Category: Education

Zero-tolerance madness in Washington school

Webster’s defines “tag” as “a game in which the player who is it chases others and tries to touch one of them who then becomes it.” Wikipedia explains that the game, also known in Britain as “it, tip you’re it” is “a playground game that involves one or more players chasing other players in an attempt to ‘tag’ or touch them, usually with their hands.”

So is the game of “tag” still “tag” if tagging is banned?

That is the question for the Mercer County School District in Washington state and for some unhappy parents.

It all started with a social media report earlier this week when a group of parents, responding to what they had heard was a ban on the game of tag in elementary schools, formed a group called “Support ‘tag’ at Recess.”

It was their impression that there was indeed a ban and the word soon spread to the news media…

Sounds like a ban to me

“The Mercer Island School District and school teams have recently revisited expectations for student behavior to address student safety. This means while at play, especially during recess and unstructured time, students are expected to keep their hands to themselves. The rationale behind this is to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all students…”

Thursday the school district attempted to clarify. What it really has in mind, said a statement, was a “new form of tag-like running games to minimize the issues of ‘you were tagged/no I wasn’t’ or ‘the tag was too hard and felt more like a hit.’ Tag is not banned,” it insisted. “We plan to support our elementary students with new games and alternatives that still involve running and exercising.”

Running. Exercising. But no mention of touching, however, raising the question of how a child can become “it” without being touched.

RTFA. It goes on and on, here and there. The object is central to what I’ve been watching happen to education in America since the 1950’s. How to educate our children is now grounded in becoming a vaguely Freudian assembly for the purpose of group therapy.

I can understand any portion of our alienated society trying to come to grips with stupidity, grand illusions, imperial arrogance, bigotry, misogyny, the whole ball of bullshit our culture is capable of. Replacing education with touchy-feely fear and trembling aids nothing more than ignorance.

Bloomington, Minnesota addresses 3rd-grade literacy before kids get there

I volunteer at a local elementary school on Monday mornings, tutoring children who are behind in reading. This week, I worked with Carla [name changed], a third-grade dual language learner who is reading at a first-grade level. She knows that she is behind and her confidence is low. She told me how much she disliked reading and insisted that she would never catch up to her peers. I could see Carla’s frustration mounting during our hour together. She’s feeling pressure from the invested adults in her life–teachers, school leaders, parents, and tutors–to get up to speed quickly.

That pressure isn’t without reason: Third-grade reading proficiency is predictive of future success, both inside and outside of the classroom. It has become one of the most commonly cited indicators of student achievement. To use one example: students who aren’t proficient readers by the end of third grade are less likely to graduate high school. Readers who are not yet proficient by the end of third grade are ill-prepared for fourth, a transitional year in which content and texts become much more complex. Children who are not up to speed by then continue to fall further and further behind.

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This is how Texas schools encourage student interest in technology

encouraging science in Texas
Ahmed Mohamed wearing his NASA t-shirt – and handcuffs

Police in Texas have arrested a 14-year-old boy for building a clock. Ahmed Mohamed, who lives in Irving and has a keen interest in robotics and engineering, put the device together on Sunday night. When he took it to school the next day, he was pulled out of class, interviewed by police officers, and taken in handcuffs to juvenile detention, after being told by teachers that his creation looked like a bomb.

Ahmed told The Dallas Morning News that he showed his clock — a simple device, created from a circuit board and a power supply wired to a digital display, all strapped inside a case with a tiger hologram on the front — to his engineering teacher first, who advised him not to show any other staff members at MacArthur High School. He originally kept it in his bag during English class, but his teacher heard it beep during the lesson — when Ahmed showed her his home-made clock at the end of class, she took it away from him. In sixth period, the school principal came for Ahmed with a police officer in tow, arresting him and marching him out of school. The schoolboy says he was interrogated by five officers, who asked why he was trying to make a bomb, and was threatened with expulsion by his Principal unless he made a written statement.

