Friday, April 29, 2016

School District Socioeconomic Status, Race, and Academic Achievement

How much does academic performance vary among school districts and communities in the U.S.? How much of that variation is due to the socioeconomic context of the schools and the socioeconomic background of the students? How do test scores vary by race within and between districts?

This short report uses new data from the Stanford Education Data Archive to investigate these questions. It is a working draft that will be updated in the next few weeks. The intended purpose is to highlight key patterns of academic achievement across the country.

Many school districts and metropolitan areas have larger or smaller achievement gaps than predicted

This study estimates racial/ethnic achievement gaps in several hundred metropolitan areas and several thousand school districts in the United States using new data based on the results of roughly 200 million standardized math and reading tests administered to elementary and middle school students from 2009-2012.

The authors find substantial geographic variation in the magnitude of achievement gaps, ranging from nearly 0 in some places to larger than 1.2 standard deviations in others. A vector of economic, demographic, segregation and schooling characteristics variables explains roughly three-quarters of the geographic variation in these gaps. The strongest correlates of achievement gaps are racial/ethnic differences in parental income, parental education, and racial/ethnic segregation.

Nonetheless, even after adjusting for racial socioeconomic inequality and segregation, many school districts and metropolitan areas have larger or smaller achievement gaps than predicted, suggesting that other forces are at work as well.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Learning improves when every student gets a laptop

Schools that provide each student with a laptop computer, as well as the appropriate support for both students and teachers, see significant improvement in academic achievement, a new paper indicates.

Michigan State University's Binbin Zheng and colleagues analyzed years of studies on "one-to-one" laptop programs, including Zheng's own research, and found that such programs that take a comprehensive approach were linked to higher test scores in English, math, science and writing, along with other benefits.

"In the past couple decades, one-to-one laptop programs have spread widely, but so has debate about whether they are cost-effective and beneficial to educational outcomes," said Zheng, assistant professor of educational technology and lead author on the paper. "I believe this technology, if implemented correctly, is worth the cost and effort because it lifts student achievement, enhances engagement and enthusiasm among students, improves teacher-student relationships and promotes 21st century skills such as technological proficiency and problem solving."

Some scholars at the turn of the 21st century argued computers were neutral tools that would have no measurable effect on learning and likely would play the "same marginal role in schools that earlier technologies, such as radio, film and television, did," the study says.

"Just putting a laptop before a student doesn't really help them with anything," Zheng said. "Technology should not be implemented for technology's sake."

But one-to-one laptop programs, in which each student in a class, grade level, school or district gets a computer, can improve educational outcomes when there is teacher buy-in, suitable technical support and professional development for teachers, and appropriate implementation with the curriculum.

In addition to improved scores on standardized tests, the benefits of successful laptop programs include an improved writing process. "Students received more feedback on their writing, edited and revised their papers more often, drew on a wider range of resources to write and published or shared their work with others more often," Zheng said.

The researchers reviewed nearly 100 academic studies on one-to-one laptop programs dating back to 2001, although only 10 of the studies were scientifically rigorous enough to use in a statistical "meta-analysis" in the paper. Zheng said more in-depth studies are needed to further identify what works and what doesn't with one-to-one laptop programs.

With the price of some laptops now falling below $200 and schools in the United States and other countries using more computerized assessments, a growing number of schools are considering implementing individualized laptop programs.

"Knowing the general impact of these programs," the study says, "can help school districts better shape their technology policies."

Providing children with tablets loaded with literacy apps yields positive results

For the past four years, researchers at MIT, Tufts University, and Georgia State University have been conducting a study to determine whether tablet computers loaded with literacy applications could improve the reading preparedness of young children living in economically disadvantaged communities.

At the Association for Computing Machinery's Learning at Scale conference this week, they presented the results of the first three deployments of their system. In all three cases, study participants' performance on standardized tests of reading preparedness indicated that the tablet use was effective.

The trials examined a range of educational environments. One was set in a pair of rural Ethiopian villages with no schools and no written culture; one was set in a suburban South African school with a student-to-teacher ratio of 60 to 1; and one was set in a rural U.S. school with predominantly low-income students.

