What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

Research shows that students, especially boys, benefit when teachers share their race or gender. Yet most teachers are white women.

By Claire Cain Miller

Sept. 10, 2018

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Zara Gibbon helps a new sixth grader at Animo Westside Charter Middle School in Los Angeles. A majority of teachers in American schools are white women.

As students have returned to school, they have been greeted by teachers who, more likely than not, are white women. That means many students will be continuing to see teachers who are a different gender than they are, and a different skin color.

Does it matter? Yes, according to a significant body of research: Students tend to benefit from having teachers who look like them, especially nonwhite students.

The homogeneity of teachers is probably one of the contributors, the research suggests, to the stubborn gender and race gaps in student achievement: Over all, girls outperform boys, and white students outperform those who are black and Hispanic.

Where Boys Outperform Girls in Math: Rich, White and Suburban DistrictsJune 13, 2018

Yet the teacher work force is becoming more female: 77 percent of teachers in public and private elementary and high schools are women, up from 71 percent three decades ago. The teaching force has grown more racially diverse in that period, but it’s still 80 percent white, down from 87 percent.

(Excerpted from NY Times, 9 /11/18)

Ray Myers

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Libraries to the Rescue – Bedrock of Civil Society

Is the public library obsolete?

A lot of powerful forces in society seem to think so. In recent years, declines in the circulation of bound books in some parts of the country have led prominent critics to argue that libraries are no longer serving their historical function. Countless elected officials insist that in the 21st century — when so many books are digitized, so much public culture exists online and so often people interact virtually — libraries no longer need the support they once commanded.

Libraries are already starved for resources. In some cities, even affluent ones like Atlanta, entire branches are being shut down. In San Jose, Calif., just down the road from Facebook, Google and Apple, the public library budget is so tight that users with overdue fees above $10 aren’t allowed to borrow books or use computers.

But the problem that libraries face today isn’t irrelevance. Indeed, in New York and many other cities, library circulation, program attendance and average hours spent visiting are up. The real problem that libraries face is that so many people are using them, and for such a wide variety of purposes, that library systems and their employees are overwhelmed. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, about half of all Americans ages 16 and over used a public library in the past year, and two-thirds say that closing their local branch would have a “major impact on their community.”

Libraries are being disparaged and neglected at precisely the moment when they are most valued and necessary. Why the disconnect? In part it’s because the founding principle of the public library — that all people deserve free, open access to our shared culture and heritage — is out of sync with the market logic that dominates our world. But it’s also because so few influential people understand the expansive role that libraries play in modern communities.

Libraries are an example of what I call “social infrastructure”: the physical spaces and organizations that shape the way people interact. Libraries don’t just provide free access to books and other cultural materials, they also offer things like companionship for older adults, de facto child care for busy parents, language instruction for immigrants and welcoming public spaces for the poor, the homeless and young people.

I recently spent a year doing ethnographic research in libraries in New York City. Again and again, I was reminded how essential libraries are, not only for a neighborhood’s vitality but also for helping to address all manner of personal problems.

For older people, especially widows, widowers and those who live alone, libraries are places for culture and company, through book clubs, movie nights, sewing circles and classes in art, current events and computing. For many, the library is the main place they interact with people from other generations.

For children and teenagers, libraries help instill an ethic of responsibility, to themselves and to their neighbors, by teaching them what it means to borrow and take care of something public, and to return it so others can have it too. For new parents, grandparents and caretakers who feel overwhelmed when watching an infant or a toddler by themselves, libraries are a godsend.

In many neighborhoods, particularly those where young people aren’t hyper-scheduled in formal after-school programs, libraries are highly popular among adolescents and teenagers who want to spend time with other people their age. One reason is that they’re open, accessible and free. Another is that the library staff members welcome them; in many branches, they even assign areas for teenagers to be with one another

To appreciate why this matters, compare the social space of the library with the social space of commercial establishments like Starbucks or McDonald’s. These are valuable parts of the social infrastructure, but not everyone can afford to frequent them, and not all paying customers are welcome to stay for long.