Irving police might still charge Ahmed with making a “hoax bomb.” Police spokesperson James McLellan said Ahmed “kept maintaining it was a clock” when he was brought in for interrogation, but that he offered “no broader explanation.” When asked by The Dallas Morning News what broader explanation Ahmed could have given for a clock that was actually a clock, McLellan said the creation “could reasonably be mistaken as a device if left in a bathroom or under a car.”…

What? You thought an understanding of simple logic was required of Texas coppers?

Many in the maker and tech community have already rallied around him. A hashtag — #IStandWithAhmed — rapidly rose to become one of Twitter’s top trending topics, and support has come from a number of sources, including a JPL engineer who offered Ahmed the chance to see a Mars rover whenever he wants. Ahmed’s father says his son “just wants to invent good things for mankind” — we can hope that the police reaction won’t dissuade the talented young creator from making good on his dream.

Bigots of every flavor in every state will immediately jump to defend the creeps who had this school kid arrested, who took part in his arrest and potential charges. It’s an automatic response – like crocodiles swarming when one raises the scent of blood to other lower-level creatures on the evolutionary scale.

Meanwhile, a kid who should have been encouraged for his interest in science and technology – and was aided by his science teacher who also sounds like he realized how many stupid people they both were surrounded by in a Texas high school. I hope Ahmed keeps on with his interests and studies. I hope he can ignore the thoughts and actions of the typical American ignoranus. It would be nice to see him realize his dreams and forget the nightmarish delusions of others.


Melancholia must be understood as distinct from depression

In Western nations – or nations whose ethos is philosophically Western – this is a relevant discussion. Economically, politically – on a global scale – we are diminished. Mostly by the incompetence of our own leaders. Yes, that is not limited to our political leaders.

First described by Hippocrates, “melancholia” or melancholic depression was considered a specific condition that commonly struck people out of the blue – and put them into the black. In modern times, it came to be described as “endogenous depression” (coming from within) in contrast to depression stemming in response to external stressors.

In 1980, the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-III), the official classificatory system of the American Psychiatric Association, re-modelled depressive disorders. The new classification operated largely on degrees of severity, comprising “major” depression and several minor depressions.

This is how depression came to be modelled as a single entity, varying only by severity (this is known as the dimensional model). And over the last decade, this model has been extended to include “sub-clinical depressions”, which is basically when someone is sad or down but not diagnosable by formal mental illness criteria.

The changes generated concern about the extension of “clinical depression” to include and “pathologise” sadness. While everyone feels down or sad sometimes, normally these moods pass, with little if any long-term consequences.

The boundary between this everyday kind of feeling down and clinical depression is imprecise. But the latter is associated with a greater severity of symptoms, such as losing sleep or thinking life isn’t worth living, lasts for longer and is much more likely to require treatment.

The dimensional model is intrinsically limited; “major depression” is no more informative a diagnosis than “major breathlessness”. It ignores the differing – biological, psychological and social – causes that may bring about a particular depressive condition and which inform the most appropriate therapeutic approach (be it an antidepressant drug, psychotherapy or social intervention)…

My research team is trying to establish melancholia’s categorical status and detection, and so improve its management. Here’s what we know – or think we know – about the distinctness of melancholia.

First, it shows a relatively clear pattern of symptoms and signs. The individual experiences profound bleakness and has no desire to socialise, for instance, finding it hard to obtain any pleasure in life or to be cheered up…

Episodes commonly emerge “out of the blue”. Even if it follows a stressor, it’s disproportionately more severe than might be expected and lasts longer than the stressor…

Melancholia has a strong genetic contribution, with sufferers likely to report a family history of “depression”, bipolar disorder or suicide. It’s largely biologically underpinned rather than caused by social factors (stressors) or psychological factors, such as personality style.

The illness is also unlikely to respond to placebo, whereas major depression has a placebo response rate in excess of 40%. But melancholia shows greater response to physical treatments, such as antidepressant drugs (especially those that work on a broader number of neurotransmitters), and to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). ECT is rarely required, however, if appropriate medications are prescribed.


Melancholia shows a lower response to psychotherapy, counselling and psychosocial interventions – these treatments are more salient and effective for non-melancholic depression.

Melancholia shows similar “treatment specificity”, with medication being the treatment of choice.

When is it anything else?