In the African deployments, students who used the tablets fared much better on the tests than those who didn't, and in the U.S. deployment, the students' scores improved dramatically after four months of using the tablets.

"The whole premise of our project is to harness the best science and innovation to bring education to the world's most underresourced children," says Cynthia Breazeal, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT and first author on the new paper. "There's a lot of innovation happening if you happen to be reasonably affluent -- meaning you have regular access to an Internet-connected computer or mobile device, so you can get online and access Khan Academy. There's a lot of innovation happening if you're around eight years old and can type and move a mouse around. But there's relatively little innovation happening with the early-childhood-learning age group, and there's a ton of science saying that that's where you get tremendous bang for your buck. You've got to intervene as early as possible."

Breazeal is joined on the paper by Maryanne Wolf and Stephanie Gottwald, who are, respectively, the director and assistant director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts; Tinsley Galyean, a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab and executive director of Curious Learning, a nonprofit organization the researchers created to develop and deploy their system; and Robin Morris, a professor of psychology at Georgia State University.


The concentration on early literacy reflects Wolf's theory, popularized in her book "Proust and the Squid," that the capacity to read, unlike the capacity to process spoken language, is not hard-coded into our genes. Consequently, early training is essential to establishing the neurological machinery on which the very capacity for literacy depends.

The researchers' system consists of an inexpensive tablet computer using Google's Android operating system. Wolf and Gottwald combed through the literacy and early-childhood apps available for Android devices to identify several hundred that met their quality criteria and addressed a broad enough range of skills to lay a foundation for early reading education. The researchers also developed their own interface for the tablets, which grants users access only to approved educational apps. Across the three deployments, the tablets were issued to children ranging in age from 4 to 11.

"When we do these deployments, we purposely don't tell the kids how to use the tablets or instruct them about any of the content," Breazeal says. "Our argument is, if you're going to be able to scale this to reach 100 million kids, you can't bring people in to coach kids what to do. You just make the tablets available, and they need to figure everything out from then on out. And what we find is, the kids do it. When we first did Ethiopia, we had all these protocols and subprotocols. What if it's a week and they haven't turned them on? What if it's three weeks and they haven't turned them on? Within minutes, the kids turn them on. By the end of the day, they've literally explored every app on the tablet."


The Ethiopian trial, which the researchers conducted in collaboration with the One Laptop per Child program, involved children aged 4 to 11 who had no prior exposure to spoken English or any written language. After a year using the tablets, children were tested on their understanding of roughly 20 spoken English words, taken at random from apps loaded on the tablets. More than half of the students knew at least half the words, and all the students knew at least four.

When presented with strings of Roman letters in a random order, 90 percent could identify at least 10 of them, and all the children could supply the sounds corresponding to at least two of them. Perhaps most important, 35 percent of the children could recognize at least one English word by sight. These figures roughly accord with those of children entering kindergarten in the U.S.

In the South African trial, rising second graders who had been issued tablets the year before were able to sound out four times as many words as those who hadn't, and in the U.S. trial, which involved only 4-year-olds and lasted only four months, half-day preschool students were able to supply the sounds corresponding to nearly six times as many letters as they had been before the trial.

Since the trials reported in the new paper, Curious Learning has launched new trials in Uganda, Bangladesh, India, and the U.S. In all, 2,000 children have had the opportunity to use the tablets.

Currently, the team is concentrating on analyzing data collected from the trials. Which apps do the children spend most time with? Which apps' use correlates best with literacy outcomes? Curious Learning is also looking for partners to help launch larger pilot programs, with 5,000 to 10,000 children.

"There's a core scientific question, which is understanding what the nature of this child-driven, curiosity-driven learning looks like," Breazeal says. "We need to understand how they learn, which is a fundamentally social process, where they explore the tablet together, they discover things through that exploration, and then they talk-talk-talk-talk, and they share those ideas. So it's a profoundly social, peer-to-peer-based learning process. We have to have create a technology and an experience that supports that process."

Short-term language learning aids mental agility

Mental agility can be boosted by even a short period of learning a language, a study suggests.

Tests carried out on students of all ages suggest that acquiring a new language improves a person's attention, after only a week of study.

