State Board of Education Adopts New Standards for NJASK 3 and NJASK 4

That State Board adopted higher standards yesterday for New Jerseys students. Let’s ask questions about the number of tests that New Jersey students are asked to take. Do more tests constitute more rigor? Is there any evidence to suggest that less testing undermines student efforts by underestimating a their capacity to succeed? In this way, does a harder curriculum really accomplish better results? Perhaps the character rather than the amount of education is something that produces results? A release from the NJDOE website:

The new standards take effect with the redesigned NJ ASK tests in grades 3 and 4 that were first administered in May 2009. Features of the new language arts literacy assessments include more reading passages, new types of writing tasks, and more items overall. Features of the new math assessments include greater emphasis on numerical operations, additional constructed response items, and more test items overall.

Commissioner Davy said that establishing higher expectations for student achievement in the early grades will increase the likelihood of student success in middle school, high school and beyond. “By focusing on student learning in the elementary grades, we increase our ability to identify students in need of instructional support early in their academic careers, before they are in danger of not graduating,” she said.

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Prekindergarten Is A Start

The National Institute for Early Educational Research (NIEER) at Rutgers has released a pre kindergarten study which offers some decisively promising conclusions for New Jersey’s prekindergarten program in Abbott schools. It’s clear conclusions are the reason why we’ve been hearing a lot about this study. A sample of students enrolled for one year in prekindergarten in New Jersey’s Abbott districts, according to NIEER researchers, have shown significant increases (.20) in mathematics and literacy. Strikingly, for two years, the results are nearly double (.40). The “Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study” (APPLES) marks a longitudinal trend in education research as well as a good comprehensive approach to education policy. It is also very costly.

Along with the conclusions about the literacy and mathematics outcomes, another interesting finding is that prekindergarten decreases the instances of students repeating grades. The average percentage for New Jersey is 10.7 percent. Researchers estimate this decrease to be -3.5 percent for students with one year of prekindergarten and an astonishing +5.4 for students with two years of prekindergarten. The cost of prekindergarten for taxpayers, according to researchers, is offset by this decrease in repetition.

In the Star Ledger, NIEER co-director W. Steven Barnett was reported to have said that because the number of students repeating grades would decrease, the state would save “roughly $15,000 per child on education alone.” The roughness of that estimate is possibly too rough for taxpayers. For instance, Paterson City school #25 spends $15,491 per student. The Star Ledger reports that the “state spends roughly $12,000 per child for preschool in Abbott districts.” If one student who has participated in prekindergarten does not need to repeat the 4rth grade, the savings is really more like $3,000. Costs can grow if the program expands and prekindergarten becomes common place. Though the cost for each repeating student is lessened by $3,000, extending the program to the other 89.3 percent of students, students who are not bound to repeat grades, comes at a significant cost to taxpayers. Repetition rates aside, expanding such a program also creates an interesting situation in which the educational outcomes of all children are doubled at double the cost.

An ancillary benefit of New Jersey’s preschool program is that some of the burden is relieved for single parents of preschool aged children who pay as much as $764 per month for childcare, according to estimates from the New Jersey Poverty research Institute’s (NJPRI) 2009 Real Cost of Living Index. Further, if childcare for single parents costs $9168 per year, per preschooler, we are led to question the $12,000 price tag of our current prekindergarten program.

Whether or not it can be done cheaper the $12,000 price tag is worth the results it buys us. Such spending is necessary unless something else can be done to mitigate the effects of poverty on these students. With this in mind, we might stop celebrating NIEER’s exciting results and begin to acknowledge the effect that early development has on later student outcomes. There must be some recognition of the whole student.

New Jersey might seek similar education results from other kinds of spending dedicated to improving the quality of life in places like Paterson. Lowering the cost per pupil to tax payers may ultimately mean installing more libraries and civil infrastructure and reducing crime where, compared to national rates and according to , robbery is 2.03 times as likely,  murder is 1.72 times as likely, and all violent crime is 1.37 times as likely to occur. Paterson sounds like a pretty noisy place, right? Though 3.9 percent of New Jerseyans live in what is considered severe poverty according to the NJPRI 2009 estimates, 11.4 percent live in severe poverty in Paterson. If you prefer the federal poverty line (FPL), the percentage of Paterson’s residents (23.7 percent) below that line is a whole +15.1 percent higher than the New Jersey average (8.6 percent). Perhaps the state can reallocate Abbott money and issue vouchers for school supplies, including desks and desk lamps. Parent education and grants for community projects would be a good thing, too. There are lots of ways to spend money, though the current economic turmoil requires policy officials to spend wisely. For now, a select number of prekindergarten going students have the opportunity to spend some of their formative years outside of poverty, in a classroom/state funded daycare.

Hopefully, the search for the causes of good educational outcomes will focus more often on the lives of students outside of school. Studying the whole student will produce more big picture kinds of solutions like that undertaken by the State Board, like prekindergarten. Lastly, we should be wondering about the effect of prekindergarten on non-abbott New Jersey students in poverty.