Older and poor people will often avoid Starbucks altogether, because the fare is too expensive and they feel that they don’t belong. The elderly library patrons I got to know in New York told me that they feel even less welcome in the trendy new coffee shops, bars and restaurants that are so common in the city’s gentrifying neighborhoods. Poor and homeless library patrons don’t even consider entering these places. They know from experience that simply standing outside a high-end eatery can prompt managers to call the police. But you rarely see a police officer in a library.

This is not to say that libraries are always peaceful and serene. During the time I spent doing research, I witnessed a handful of heated disputes, physical altercations and other uncomfortable situations, sometimes involving people who appeared to be mentally ill or under the influence of drugs. But such problems are inevitable in a public institution that’s dedicated to open access, especially when drug clinics, homeless shelters and food banks routinely turn away — and often refer to the library! — those who most need help. What’s remarkable is how rarely these disruptions happen, how civilly they are managed and how quickly a library regains its rhythm afterward.

The openness and diversity that flourish in neighborhood libraries were once a hallmark of urban culture. But that has changed. Though American cities are growing more ethnically, racially and culturally diverse, they too often remain divided and unequal, with some neighborhoods cutting themselves off from difference — sometimes intentionally, sometimes just by dint of rising costs — particularly when it comes to race and social class.

Libraries are the kinds of places where people with different backgrounds, passions and interests can take part in a living democratic culture. They are the kinds of places where the public, private and philanthropic sectors can work together to reach for something higher than the bottom line.

This summer, Forbes magazine published an article arguing that libraries no longer served a purpose and did not deserve public support. The author, an economist, suggested that Amazon replace libraries with its own retail outlets, and claimed that most Americans would prefer a free-market option. The public response — from librarians especially, but also public officials and ordinary citizens — was so overwhelmingly negative that Forbes deleted the article from its website.

We should take heed. Today, as cities and suburbs continue to reinvent themselves, and as cynics claim that government has nothing good to contribute to that process, it’s important that institutions like libraries get the recognition they deserve. It’s worth noting that “liber,” the Latin root of the word “library,” means both “book” and “free.” Libraries stand for and exemplify something that needs defending: the public institutions that — even in an age of atomization, polarization and inequality — serve as the bedrock of civil society.

If we have any chance of rebuilding a better society, social infrastructure like the library is precisely what we need. (NY Times, 8/9/18)

Ray Myers

Need a Hobby? Go Online!

On Monday, I posted a blog about one NY Times’ writer’s decision to stop “Tweeting” and spend time on other pursuits. Perhaps she would like to take up a new hobby? That seems to have been the solution for many other who have now found that the Internet can be a place to learn new skills by connecting with other “hobbyists.” Pottery, painting, cooking, you name it!

While much of this is not new, the way the Internet can help steer us toward something useful bears mentioning in the name of growing digital skepticism (see Monday’s blog). It is a reminder that the Internet’s most effective trick is connecting disparate individuals into a coherent whole. There may only be a small number of potters in any given city, but online there is a whole ceramics metropolis willing to help.

Art, for example, is an empowering thing. Most people think they can’t do it, and when they realize they can, it’s amazing – it opens up a whole new world, and that world doesn’t really have time for a lot of “fighting and fussing.”

Ray Myers

Where Have All the Reporters Gone? To the Internet Every One

“The Internet, put simply, is a low-cost communications network. Everything else, like the web, builds on top of that. And having so much information online can be a gold mine for reporting . . . Silicon Valley is a caldron of innovation.

But all of the big issues surrounding technology impact on the world – like automation, economic opportunity and income disparity – are playing out outside the tech hubs, across the $20 trillion American economy. Tons of research is being done on those subjects, and it’s all online . . . What it means is that you can test your assumptions for any trend or explanatory story . . . The other similar change is the ease, speed and cost of one-to-one communication means you can talk to far more people, wherever they are, on any given story. (NY Times, 6/28/18).”

