Education

Briefly Stated: January 17, 2024

January 16, 2024 9 min read
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Students See Value In Math Class But Find It Boring, Too

U.S. students, all in all, leave much to be desired in their math skills. A look at the latest national assessment confirms that. Why the deficiency?

Although a new survey can’t fully answer that, the results do provide some insight. Almost three-quarters of high school students think they can be good at math if they work hard, but fewer say they follow through with that effort when the work gets challenging. More than half feel uncomfortable asking questions when they don’t understand something. And, to top it off, they say what they learn in math class is boring.

The results from YouthTruth reveal the perspectives of almost 90,000 high school students toward math, across 62 districts in 14 states.

The findings also highlight American teenagers’ deep ambivalence about how math is taught. While most think it’s an important subject to learn, they’re often uninterested in the work they’re given, which they see as disconnected from math’s real-world applications.

“Schools are not effectively showing them why formal mathematics is important. They’re not connecting it to their career or real-world experience,” said Jen de Forest, YouthTruth’s director of organizational learning and communications. “We’re leaving all of their motivation unsparked.”

Leading organizations in the field have argued that schools should help students develop positive identities as math learners and demonstrate that math can help solve everyday problems.

But some attempts to emphasize math’s applied uses in this way have faced pushback.

California’s new math framework, for example, suggests that the subject can be a vehicle for students to address important issues in their lives and communities. In response to proposed drafts, close to a thousand math and science professors and professionals signed a letter arguing that such an approach would politicize math.

Perspectives on math varied by demographics and family background.

For instance, students whose parents held graduate degrees were significantly more likely than their peers to say that it is important to learn math, that they can be good at math if they work hard, and that they feel comfortable asking questions in class.

As New Year Begins, 6th Grader Killed in Iowa, 7 Others Injured, in Latest School Shooting

Barely into the new year, another school shooting has occurred, claiming the life of a 6th grader and injuring seven others.

The shooting took place at Perry High School, in Iowa, on the first day back following winter break. Classes hadn’t begun for the day but a breakfast program was underway, said Mitch Mortvedt, a spokesman for the state’s public safety department.

Four other students, two staff members, and the principal, who put himself in harm’s way so students could try to escape, were injured, Mortvedt said. He said Dan Marburger, who has been principal since 1995, did some “pretty significant things” to protect others during the shooting but didn’t release details. Amhir Jolliff, 11, was identified as the student who was killed.

The 17-year-old shooter, a student at the school, was found inside Perry High with a self-inflicted gunshot wound, according to law-enforcement officials. The student had a pump-action shotgun and a small-caliber handgun. Law-enforcement officers also found and neutralized a “rudimentary” explosive device on the scene.

Authorities have provided no information about a possible motive in the shooting. But two students and their mother told the Associated Press that the teen was a quiet person who had been bullied for years.

Shortly before the shooting, the gunman posted a photo on TikTok inside the restroom of the high school, one official said. The photo was captioned “now we wait,” and the song “Stray Bullet” by the German band KMFDM accompanied it. Investigators have also found other photos he posted posing with firearms, according to the official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.

In 2023, there were 37 shootings on school property that injured at least one person, according to Education Week’s shooting tracker for last year. That was the second-highest annual total since EdWeek began tracking school shooting incidents in 2018.

Nationwide, 20 people died and 42 others were injured in 2023 in instances of gun violence in and around schools.

A Side Effect of Anti-CRT Campaigns? Researchers Find They Reduced Trust in Local Public Schools

In all likelihood, it was rare—if happening at all—that K-12 students were being taught about critical race theory. That, however, didn’t stop politicians and others from spreading such a message, with the effect of undermining public confidence in public schools.

New research from Michigan State University and the University at Albany spells out the cascade of events that has also led to book bans and other forms of censorship in schools.

“In this age where information can spread ... like wildfire, we saw this newness of the narrative really spread across the country, and then [it] started to have a lot of on-the-ground effects for public schools,” said Ariell Bertrand, an education policy doctoral student at Michigan State and one of the paper’s authors.

For the study, researchers identified 11 narrative plots politicians and pundits commonly shared about critical race theory, including that CRT indoctrinates children and teaches children to hate the United States.

They then asked a sample of adults how often they had seen each narrative. They also asked about their beliefs about critical race theory and schools after seeing the messages.

