STEM Cells

What if there was an easy peasy way to solve the skills gap, the STEM gap, the achievement gap, the expectations gap and the next, yet-to-be-named gap? Great news, reader! According to the New York Times a solution to our STEMtacular crisis lies within imminent reach. You see, reader, our failed and failing public schools rely on conventional methods to teach math and science, resulting in the many gaps listed above. But thanks to the unconventional methods utilized by the Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP, lower-income minority students are no longer being held back. Just what are these unconventional methods? Safety goggles on—we’re headed into the excellence lab…

According to the Times, the secret ingredient in the KIPP dip is expectations. “Teachers at KIPP schools maintain high expectations of all students, working intensively one-on-one with children until they comprehend every important concept.” But here’s where our story takes a sharp turn down Awkward Avenue. On the very same day that the Times ran its paean to outstandingness, the New York Daily News had an exclusive on another of KIPP’s unconventional methods: a tiny padded room where kindergarten and first graders attending the chain’s KIPP STAR academy in Washington Heights are sent to *calm down.* Billed as the *tot cell* by Daily News reporters, the room is said to be the size of a walk-in closet and is empty, save for a mat on the floor. Officials at the school say that the tot cell is needed and have pledged to keep it open despite opposition from angry parents.

STEM cells
Unconventional? To be sure. But as the Times editors acknowledge in their edvertorial, *lower-income blacks and Hispanics* must be prepared to work long and hard in order to scale the excellence ladder, especially if they are to ring the elusive STEM bell perched at the ladder’s very highest rungs. Long after the Times editors’ own children are home from school, or enjoying a veritable banquet of enrichments, the KIPPsters, even the wee KIPPlings at STAR, are still at it. Longer school days, summer school—whatever it takes, opine the Times’ writers, *to help lagging minority students improve test scores in math, reading and science.* And while a few eggs get broken along the way (the Times references some unnamed haters who dog on KIPP’s dropout rates and admissions policies), the test score pay off is huge, note the editors, with KIPPsters gaining months of bankable STEM knowledge.

And now for a little cold H20
Remember the divining rods of old, reader? Standardized tests are the modern day equivalent, foretelling pools of excellence that lie beneath. Except that a new study by MIT neuroscientists, conducted with education researchers at Harvard and Brown, appears poised to throw some seriously cold H20 on the dowsing abilities of standardized tests. Researchers found that gains on standardized test scores failed to translate into so-called *fluid intelligence,* the higher-order reasoning and problem-solving that New York Times editorial writers spend much of their time fretting about these days. 

In a study of nearly 1,400 eighth-graders in the Boston public school system, the researchers found that some schools have successfully raised their students’ scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). However, those schools had almost no effect on students’ performance on tests of fluid intelligence skills, such as working memory capacity, speed of information processing, and ability to solve abstract problems.

The researchers calculated how much of the variation in MCAS scores was due to the school that students attended. For MCAS scores in English, schools accounted for 24 percent of the variation, and they accounted for 34 percent of the math MCAS variation. However, the schools accounted for very little of the variation in fluid cognitive skills — less than 3 percent for all three skills combined.

Even stronger evidence came from a comparison of about 200 students who had entered a lottery for admittance to a handful of Boston’s oversubscribed charter schools, many of which achieve strong improvement in MCAS scores. The researchers found that students who were randomly selected to attend high-performing charter schools did significantly better on the math MCAS than those who were not chosen, but there was no corresponding increase in fluid intelligence scores.

A paper summing up the study’s findings will be published in the leading psychology journal, Psychological Science, next month. Even in our post-evidence world, the findings are provocative enough that they should at least prompt a conversation about test-score mania, not to mention the growing acceptance of the *by any means necessary* approach to boosting the scores of *lagging minority students.* Meanwhile I’m willing to bet that our search for the best way to build fluid reasoning skills won’t lead us to a STEM cell—a tiny padded room the size of a walk-in closet.

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  1. Lay on Macduff! Your site is helping to fight the good fight against the corporate takeover of all of American life. I have been reading a lot of Marion Brady’s columns and articles, and you two are right in synch.

    Keep on!

  2. I’m not going anywhere near padded rooms for kindergarteners, but this quote was buried deep in your link:

    “Gabrieli notes that the study should not be interpreted as critical of schools that are improving their students’ MCAS scores. “It’s valuable to push up the crystallized abilities, because if you can do more math, if you can read a paragraph and answer comprehension questions, all those things are positive,” he says.