“It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

New Jersey’s Education Commissioner has suggested that the new curriculum will be more rigorous, it will deploy more emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) subjects, and it will be administered in a way that eases the shift for students in the entire K-12 span–the phase in will include students across the K-12 system. We cannot be certain how many more students will be left behind as the curriculum gets more difficult for them—especially in areas where they are having the most trouble. Rather than a hard-line approach, more general rigor and attention to math and science, why don’t we create legitimate alternatives for different kinds of thinkers? Alternative course areas, not alternative graduations routes, cater to different thinkers and allow students to exercise their capacity for decision. This latter aspect of the approach, the exercise of decision, can cause an increase in planning skills and critical thinking. Arguably, federal curriculum standards prevent curriculum crafters from deep or fundamental overhaul of K-12 education, but there are approaches that can be applied that would embrace more students in the curriculum and in successful educational outcomes. Commissioner Davy has proposed math and science, I propose philosophy. Though less likely to be integrated into a curriculum than a more rigorous approach to math and science, there are benefits to philosophy.

Our national math and science fetish began during the cold war. It really is an educational program of national defense, though it has definitely been instrumental in the development of many non-military scientific breakthroughs in the U.S.. Early in a founding document of this doctrine, the often cited “A Nation At Risk,” a 1982 Gallup Poll is cited to support a more vigorous approach to education:

the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools strongly supported a theme heard during our hearings: People are steadfast in their belief that education is the major foundation for the future strength of this country. They even considered education more important than developing the best industrial system or the strongest military force, perhaps because they understood education as the cornerstone of both.

I would argue that since the early 80s we may have changed our late cold war attitudes significantly and perhaps someone ought to take the public’s temperature again. There is nothing inherently wrong with the union of education and national defense—though the education-defense approach does not always serve education as much as it serves defense. We every year hear about the decline of literacy in this country, though we only seem concerned about how our TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) scores measure up to those in Asia. Though not really original, augmenting the areas where students are already having the most difficulty is daring—and apparently close to the Commissioner’s heart. Though a lawyer by training, Commissioner Davy owes her own educational foundation to her mathematics degree from Seton Hall. She has said as much. Math, she touts, is the foundation of critical thinking.

For those from the more liberal arts, reforms like this give us chills. I, for one, spent most of my time in the education avoiding mathematics. When Commissioner Davy must have spent most of her time on a Cartesian plane, I was hiding in literature courses and avoiding my mathematics requirements. I did this successfully until my very last year in college. I did not, however, go without critical thinking. As a philosophy major I was required to take symbolic logic, a course which makes most undergraduates queasy. I, on the other hand, gladly took symbolic logic in as much as the proofs and propositional calculations looked like the formulae of mathematics without the toil of counting. Despite my very deep terror for mathematics, I really absorbed symbolic logic and I wanted to master it. I thought that learning symbolic logic might make me sharper; mastery might grant me omniscient. In the end, it really turned out to be a bunch of tricks or devices, pigeonholes, really. Logical formulae, like numerical formulae, are nothing but elaborate versions of that thing people do when they make it look like they’ve pulled off their own finger or pulled a quarter from a child’s ear. Logic is a formulaic study of the distortions of language and most of the distortions have been cataloged since the Middle Ages. In this way, it has some noticeable symmetry with the study of mathematics. But different from mathematics, logic is necessary, but not sufficient, for rational thinking. I would say that mathematics, per se, is not necessary.

In my opinion students at the K-12 level should be given an option. Some schools around the country have proven that it is possible to teach symbolic logic on the K-12 level. Why not let the many students with mathematics terror (perhaps 12 percent of New Jersey’s high school graduates) chose their own path and throw themselves into an alternate discipline like propositional logic. In the long view, the aims and application of logic are almost the same as those of mathematics, critical thinking. Symbolic logic just shortens the circuit a bit as it is less esoterically, or perversely, engaged with the development of critical thinking.

Commissioner Davy’s background has produced for her an impressive career and thinking life. However, everyone can agree that one size does not fit all. As we try to move beyond teaching students to recite items on a test, we should include more students in our teaching. We ought to look to philosophy in general as an alternative and a compliment to math and science in our schools. Instead of chemistry, some may take the philosophy of science which is really the history of scientific thought. Also, an alternative to mathematics might be propositional logic.

The philosophy approach is one proposed by Montclair State University’s Institute for the Advancement of Philosophy for Children (IAPC). From their website:

As reading and writing are taught to children through the discipline of literature, why not make reasoning and judgment available to them through the discipline of philosophy? However, these benefits don’t come from learning about the history of philosophy or philosophers. Rather, as with reading, writing and arithmetic, the benefits of philosophy come through the doing-through active engagement in rigorous philosophical inquiry.

As we move further away from the emphasis on literacy and verbal skills, there is a danger that new generations will lose the ability to clearly transmit complex ideas in speech and writing. I do not agree with the disjunction between reading and writing, and reasoning and judgement, or literature and philosophy. As early as Sophocles, literature and philosophy have been joined at the hip. Historically, philosophers have often borrowed anecdotes from literature to articulate and even formulate difficult philosophical points. And some the greatest observations ever made about political theory and social science can be traced to literary antecedents. Much of the work and career of Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), in fact, represents an important union of mathematics and literature, in a sense, logic.

In this vein, students might read more Lewis Carroll in high school. We all know that, for the most part, only a few students are reading anything at all. Why not let them closely study the semantic nonsense of Carroll. Also, an extremely important figure in modern propositional logic is Bertrand Russell who wrote one of the most accessible and textbook-sized philosophical histories ever written, A History of Western Philosophy. A high school curriculum could easily grow around this book.

