Briefly Stated: December 14, 2022

December 13, 2022 8 min read
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Teenagers’ Brains Aged Prematurely During Pandemic

Fifteen is the new 18 when it comes to teenagers’ brains. So says new research showing that those brains aged years in a matter of months during the stress and isolation of the pandemic lockdowns.

A study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry Global Open Science suggests that the pandemic caused similar effects to emotion and decisionmaking centers in the brain as does chronic, toxic stress.

“Every adolescent in the country went through the pandemic,” said Ian Gotlib, the director of the Neurodevelopment, Affect, and Psychopathology Lab at Stanford University and lead author of the study. “And this is what we’re seeing as a consequence of having experienced yearlong lockdown. It wasn’t so much the direction of the brain aging that surprised us; it was how pronounced it was for such a relatively short period of time.”

Compared with teenagers coming of age before the pandemic, those who experienced 10 months of lockdowns in 2020 showed three to four years of premature aging in the brain’s amygdala, hippocampus, and cerebral cortex.

When related to toxic stress, these changes are associated with higher risk of memory and learning problems and mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression—which may help explain the sharp rise in mental health disorders among teenagers.

But Gotlib’s findings don’t mean that teenagers won’t be able to recover academically or emotionally post-pandemic. Brain plasticity—the ability to adapt to new information and environments—isn’t really that different among adolescents of different ages.

Rather, he said, “I would want [school staff] to pay attention to the mental health data and be sure that they’re trying to support teens who are showing signs of emotional distress in any way that they can.”

In one recent survey, adolescents overwhelmingly report anxiety, depression, and stress have become their biggest barriers to learning.

Gotlib and his team plan to scan the teenagers again as they turn 20 to determine whether their brains return to their pre-pandemic developmental trajectory or if the changes continue over time. “We don’t know if this is going to persist or if this is simply a temporary response to the stress of a pandemic,” he said. “The accelerated aging could slow to put them back on track to their chronological age.”

As Head Start Quality Push Moves Forward, Advocates Raise Red Flag on Program Equity

Quality or quantity? That’s the conundrum facing local Head Start providers that have been unable to satisfy demand as they ramp up standards to meet federal regulations.

That’s also the conclusion of a new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Its authors maintain that Congress should reauthorize Head Start and Early Head Start programs and double current funding to boost their effectiveness.

The findings come as K-12 educators face the dual challenge of helping existing students make up for interrupted academics during the pandemic while also setting the academic foundations for incoming kindergartners.

The $10 billion Head Start and Early Head Start programs serve children from families with income below the federal poverty level. The institute’s findings about equity and access come after efforts in the last 15 years to improve the quality of the programs so that they can better prepare children to succeed in K-12 schools.

A 2007 congressional reauthorization of the programs raised qualifications for Head Start teachers and pushed for full- rather than half-day programs. Regulations in 2016 called for additional relevant teacher training.

But efforts to improve quality increased the cost of local programs, said Steve Barnett, the co-director of the Rutgers advocacy and research organization.

For example, teachers with bachelor’s degrees may require higher salaries than peers without them. And, without a surge of additional federal funding, providers struggle to cover those expenses while also providing adequate seats to serve the need in their communities.

Head Start enrolled 41 percent of impoverished 3- and 4-year-olds during the 2018-19 academic year, a number that dropped to 30 percent in 2020-21, as total enrollment fell nationwide during the pandemic, the institute found.

Compounding equity concerns: The institute found wide state-by-state variations in program quality and enrollment.

The authors recommend that Congress boost funding by $10 billion over four years.

How Should U.S. History Be Taught? Americans Do Disagree But Far Less Than They Think

Teaching American history. Contentious? Certainly. But there’s more common ground among Americans than expected in these politically divisive times, finds a new study.

The report, from the international research and civic action group More in Common, adds to a growing body of evidence showing that most adults want teachers to focus on both the triumphs and the dark chapters of American history.

Some areas of disagreement exist: How much focus to devote to each and what lines to draw between the past and the present are areas of debate, More in Common’s surveys showed.