Clearly, melancholia needs to be recognised as a distinct psychiatric condition – not simply as a more severe expression of depression. This recognition could lead to improved clinical and community awareness, which is important because managing melancholia requires a specific treatment approach.

Though no mention is made of societal context, economics, socio-political realities, I presume to hope that treatment providers have the sophistication to peer around more broadly than suggested here. The feeling that Life Sucks sometimes is a direct reflection of the fact that Life Sucks. Not only for an individual; but, a whole class of people. That class defined in economic, ethnic, caste or gender terms.

When you live in a nation where the predominant political rulers, liberal or conservative, seem bent upon ruling the world through military and economic might – and their diminishing returns seem more and more likely to end in destruction of our species and a good deal of the world as well – melancholia rooted in political ineffectuality seems a logical choice.


Pic of the day

schoolgirls, hole in the roof
Click to enlargeREUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Palestinian schoolgirls, pictured through a hole in the roof of a classroom…damaged by Israeli shelling during a 50-day invasion last summer, attend a lesson on the first day of a new school year at Suhada Khouza school in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.

Ah, yes, enlightenment from the heavens – courtesy of Israeli heroes of Apartheid.

End of label fables?

Sweet news from the FDA: The government agency is proposing that Nutrition Facts labels also include the “% Daily Value” for added sugar. In 2014, they proposed that Nutrition Facts labels on packaged foods list the grams of added sugar in addition to the grams of total sugar, but now they’re taking things a step further.

The Daily Value, or DV, is the amount of an essential nutrient that meets the needs of most people. There are also DVs that indicate upper limits of stuff we shouldn’t get too much of, like sodium and saturated fat. The FDA is taking the recommendation of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) that added sugars not exceed 10% of total calories. Since the feds use a reference diet that contains 2,000 calories daily, that puts the DV for added sugar at about 200 calories, or 50 grams, maximum.

If the proposal goes through, the labels will list grams of added sugar and the %DV they provide per serving.

The reason nutritionists don’t like the current Nutrition Facts label is that it seems to confuse consumers by implying there might be added sugar when there isn’t. Look at a label now and you’ll see that it just lists “sugars” under the carbohydrate heading. That’s fine when the only sugar in a product is added sugar, as with soda and most hard candy. But things get more complicated when you look at foods like tomato sauce, pure fruit juice, or even plain milk and yogurt…

Check the labels on those foods and you’ll also find that they have “sugar,” but most of it is simple carbohydrates that are naturally present in the food — what’s generally regarded as “intrinsic” sugar. It’s also why many of your patients may want to know why the orange juice they buy has sugar in it. “It’s supposed to be 100% juice,” they’ll say.

It is, of course, but the label didn’t allow for distinguishing between intrinsic sugar and added sugar. If this proposal goes forward (and I cannot imagine it wouldn’t) then 100% juice will list the grams of total sugar and “0 grams” of added sugar.

Even whole fruit has intrinsic sugar (a reason it tastes good) but the labels on those packages of cut-up fresh fruit you buy still have to list just total sugar. The last thing we should want is a label that scares our patients away from eating whole fresh fruit…

Consumers have already cut their sugar intake during the past decade. Between 1999 and 2008 an analysis of government data on added sugar consumption showed we had decreased our average daily intake of added sugars by nearly 25% — from 100 grams daily to about 77 grams. That’s huge, and most of it was from decreased soda consumption (sugar from “energy drinks” was the only category where added sugar actually increased a bit).

Knocking out sugar-sweetened beverages from diets gets our patients half-way to a better diet because these drinks provide about half of Americans’ added sugar…

An informed consumer…says Dr. Keith Ayoob.

Social networks scan for predators — sort of

On March 9 of this year, a piece of Facebook software spotted something suspicious.

A man in his early thirties was chatting about sex with a 13-year-old South Florida girl and planned to meet her after middle-school classes the next day.

Facebook’s extensive but little-discussed technology for scanning postings and chats for criminal activity automatically flagged the conversation for employees, who read it and quickly called police.