Commissioner Davy and the State Board is correct in emphasizing the role that mathematics can play in the development of critical thinking, though, for the same reason, similar if not better results can be had with the addition of philosophy to K-12 curriculums. Philosophy college majors score the third highest out of 22 other majors on the LSAT—though math majors and econ majors score higher. Philosophy students score second highest to math majors on the GMAT and are the highest scorers on the GRE. For those who get indigestion over TIMSS scores, IAPC boasts that its materials have been translated into 40 languages and are taught in more than 60 countries. Math makes sense, but it is illogical to exclude philosophy which may:

• As an alternative, promote critical thinking by simply promoting decision among students.
• May compliment other disciplines such as mathematics.
• May improve literacy.
• May raise critical thinking and test scores.
• May legitimately produce more high school graduates.
• May increase the number of college bound high school graduates.

FYI: Charter School Performance in 16 States

Study Methodology

Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) has released new findings about American choice schools in 16 states. The first of three reports scheduled to be released in 2009, “Multiple Choice: charter School Performance in 16 States” searches for measures of charter school “effectiveness.” CREDO chooses student outcomes or standardized test scores as an indicator of effectiveness. Specifically, the approach is a value added approach which takes initial student scores as a base which can be removed from latter scores in order to measure the charter school’s effect on score growth. The data in the report, a project undertaken with the use of a data collection methodology pioneered by RAND corp., is an advance over previous studies as it utilized standardized data from a good number of charter schools nationally, about “1.7 million records from more than 2400 charter schools.” Standard data allows for a reading of charter school characteristics between individual states that are comparable. Also, taken as a whole, the data is representative of all charter schools on the national level. CREDO notes: “the states included in this study enroll more than half the charter school students in the United States, so the consolidated results begin, for the first time, to tell the story of the policy of charter schooling at a macro level.” In order to mitigate the effects of selection bias, the CREDO researchers employ a Virtual Control Record (VCR) methodology by which a virtual twin for each student in the study is created to be sure that both charter students and the traditional public school (TPS) students are comparable. Basically, by taking both charter and TPS students from the same origin, the students are considered characteristically similar.  CREDO explains thus:

We identify all the TPS that have students who transfer to a given charter school; we call each of these schools “feeder schools.” Once a school qualifies as a feeder school, all the students in the school become potential matches for a student in a particular charter school. All the student records from all the feeder schools are pooled – this becomes the source of records for creating the virtual match. Using the records of the students in those schools in the year prior to the test year of interest, CREDO selects all of the available records that match each charter school student.

Study Findings

To begin, CREDO’s major findings do not do much to champion the cause of charter schools. Their reports finds the following: on average, charter students experience a decrease in math and reading when compared to students in traditional public schools. But these aren’t the most interesting findings in the report. The most interesting conclusion, in fact, is probably that the students performing best in choice schools happen to be English Language Learners (ELL) and students in poverty. Also, despite there being a significant demographic overlap between students in poverty and many American minority groups, CREDO finds that Black and Hispanic charter school student performance is “significantly worse” when compared to the performance of demographically comparable students (data twins) enrolled in traditional public schools. The two conclusions together are interesting in as much as charter schools are often viewed, specifically, as a positive alternative to TPS education for low income students which, as mentioned, tend to overlap demographically with minority groups. This is troubling information, though the report mentions that the statistics do not yet reveal any specific causes to account for the data.

According to the report, race and economic status are not the only determinants of educational outcomes. Time and education level are also factors. In regard to time, CREDO researchers find:

Students do better in charter schools over time. First year charter students on average experience a decline in learning, which may reflect a combination of mobility effects and the experience of a charter school in its early years. Second and third years in charter schools see a significant reversal to positive gains.

Regarding education level, charter school students at the elementary and middle school level were found to have learned at “higher rates” than their peers in TPSs and at lower rates on the high school level. From another vantage, a charter that serves only high school level students may be predictably worse. The proper niche for charters, therefore, may be in serving the lower grades, a conclusion that must be considered by policy makers as perhaps now more than 48 percent of all charters, according to Center for Education Reform data in 2005, serve students on the high school level. Further, in regard to CREDO’s prior conclusions, the National Charter School Research Project also concluded in 2005 that “nation¬ally, charter schools serve a larger proportion of minority and low-income students than is found in traditional public schools, a characteristic due largely to the disproportionate number of charter schools located in urban areas.” Often, the mission of charter school education reform is to offer to minority and underserved communities a positive alternative to their local TPSs which are by many reformers considered to be the root cause of unsatisfactory educational outcomes. This thought, presumably, is what has motivated the CREDO researchers to undertake the comparison. However, CREDO’s data may run contrary to the intuitions of many reformers. And, there is a danger that, if policy makers are not informed, certain communities will be harmed by the same act of reform that was intended to serve them and their children better. Indeed, if the data allows us to do so, taking all the report’s conclusions together produces the image of the ideal charter: the ideal is a charter that serves only non-Hispanic and non-Black students in grades K-8. Of what use, we might then ask, is such a school?

These questions aside, once they are reproduced and thus confirmed in other studies these conclusions should have a significant impact on the way policy makers view charter schools in their own states. Knowing how and for whom charter schools work best might cause education officials to pause before closing an underperforming school as, for instance, the number of first year students enrolled at a charter may bear significantly on educational outcomes reported for a certain year. In this way, for officials, the “first year effect” might be actively treated with some new policy, or acknowledged as more an enrollment phenomenon rather than a determinant of charter failure. Rather than contributing to keeping charters open, however, researchers understand that their efforts may have the opposite effect as keeping charters open is not the greatest challenge facing charter school reform, currently in an “authorizing crisis.” CREDO describes that “Evidence of financial insolvency or corrupt governance structure, less easy to dispute or defend, is much more likely to lead to school closures than poor academic performance.” As poor performing schools do more harm than good to the charter reform movement by corrupting the data gleaned from successful charters, from the perspective of statistical research, CREDO suggests that their work should add imperative to the difficult task of closing underperforming schools. Unfortunately, according to their research, many of these underperforming schools may serve the majority of at risk students.