In general, survey respondents were 59 percentage points more likely to support a ban if they reported seeing a ban-CRT narrative before the survey than people who had not heard a ban-CRT plot, the research found.

For each message about banning critical race theory a respondent reported seeing, they were 2 percentage points to 3 percentage points less likely to trust in their local teachers’ ability to discuss race and racism with students. If they’d seen all 11 narratives, they were 22 percentage points to 31 percentage points less likely. Exposure to each message also led to a decrease in support for schools’ ability to teach about fairness and equity.

“Republicans and Democrats were not that different if they reported not hearing very many or any of the narrative plots,” said Rebecca Jacobsen, an education policy professor at Michigan State and one of the researchers behind the report. “But as they heard more, Republicans became much more polarized in terms of being very strongly supportive of a ban for CRT or being very skeptical that they should trust teachers. … So we’re beginning to see this divide, which is relatively new to education politics.”

Jury: PCBs Maker Must Pay Millions in Damages

The legal battles over toxic-chemical contamination in a district in Washington state just continue to be waged. The most recent development awards the plaintiffs a staggering $850 million dollars in damages—the lion’s share in punitive damages.

A jury there last month ordered Bayer, one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies, to ante up that much to a small group of parents and children after finding they suffered exposure to PCBs in the Sky Valley Education Center, part of the Monroe, Wash., district. Dozens of adults and children say they experienced debilitating illnesses after spending time there during the 2010s.

Several more trials pitting Sky Valley staff and families against Bayer over PCB contamination will play out in the coming years.

Investigators in Sky Valley identified high levels of PCBs, whose manufacture the federal government banned in the 1970s. Those chemicals are present in hundreds of school buildings nationwide.

PCBs can lead to a wide range of health effects, from headaches and trouble breathing to cancer and other long-term diseases.

Monsanto, which Bayer now owns, was the main manufacturer in the United States. The company has denied culpability and vowed to challenge all cases involving allegations of PCB exposure in schools.

Bayer blasted the latest round of damages and said it plans to seek to overturn the verdict. The company contends that the school district was responsible for heeding warnings in the 1990s to address PCB-laden light fixtures that may have posed a threat.

Lawsuits against Monsanto over the fallout from PCB exposure at Sky Valley have been playing out in court for years. Prior to this last ruling, juries had already ordered Monsanto to pay more than $1 billion to more than two dozen former school employees, parents, and students affected by PCB contamination at the school.

The Monroe school district reached a settlement with plaintiffs worth $34 million in 2022.

The New FAFSA Is Here At Last. Well, Sort of

Filling out the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid this year is a little like trying to buy tickets online to a Taylor Swift Eras Tour concert. FAFSA users are encountering strict criteria to log onto the site, long wait periods, and system crashes from overuse.

The stakes are a little higher for the 2024-25 FAFSA, though. It’s the only way to receive federal assistance for college tuition. The U.S. Department of Education released the new FAFSA via a “soft launch” on Dec. 31, announcing that, initially, the site will be available only periodically, thereby allowing for monitoring of performance. Typically, the application is released in October.

The long-awaited, revised FAFSA is the result of congressional legislation to make it easier to apply for federal student aid. So far, that promise has yet to be realized.

“It was definitely a bumpy start,” said Jill Desjean, the senior policy analyst at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, referencing anecdotal reports of users’ inability to get onto the site or to continue once they did gain access, as well as problems submitting completed applications.

Once the process is running smoothly, the Education Department promises new and improved benefits, including fewer questions, translation into 11 languages, and broader Pell Grant eligibility.

This year’s delayed FAFSA application was always going to result in a compressed time frame for students to weigh their financial-aid offers from colleges, said Desjean. A recent announcement by the department means even longer wait times. Shortly before the FAFSA’s soft launch, the department reported that it will be submitting completed applications to colleges no earlier than the end of January. Estimated Pell Grant amounts for eligible students will not be issued until late January.

These initial delays could produce a negative domino effect. Colleges will be receiving financial data from families later than usual, then college financial-aid offices will be delayed in producing aid packages for individual families.

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Elizabeth Heubeck, Staff Writer; Mark Lieberman, Reporter; Caitlynn Peetz, Staff Writer; Libby Stanford, Reporter; and Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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