Monday, May 20, 2024

What Went Wrong with Federal Student Loans?

 At a time when the returns to college and graduate school are at historic highs, why do so many students struggle with their student loans? The increase in aggregate student debt and the struggles of today’s student loan borrowers can be traced to changes in federal policies intended to broaden access to federal aid and educational opportunities, and which increased enrollment and borrowing in higher-risk circumstances. 

Starting in the late 1990s, policymakers weakened regulations that had constrained institutions from enrolling aid-dependent students. This led to rising enrollment of relatively disadvantaged students, but primarily at poor-performing, low-value institutions whose students systematically failed to complete a degree, struggled to repay their loans, defaulted at high rates, and foundered in the job market. As these new borrowers experienced similarly poor outcomes, their loans piled up, loan performance deteriorated, and with it the finances of the federal program. 

The crisis illustrates the important role that educational institutions play in access to postsecondary education and student outcomes, and difficulty of using broadly-available loans to subsidize investments in education when there is so much heterogeneity in outcomes across institutions and programs and in the ability to repay of students.


Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Focus on diagnosing dyslexia is failing struggling readers, experts warn


An undue focus on diagnosing dyslexia is leaving many children without the help they urgently need, according to two leading educational and clinical psychologists.

The experts are calling for educators, psychologists and policy makers to rethink approaches to assessment and support for children who are struggling to learn to read.

In a new book, Professors Julian Elliott (Durham University, UK) and Elena Grigorenko (University of Houston, USA) argue that the clinical diagnosis of dyslexia is not only scientifically questionable, but current procedures are failing to serve the needs of many struggling readers, particularly those from minority backgrounds or economically disadvantaged schools and communities.

Professors Elliott and Grigorenko say that the primary focus should be on ensuring that all struggling readers receive support and intervention as early as possible. To achieve this goal, a dyslexia diagnosis is not helpful and should not be required.

Instead, Professors Elliott and Grigorenko suggest that all elementary school teachers should have adequate training to confidently identify, and intervene with, children who are struggling to read. Where initial class teacher interventions prove to be insufficient, systems need to be in place to rapidly provide additional educational support.

Their calls underpin a set of recommendations in a landmark new book, The Dyslexia Debate Revisited published by Cambridge University Press.

The book analyzes the most-commonly employed approaches to dyslexia assessment and diagnosis and shows how these typically lack meaningful criteria, have little conceptual coherence or consensus, and fail to demonstrate scientific rigour.

Their recommendations include:

  • Policy makers and educators must ensure that intervention strategies are in place to help all struggling readers from as early an age as possible. A clinical diagnosis of dyslexia excludes many other struggling learners from consideration and should not be required for a child to receive help.
  • Greater recognition and understanding are needed so that the recommended interventions for struggling readers are typically the same whether or not they are diagnosed as dyslexic.
  • The term ’dyslexia’ should refer to any struggling reader and can be employed to describe a severe and persistent difficulty with reading. (Currently there is no valid and widely agreed means of differentiating dyslexia from other forms of reading difficulty.) Use of the term ‘dyslexia’ should be understood as describing an educational difficulty not a medical condition/diagnosis.

The book undertakes a detailed study of contemporary research into the nature of reading difficulty and its assessment and treatment. The authors’ analysis of these issues serves as the basis for their recommendations.

Book author, Julian Elliott, Professor of Educational Psychology, at Durham University, who previously taught children with learning difficulties and served as a school psychologist, said: “We desperately need to reform education policy and practice around the assessment and support of all children who experience difficulty with reading. Currently, too many children are being left behind.

“As our research demonstrates, a formal diagnosis of dyslexia, typically based upon a range of clinical tests, is not only scientifically questionable, but it also has no meaningful relevance to the interventions and strategies needed to help struggling readers.

“We need to stop formally diagnosing and labelling a relatively small proportion of poor readers as dyslexic and, instead, focus upon identifying and intervening with all children who struggle with reading.

“The current system is leaving swathes of children struggling, particularly those in economically disadvantaged schools and communities. This is surely wrong.”

