Peter Thiel’s Take on Education

April 18th, 2011 | 2 Comments | Source: Commentary

In a recent piece for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy highlights the views of Peter Thiel—the PayPal co-founder, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist—on higher education in America. According to Lacy, Thiel believes that America is under the spell of a bubble in higher education. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” Thiel explained. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo.”

OK fine, but in Lacy’s article, Thiel never actually questions education. What he questions is its price. Thiel says a college education costs too much. He also says college education is exclusionary. People “pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine,” he says. “Maybe that’s not true.”

Maybe it’s a good thing Thiel didn’t question a college education per se, since for all its inefficiencies and uneven quality, it’s clearly a good thing to have from an economic standpoint. The median income for US adults with a bachelor’s degree is $53,000 per year. That number is $33,000 for those who have only a high school diploma, and lower still for people who didn’t graduate high school. Over the course of a lifetime, an American citizen who has a college degree will earn nearly $1 million more than one who doesn’t. And unemployment rates for people without college degrees are more than twice as high as the rates among those who have such degrees.

As for America’s competitiveness, education policy experts from the left and the right agree that the US needs a more educated workforce if it is to compete successfully with China, the EU nations and rising Asian nations, all of which place enormous importance on education. Many of these countries have already passed the US on several measures of national competitiveness that would be of interest to Thiel, like per capita economic performance, entrepreneurship, human capital and innovation capacity.

Well then, what about Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and many other entrepreneurs who achieved success without a college degree?

It turns out that they have something in common with Thiel. They grew up in a comfortable, middle- to upper-middle-class environment. Thus, in all likelihood, they had caring, educated parents who made sure they never had to worry about where their next meal would come from or fear for their personal safety. They were educated at the dinner table, and attended top-flight elementary and high schools. Thiel himself attended Stanford and Stanford Law School. (more…)



Bullying and Social Hierarchies in Schools

March 15th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Source: Am. Sociological Review, LA Times

Bullying and other forms of social aggression affect nearly 30% of US students per school year. According to some estimates, up to 160,000 students skip school each day to avoid being bullied. Those who are victimized by bullies are at risk for mental health problems including anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Their academic performance often suffers as well.

What explains the offensive behavior of bullys?

Six years after “Mean Girls” hit the movieplex, sociologists have provided evidence that the flick got it exactly right on bullying. Their data simultaneously disproves traditional thinking on the matter, which had posited that home-related issues, social incompetence and psychological difficulties caused aggressive behavior in teens.

The study, by Robert Faris and colleagues at UC Davis, found that the more central a teen is in his or her school’s social network, the more aggressively the teen behaves toward peers…unless the teen happens to sit at the very top of the social totem pole, in which case they’re not aggressive at all.

To reach these conclusions, Faris’ group surveyed 3,722 boys and girls from 19 middle- and high schools in North Carolina during the fall of 2004 and again the following spring. The survey asked students to name their top 5 friends, up to 5 students they had picked on (verbal harassment, physical attacks, spreading rumors, simple ostracism and so forth) during the previous 3 months, and up to 5 students that had picked on them. There were also questions covering dating patterns, participation on sports teams, race and socioeconomic status.

Faris’ team used the data to create “social maps”  that outlined positive and negative relations between students as reported in the survey. These maps showed that students’ tendency to harass other students increased with their social status, as measured by their friend counts. Overall, each student was aggressive toward 0.63 peers, but so-called “socially-central athletes,” harassed as many as 9 other students, each. 

The tendency to display aggressive behavior reached a zenith for students at the 98th percentile for popularity, suggesting they were using aggressive behavior to improve their social status. Importantly however, the students who ranked in the top 2% of the hierarchy tended not to harass their peers. They had little to gain by aggressive behavior, and too much to lose, the authors hypothesized. (more…)



Most Biology Teachers Do Not Teach Evolution

March 2nd, 2011 | 2 Comments | Source: NY Times

Federal courts have ruled that it is a violation of the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause to teach creationism—including its modern-day derivative, intelligent design—in public schools. Nevertheless, a recent national survey has confirmed that the practice is widespread in our country.

