charter advocates have co-opted rhetoric about choice, and their opponents seem to have no interest in taking it back. Thus it’s unlikely that unions or traditional districts will ever get behind a push for more school choice. It also seems likely that districts will have a harder time creating schools with real differences, and districts may also be slower to adapt if a certain school is revealed to be a poor fit for most of the students in the area.

Regardless of what you think of charter schools or the “school choice” movement, it seems clear that having more schooling options is a good thing. Charter proponents would do well to play up this aspect of choice because it makes for a compelling argument while also steering clear of controversial ideology. At the same time, it would be nice to see charter opponents put forward comprehensive school choice plans that conform to their own vision of public education. We don’t all have to agree on the way to provide choice, but it would be good to reach a consensus that choice is in fact a good thing.
Vaughn, M., & Witko, C. (2013). Does the amount of school choice matter for student engagement? The Social Science Journal, 50 (1), 23-33 DOI: 10.1016/j.soscij.2012.07.004

Let’s Put Women In Charge

They’ll probably be more ethical:

Women select into business school at a lower rate than men and are underrepresented in high-ranking positions in business organizations. We examined gender differences in reactions to ethical compromises as one possible explanation for these disparities. In Study 1, when reading decisions that compromised ethical values for social status and monetary gains, women reported feeling more moral outrage and perceived less business sense in the decisions than men. In Study 2, we established a causal relationship between aversion to ethical compromises and disinterest in business careers by manipulating the presence of ethical compromises in job descriptions. As hypothesized, an interaction between gender and presence of ethical compromises emerged. Only when jobs involved making ethical compromises did women report less interest in the jobs than men. Women’s moral reservations mediated these effects. In Study 3, we found that women implicitly associated business with immorality more than men did.

How Knowledge Can Make You Stupid

(cross-posted from The Inertia Trap)

The human ability to infer what other people are thinking is a big reason we’re able to understand and cooperate with others. Along with the ability to take pictures of our food, it’s what separates us from lesser primates.

But we’re not born with this ability. Experiments involving what’s called the “change-of-location” or “false-belief” task show that it tends to develop between the ages of three and five. In these experiments children observe or are told about a person who hides an object and then leaves the room. While this protagonist is gone, a second person comes in and moves the object. Children are then asked where the protagonist will look for the object when they return. Younger children are unable to separate their own knowledge of the new location from the knowledge of the protagonist, and thus they tend to say the person will look in the object’s new location. Older children are able to understand that the protagonist can hold a false belief, and thus they tend to correctly say the protagonist will look in the object’s original location.

For years, that’s all there was to it. Once kids reached elementary school, we assumed they could keep their own knowledge separate from what they perceived others to know. But a new study led by Jessica Sommerville of the University of Washington throws some variation into the change-of-location task, and the results suggest that we may not grow out of this stage as much as we think.

While the standard false belief task involves putting the object is two distinct locations (e.g. table, cupboard, closet, etc.), Sommerville and her team created a continuous set of locations by conducting the experiment within a sandbox. This allowed the researchers to detect lesser degrees of influence because rather than requiring participants to absurdly guess the wrong location in order to show bias, all participants needed to do was guess the wrong location by a matter of centimeters.

Whereas the classic change-of-location task is designed to assess whether participants appreciate that a protagonist can hold a false belief, our Sandbox task focuses on a different but related issue. The goal of our task is to test the degree to which participants’ knowledge of the object in its new location biases their representation of where the protagonist thinks the object is located. Thus, our task is designed to focus on the amount of bias (measured in centimeters) that the participants’ own privileged knowledge exerts on their representation of another person’ s belief about a location in space.

Sommerville’s experiments were similar to the standard change-of-location experiments. In the “false-belief” condition, the experimenter narrated and acted out the story, first placing the object in the initial location in the sandbox, and then moving it to the second location when the protagonist in the story would have been absent. Participants were then asked to predict where the protagonist would look for the object. Participants also engaged in a control condition in which they were simply asked to recall where the object was initially placed.

The researchers found that not only did the 3- and 5-year-olds show bias on the false-belief condition relative to the control, adults did too. That is, when adults were asked where the protagonist would look for the object, they chose a spot that, compared to their memory of the object’s initial location, was significantly closer to the object’s new location. It appears that adults’ own knowledge of where the object was hidden influenced where they thought the person would look for it.

Within the lab, this may not seem like a big deal, but in other contexts this kind of bias can be problematic. For example, imagine that instead of understanding how somebody can falsely believe an object is four feet from the end of the sandbox when it’s really two feet from the end, you understand how your neighbor can believe your toaster is worth $20 when you know it’s worth $40. If the neighbor wants to buy your toaster, this understanding leads to the conclusion that $30 is a fair compromise.

But Sommerville’s research suggests that things may not work that smoothly. Even if all objective evidence points to your neighbor thinking that the toaster is worth $20, your own knowledge that it’s *really* worth $40 can bias your estimate of his belief. So instead of $30 being the fair compromise, you might think he actually believes the toaster is worth $22 or $23, and therefore $31 or $32 is the fair compromise. At the margin, this makes reaching an agreement more difficult.

Now imagine that instead of toaster prices, one person is a senator who knows the optimal tax rate on income over $250,000 is 39.3%, and the other person is a senator known to believe the optimal rate is 36.4%. Suddenly the prospect of the first senator’s belief influencing his perception of what his colleague believes is a pretty big deal.

Of course this is all a rather lengthy extrapolation from a single study, and it’s unclear how biased estimates about an object buried in a sandbox will translate to more natural settings. Furthermore, when it comes to high-stakes negotiations, there are so many factors involved that it’s debatable whether these biases would even have a marginal impact.