Officers took control of the teenager’s computer and arrested the man the next day, said Special Agent Supervisor Jeffrey Duncan of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The alleged predator has pleaded not guilty to multiple charges of soliciting a minor…

Facebook is among the many companies that are embracing a combination of new technologies and human monitoring to thwart sex predators. Such efforts generally start with automated screening for inappropriate language and exchanges of personal information, and extend to using the records of convicted pedophiles’ online chats to teach the software what to seek out…

Like most of its peers, Facebook generally avoids discussing its safety practices to discourage scare stories, because it doesn’t catch many wrongdoers, and to sidestep privacy concerns. Users could be unnerved about the extent to which their conversations are reviewed, at least by computer programs…


Barring a wave of costly litigation or new laws, it is hard to see the protections getting much tougher, experts said. Instead, the app and location booms will only add to the market pressure for more freedom on youth sites and greater challenges for parents.

…Said the FBI’s Brooke Donahue. “The free market pushes towards permissiveness.”

A free nation tends to push towards permissiveness, as well. The presumption being that as education becomes pervasive, probably more sophisticated – young individuals feel themselves more capable of making sophisticated decisions. Without someone looking over their shoulder. The only folks easily fitting the definition of OK to guide, overlook, regulate, of course are parents.

With more and more single parents that ain’t getting easier anytime soon. With a crap economy improving to just crappy, time for family life ain’t getting any easier.

Might be nice if there really was sufficient education, access to information beyond superstition and cultural foibles. You might think it a copout to only take the time to point young people in the direction of answers. But, I’m not confident even that much is easily available.

I think we need a Socrates or Mr. Chips-level Google.

Oh, the FBI? I trust ’em about as far as I can throw them uphill into a heavy wind.

The Grand Illusion — choosing excellent American Universities

To understand the failures of the modern American college system — from admissions marketing to graduation rates — you can begin with a notorious university football scandal.

In November 2006, Butch Davis, a high-profile coach with jobs in the N.F.L. and the University of Miami on his résumé, was hired to coach football at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The job offered Mr. Davis a rare opportunity to work for a university that had won dozens of championships in multiple sports while avoiding the scandals and corruption that seemed commonplace at Miami and elsewhere.

But it didn’t take long for Mr. Davis to realize that Chapel Hill’s reputation for sports excellence without compromise was a myth. From 1991 to 2009, the university’s department of African and Afro-American studies ran a huge academic fraud operation. Thousands of students, including regular undergraduates and athletes trying to maintain playing eligibility, enrolled in fake courses in which they didn’t have to attend classes, meet with professors or produce any legitimate academic work.

After the fraud was exposed and both the university chancellor and Mr. Davis lost their jobs, outside investigators discovered that U.N.C. had essentially no system for upholding the academic integrity of courses. “So long as a department was offering a course,” one distinguished professor told the investigators, “it was a legitimate course.”…

Most colleges, presumably, aren’t harboring in-house credit mills. Yet in its underlying design, organizational values and daily operations, North Carolina is no different from most other colleges and universities. These organizations are not coherent academic enterprises with consistent standards of classroom excellence. When it comes to exerting influence over teaching and learning, they’re Easter eggs. They barely exist.

This goes a long way toward explaining why colleges spend so much time and effort creating a sense of tribal solidarity among students and alumni. Think of the chant that Joe Paterno and students cried out together at the height of their university’s pedophilia scandal: “We are! Penn State!” The costumes, rituals and gladiatorial contests with rival colleges are all designed to portray the university as united and indivisible. Newer colleges that lack such deeply rooted identities spend millions of dollars on branding consultants in order to create them.

They do this to paper over uncomfortable truths revealed by their own researchers.

RTFA. Understand “How College Affects Students” concludes – after 848 pages – “The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write.

“If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

Prestigious colleges are those with the most bucks, which, in and of itself, is the driving force in ranking. You get to select the best students then you crank out the slightly better resulting graduates. The rest is sound and fury signifying nothing more than the usual mind-candy-level advertising.

Pick out a college you can afford. Make certain it meets adequate standards – and do the work. Ignore the time wasted on sports rivalries and other gladiatorade pursuits. Graduate and carry on.