In the survey, Penn State political scientists Eric Plutzer and Michael Berkman queried more than 900 public school biology teachers from around the country.

The researchers found that only 28% of respondents consistently adhered to the recommendations of the National Research Council in presenting scientific evidence for evolution and explaining that the concept is a fundamental, unifying theme of biology. An appalling 13% of respondents taught and solely advocated for creationism. These teachers were spread throughout the country; they were not particularly more likely to be found in the South or West, as many people believe.

The remaining group, referred to by the scientists as “the cautious 60%,” ducked the controversy by failing to endorse evolution or its non-science-based alternatives. Some in this group explained they taught evolution primarily because the subject matter appeared on state exams. They told students it wasn’t necessary to “believe” it. Others taught the concept as it applied to molecular biology and genetics, but not specifically to the evolution and differentiation of species.

More public school students take biology than any other science course, according to the authors. For nearly 25% of them, biology is the only science course they take in high school.

“Students are being cheated out of a rich science education,” Plutzer said in an interview. “We think the ‘cautious 60%’ represent a group of educators who, if they were better trained in science in general and in evolution in particular, would be more confident in their ability to explain controversial topics to their students, to parents, and to school board members.” (more…)



More Women than Men Gettin’ PhDs

October 15th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

A funny thing happened on the way to the graduation podium last year. For the first time in US history, more women than men earned doctoral degrees, according to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools.

The statistic reflects yet another milestone in a 30-year transformation of educational trends among the sexes in our country. In recent years, women had risen to represent nearly 60% of all people that earned degrees from 4-year colleges and Master’s degree programs, but it wasn’t until last year that they claimed the lead among doctoral degrees as well.

Doctoral degrees typically require about 7 years to obtain, so it’s to be expected that this reversal would be the last among these trends to appear. “It is a trend that has been snaking its way through the educational pipeline,” Council director Nathan Bell told the Washington Post. “It was bound to happen.”

Men had retained a narrow lead in the number of doctoral degrees awarded because of their overwhelming predominance in mathematics, engineering and the physical sciences. To this day, men still account for 80% of doctorate degrees awarded in engineering, for example.

Women have caught up though, based on consistent, longstanding gains in health sciences, education and the behavioral sciences. Women now account for 70% of all awarded doctorates in health sciences. They account for 67% of new doctorates in education, and 60% percent of those awarded in behavioral and social sciences.

The rise of women through the ranks of our educational system began in the early 1980s. The demographic shift is being driven by the same economic forces that have driven increasing numbers of women into the workforce. In short, people of both genders realize there is an “increased need for (women) to make money for their families,” Catherine Hill, director of research at the American Association of University Women explained to the Post.



Lightening the Load on Medical Residents

July 30th, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

Training program directors and patient advocates have voiced concerns for years that residents who toil for long shifts on-the-job could harm patients because fatigue increases the risk they will make errors of one sort or another.

A 6 year-old study by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education gave credence to their concerns by showing that the fatigued residents  caused more than half of all preventable adverse events.

thisisn'tmypillowIn response, the ACGME recently proposed strict new guidelines which would, if adopted, curtail the duration of residents’ shifts and increase supervision requirements for those in charge of their care. The plan extends previous initiatives by the ACGME to limit the work hours of residents.

The new guidelines were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and are subject to a 45-day public comment period.

The fundamental components of the ACGME’s proposal are 16-hour shift limits for first-year residents and 24-hour limits for those in later years of training.  Current rules permit residents to work for as many as 30 consecutive hours.

Also included are instructions about the supervision of interns by residents, and beefed-up monitoring and enforcement of the guidelines including annual site visits of each program.

