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| NEWS | Curriculum Matters

Chemistry Classroom Fire Renews Concerns About the 'Rainbow Experiment'

Late last month, a fire broke out in a chemistry class at W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Va., sending five students to the hospital with chemical burns.

One student with more severe injuries will need surgeries on her face. The teacher who conducted the experiment also suffered minor burns, according to reports.

Students from the class said that the teacher, who has not commented on the incident, poured flammable liquid onto a desk and lit it with a Bunsen burner. She then introduced different chemicals to show how they altered the color of the flames.

It appeared to be a version of a well-known but decidedly risky demonstration known as the "rainbow experiment," in which methanol is used to ignite different types of salts.

In 2014, two New York City high school students suffered burns when a similar experiment sent a plume of fire across their science lab.

After that accident, Ken Roy, the chief science safety compliance consultant for the National Science Teachers Association, said in an interview that methanol is "unpredictable" and can become "a death bomb."

"I prefer people don't do this," he said. "If you must, you should do it under a fume hood. There should be eye protection, and you never take methanol, a bottle of it, and pour it when you have an open flame."

It's unclear exactly which chemicals the Virginia teacher was using. But according to The Washington Post, "One student said the teacher was not wearing any protective gear, nor were the students in the room, including those closest to the experiment."

Jim Kaufman, the president of the nonprofit Lab Safety Institute and a former chemistry professor at Curry College in Massachusetts, has been advocating for more states to require science teachers to receive lab-safety training before going into the classroom. Very few states currently have such requirements.

As he sees it, the problem is not the experiment itself, but the lack of lab-safety regulations. "It's unfortunate that methanol would be characterized as unpredictable," he wrote in an email after the New York incident. "Its properties are well known and easy to understand. ... Teachers need only follow proper procedures and take appropriate precautions."

–Liana Heitin

| NEWS | Inside School Research

Teacher Biases Differ for Low- and High-Achieving Minority Students

A new study suggests racial bias—long found to affect teachers' expectations of students—can show up differently for minority students who are struggling and those who are high-fliers.

In a study in the July issue of the journal Social Science Research, Yasmiyn Irizarry, a quantitative sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin, used data from the federal Early Childhood Longitudinal Study to compare 1st graders' actual scores on a series of cognitive and literacy tests to how teachers ranked the students in comparison to all 1st graders. After controlling for other characteristics like socioeconomic status and parents' education, Irizarry found teachers were generally accurate in rating average-performing students as average, and there were no differences in those ratings among white, Asian, white Latino, nonwhite Latino, and black students.

Among low-performing students, however, teachers consistently rated their black, Asian, and nonwhite Latino students more positively than their scores would suggest, and rated their low-performing white students more negatively.

By contrast, high-performing students of color were underrated by their teachers in comparison to white high-achievers. Black or Latino students who scored in the top 10 percent of all 1st graders were 7 to 9 percentage points less likely to be rated "far above average," and they were generally rated one to two rankings lower (out of five) than white students who scored the same.

Irizarry said different sides of the same racial bias could explain the expectation gaps for high- and low-achieving students. Teachers with higher expectations for white than black or nonwhite Latino students could judge low-performing white students more harshly, but underestimate the ability of top students of color.

"All of the students were being pulled towards the center," she said. "Teachers may have subconscious fears of overpenalizing students of color, so they are giving better ratings because they were afraid of appearing racist."

That dynamic could change how teachers interact with students in class, or how they identify students for interventions and opportunities. "If a teacher is making recommendations for a gifted program or group placement or resources and supports, she is thinking of an overall assessment of where the student is in comparison to other kids," Irizarry said. "So these general rankings are important."

–Sarah D. Sparks

| NEWS | Politics K-12

$20 Million Pilot Program Would Offer Pell Grants to High School Students

For years, Pell Grants have helped low-income college students cover part of the cost of postsecondary education. Now, the U.S. Department of Education is moving to expand the program to high school students who want to take dual-enrollment courses that can count for college credit.

The Obama administration is planning to create a $20 million pilot program that would allow high schoolers to use Pell Grants to pay for college courses. To put that in context, the Pell Grant program is about $67.1 billion total. (The maximum Pell Grant for this school year is $5,775.) But if the program were expanded widely, it could be a real game changer.

Ultimately, the program could benefit up to 10,000 students from low-income families next school year. The Education Department put a notice in the Federal Register inviting postsecondary institutions (four-year colleges, community colleges, etc.) to partner with a school district or high school and apply to be part of the program.

Some caveats: The grants can only be used for courses that could eventually lead to a postsecondary credential (i.e., a bachelor's or associate degree). Those same courses can also count toward a high school diploma, but that's not a must. The program would give high school students the chance to earn at least 12 postsecondary credits. And school districts and colleges that decide to participate need to do what they can to make sure these high schoolers are successful in the college courses they take. That means offering counseling and tutoring support (if necessary) and giving students a hand with the notoriously difficult-to-fill-out Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

Will private high schools be able to participate? Not right now, says the Education Department—at this point the department is going to stick with public schools, since they have built-in oversight from local school boards and states.

–Alyson Klein

| NEWS | Charters & Choice

New Restrictions on Ohio Charter Grant Spelled Out in Letter From Ed. Dept.

The U.S. Department of Education has outlined new restrictions on a $32 million dollar grant it gave Ohio to expand charter schools in the state.

The move follows sharp criticism from lawmakers at the federal and state levels, as well as Ohio's auditor, over the department's decision to award such a large sum of money to the state under the federal Charter Schools Program. Ohio's charter sector has been under intense scrutiny for a number of issues, including corruption and poor academic outcomes in several of its schools. Critics are concerned the windfall of cash will only perpetuate these issues. The state is slated to receive a total of $71 million over the next five years under the federal charter program.

As outlined in a Nov. 4 letter from the Education Department, Ohio now has to receive federal permission to draw down its funds. The state also has to submit all relevant state audits of its charter schools to the department, and give a detailed list of changes to the state's charter regulations, among other things.

Ohio lawmakers passed a sweeping charter reform bill in September, which Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, signed into law. It requires in-depth financial and academic reporting from schools and management organizations, stops charter schools from switching authorizers—called sponsors in Ohio—to avoid getting shut down, and prohibits poorly rated sponsors from opening new schools, among other provisions.

–Arianna Prothero

| NEWS | District Dossier

Official to Take Reins at Special District For Worst-Performing Schools in Tenn.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed Malika Anderson to head Tennessee's special school district for its worst-performing schools. Anderson will replace Chris Barbic, who has led the Achievement School District (ASD) since its inception in 2012. He leaves at the end of the year, and Anderson will take over in January.

The state-run district operates 29 schools serving close to 10,000 students.

Anderson, the ASD's current deputy superintendent, is a graduate of the Broad Foundation's Residency in Urban Education, a two-year training program for high-level managerial positions. She served that residency from 2009 to 2011 as director of academic analysis and support for the District of Columbia public schools.

–Corey Mitchell

Vol. 35, Issue 12, Pages 6, 19

Published in Print: November 11, 2015, as Blogs
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