Policy Environment

Perhaps more interesting than the forgoing conclusions, the effect of policy environment on charter school effectiveness will be particularly useful to officials and those who study governance and education administration. Studying the following: “the use of a cap on the supply of charters”; “the availability of multiple authorizers”; and “the availability of an appeals process to review authorizer decisions.” Caps, presumably, limit the total number or charters and thus the overall number of low performing charters by increasing the pressure to close old and to grant entry to new charters. More authorizers may add more knowledge to support judgments about closing or authorization—and it may also permit poor performing schools to pick sympathetic judges. Lastly, the opportunity to appeal the decision of an authorizer may “increase the proportion of marginal schools, dragging down the overall performance of the sector” or it may add a higher level of scrutiny to authorizer judgments, the CREDO researchers suggest. Briefly, CREDO found that the existence of charter caps lowers student performance in a state; multiple authorizers has “a significant negative impact on student academic growth”; the opportunity for appeal seemed to have a growth effect for student academic outcomes, though the conclusions are tentative because none of the states changed their policies during the study period.

In the report, there is also included the breakdown into math and reading performance for several kinds of students and the analysis of outcomes with both charter and TPS understood in a market framework. At large, much of the research really draws attention to how subtle the differences are between charter and TPS environments. The subtlety of the differences almost lends support to less recent studies that conclude no significant difference between charter and TPS. However, though these differences are subtle, they are still important given the size and demography of the student population enrolled in charter schools.

Is it the case that the perfect charter school student looks something like this?: in grades K-8, in poverty, an ELL of non-Hispanic or non-Black heritage. Similarly, is the ideal school one which operates in states that: shun caps, have a single authorizing entity and favors appeals?  Perhaps these characteristics are only determinants of success when they are each by themselves.  By lumping them together we supposes that all these factors are inclusive.  Further, making up ideal schools and districts based on the data is interesting but not very productive.  If this kind of idealization accomplishes anything it begs us to investigate more – into the why and the how of the CREDO’s findings.

New Jersey

Though New Jersey is not part of the CREDO’s analysis, a simple inventory of the identified indicators would be interesting. Unfortunately, no data exists for some of the indicators such as race and at-risk which might be why New Jersey was not included among the other states in the charter school study. We do have some information, however. According to the New Jersey Department of education, over 18,000 New Jersey students attended 62 charter schools as of May 2009. About 13 of those 62 charters serve over 4,413 students, roughly 24.5 percent of all students. Further, regarding state policy, New Jersey, joined by 14 other states, Arizona, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Virginia, and Wyoming, has no charter school cap. However, the rigorous process of application and accountability to the state’s sole authorizer adds a significant amount of a barrier to charter school entry.

1. Though there is no cap and no leveraged pressure to eliminate low performers, school performance assessment is administered every two years. Upon entry, charters are all granted a four year term, at the end of which they must apply for renewal to the education commissioner.

2. New Jersey is the only state to invest in one person, the commissioner of education, the responsibility of authorization. As most other states charge single or multiple boards with that responsibility, the effects of New Jersey’s unique charter policy and that of other states are not comparable in studies such as the foregoing.

3. New Jersey’s appeal process is open to the affected school district as well as the charter operator as a means of reconsidering an authorizer’s decision. Appeals are directed to State Board of Education. Whether this has an effect on growth in New Jersey charters is uncertain. By 2005, New Jersey had authorized 91 charter school applications and had received 237 in total. Despite the availability of appeal, the number of charters in New Jersey has never grown over 67, the number reached in 2005. No great augmentation of the charter school count has occurred since the beginning of charter schools in New Jersey.

Though the performance of New Jersey’s charters cannot be directly understood in reference to the CREDO findings, it would still be interesting to add to this study the relative effects that New Jersey’s policy environment has on student performance. Policy makers should pay attention to this and the following two reports from CREDO as, even if they do not support them as a solution to the education of underserved student populations, there is much to be learned about the education environment of traditional public schools in the laboratory environment of the charters.

Still Searching For Indicators of Success

I recently posted an article about New Jersey’s graduation rates though it is based upon dubious calculations which misrepresent education in New Jersey.  To be clear, the article was extremely concerned about the use of alternative tests without guaranteeing sufficient skills. I am concerned not just about the number of students going to college but about New Jersey’s high school graduates fitting into their future occupations in a job market that is increasingly more difficult to navigate.

In my article, I was too focused on college going rates and not sufficiently on the latter question. The percentage of change in enrollment is not a strong indicator of competency and may simply reflect student choice or the effects of immigration. If enrollment is indicative of anything, it is probably the health of the economy. In fact, in 2008 the Bloustein School at Rutgers suggested that enrollment rates, relatively stable since 1965, may decline as students in a poor economy choose jobs over higher education. Based upon my research, I am concerned that only half of our students go on to college in USA and, of that half, half of them drop out. Out of that remaining 50 percent, 30-50 percent of them may need remedial education.