In a replay of what happened the last time ACGME addressed the subject, some physicians and patient advocacy groups said the new guidelines didn’t go far enough. These groups pointed out that the guidelines weren’t as far-reaching as the changes recommended by the Institute of Medicine in 2008.

Meanwhile, some physicians argued the new limitations would impede the educational process and result in more errors…the kind that occur during hand-offs in care at the ends of shifts. Hopefully, some well designed studies of the matter can add value to the debate once (and if) the new guidelines go into effect.


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Soft Drink Sales Way Down in Schools

April 1st, 2010 | No Comments | Source: Wall Street Journal

Sales of soda and other drinks have dropped sharply since 2004 in US secondary schools, according to a report by carried out by Keybridge Research on behalf of the American Beverage Association.

cokeTo reach this conclusion, Keybridge surveyed 12 bottlers responsible for nearly 90% of all drink shipments to schools on behalf of drink-makers Coke, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group.

Keybridge found overall beverage sales volume to schools has dropped 72% in the last 6 years. There was a 95% decline in sales for full-calorie soft drinks, and a 94% decline in sweetened juice drinks. Full-calorie soft drinks made up less than 7% of total beverage volume shipped to schools last fall. They comprised 40% of the product mix in 2004.

Overall, beverage calories shipped to schools fell 88% during the study period.

State and local regulations are responsible for some of the fall-off, but the beverage companies and their bottlers are to be commended for adopting voluntary guidelines in this regard in May, 2006.

spriteBack then beverage makers and bottlers joined an alliance comprised of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation to fight childhood obesity. In that agreement, the companies pledged to completely eliminate sales of full-calorie sodas to schools by this year, and to ship lower-calorie options in smaller portion sizes instead.

At the beginning of this shool year, 99% of school districts were found to be in compliance with the guidelines, according to Keybridge.

The beverage industry has made “a very strong good faith effort to get full-calorie soft drinks out of schools” Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told the Wall Street Journal.


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Med Students Lose Empathy Fast

March 31st, 2010 | 1 Comment | Source: Amednews

Medical students begin losing empathy after their first year in school, and the decline accelerates after clinical rotations, according to a study in Academic Medicine.

allisforgivenTo reach these conclusions, Bruce Newton and colleagues followed 419 medical students from four consecutive classes from freshman through senior year at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Researchers assessed vicarious empathy, which is a person’s emotional response to the perceived emotional experiences of others. Using a 9-point scale, they asked students to agree or disagree with statements like, “I cannot feel much sorrow for those who are responsible for their own misery.”

The scientists found that student empathy scores dropped after the first year of medical school and then again after the third year. Female students turned in higher empathy scores than their male counterparts, and students entering primary care showed more empathy than those entering pathology, radiology and surgery.

They attributed the early decline in empathy to stress and anxiety associated with students’ competitiveness and worry about exam scores. The late decline was assumed to be caused by the intensity of hospital practice. Teaching on the wards was likely to have been rushed, and students may not have received as much mentoring or bedside teaching as they wanted.

“We know that really good communication skills (helps) patients…to comply with the instructions of the physician,” said Newton. “A bond of trust is established, and if something unfortunately goes wrong, if you have this bond, you are less likely to be sued.”

“We start with students who are very caring but have no diagnostic skills and end up with physicians with great diagnostics skill but who don’t care,” summed up Richard Frankel a professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, for AMedNews.


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Heavy Course Load at Lincoln U.

December 16th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: MSNBC

Lincoln University, a historically black college located west of Philadelphia, requires that overweight students take a fitness course if they want to graduate, and that’s not sitting well with a number of students.

JustgottagetaPThe rule was enacted 4 years ago. It requires that students get their body mass index checked, and those found to be obese—a BMI of 30 or higher—must take a class called “Fitness for Life,” which meets three hours per week.

The course involves physical activities including walking and weight training as well as information on nutrition and stress management.

James DeBoy, chairman of the Lincoln’s department of health said the school had become concerned about high rates of obesity and diabetes in the African-American community.