Elliott’s co-author, Elena Grigorenko, Professor of Developmental and Clinical Psychology at the University of Houston (UH), who directs the UH Academic Skills Clinic, says that the assessment and treatment for children with reading difficulties is the same regardless of whether they have the diagnosis of dyslexia or not: “We just need to teach struggling readers how to decode and to read and help them practice reading as much as possible and as often as possible, no matter whether they had, have, or will never have the diagnosis of dyslexia. There is no evidence-based treatment that remediates reading difficulties that works for dyslexic readers and does not work for other struggling readers and vice versa.”

By removing the diagnostic imperative, educational psychologists and other assessors of reading difficulty, would be freed to redirect their energies to supporting and guiding educational intervention and support at home and at school.

The book draws on decades of experience on the part of both authors, as mainstream and special education teachers, teacher trainers, educational and clinical psychologists, and as university teachers and researchers. 

Their academic and professional expertise spans the fields of genetics, neuroscience, cognitive science, psychology, education, and social policy.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Deeply entrenched school psychology practices can be ‘harmful to children’


Many programs ‘deeply entrenched in school culture’ are harmful to children and can cause potentially lasting damage, psychologists have warned.

They say these practices, from abstinence-only sex education to zero tolerance policies, can direct considerable funds away from evidence-based strategies, as well as giving pupils misleading information.

In new book Investigating School Psychology, researchers have carried out an exhaustive review of current literature to look at practices that continue to exist with little to no scientific support.

Editor Stephen Hupp Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Child and School Psychology at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), explains: “Almost every other school psychology book in the world focuses on what school psychologists should know. Our book, on the other hand, takes the extremely rare approach of focusing on what school psychologists should not know, or at least what school psychologists should be cautious about.”

Widespread school practices

Zero tolerance policies are in place in schools across the US as a response to valid safety concerns, in efforts to prevent school violence. But reviews suggest there is no evidence to support the popular practice, as they do not seem to provide an ‘effective deterrent against misbehavior’.

While advocates claim that cracking down on small offenses makes students feel safer and discourages more serious rule violations, the book cites studies that show the effectiveness of these policies has not been established. In fact, research cited in the book has found that zero-tolerance practices do not improve school safety but, in fact, ‘promote further misbehavior and do nothing to increase academic achievement’.

Other widespread programs which, according to thorough literature reviews, show little to no efficacy in reducing teen pregnancies are abstinence-only sex education and infant simulator dolls.

Although historically abstinence-only programs have been supported by the federal government, studies cited in the book have shown that sex education laws and policies emphasizing abstinence-only approaches were associated with increased rates of teen pregnancies and birth. Nonetheless, findings also indicate that most state policies continue to prioritize abstinence, without additional requirements regarding contraceptive methods.

Similarly, infant simulator dolls continue to be popular in classrooms across the States but multiple studies did not demonstrate any impact on attitudes about teen pregnancy and parenting among pupils.

Dr. Hupp explains: “A common theme across dubious approaches to preventing risky behavior is that schools widely adopt programs before the programs have been investigated with well-designed studies.”

Ineffective academic interventions

There are a number of academic interventions analyzed in the book that are still in use today. For example, the book’s contributors take aim at the popular notion that pupils learn better when information is presented in a preferred learning style, suggesting it ‘has serious conceptual and methodological weaknesses’.

But these myths are pervasive; in fact research suggests that over 80% of educators support the idea that differences between learners may be attributed to their brain hemispheric dominance (e.g., left brain vs. right brain dominance), for example.

Further literature reviews in the book suggest that working memory programs such as ‘brain training apps’ do not provide long-term improvement in working memory, and vision therapies (e.g. tinted lenses) have no impact on improving letter identification, word recognition, reading fluency, or reading comprehension.

Contributors Zachary C. LaBrot and Emily R. DeFouw point out: “Numerous strategies have been developed and tested to address academic difficulties. However, some of these strategies have little to no empirical support for improving struggling learners’ academic outcomes.

“Unfortunately, these strategies have been marketed and widely disseminated to parents, teachers, and other education professionals as simple and cost-effective solutions for academic difficulties. Therefore, it is critical that professionals be diligent, yet critical, consumers of peer-reviewed literature.”