Nevertheless, Somerville’s research is important because it reveals that we may never quite grow out of the phase where we’re unable to keep our own beliefs from influencing how we perceive the beliefs of others. Being unable to assess somebody else’s beliefs with 100% accuracy is a problem, and if it’s your own knowledge that get in the way, that means it’s even more important to ensure the beliefs you hold are the correct ones.
Sommerville, J., Bernstein, D., & Meltzoff, A. (2013). Measuring Beliefs in Centimeters: Private Knowledge Biases Preschoolers’ and Adults’ Representation of Others’ Beliefs Child Development DOI: 10.1111/cdev.12110

What Do “Corporate” Education Reformers Really Want?

There’s a story about the current state of U.S. education policy in which the key actors are a cabal of wealthy businessmen who are plowing money into “reform” organizations so they can profit from the gutting of our public education system. It’s a story that’s detrimental to constructive debate because regardless of what you think about its veracity (I’m extremely skeptical), it elevates ad hominem attacks based on “for-profit” labels at the expense of actual policy critiques.

The good news is that we may finally have our best test case for determining how much truth there is to this story. The AFT is pushing a plan to divest teacher pensions from hedge funds managed by people who donate money to organizations whose agendas are not condoned by the union. This presumably poses a dilemma for hedge fund managers because it puts the goals of supporting education reform and maximizing profit in direct conflict. If hedge fund managers only care about profits, they’ll abstain from providing financial support to reform organizations in order to earn fees from managing teacher pensions. On the other hand, if managers support reform because they think the policies will help kids, they ought to be willing to sacrifice profits in order to continue pushing those policies. Thus, the way hedge fund managers react to the AFT’s initiative will reveal whether they support profit above all else, or whether they support reform for non-financial reasons, such as the belief that it will improve our schools.

So, will this prove to be a watershed moment in American education policy? Probably not. If the blacklisted managers do cave to the AFT, there will be lots of rhetoric about them always having been businessmen first and philanthropists second. On the other hand, if they do choose to sacrifice profits, you’ll probably hear that gutting public education is still part of a long game that will lead to an even greater financial windfall (something that’s completely at odds with the fact that hedge funds make most of their money from exorbitant management feeds.)

But even if in the end this is all accepted as proof of nothing, that should at least put a dent in the “for-profit” ad hominem attacks that are often mistaken for reasoned debate. If you’re unwilling to let actual profit-seeking behavior influence your opinion of “for-profit” motives, it’s a sign that you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.

Heroism Is Our Default Setting

One of the oft-cited takeaways from the past week is that people are basically awesome. In the midst of unpredictable danger and tragedy, residents (and guests) of the Boston area didn’t hesitate to help their fellow citizens.

But what’s troubling about these realizations of human goodness is that they suggest an a priori doubt about our generosity and compassion. One reason we might come to expect human selfishness is public awareness of the “Bystander Effect.” First made famous by the failure of bystanders to intervene in the relatively public murder of Kitty Genovesse, the effect refers to the way the presence of others can make us more likely to ignore those in need. It has been written about a fair amount, and on some level it has made the occurrence of truly selfless aid seem surprising.

But it shouldn’t. Recent research has shown the bystander effect to be a relatively weak and rare phenomenon in situations that resemble what occurred in Boston. For example, a 2011 meta-analysis found the bystander effect was significantly weaker in situations perceived to be dangerous. The reasoning is that dangerous situations are more quickly identified as emergencies, and this induces a state of arousal that can only be remedied by helping the victim.

A second study that’s set to be published in the British Journal of Social Psychology also pokes holes in the bystander effect. The study looked at whether people with the potential to help reacted rationally based on the perceived value of their contributions. The researchers found that when people believe a situation requires a lot of people to help, the presence of other bystanders has no detrimental effect on their likelihood of helping:

Three studies reveal that the presence of other bystanders does not inhibit helping when effective helping requires more than one help-giver. Mediation analyses showed that the bystander effect did not occur when many responses were needed because bystanders did not shift responsibility to others when in the presence of other bystanders. These findings suggest that the rational considerations underlying the bystander effect can mitigate the effects of the presence of other bystanders on helping behaviour when more than one help-giver is needed.

When thrown into an environment like the post-explosion scene in Boston, it’s clear that people will perceive a great deal of danger and understand that contributions are needed from as many people as possible. Given those circumstances, one would expect the bystander effect to have little impact. Research has also demonstrated the power of compassion in driving human behavior. This too makes what happened in Boston unsurprising.

None of this is meant to trivialize the intrepid efforts of those who risked their lives. But if it’s human nature to be compassionate and selfless in the most challenging moments, we should treat that behavior as the rule rather than the exception. We should let it be known that what happened in Boston is the prevailing social norm that should guide your future behavior.

So let’s take pride in the normative nature of our humanitarianism more often. There’s no need to wait for it to be thrust into our consciousness during moments of tragedy.
Fischer, P., Krueger, J., Greitemeyer, T., Vogrincic, C., Kastenmüller, A., Frey, D., Heene, M., Wicher, M., & Kainbacher, M. (2011). The bystander-effect: A meta-analytic review on bystander intervention in dangerous and non-dangerous emergencies. Psychological Bulletin, 137 (4), 517-537 DOI: 10.1037/a0023304

Greitemeyer, T., & Mügge, D. (2013). Rational bystanders British Journal of Social Psychology DOI: 10.1111/bjso.12036