Researchers also found that these benefits could be maintained with regular practice.

A team from the University of Edinburgh assessed different aspects of mental alertness in a group of 33 students aged 18 to 78 who had taken part in a one-week Scottish Gaelic course.

Researcher's tracked people's attention levels with a series of listening tests including the ability to concentrate on certain sounds and switch the attention to filter relevant information.

They compared the results with those of people who had completed a one week course - but not involving learning a new language - and with a group who had not completed any course.

After one week, improvements in attention were found in both groups participating in intensive courses, but only those learning a second language were significantly better than those not involved in any courses.

This improvement was found for all ages, from 18 to 78 years, which researchers say demonstrates the benefits of language learning also in later life.

Nine months after the initial course all those who had practised five hours or more per week improved from their baseline performance.

The researchers say this shows the mental skills gained from language learning can be maintained if speakers practise continuously.

Lead researcher, Dr Thomas Bak of the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences said the results confirm the cognitive benefits of language learning.

He said: "I think there are three important messages from our study: firstly, it is never too late to start a novel mental activity such as learning a new language. Secondly, even a short intensive course can show beneficial effects on some cognitive functions. Thirdly, this effect can be maintained through practice."

The study was completed with the help of students from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the National Centre for Gaelic language and culture on the Isle of Skye, which forms part of the University of the Highlands and Islands.

Professor Boyd Robertson, Principal of the College said: "I welcome the study's identification of the cognitive benefits gained from learning Gaelic on our short courses. HMI audits have previously found that students have derived social benefits from these courses and this new research confirms that short course study at the College confers threefold benefits - linguistic, cognitive and social."

Transforming teaching with Twitter

Imagine a teaching tool so effective that students look forward to using it in class and continue to seek out new information with it after the school day ends. New research offers powerful evidence that Twitter, if used properly, can produce these outcomes among middle school students and enhance the way children learn in the 21st century.

A forthcoming article in Middle School Journal shows the potential benefits of using Twitter as a pedagogical tool based on survey results, interviews, and classroom observations of eighth-grade students in science classes. Students reported significant increases in four key areas that contributed to their learning: exposure to reputable science and leaders, like Bill Nye "the science guy," in real time; a broadening of the audience for their work outside the classroom; more opportunities for connecting science to their own lives; and new ways to communicate about science.

Ryan Becker, a 2015 graduate of the doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Vermont, used his middle school science classes to conduct the research in conjunction with co-author Penny Bishop, professor of middle level education and director of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education. Becker found that 95 percent of his students agreed or strongly agreed that Twitter enabled them to follow real science in real time as it develops around the world.

Particularly motivating was the ability to interact via Twitter with leading organizations like NASA and science-related programs like PBS' NOVA and NPR's Science Friday. "NASA, and scientists that I follow, tweet a lot about cool science stuff," commented one student. Becker suggested to another student who tweeted him outside of class about an interest in black holes that they reach out via Twitter to well known and popular astrophysicist Katie Mack. Much to the delight of the student, Mack tweeted her back and included her in a conversation about black holes with other experts and students.

Becker's initial work with Twitter in his classroom led to his dissertation research focused on using Twitter for science learning. The findings in his dissertation, "A Science Instrument for the Digital Age: #SciStuChat Participants' Perceptions of Twitter as a Tool for Learning and Communicating Science," further highlight the potential of Twitter as a means to personalize learning and to expand secondary students' encounters with science professionals and organizations.

"Research on the use of Twitter as pedagogy is limited thus far," says Bishop, an expert on the use of technology in middle schools. "Most studies that do exist have focused more on its use in college and university settings. Ryan's work adds a critical lens to the role of open social networking tools such as Twitter in the context of adolescents' learning; considers important implications for educators and school leaders in the 21st century; and raises new questions about the potential for social media as a lever for increasing the personalization of education."

Thinking bigger about science

The paper in Middle School Journal, "Think Bigger About Science: Using Twitter for Learning in the Middle Grades," also revealed that 93 percent of students surveyed think Twitter enabled them to interact and share perspectives with a global audience outside the classroom. "When I have something important to share about science that I like, as many as 52 people (Twitter followers) can see what I tweet instantly," commented one student. Another student said they use Twitter for academic support by tweeting with other students about concepts, assignments and projects.