The practice of cognitive profile analysis, which involves constructing inferences about students’ strengths and weaknesses based on a cognitive assessment’s individual subtest patterned score variation, was still found to be popular among around half of school psychologists in 2018 – despite research suggesting it lacked sufficient scientific evidence and clinical utility.

Contributors to the book also question the validity of cognitive assessments by school psychologists, the most commonly used of these being IQ tests. While they acknowledge cognitive assessments will probably always have a role in identifying or ruling out an intellectual disability, it does have limits.

What can be done about it?

“There are many reasons school psychologists might believe in myths related to psychology or engage in practices considered pseudoscientific or based on fringe science,” explains co-editor Michael I. Axelrod, PhD, Director of the Human Development Center and a Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “Engaging in critical and scientific thinking about these topics and practices might shield school psychologists from the hazards of pseudoscience, fringe science, and controversy.”

There are several ways school psychologists can protect themselves from believing in pseudoscience and engaging in dubious practices, according to the book’s editors.

Some habits they suggest that might promote evidence-based practices include: approaching ideas with a critical lens; sharpening critical thinking skills; being aware of our tendency toward cognitive errors; accepting uncertainty in our knowledge base; and recognizing the limits of science.

Dr. Axelrod continues: “These practices have real-life consequences for our children. School psychologists, teachers, and other school-based professionals should be educated to be sceptical and to request data. We should alert future professionals to possible pseudoscience so these ideas do not make their way into classrooms and schools.”

Why students cheat in online exams

Media psychologists at the University of Cologne have studied how students’ individual needs, conceptions and reasons relate to cheating behaviour in online exams. Online exams have become a more common type of exams at universities not least since the Covid-19 pandemic. They are advantageous because they save time and offer flexibility. However, cheating attempts present a big challenge for lecturers. This is why universities have been working on ways to thwart cheating in online exams by putting organizational and technical measures into place. According to the psychologists Dr Marco Rüth and Professor Dr Dr Kai Kaspar from the Faculty of Human Sciences at the University of Cologne, cheating attempts can also signal that psychological aspects and deeper-seated problems which affect students’ learning behaviour and well-being are not given enough attention. This is where their current study comes into play. The study is titled ‘Cheating behaviour in online exams: On the role of needs, conceptions, and reasons of university students’ and has been published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.
The results of the study are based on an anonymous online survey in which 339 students from different universities in Germany took part. The extensive study consisted of three parts. 
The first part of the study revealed that it is less likely for students to cheat when lecturers demonstrate why the exam content is necessary in their future professional practice instead of solely pointing out the value of good grades for their future careers. Cheating behaviour is also less likely to take place when the exam tasks are presented as authentically as possible and are linked to future job requirements. Questions testing knowledge that check if course content has been learned by heart, however, encourage cheating attempts. In addition, cheating attempts become less likely when the lecturers offer the students detailed feedback on the exam results instead of only announcing grades.
In the second part of the study the research team examined how students’ perceptions of online exams are related to their previous cheating attempts and their intentions to cheat in future online exams. The results have shown that three considerations are of particular importance. The more negative students’ perception of online exams was, e.g. that online exams impair learning, the more intense was their reported cheating behaviour in past online exams. Furthermore, students’ cheating behaviour and cheating intention was higher the stronger the impression of the students was that online exams stimulate collaboration and mutual support among students. Conversely, students’ cheating behaviour and cheating intention was lower the stronger the opinion of the students was that online exams can contribute to the improvement of teaching.  
The third part of the study examined students’ main personal reasons for and against cheating in online exams. The three main reasons cited for cheating behaviour were the significance of grades, the perception that exams were unfair and the belief that there is a marginal risk of being caught. Among the most common reasons against cheating were moral norms and values such as honesty as well as the fear of being caught and the subsequent consequences like being expelled.  
Overall, the results of the study show that psychological factors – such as individual needs, conceptions and reasons – play an important role in the cheating behaviour in online exams. “A stronger consideration of these factors when designing courses and exam formats can reduce cheating behaviour and, in the long term, positively influence students’ learning behaviour and their well-being,” said Dr Marco Rüth, corresponding author of the study. “This could eventually strengthen the acceptance of online exams as a format at universities.”