So it’s all about the innovation and change. But that may not be the information people are looking for. It seems that a lot of Americans (not the majority) felt that the country had to be made “Great Again.”

Ray Myers

P.S. Happy Fourth of July. Enjoy the holiday “week.” Will be back on Monday, July 9th.

IBM’s New Program Would Like to Have a Debate with You

“Understanding natural language is such a complex and difficult task, systems like IBM Debater lean on a wide range of systems, each handling a different part of the problem. One system will identify information that helps fuel an argument on one side of the debate. Another will generate the text of the argument. And so on.”

“But understanding language is far more complex. That means systems that perform fairly complex language tasks – like writing a Wikipedia article, let alone engaging in a serious debate on a random topic – may still be light years away.”

Let the debates begin – man vs. machine!

Ray Myers

P.S. Sorry about the late posting today.

Help Individual Teachers in U.S.

Yes, this title is correct. Perhaps some readers will remember a blog that I posted eleven days ago about the deteriorating infrastructure of U.S. schools. TodayI am going to post some information about how individual schools can be helped by contributions through one online organization, DonorsChoose.org.

“Teachers across the United States use DonorsChoose.org to raise money for individual projects that they wouldn’t otherwise be funded by their schools. Some have sought money for technology upgrades, classroom basics (like notebooks and paper), and creative ideas you most likely wouldn’t have thought of. The website allows you to find projects in your area.”

Make America Great Again!

Ray Myers

P.S. I will be back blogging next week, on May 2. Have a great weekend!

How About U.S. Schools’ Infrastructure!

So here’s another challenge to Make America Great Again. Make all our schools physically sound and safe. I know that from the federal level, and in some states, we have been focusing on the importance of bringing technology into our classrooms. This is critically important in the twenty-first century, but we also have to ensure that our schools are not crumbling around our students and teachers. The current White House resident has talked about improving our highways (still waiting?), but I hope that he can also add improving America’s schools to his “to do” list. Time may be getting very short.

Please have a look at this article from yesterday’s New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/16/reader-center/us-public-schools-conditions.html, which depicts some of the most egregious conditions from around the country. Our students and teachers deserve better. Can this President help?

Ray Myers

Bridging the Language Gaps in U.S. Schools

“About five million K-11 students in the United States do not speak English fluently and their numbers are growing fast. While these students currently make up 10 percent of the total student population, researchers estimate that they could make up as much as 40 percent by 2030.

Schools around the country are turning to technology to help them better serve these students (and their parents) – whose success will increasingly drive graduation rates, test scores and other school-quality metrics – and to help connect with their families. In the classroom, computer-based programs can give students additional support as they work to master the vocabulary and mechanics of English. ELLoquence, IStation and PreK12Plaza are among those that let students move through lessons at their own pace (this is not an endorsement from TechtoExpress).

Many more schools serve immigrants now than ever before, and digital technology can offer effective ways to reach them (Tara Garcia Mathewson, NY Times, 4/8/18).”

Ray Myers

Reading Skills in the U.S.A. and the Rest of the World

I guess the title of this blog is not a real “attention-grabber” but it is still very important if we want to better understand how technology is playing an increasingly important part in reading instruction. Here is the link if you would like to read the complete report: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018017.pdf. The report focuses on reading achievement levels across fourth graders in sixteen countries and their proficiency in reading ONLINE.

In terms of the percentage of fourth-grade students who performed at an advanced level, the United States was the fourth highest in reaching this level. Students in Singapore, Ireland, and Norway tested higher on this online measure of informational reading (ePIRLS, National Center for Education Statistics, 2017). “The report has at least one silver-lining: Students in the United States fared far better on an Internet-based version of the assessment that tested their ability to process information online. U.S. students placed fourth out of 16 education systems that participated.”