Despite the large amounts of money spent as a result of the Abbot decisions, dropout rates in urban high schools are abysmally high. We need a strong core curriculum, national common standards, and effective faculty development. As New Jersey’s Education Commissioner Davy and the Department of Education are currently working to develop a new core curriculum for our K-12 students, these questions demand even more of our attention. The determinants of curriculum success are still vague and they need to be discussed as much as possible. If we have learned anything from the recession of 2008 it is that a trained workforce is almost as important as an educated citizenry:

Diploma Counts: SRA, Not Going Away?

In 2003, the New Jersey Department of Education released a white paper, “New Jersey Special Review Assessment,” which called for among other things, an end to Special Review Assessment (SRA) alternate graduation routes. The Department summarized all of its objective thus:

The elimination of the SRA; the creation of expanded remedial opportunities for students failing the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA); the development of an appeal procedure; and the award of a differentiated diploma for students who fail to achieve proficiency on the HSPA, but who do meet other graduation and attendance criteria.

As a consequence of this effort to be rid of the SRA, there are now two instruments of alternate assessment, the HSPA is the first level, considered by some to be a “middle school” level exam, and the SRA, which never went away.

The Installment of the HSPA has had little effect as 60 percent of those who take it are unable to meet the standard and therefore must take the SRA. When the NJDOE’s report was released in 2003, the graduation rate, according to Education Week’s annual Diplomas Count report, was 84.8 percent. New Jersey’s has since continued to top graduation rates, 82.5 in 2004, 83.3 in 2005, 82.1 in 2006. The current year’s Diploma’s Count report is based on 2006 data.

Sharing the top of the list with New Jersey, in ranked order: New Jersey (82.1), Wisconsin (81.7), Iowa (80.7), and Minnesota (79.2). The change in graduation rates for each state from 2000 to 2006 were: Wisconsin (+3.5), Iowa (+2.0), Minnesota (+0.3), and New Jersey (-1.3). New Jersey, despite being ranked first in high school graduation, actually enjoyed a higher rate of graduation in 2005.

Though New Jersey’s graduation rates over this period reflect a decline of -1.3, the rate has been relatively constant, hovering around 80 percentage points for six years, despite the external strain of policy mandates like No Child Left Behind (NCLB) which makes graduation more difficult for both students and teachers. The change in the other three states for this period can be described in each case as a modest increase, very modest in Minnesota.

New Jersey for six years has been producing more high school graduates than the three other states. According to Census Bureau data, higher education enrollment, which was estimated to be around 470,302 in 2000, has increased by 85,761 students to 556,063 in 2007. That’s a 15% increase in higher education enrollment. Comparing New Jersey’s higher education enrollment data to that of the other three states reveals the following ranking: MN (+18%) WI (+17%) NJ (+15%) IA (+14%) . Though New Jersey has the highest high school graduation rate among the three other states, New Jersey’s is only third highest increase in college enrollment during the period in question. Third highest is nothing to scoff at but why not first?

We would like the data to suggest that New Jersey’s alternate assessment is churning out high school graduates who lack the skills to move on to higher education. However, New Jersey does not seem to be doing so bad – though enrollment in New Jersey colleges is growing at a lower rate than it is in two of the other three states. Should New Jerseyans continue to ask questions about the SRA and what alternate graduation routes are doing to New Jersey’s future workforce? Perhaps.

According to some, more New Jerseyans are going out of state for college. Also, there are a greater number of special needs students like immigrants since 2000. This is something like an account proposed in the fall of last year by the New Jersey Association of State Colleges and Universities (NJASC). NJASC at that time placed the blame for the supposed “brain drain” on the State of New Jersey for underfunding higher education and playing a part in making our higher education institutions unattractive for in-state students. But what about the effect of alternate routes on New Jersey’s future workforce? The immigration account holds a bit of weight, though when we examine the increase in the approximate number of high-school enrolled students during the period in question there has been very little, about 37, 437.

The other three states have enjoyed steady, though modest, increases in the high school graduation rates since the reinvention of The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, NCLB. Yet, we cannot be certain that just because New Jersey’s college enrollment is 1-3% lower, students in those states are performing better than students in New Jersey. For instance, all four states, due to the testing mandates of NCLB, require students to take a kind of exit exam. And all four states now have alternate assessments in place. Two of the four states, Wisconsin and Minnesota, make explicit on their education department websites that alternate assessments are in place for students with disabilities. Though each of the other states now have alternate assessments in place, until recently New Jersey was alone in the practice of alternate assessment. Indeed, as recent as 2002, many states were without exit exams much less alternate exit exams. And in the rush to comply, many states have erected both with relative simultaneity. The institution of these standards occurred during the time span from which the enrollment data was gathered. Consequently, the effect of alternate routes on college enrollment in the three other states discussed may not yet be reflected in the survey data. For New Jersey, however, the effect would show in the data.

In all of this, a few questions persist. To what degree have Minnesota’s and New Jersey’s enrollment percentages been affected by the lack alternate routes? And how would New Jersey’s enrollment percentages look if alternate routes were not available. How high school is a function of higher education in New Jersey requires deeper investigation.