Ninety-one percent said Twitter helped them make connections between science and their own lives and interests. "Twitter has made me think about things that I like and had me think about the science related to them," said one student. Others said Twitter helped them learn about science in new ways that related to their everyday lives.

Additionally, 81 percent of students agreed that Twitter helped them think creatively about new ways to communicate science. "Every amazing photo or video I find on Twitter makes me more and more interested. And I am learning more about science every time."

Making Twitter work in the classroom

Becker uses the black holes example and others on his Twitter account to show teachers how to incorporate the social networking service into their own lesson plans to engage all students. With more than 82 percent of 13-year-olds using social network sites regularly, teachers have been feeling pressure to incorporate such networks into their curriculum, but remain concerned about implementation and security issues, he says.

Becker reported experiencing problems with initially setting up Twitter accounts for some students and the potential for misuse of the social media platform, but says most obstacles can be overcome with some basic tools and training. Another obstacle can be the preference of middle school administrators to use "closed" digital environments -- ones that allow teachers to initiate prompts and keep the user population within the classroom -- because it allows them to maintain structure and moderate discussions.

Becker advocates for the use of open networks, which is in keeping with a migration to the more open end of the Web 2.0 spectrum that includes publically popular forms of media like Twitter and Facebook.

Twitter is also an extremely powerful assessment tool, according to Becker, who recommends displaying tweets on an electronic "smart" board so students and teachers can assess and discuss them together. Teachers can also ask students to tweet examples of specific scientific concepts like the students in Becker's class who tweeted personal examples of Newton's First Law.

Teachers can also have students respond to scientific poll questions and share instant results with their class. Students continued to tweet outside of class making certain topics a constant conversation. The 140-character limit also forces students to distill down major concepts like "what is chemistry," says Becker.

"The purpose of this article was to offer a deep, reflective analysis from an actual teacher who initiated a unique effort and who has seen, firsthand, its many successes and challenges, as well as the varied reactions of involved stakeholders such as students, parents, administrators," Becker says. "My classroom-based perspective combined with the wealth of experience Penny brings as a researcher, professor, writer and director of a multi-million dollar effort to support technology integration in schools across the state provides teachers with a guide, of sorts, for implementing this kind of technology."

Digest of Education Statistics, 2014

The National Center for Education (NCES) has released Digest of Education Statistics, 2014. The Digest's purpose is to provide a compilation of statistical information covering the broad field of education from prekindergarten through graduate school. The Digest contains data on a variety of topics, including the number of schools and colleges, teachers, enrollments, and graduates, in addition to educational attainment, finances, and federal funds for education, libraries, and international comparisons.

Key findings appearing in the Digest include:

Fall 2014 marked a new record for public elementary school enrollment, according to projections. Public elementary enrollments are expected to continue increasing, with an overall increase of 7 percent between 2014 and 2024. Public secondary enrollment is expected to increase 3 percent between 2014 and 2024.

Between 1990 and 2013, the status dropout rate—that is, the percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds who have not completed high school and are not enrolled in school—declined from 12.1 to 6.8 percent. Although the status dropout rate declined for both Blacks and Hispanics during this period, their rates (7.3 and 11.7 percent, respectively) remained higher than the rate for Whites (5.1 percent) in 2013.

Between fall 2000 and fall 2010, enrollment in 2-year and 4-year colleges rose 37 percent, from 15.3 million to 21.0 million. Enrollment then decreased 3 percent to 20.4 million in fall 2013.

From 1976 to 2013, the percentage of Hispanic college students rose from 4 percent to 16 percent, the percentage of Asian/Pacific Islander students rose from 2 percent to 6 percent, the percentage of Black students rose from 10 percent to 15 percent, and the percentage of American Indian/Alaska Native students rose from 0.7 to 0.8 percent.

Americans are completing more years of education. The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who had completed high school rose from 87 percent in 2004 to 91 percent in 2014. During the same time period, the percentage of young adults with a bachelor’s or higher degree increased from 29 percent to 34 percent.