Unfortunately, for American students who are reading in a more “text-based” manner, the results are not as high when compared to their international peers. They dropped to 13th place. “The decline was especially precipitous for the lowest-performing students, a finding that suggests widening disparities in the U.S. education system (National Center for Education Statistics, 2017).”

Ray Myers

P.S. Please have a look at mypeacecorpsstory.com, podcast #018, where I discuss my “technology-free” Peace Corps years in India

Ke vs. Lee or, China and South Korea Vie to Beat AlphaGo

So it’s only a game as they say, but the geopolitical implications seem obvious.  This board game is called Go and I have seen it played in parks around Hanoi, but please don’t ask me to explain it.  But I will quote from a article by a Hong Kong reporter that might help shed some light.  “Go, in which two players vie for control of a board using black and white pieces called stones, is considered complex because of the sheer number of possible moves.  Even supercomputers cannot simply calculate all the possible moves, presenting a big challenge for AlphaGo creators.”  But AlphaGo developers did accept the challenge and created the software that makes this game available online.

So far, AlphaGo seems to be the undisputed “artificial intelligence” champion, only being beaten once by South Korea”s Mr. Lee.  China’s Mr. Ke seems more resigned to only playing against human opponents.  He noted that he would focus more on playing with people saying that the gap between humans was becoming too great.  He would treat the software as more of a teacher, he said, to get inspiration and new ideas about moves.  Or maybe he should say that he has finally met his match, but when his “match” is basically artficial intelligence, it just may be too hard to admit defeat by a software program?  Somehow this all sounds vaguely familiar, like Dr. Frankenstein being outsmarted by his own “monstrous” creation.

AlphaGo is also demonstrating an ability to learn from its gaming experiences.  It is not just calculating moves, but learning from its own experiences.  That is something that we can all benefit from, so that we can remain smarter than our machines, I hope.

Ray Myers 

P.S.  Happy Memorial Day weekend.  Be back on the 31st.

Don’t Google It, Strawman – Use Your Brain

Outsourcing knowledge to Google keeps you away from learning things the right way.  Don’t take my word for it.  Psychological researchers have been studying the effects on internet dependence on the human learning process.  Take your ability to remember, or learn things the right way so that you can recall them at will.  And on a personal note, this seems to get harder as you get older.  So if you want to stay younger mentally, using Google may be a handy tool, but still keep using your own mental faculties if you want to have people think you really know what you are talking about.  How old is Donald Trump?  Seventy?  He seems to like Twitter better than Google, but he still might like to use it if he wants to fact-check something.  I just don’t think he worries about those bothersome facts that much.  He does use the TV to watch FOX news, right?

“Using knowledge in the head is also self-sustaining, whereas using knowledge from the internet is not.  Every time you retrieve information from memory, it becomes a bit easier to find it the next time.  That’s why students studying for a test actually remember more if they quiz themselves than if they study as they typically do, by rereading their textbook or notes.  That parades the right ideas before the mind, but it doesn’t make them stick in the same way, you won’t learn your way around a city if you always use your GPS, but you will if you work to remember the route you took last time (NY Times, 5/21/17).

“But why do I worry about all this?  And why does Donald Trump come creeping back into my mind.  Maybe it is the fact that he is not the “fake President.”

Ray Myers






Conversation – There’s no App for That

Ours is now a world of constant communication.  We can reach colleagues, friends, and family in an instant thanks to our technological connectivity anywhere from wherever we may be.  It’s hard to imagine that it has not always been this way.  And as teachers struggle with implementing technology in their classrooms in the most advantageous ways for all students, they often find technology getting in the way.  With students’ heads bowed scanning the screens of their iPads or other digital devices, teachers must often compete for some modicum of attention for a lesson they are presenting.