New Jersey Graduation Rate Tables:

2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 Change
WI 78.1 78.9 80.6 77.3 80.5 81.7 3.5
IA 78.7 79.1 82.7 81.1 82.8 80.7 2.0
MN 78.9 78.7 78.6 78.7 78.1 79.2 0.3
NJ 83.4 84.9 84.8 82.5 83.3 82.1 -1.3

3-Year Averages New Jersey’s Higher Education Enrollment
2000 470,302
2004-07 556,063
Change 85,761 (+15%)

State Change in College Enrollment
MN +18%
WI +17%
NJ +15%
IA +14%

Trying To Remember What Causes Brain Damage: This is Your Brain on Poverty

If we suppose that intellectual aptitude is the result of teaching, we may be partially wrong. Likewise, if we believe that economics and socio-environmental conditions are responsible for quantifiable intellect then we might only be somewhat right. Such are the implications of various bits of research that, over the past decade, has suggested that socioeconomic status (SES) bears considerably on the ability of children growing up in low (LSES) or high (HSES) socioeconomic environments. Although cognitive science and public fiscal policy may seem to have only tentative links at times, in education they dovetail splendidly.

You may prefer, for instance, that former account of aptitude, “aptitude is the result of teaching,” you might understand “reform” to be a function of staffing or certification. It would follow then that the dysfunction in our American schools can be solved by either reforming the process of certification for teachers, devising ways of ferreting out poor educators in our school system with a system of performance-based pay incentives and deprivations, or the reallocation of good teachers who tend to migrate to suburban middleclass schools.

On the other hand, if you, a social critic, prefer the idea “that economics and socio- environmental conditions are responsible for quantifiable intellect” then one favors reforms like after school programs, Head Start, welfare assistance, and environmental improvement i.e., school construction and community rehabilitation.

On both accounts, according to a growing population of researchers in various fields, we may be wrong. Not completely wrong, but wrong nonetheless. And being incorrect in our assumptions, in this case, would mean spending on facets of education reform which bear little effect on the real education problems of LSES children. Correct spending suggests targeting areas in the sphere of education that are usually understood to be outliers or ancillary elements.

Researchers from Cornell University, Gary Evans and Michelle Shamberg, and in another study Mark Kishiyama and associates from the University of California, Berkeley, have suggested that it is not simply poverty but the consequent stress indicative of poverty that diminishes the aptitude of LSES children. They suggest that the education problems of LSES children are neurological as much as they are environmental. Both the Berkeley and Cornell studies build upon the work of Martha J. Farah and associates at the University of Pennsylvania who seem to have been the first to transpose SES onto neurophysiology to make this argument. In 2005, Dr. Farah, joined by Kimberly G. Noble and Hallam Hurt produced a study, one of several authored by Farah, that seeks to change the way we think about the performance of students and the solutions on which we are willing to spend money.

The first stage of the University of Pennsylvania study was an attempt to describe and account for lower neurocognitive performance between 30 LSES and 30 middle SES (MSES) public school kindergarteners. Designed to “assess the functioning of five key neurocognitive systems” such as spatial and visual cognition, cognitive control, language, and memory, the Berkeley researchers found that MSES children scored a standard deviation higher than LSES children in language tests and two-thirds of a standard deviation higher for “executive function” mentioned before as “cognitive control.” In most of the tests, spatial and visual results became irrelevant.

It is interesting that test scores are interpreted neurophysiologically, i.e., a test of “Language” becomes a test of the “left perisylvian cortical region” just as a test of working memory becomes a test of the “prefrontal cortex.”[1] On this note, the original test of memory was a test of the medial temporal cortical region, a region where the hippocampus is located, the hippocampus being responsible for the creation of long term memories.

To support the assumption about the socioenvironmental effect of stress hormones on brain anatomy and function, the researchers cite a laboratory experiment in which rat pups are separated from their rat mothers. The separation, it seems, adds rodent sized emphasis to the theory that stress can cause brain damage. The separation of rat pups from their mothers, according to researchers Meany, Diorno, and Francis, was found to have altered both anatomy and function in their rat brains and had a particular effect on “the medial temporal area needed for memory, although prefrontal systems involved in the regulation of the stress response are also impacted.”[2] Farah, Noble, and Hurt suppose that, similarly, living in low socioeconomic environments produces the kind of stress which, as did the stress of separation experienced by rats in the experiment above mentioned, damages human brains. Such stressful stimuli, according to the researchers, might include: “concern about providing for basic family needs, dangerous neighborhoods, and little control over one’s work life.”[3]

The research leads us to adopt a theory that high stress in LSES environments produces greater amounts of stress hormones like cortisol, a secretion from the adrenal gland that affects blood pressure and insulin levels, and catecholamine, also an adrenal secretion responsible for preparing the body for the “fight-or-flight” response. Stress hormones in large amounts are thought to cause a deregulation of blood pressure and the immune system but also to the prefrontal cortex and the medial cortex which contains hippocampus, the organ responsible for the creation of long term memories. The University of Pennsylvania researchers suppose that the cognitive disparities they found between LSES and MSES children in all three experiments can be accounted for in this way.

Because they preferred this particular interpretive model, one which posits that stress hormones cause brain damage, researchers find evidence of both medial temporal as well as prefrontal damage in their LSES subjects. Having found such evidence, it would have followed—or it would have at least been very suggestive—that something in a LSES subject’s background causes brain damage. However, at the experiment’s conclusion researchers did not find the evidence they anticipated. Instead, they found that LSES subjects differed little from MSES subjects in all but two categories, language (left perisylvian cortical region), and executive function or cognitive control, (prefrontal cortex).

Having found no memory deficiency with regard to the medial temporal region, researchers seem to have decided instead to mine memory from the prefrontal cortex whereon LSES subjects scored one-third lower than MSES subjects—not quite as low as LSES scored in language. Prefrontal or executive function was thus split into 3 different categories, cognitive control, reward processing, and most important, working memory. Not surprising, researchers also tried to induce a memory response in the medial temporal lobe (memory) by placing a delay between the stimulus and the response portion of the experiment with the hope that such a delay would give LSES subjects ample time to forget.