Friday, May 10, 2024

Robot-assisted language learning systems vs. human tutors in English conversation lessons

 Advancements in large language models, robotics, and software such as text-to-speech, have made it possible to develop robots that can understand language, interact physically, and communicate verbally. These breakthroughs have opened up possibilities for robots to be used for educational purposes. However, this raises the question of whether robots are as good as human tutors. While robots offer certain benefits, they cannot replicate the nuanced interactions and personalized feedback human tutors provide.

To determine the suitability of using robots for education, Associate Professor Takamasa Iio from Doshisha University, along with Associate Professor Yuichiro Yoshikawa, Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro from Osaka University, and Associate Professor Kohei Ogawa from Nagoya University, Japan, compared the performance of current Robot-Assisted Language Learning (RALL) systems to human tutors. Their study published in the journal International Journal of Social Robotics on April 11, 2024, explored the effectiveness of each approach in improving students' English-speaking skills in second language learning. “There has been an active movement to utilize robots in education, particularly in language education, which requires communication. However, it was not clear what benefits there would be in utilizing robots. We began this study with the belief that in order to expand the use of robots in the future, it would be necessary to compare the discussion with the baseline of human tutors,” says Dr. Iio.

The researchers conducted an experiment involving 26 university students whose native language is Japanese. The students underwent a pre-test for an initial assessment of their English-speaking skills. Based on the average scores, the students were divided into two groups: 14 students received instruction from a robot, while the remaining 12 participants received online lessons from English language teachers. Over the course of seven days, both groups engaged in daily 30-minute sessions aimed at improving their English-speaking skills. The robot used was a table-top humanoid called CommU, which students could interact with using a tablet. This robot model could display human-like behaviors. It could nod to agree, slump to show thoughtfulness, and raise its hands to express joy or surprise.

In addition, there were three speaking exercises. The first involved roleplay, where the tutor (human or robot) and the student enacted a conversation in specific situations. The students listened to their scripts from the tutor and then repeated them. In the case of the robot, an audio file containing the speech of a native speaker was played instead of text-to-speech. The second exercise was flashcard practice, where students listened to their tutor deliver the script and repeated it to memorize it. In the final exercise, the students reenacted the conversation with their tutor using the memorized scripts. On the last day, participants underwent tests to assess their speaking errors, fluency, pronunciation, and speech complexity (number of words used in sentences).

All participants underwent a pre-test on the first day, followed by 30 minutes of daily study for 7 days, and three post-tests on the final day. The result indicated that the group taught by the robot made fewer errors and spoke more fluently than the group taught by human tutors. However, no significant difference was observed in outcomes between robots and human tutors for other aspects. The researchers believe that the improvement is because the students could practice the exercises with the robots much more than they could with the human tutor. This level of repetition improved their memory retention and speaking proficiency. Additionally, the expression of the robot may have reduced anxiety, allowing them to speak English without fear of judgment.

“Social robots could be used more in second language learning. They are likely to play an active role in repetitive practice aimed at consolidating basic words, phrases, and grammatical structures in memory,” highlights Dr. Iio.

While current RALL systems are sufficient to provide basic English training, the researchers predict that future systems will become more advanced. They may be able to recognize non-native speaker’s speech, offer corrections, and conduct interactive lessons and open-ended dialogues. However, since the fundamental purpose of language is communication with others, human tutors will remain essential for helping learners feel more comfortable and confident when using a new language in real-life situations.

Pressure to be “perfect” causing burnout for parents, mental health concerns for their children

Researchers leading a national dialogue about parental burnout from The Ohio State University College of Nursing and the university’s Office of the Chief Wellness Officer say “no,” and a new study finds that pressure to try to be “perfect” leads to unhealthy impacts on both parents and their children.