Maybe there’s really nothing new about this classroom phenomenon.  Teachers have been competing for students’ undivided attention since the days of Aristotle but the most consequential outcome in the digital age may be the loss of students’ conversational and broader social skills.  As one writer expresses it:  “Kids have to use their five senses, and, most of all, they have to talk to each other.”   In a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study across more than three dozen countries (not including the United States), moderate computer use in school results in modest academic gains.   More frequent or heavy computer use has a negative impact on student learning.  

So students in the digital age may actually be learning less as they use their computers more.  Besides turning off or moderating their use of digital devices, what should these young people do.  Maybe have a face-to-face conversation with someone?

Ray Myers



Time and Tech and Remembering

Monday will be Memorial Day in the U.S., and we are all reminded to take time to remember those who are no longer with us, and perhaps spend more time with those who are the most important in our daily lives.  Perhaps the title of this blog deserves some explanation in this respect.  “TechtoExpress” is not only intended to reflect an “express” mode in the rapidity of our dealings with others.  It surely has that capacity in terms of how quickly we can communicate on any topic with anyone in the world.  Technology also empowers us with many more tools to “express” our thoughts and emotions using new powerful digital tools.  More expressive opportunities are now available for more people, who may become the new “artists” of a new century.

Happily we can also now connect with family and friends even when we are not able to be with them personally.  Such tools as FaceTime and Skype enable us to do that in real time.  So let’s always remember those we love and those who loved us and now live in our memories.  And be grateful for the technology that enriches our daily lives so that we can “be” with those we love in so many ways.

Many worry that technology is rapidly accelerating our loves so that we have less time to spend with our closest friends and family members.  I don’t think it has to be that way.  Do you?

Happy Memorial Day Weekend!

Ray Myers

Aerogrammes to Emails to FaceTime

So now there are a lot of ways to communicate globally.  Thanks to the Internet we may no longer have to write and read to connect remotely with colleagues, friends and family wherever they may be.  There are now many interactive technological tools that enable us to make these connections without being literate.   The telephone may be the most universally used in this respect.

Let’s consider some of the implications for students in learning about the world around them.  If we replace the book with the digital tablet, are we promoting electronic imagery and sound over printed text and individual imagination.  I recently read that college textbooks were still coveted by students for digesting and reviewing subject matter presented in their classes.  Perhaps this is not very scientific evidence in support of the best methods of learning, or maybe it is more an indication of how lecturing is still the most dominant pedagogy on college campuses?  Could it be that real learning is not going on in the classroom, but on the Internet or with the multitude of digital tools that today’s students possess if they are connected and affluent enough to possess.

The real issue may still be more about an economic divide than a digital one.  But as the title of this article suggests, we can still connect globally in a number of ways.  It may all be a matter of how fast you want it to be, but in this new century, speed makes all the difference.

Ray Myers

What’s Your Reality?

So life is full of many choices, and now we have all have a very critical ones to make.  Would you like to live in a virtual or real world?  A bit oversimplified I agree, but we do now have choices that did not exist until technology came along and made it at all possible.  The virtual world may be rapidly becoming the world where we spend much of our waking hours where we work and play online, communicating with increasing ease and access on a twenty-four hour basis.  In a certain sense we can create our own realities in the choices we make.  This was hardly an option that earlier generations had.

Technology can also be a tool that enhances the breadth and meaningfulness of our personal and professional lives.  But access alone does not guarantee this.  I think one of the “twenty-first century skills” that our students and all families must now learn is the prioritizing of our time so as to maximize our life experiences in both worlds.  I am also concerned that many children’s realities are exclusively contained in the four walls, or stories, of their family homes.  Ironically it may be the technology that confines them there physically when the World Wide Web can take them anywhere virtually.

Of course there is always the experience of attending school in a building with other students and teachers.  This reality is also changing with many variations and permutations of how and where students can attend classes, from elementary school through higher education.   Technology has again made this all possible.  A flexibility that surely benefits and enables access for many more learners.  While “old school” advocates may decry such alternatives in learning, this is a “twenty-first century” reality that may make the biggest difference of all.