Hoping to replicate their findings in the prefrontal and left perisylvian region, researchers conducted two more experiments, one on 150 first graders “of varying ethnicities” and SES backgrounds, and one on of 60 middle school students divided, as were the subjects of the first study, into equal parts LSES and MSES. In both of the latter studies, LSES subject’s scores were similar to those in the first round. Researchers thus concluded that it is that stress affects working memory and that, perhaps, is the cause of lowered ability in larger numbers of LSES subjects.

In their account of the correlation of LSES and low achievement, Evans and Schamberg lean heavily on a model developed by researcher Bruce S. McEwen who supposes that stress hormones like cortisol, which may help the body respond and adapt to various environmental stimuli, may also build up under prolonged strain causing long term physical damage in conditions of perpetual stress, just like the rats in the study described by the University of Pennsylvania study.[4] McEwen calls the effects of perpetual or “chronic stress,” “allostatic load” which can be described as a weakening of health marked by a prolonged secretion of survival hormones. Hormones or “physiological mediators,” like emergency switches or rocket packs for movie heroes, allow humans to adapt to new conditions and rise to challenges that are taxing to our bodies and minds. Cortisol, for instance, can provide a burst of energy in a dangerous moment or make you intellectually sharper when you are confronted with an emergent problem. In high doses, cortisol can overtax the body and cause effects like cognitive impairment and obesity. Wrote McEwan in 2000, “Both cortisol and catecholamines are mediators of the adaptation of many systems of the body to acute challenges, while, at the same time, these mediators also participate in pathological changes over long periods of time ranging from immunosuppression to obesity, hypertension, and atherosclerosis.”

Based upon McEwan’s account, Evans and Schamberg suppose that the frequency of accumulated stress varies by the duration of childhood poverty which in turn can be correlated positively with lowered working memory capacity in adult life. This thesis, combined with an examination of longitudinal data derived from a study of 195 white young adults, led the researchers to suggest that the working memory of an adult from a LSES background is quantifiably affected by stress. Evans and Schamberg conclude that, “on average, poor adults raised in middle-income families could hold in working memory a sequence of 9.44 items, whereas poor adults who grew up in poverty had a working memory capacity of 8.50 items.”[5]

The researchers do entertain the possibility that their findings might be indicative of a reversed situation wherein decreased memory ability is what causes the prolonged stress or allostatic load “poverty–>working memory–>allostatic load,” rather than poverty–>allostatic load–>working memory. They entertain this idea, but not for long as they insist that the inferential links between allostatic load and working memory are very suggestive of the former causal chain, that the stress of poverty causes lowered working memory. Further, the researchers add, “the relationship between duration of childhood poverty and allostatic load was not attenuated when working memory was partialed from the equation.” Said simply, if lowered working memory, rather than poverty, was indeed the cause of stress observed in the data, then the elimination of working memory, in particular places of the sample, should have removed instances of allostatic load. It did not.

Mark Kishiyama and his research associates from the University of California, Berkeley, have produced a behavioral experiment for which 26 children from LSES and HSES backgrounds were fitted with electrodes and asked to perform various cognitive feats. Taking also the University of Pennsylvania study as a research benchmark, the Berkeley researchers used Electroencephalography (EEG) equipment in an attempt to find behavioral data to support the poverty-neurocognition correlation and to confine the problem, as did the prior pair of researchers, to the prefrontal cortex.[6] Though researchers admit the limitations of a largely behavioral test, the study is an advance over prior studies because it uses brain imaging to show more concretely what other experimenters only supposed by projecting onto human brains, the theories of other researchers derived from the brains of rats. That is, imaging actually showed on video monitors, the degree of prefrontal activity of each subject.

On the 5 tests issued, HSES subjects scored significantly higher than LSES subjects who, for the most part, scored within the predetermined mean. LSES subjects, in other words, performed many of the tasks with average or near average aptitude. For instance, on a test which required subjects to count forward and then in reverse as means of testing their working memory, “digit span,” HSES children scored higher than 1 standard deviation over the predetermined mean. LSES subjects achieved mean scores on the low end. Another test of working memory included a verbal component, “semantic fluency,” a test in which subjects were required produce all the words they could conjure in order to satisfy a cue from proctors, i.e., the names of animals, food, or words that begin with “sh.” HSES subjects excelled in the semantic fluency test, but seem to glow brightest in the area of language overall. In a general “language” test, subjects were asked simply to define words. HSES children scored as high as 2 standard deviations above the mean; LSES children scored 1 standard deviation below.

The tests may have shown HSES children to be semi-savants when it comes to counting backwards and forwards, though in regard to the poverty-neurocognition correlation, the experiment failed to prove that LSES subjects had their prefrontal cortices wounded by their SES. Their scores were average but not indicative of brain damage and the only thing that seems to wound them was the comparison to HSES children.

Of course the researchers insist that their experiment on 26 children drawn only from the Bay Area confirms that SES bears neurophysiologically on the prefrontal function in the brains of children. However, these researchers do not seem to have transcended a theory built upon observations of rat pups. They note themselves that behavioral tests can only prove so much about the neurological operations as “they provide only indirect measures of brain function.” And, as the authors also note, they have not completely isolated the observed effects to “prefrontal dysfunction.” In a sense, they are no closer to proving the poverty-neurocognition correlation than the University of Pennsylvania researchers who preceded them.