“We’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic,” he told MSNBC. “We have an obligation to address this head on.”

Protests bean last week when seniors—who are the first class affected by the new rule—began realizing they were running out of chances to meet the requirement.

Senior Tiana Lawson wrote in the student newspaper that she “didn’t come to Lincoln to be told that my weight is not in an acceptable range. I came here to get an education.” Lawson added that she has no problem with the general concept so long everyone must take the class.

As of this fall, about 80 seniors — 16% of the class — had neither had their BMI tested nor taken the class. At least some of them are expected to be cleared because they are not obese, officials said.


Oops!!UPDATE: After this post was written and scheduled for publication on Pizaazz, faculty at Lincoln decided to nix the idea of a required “fat course.” So obese students at Lincoln can now graduate without taking the class. 

In lieu of the requirement, the school will “suggest” to certain students that they enroll in a “Fitness for Life” class.



CDC Panel: Sex-Ed Programs Work

November 30th, 2009 | No Comments | Source: Washington Post

Comprehensive, school-based sex-education programs that teach teens about contraception and encourage them to delay sexual activity increase condom use and lower the risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases including HIV, according to a panel appointed by the CDC.

thatgoeswhere?But the panel concluded there isn’t enough evidence to endorse programs focused more narrowly on encouraging sexual abstinence until marriage.

The 15-member Task Force on Community Preventive Services reached these conclusions after reviewing 83 studies of such programs that were run between 1980 and 2007.

“Evidence and common sense have returned to public-health policy,” James Wagoner of Advocates for Youth told the Washington Post. “The report endorses a comprehensive approach to prevention that includes condoms and birth control. We should be spending taxpayer dollars only on evidence-based programs.”

Alas, 2 panelists, Irene Erickson of the Institute for Research and Evaluation and Danielle Ruedt of the Georgia Governor’s Office of Children and Families disputed these conclusions.

According to them, “the data indicated that many types of [comprehensive] programs do not work. Unfortunately, the report’s conclusion ignores these findings. This is misleading to policymakers who are seeking evidence-based programs, especially for schools.”

Answering these claims, panelist Randy Elder, who also works for the CDC, argued that the critics’ case was incorrect.

“Those points…reflect a misunderstanding of a systematic review process,” he said. “The whole point of what we are doing is to aggregate data from many studies that are critical to answering the question. What they were doing was chopping up the evidence into fine subsets to poke holes.”


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Surgeons Can’t Get Enough

September 23rd, 2009 | No Comments | Source: BurrillReport, J. Am. Coll. Surgeons

More than a third of surgical residents think that regulations designed to limit their work schedules to a maximum of 80 hours per week represent a “significant barrier” to their training. And 43% of them want to work more hours than the regulations permit.

morningroundsTo reach these conclusions, Jacob Moalem and colleagues at the University of Rochester distributed a Web-based survey to all surgical residents and associate members of the American College of Surgeons.

Of the nearly 600 respondents, 41% said the rules were a “considerable or moderate barrier” to their training. Less than a third said the rules did not hinder their training. An additional 27% said the rules were a minimal barrier.

Senior residents were more likely to view work time restrictions as a barrier to their training, regardless of whether they trained at small, medium, or large programs.

The write-up appears in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

“Surgeons are expressing a desire and a need to learn more in a compact time frame,”  Moalem told BurrillReport. “Senior surgery residents should be given the chance to control their own schedules as they continue to refine their technical skills and transition into independent practice.”

The regulations had been implemented to address resident burn-out and improve patient safety. It had been the norm for surgical residents to log 100+ hours per week before the change.

The regulations have been shown to increase the number of hours residents sleep each week, and there have been anecdotal reports that their personal lives have improved, but their effect on caseload, academic performance, and board scores is not well understood.

Beyond this, some studies have suggested that the shorter work-weeks have led to more communication errors caused by more frequent patient handoffs, according to the scientists.


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