But the new research suggests that the discourse around the “history wars” is warping Americans’ ideas about what their political opponents actually believe—potentially making it harder to find shared points of agreement.

Researchers found what they call a “perception gap”—a difference between what Democrats and Republicans think members of the other party believe and what members of that other group actually do believe.

“Many Republicans believe most Democrats want to teach a history defined by shameful oppression and white guilt. Many Democrats believe most Republicans want to focus on the white majority and overlook slavery and racism. But we found that both impressions are wrong,” the report says.

For example, only 35 percent of Democrats thought that Republicans would say that “Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes.” But 93 percent of Republicans agreed with that statement.

On the other side, only 45 percent of Republicans thought Democrats would want students to “learn about how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality.” But 92 percent of Democrats said students should learn that.

Where Republicans’ and Democrats’ views differed were on two principal issues: 1) whether the United States needs to more publicly acknowledge past wrongs, and 2) how important it is for children to learn about the history of Americans whose racial backgrounds are different from their own. Those views differed somewhat by race but more so by ideology.

Charter Enrollment Steady After Pandemic Growth

The pandemic proved to be a boon for charter schools and didn’t lose their appeal for families as regular public schools reopened.

Charter enrollment, which spiked in the first year of the pandemic, held steady in the 2021-22 school year, according to a report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The report, published last month, is based on data from 41 states where charter schools operate and where enrollment data were available from 2019-20 to 2021-22.

Between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, charter school enrollment rose by 7 percent, or nearly 240,000 students nationwide. Meanwhile, enrollment in public school districts fell by 3.5 percent, or nearly 1.5 million students—the steepest drop since World War I.

In the 2021-22 school year, though, enrollment pretty much held in both regular regular public schools and charters, the report found.

The steadying numbers in the pandemic’s second year indicate that the initial increase wasn’t just a coincidence, say the report’s authors. The numbers show that most students who left their district schools in the first year of the pandemic did not return, even after schools reopened and in-person instruction resumed.

Some of the charter school enrollment gains have been attributed to virtual charters, which have drawn harsh criticism and questions about their quality.

The report attributes the enrollment shift to a “parent revolution” in which parents are looking for options for their children that better meet their families’ needs.

Gary Miron, a professor at Western Michigan University and a long-standing charter school critic, agreed that charters will continue to grow but not because their educational outcomes are better than those at traditional public schools. He says they are growing because “politicians and advocacy groups use them increasingly in connection to culture wars” over issues such as critical race theory.

Youth Apprenticeships Rise, But Disparities Continue

The number of youth apprentices over the past decade has more than doubled. But, and no surprise here, disparities remain in who’s taking advantage of the programs.

A recent report from the nonprofit Jobs for the Future found that between 2010 and 2020, the number of new youth apprentices, ages 16-24, per year grew from 18,877 to 40,293, or 113 percent.

But that progress is overshadowed by sustained disparities among participants and their outcomes including wages, the report says.

Over the past decade, 63 percent of youth apprentices identified as white. Black and Hispanic youth were less likely than their white peers to participate in apprenticeship programs, and, when they did participate, they exited with generally lower hourly wages, the report says. Women accounted for only 7 percent of all youth apprentices.

According to the report, the average exit wage for youth apprentices of all genders and races was $31 compared with about $12 for all other youth. For Black youth who took part in an apprenticeship program, the average hourly wage was $23, compared with $12.06 for those who did not. And Hispanic youth who completed apprenticeship programs earned about $32 per hour, compared with $12.29 for those who didn’t participate.

To offset the disparities that exist, schools should encourage students, particularly girls and underrepresented groups, to test out STEM—science, technology, engineering, and math—and career programs early on, said Lisette Nieves, a professor at New York University who has researched and written about youth apprenticeships.

Districts also should be intentional about inviting and encouraging a diverse group of students from different backgrounds to participate so “we’re not structurally setting up a system or reproducing an existing system that only recognizes certain apprenticeships for very privileged students,” she said.

“There needs to be intentionality about who’s participating and why they’re participating because we have a history of steering students to different paths that has not been equitable,” Nieves said.

Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Lauraine Langreo, Staff Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Caitlynn Peetz, Staff Writer; Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; and Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated


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