If the Berkeley study demonstrated anything convincingly it was that HSES children excel in language, an ability attributed to the left perisylvian cortical region which Farah, Noble, and Hurt in their earlier work found to be predicted by “cognitive stimulation,” otherwise known as conversation. The latter note that their research suggests cognitive stimulation “was the sole factor identified as predicting language ability […] along with the child’s gender and the mother’s I.Q..” Not really so different from the contrasting account of medial temporal, or memory ability which was attributed to “average social/emotional nurturance,” otherwise known as a lack of stress. However, we must doubt that a lack of conversation causes neurophysiological brain damage in the way that researchers assume stress hormones cause a deformation of the prefrontal cortex and the medial temporal lobe. Evidence that HSES children excel in language ability is not surprising. What is surprising is that the Berkeley researchers would use their test of “semantic fluency” which pairs working memory with language in order to demonstrate something about working memory.

Various studies, including the first study conducted by the University of Pennsylvania researchers and that just mentioned, bear out the idea that HSES children have greater language ability than LSES. The second study conducted by Evans and Schamberg did not test subjects for language aptitude but did seem to suggest that, as did the Berkeley researchers, working memory/the prefrontal cortex is somehow morphologically bound up with language/the left perisylvian cortical region: “working memory is essential to language comprehension, reading, and problem solving, and it is a critical prerequisite for long-term storage of information.” In all of the studies beginning with the first conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, an attempt has been made to prove the existence of both prefrontal and medial temporal impairment in a sample of LSES subjects. The existence of both would justify the use of the stress hormone interpretive model discussed in the first study and called allostatic load in the second. Rather than justifying the use of the stress hormone model, however, each study has tried to attach working memory in some way to language aptitude which was found in two of the three studies to be consistently high in HSES and comparatively low in LSES subjects. Contrary to the hopeful conclusions of each study, it would seem that language aptitude is the only thing damaged by poverty.

In the past couple of years, the Educational Testing Service has released a report called “The Family: America’s Smallest School.” In the 2007 report, authors note that by the age of four, “the average child in a professional family hears about 20 million more words than children in working-class families hear, and about 35 million more than the children in welfare families hear.”[7] Also, similar to the findings of the researchers mentioned above, ETS reports that “at the highest SES quartile, 62 percent of parents reported reading to their children every day, compared to only 36 percent of parents at the lowest SES quartile.” ETS reports the findings of Child Trends, an organization that, according to ETS, gathered information from 7 research papers, reports, and books spanning the work of 19 researchers to conclude that “by the age of two, children who are read to regularly display greater language comprehension, larger vocabularies and higher cognitive skills than their peers […] In addition, being read to aids in the socioemotional development of young children.”

The famous 17th century political thinker Thomas Hobbes once supposed, unscientifically, that the function of language was the conversion of our mental discourse into verbal discourse. Having no language, he inferred, we would have no way of indexing our thoughts and therefore no capacity for memory. We can say this in another way: memory is a function of verbal ability. Perhaps there’s something to this 400-year-old conjecture. In order to raise language ability or, in the idiom of the neurophysiologists, to decrease brain damage to the left perisylvian cortical region, ETS suggests that parents equip homes with reading material and a quiet place to study such as a desk. They also recommend reading to children which, as it is said to aid the “socioemotional development” of children, may also reduce some of the damage to the prefrontal cortex that was found to be typical of the LSES subjects in all three studies.

The social critics were right after all. If a LSES environment/family is poor in substance then we must give these children substitute environments and caretakers. In the absence of parents who are not willing or able to read to their own children, Head Start type intervention and after school counselor surrogates may do a lot of good for LSES children. Some other solutions such as diverting pay and benefits from teachers and administrators toward the improvement of urban essential infrastructure such as convenience stores, libraries, police departments, and transportation, raising minimum wage, and creating more jobs for LSES families may also decrease some of the neurophysiological strain of poverty. That, perhaps, is a no brainer.


[1] Farah, M. J., Noble, K. G. & Hurt, H. Poverty, privilege and brain development: Empirical findings and

ethical implications. In J. Illes (Ed.),. (2005). Neuroethics in the 21st Century. New York: Oxford University Press.

[2] Meaney, M. J., Diorio, J., Francis, D., & al, e. Early environmental regulation of forebrain glucocoricoid receptor gene expression: implications for adrenocortical responses to stress. Developmental Neuroscience. (1996). 18, 49-72: in Farah, Martha, Poverty, Privilege, And Brain…

[3] iBid of 1

[4] McEwen BS. Allostasis and allostatic load: Implications for neuropsychopharmacology. Neuropsychopharmacology. (2000). 22: 108–124: “altered states of brain chemistry and function make the afflicted individual more susceptible to the physiological impact of life events and, in turn, more vulnerable to the impact of the stress hormones themselves. Furthermore, these considerations of stress and health are becoming useful in understanding gradients of health across the full range of education and income, referred to as “socioeconomic status” or SES” (2).

[5] Gary W. Evans, G. W. & Schamberg, M. A. Childhood poverty, chronic stress, and adult working memory. PNAS (2009) 106: 6545-6549.

[6] Kishiyama, M. M. et al. Socioeconomic disparities affect prefrontal function in children. J. Cogn. Neurosci. ( 2009). 21, 6: 1106-111.

[7] Barton, P., & Coley, R. America’s smallest school: The family. Policy Information Report, Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Services. (2007).