The survey of more than 700 parents nationwide from June 15 – July 28, 2023 is summarized in the new report, “The Power of Positive Parenting: Evidence to Help Parents and Their Children Thrive.” The data shows that:

  1. Fifty-seven percent (57%) of parents self-reported burnout.
  2. Parental burnout is strongly associated with internal and external expectations, including whether one feels they are a good parent, perceived judgment from others, time to play with their children, the relationship with their spouse and keeping a clean house.
  3. The more free play time that parents spend with their children and the lighter the load of structured extracurricular activities, the fewer mental health issues in their children (i.e. anxiety, depression, OCD, ADHD, bipolar disorder).
  4. Parents’ mental health and behaviors strongly impact their children’s mental health. If their children have a mental health disorder, parents report a higher level of burnout and a greater likelihood for them to insult, criticize, scream at, curse at and/or physically harm their children (i.e. repeated spanking). Higher levels of self-reported parental burnout and harsh parenting practices are associated with more mental health problems in children.

Kate Gawlik, DNP, one of the lead researchers on the study who pursues this research based on her experience as a working mother of four, said the illusion and expectations of “perfect parenting” can be deflating.

“I think social media has just really tipped the scales,” said Gawlik, an associate clinical professor at the Ohio State College of Nursing. “You can look at people on Instagram or you can even just see people walking around, and I always think, ‘How do they do that? How do they seem to always have it all together when I don't?’

“We have high expectations for ourselves as parents; we have high expectations for what our kids should be doing. Then on the flipside, you're comparing yourself to other people, other families, and there's a lot of judgment that goes on. And whether it's intended or not, it's still there.”

Data from the study shows that force of expectations from what Gawlik calls a “culture of achievement” leads to burnout (a state of physical and emotional exhaustion), which in turn leads to other, potentially debilitating issues.

“When parents are burned out, they have more depression, anxiety and stress, but their children also do behaviorally and emotionally worse,” said Bernadette Melnyk, PhD, FAAN, vice president for health promotion and chief wellness officer at Ohio State. “So it's super important to face your true story if you're burning out as a parent and do something about it for better self-care.”

Gawlik and Melnyk’s new report brings critical updates to their initial study in 2022, which measured working parent burnout during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gawlik and Melnyk created a first-of-its-kind Working Parent Burnout Scale, a 10-point survey that allows parents to measure their burnout in real time and use evidence-based solutions to help.

That scale is included in the new report, along with new guidance on positive parenting strategies, techniques and tips to form deeper connections with one’s children.

“Positive parenting is when you give your children a lot of love and warmth, but you also provide structure and guidance in their life,” Melnyk explained. “You gently teach them consequences of behaviors. So that is a much better goal to shoot for being a positive parent than a perfect parent.”

Among the strategies:

  • Connection and active listening
  • Catching, checking and changing negative thoughts into positive ones
  • Readjusting expectations for the parent and the child
  • Reflecting and acting on priorities

“If maybe you're prioritizing making sure your house is spotless all the time, but then you don't feel like you have time to go for a walk every night with your children, maybe you need to reorganize or find a way to make both of those things work,” Gawlik suggested.

Thursday, May 9, 2024

Public Schools Report Obstacles in Providing Mental Health Services


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) releases today the latest round of findings from the School Pulse Panel (SPP). These SPP data examine topics on staff and student mental health and well-being, public schools’ handling of students who have sustained concussions or other traumatic brain injuries, and anticipated hiring needs prior to the 2024-25 school year, during the 2023-24 school year, as reported by school leaders in U.S. public schools.

