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Education Rundown: Creationism, Coding And Classrooms That Are Imploding

Riverview Gardens Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said he is optimistic the district will return to provisional accreditation, following a recommendation from the state department of elementary and secondary education board on Nov. 23, 2016.
Kimberly Ney | Riverview Gardens School District

Once a week, our team of education reporters would like to share stories that look at trends in education here and across the country. In particular, we want to focus on people, research and even gizmos that may help make kids learn better.

Improve or implode?

Whenever you read about a school or a district that is performing poorly, the big idea that invariably comes next is how someone or something or some plan can turn that performance around. But is that always the best idea? A recent article on the website EducationNext, titled "The Turnaround Fallacy," says it's time to stop talking about how to turn districts around and time to talk instead about blowing poor districts up and starting over from scratch.

Author Andy Smarick says that "findings from two generations of school improvement efforts, lessons from similar work in other industries, and a budding practice among reform-minded superintendents are pointing to a promising alternative. When conscientiously applied strategies fail to drastically improve America’s lowest-performing schools, we need to close them." Smarick cites what he calls "the law of incessant inertia" as the best argument against the turnaround theory: Schools that are doing poorly are likely to resist any efforts to change and continue to turn out underperforming students. For good measure, he cites what he has termed "the law of ongoing ignorance": "We still lack basic information about which tactics will make a struggling school excellent." (Dale Singer)

For the common good?

What is the future of scientific research, especially at a time when federal cutbacks have dramatically decreased the money for basic scientific research? A fascinating New York Times story, "Billionaires With Big Ideas Are Privatizing American Science,"explores how billionaires, ranging from Bill Gates to Michael Bloomberg, are using their considerable fortunes for medical and scientific research. The nation's universities are among the institutions most affected.

Certainly, there are plenty of positives associated with this development, not the least are the sheer excitement, creativity and dynamism the philanthropists bring to their projects:

Philanthropists "have mounted a private war on disease, with new protocols that break down walls between academia and industry to turn basic discoveries into effective treatments. They have rekindled traditions of scientific exploration by financing hunts for dinosaur bones and giant sea creatures. They are even beginning to challenge Washington in the costly game of big science, with innovative ships, undersea craft and giant telescopes..."

Others worry, though, that national priorities will take a back seat to individual preferences and that research will focus more on what's trendy than on what's basic. That concern is exacerbated as private donors now underwrite about 30 percent of the most elite schools’ research money.

Fundamentally at stake, the critics say, is the social contract that cultivates science for the common good. They worry that the philanthropic billions tend to enrich elite universities at the expense of poor ones, while undermining political support for federally sponsored research and its efforts to foster a greater diversity of opportunity — geographic, economic, racial — among the nation’s scientific investigators.

The challenge is, of course, finding a balance. But the balance will be elusive to find without a strong federal commitment to scientific research. (Susan Hegger)

Creation in the classroom

The debate over evolution vs. creationism is far from settled in many states, according to new findingspublished in Politico. Reporter Stephanie Simon found that taxpayers in 14 states will pay nearly $1 billion this year in tuition for private schools, including hundreds of religious schools whose curriculum includes topics that most would consider to be less than scientific. Simon cites a Missouri bill that is typical of efforts in many states; it would let parents withdraw their kids from science class when the topic of evolution is part of the lesson plan. But under the radar is a growing trend that she calls “a well-funded political campaign" that "has pushed to open the spigot for tax dollars to flow to private schools.” If such efforts succeed, Simon says, courses supported by public money could teach such topics as Adam and Eve strolling through the Garden of Eden with dinosaurs alongside. (Dale Singer)

Healthy homework

The word “homework” has stirred controversy for decades. But a new report from the Brookings Institution takes a fresh look at whether students are being overburdened with assignments at night, stressing them out and keeping them from more leisurely pursuits. It cites an online petition for the National PTA to adopt “healthy homework guidelines” that has garnered more than 19,000 signatures. The study has lots of data, but it concludes that the homework burden has pretty much stayed the same for the past 30 years, except for 9-year-olds, who have significantly more than before. For high schoolers who are 17, the results are decidedly mixed. As the report puts it, “they have the largest percentage of kids with no homework (especially when the homework shirkers are added in) and the largest percentage with more than two hours.” (Dale Singer)

Apple polishing

In this still volatile labor market, many see "Teachingas a Second Act, or Maybe even a Third," as the New York Times put it. This remains true despite the knocks that teaching and education in general have taken, including low pay; debates over teacher evaluation, tenure and pensions; and 345,000 fewer jobs in public schools than in 2008. While non-traditional programs have sprung up to help would-be teachers make the transition without having to go back to college for a degree, training and certification can still cost a pretty penny. And the payoff? Classrooms full of young, eager sometimes rambunctious students just waiting to learn. Priceless. (Susan Hegger)

More code in the classroom

So, when you think of a computer programmer, what image comes to mind? Be honest….  Well, as a recent New York Times article points out, children seldom have preconceived ideas about who grows up to be computer programmer.  And teaching code is being woven into more and more curriculums around the world.  The article quotes Roxanne Emadi, a strategist at Code.org, a national nonprofit that advocates for teaching basic programing in American classrooms, on how teachers are converting computer programming lessons into classroom rewards. 

“If you finish your work, we can do 10 minutes of the computer science tutorials at the end of class as a treat,”’ Emadi told the New York Times. "When you’re teaching 8-year-olds, the stereotypes haven’t set in yet.”

The article also quotes proponents of programming education who say the end game isn’t to make every student an ace programmer.  Rather, they say as the world becomes increasingly wired, understanding what makes all that technology tick will be more and more important.  St. Louis is no stranger to this global trend, from startups like Code Red that custom build lesson plans in computer programming to Launch Code, an effort to translate coding skills into middle-class jobs.    (Tim Lloyd)

The growing MOOC movement

As our friends over at Marketplace have pointed out, the MOOC-- or Massive Open Online Course -- world has seen some big changes as of late. Coursera, a major player in the MOOC movement, just hired former long-time president of Yale, Richard Levin. Ghana is using MOOCs to train doctors, Georgia Tech is now using them in a computer science graduate program and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania is offering most of its first year MBA program by way of MOOC.  (Tim Lloyd)

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.