    I highly doubt there are ANY schools out there that are significantly changing the underlying cognitive skills of their students. The issue as I see it is that there are many schools that are not impacting kids’ cognitive abilities (which it seems like researchers aren’t really sure is possible) AND they aren’t helping their kids gain math, reading and writing skills. Why should those kids even bother going to school? Obviously the ideal is the school that can make an impact in fluid reasoning AND academic ability. Would love to hear about one of those, but I doubt there are many out there. I would put big money on the fact that there is a direct correlation between family income level / educational achievement and ability to do well on those reasoning tests. So we might as well just leave the book-learning to the rich and educated, and not bother teaching the poor.

    Of course I’m being facetious. This study doesn’t surprise me much. We have kids who do great work on these tests who aren’t the mentally most agile. But they work their tails off and learn really high level math (for 7th grade, that is), and are able to achieve at high levels on (good) tests like MCAS. However, tests geared at the most affluent like the SSAT still kick their butts. I just don’t see how that means that our school isn’t doing good work. We’re continuously trying to figure out how to do better…whereas I bet there are more typical schools (read: suburban) that are changing their kids much less at all levels. It’s just that they are starting with an advantage (educated, wealthier parents).

  3. From the Boston Children’s Hospital Newsletter– Makes suggestion for better use of funds “Why is academic testing leaving children behind?”
    Low-income children tend to do poorly on high-stakes achievement tests like the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). A pilot study led by Deborah Waber, PhD, in Children’s Hospital Boston’s Department of Psychiatry, suggests their low scores may arise from developmental issues—particularly in “executive” functions like organization, planning and control over thoughts and actions. Poverty-related factors like poor nutrition, exposure to violence or toxic agents and disorganized or stressful environments can disrupt children’s developing nervous systems, Waber says.
    Using cognitive testing and teacher questionnaires, the study evaluated 91 fifth-graders from two low-income Boston schools served by the Children’s Hospital Neighborhood Partnership (school-based mental health services). Overall, the children’s executive functions were poorer than average, and more than half had “failing” or “needs improvement” scores on the fourth-grade MCAS English and math tests. Executive function correlated closely with MCAS performance: Tests of mental processing speed and short-term memory, combined with teacher ratings on items like finishing assignments, checking work for mistakes and organization of desk and backpack, accurately predicted whether a child would pass or fail the MCAS 86 percent of the time.
    Waber now hopes to expand her study, published in Developmental Neuropsychology. She believes that funds used for testing would be better spent on early diagnostic assessment and helping children develop executive functions, through measures like smaller classrooms in the younger grades, explicit teaching of organizational skills and adoption of special-education techniques.”——————————–end of quote
    Problems with the GatesFunded Gabrieli study include the (a) theory that there are two kinds of intelligence (fluid /crystal) — this is still theoretical and debated (b) even if you accept the theory the operational definitions of “working memory” are still fuzzy (c) the measures that are used in these studies vary so greatly it is like testing the Disney “Magic feather” principle . I use Wiig’s definitions and measures of “executive functioning ” because they are language based… whereas other individuals would not want to use that operational definition at all so the field is still experimental and theoretical and can’t be used for direct policy decisions which is what EDUCATION NEXT and FORDHAM INSTITUTE push all the time (with their funding from Gates). Please just make your decisions and judgments on the merits of RESEARCH not all the hype and fluff surrounding the discussion or the money that Gate$ throws at it.

  4. This is what I am finding when I look for the study mentioned in Edshyster as an “MIT” study
    Promise and Paradox:: Measuring Non-Cognitive Traits of Students and the Impact of Schooling
    Martin R. West, Harvard Graduate School of Education Matthew A. Kraft, Brown University
    Chris Gabrieli, Mass2020
    Angela L. Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania
    November 2013
    Draft – Please do not cite or circulate without permission. Abstract
    (available on the NAGB website — NAEP governing board

  5. I love this!

    I am a regular reader of your blog (thanks to Ravitch). I have decided after reading this that I don’t like you Ed Shyster! You sum things up so well and so concisely that I feel inadequate as a writer when I read your work! Did you consider how you would make people when by explaining things so well? Now I won’t be able to write for at least a day… 😉 In truth- WELL DONE! No matter how I feel about it I think you should continue… 😉

  6. The paper will be: Finn, A.S., Kraft, M., West, M.R., Leonard, J.A., Bish, C., Martin, R.E., Sheridan, M.A., Gabrieli, C.F.O. & Gabrieli, G.D.E (in press). Cognitive skills, high-stakes statewide student achievement tests and schools. Psychological Science.

    Most interesting: in both NYDN articles, KIPP claims (1) that very few students have been sent there (3 in the first article, “a few” in the follow-up) and that parents were always consulted before children were sent there.

    Yet 2/3 of the parents who were “consulted” have pulled their child from the school.

    The stench coming from KIPP Administration is fairly to anyone who grew up near cattle.

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