Key Findings

Mental Health and Well-Being

  • Nearly all public schools provide some sort of mental health services to students (97 percent) during the 2023-24 school year. The most commonly reported mental health services for students offered by public schools are individual-based intervention (84 percent), case management (70 percent), providing external referrals (67 percent), and group-based intervention (64 percent).
  • Among public schools offering any type of mental health services to students (97 percent):
    • On average, public schools reported that 19 percent of their student body utilize school-based mental health services.
    • The majority of public schools used a mix of provider types (2 or more) to provide mental health services to students (75 percent, a statistically significant decrease from 2021-22 [80 percent]).
      • The providers include school counselors (75 percent, a statistically significant decrease from 2021-22 [83 percent]), school- or district-employed licensed mental health professionals (67 percent), outside practices or programs (57 percent), and school nurses (17 percent, a statistically significant decrease from 2021-22 [25 percent]).
  • Forty-eight percent of public schools agreed with the statement “My school is able to effectively provide mental health services to all students in need,” which is a statistically significant decrease from the percent that agreed during the 2021-22 school year (56 percent).
  • The most commonly cited factors that limit schools’ efforts to effectively provide mental health services to all students who need them are insufficient mental health professional staff coverage to manage caseload (55 percent), inadequate funding (54 percent), and inadequate access to licensed mental health professionals (49 percent).
  • Thirty-seven percent of public schools reported using federal grants or other federal programs to fund mental health services for students, a statistically significant decrease from the 53 percent that reported using these funds during the 2021-22 school year.
  • Compared to last school year (2022-23),
    • Fifty-eight percent of public schools reported that the percentage of students who sought school-based mental health services increased, including 19 percent that reported it “increased a lot.”
    • Sixty-one percent of public schools reported that the percentage of staff expressing concerns with students’ exhibiting depression, anxiety, trauma, or emotional dysregulation/disturbance increased, including 23 percent that reported it “increased a lot.”
  • Eighty-five percent of public schools reported that staff have access to mental health services through the school. The most commonly reported services available to staff are employee assistance programs (EAPs) that have a mental health component (59 percent), referrals to mental health services outside of school (37 percent), and mental health-related professional development (33 percent).

Traumatic Brain Injuries

  • Thirty-eight percent of public schools reported that they have had to support at least one student returning to the classroom after sustaining a concussion or other traumatic brain injury (TBI) during the 2023-24 school year.
    • Compared to the national estimate (38 percent), a higher percentage of public schools with the following characteristics reported having to support at least one student returning to the classroom after sustaining a concussion or other TBI:
      • With 1,000 or more students (70 percent)
      • High/secondary schools (57 percent)
      • Middle/combined schools (53 percent)
      • With a student body made up of less than 25 percent students of color (51 percent)
      • In the Northeast (49 percent)
    • Compared to the national estimate (38 percent), a lower percentage of public schools with the following characteristics reported having to support at least one student returning to the classroom after sustaining a concussion or other TBI:
      • Elementary schools (24 percent)
      • In high-poverty neighborhoods (24 percent)
      • With a student body made up of greater than 75 percent students of color (25 percent)
      • With fewer than 300 students (28 percent)
      • In cities (30 percent)
  • Fifty-eight percent of public schools reported that they have at least one person who is trained on how to help students adjust back into classroom activities after sustaining a concussion or TBI, while 94 percent reported they have staff at the school who could be trained in this area.
  • Seventy-five percent of public schools reported that they have a concussion or TBI policy.

Upcoming Hiring Cycle

  • Sixty-seven percent of public schools anticipate having to fill multiple teaching vacancies before the 2024-25 school year, which is a statistically significant increase from the percentage of public schools that had such expectations prior to the 2022-23 school year1 (56 percent).
    • Compared to the national estimate (67 percent), a higher percentage of public schools with the following characteristics reported having multiple teaching vacancies to fill before the 2024-25 school year:
      • With more than 1,000 students (86 percent)
      • In the South (76 percent)
      • With 500 to 999 students (74 percent)
    • Compared to the national estimate (67 percent), a lower percentage of public schools with the following characteristics reported having multiple teaching vacancies to fill before the 2024-25 school year:
      • With less than 300 students (59 percent)
      • In the West (59 percent)
      • With a student body made up of less than 25 percent students of color (61 percent)
  • For teaching positions, some of the most commonly anticipated positions that will need to be filled prior to the 2024-25 school year are: general elementary (58 percent), special education (52 percent), math (34 percent), and English/language arts (33 percent).
  • Fifty-nine percent of public schools anticipate having to fill multiple non-teaching staff positions before the 2024-25 school year, which is a statistically significant increase from the percentage of public schools that had such expectations prior to the 2022-23 school year1 (45 percent).
  • For non-teaching staff positions, some of the most commonly anticipated positions that will need to be filled prior to the 2024-25 school year are: classroom aides (45 percent), transportation staff (36 percent), custodial staff (26 percent) and tutors (22 percent).

Anticipated teaching and non-teaching staff vacancies prior to the 2022-23 school year data were collected in June 2022.