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Charters, Money, And Test Scores

Jul 22, 2014

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Anya Kamenetz

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The University of Arkansas today released what it calls a "first ever" study exploring the relationship between charter school funding and student achievement.Here at NPR Ed we get a lot of press releases for studies related to education—on everything from teacher turnover and financial aid access to social and emotional learning in preschool. But not all studies are created equal. It's important to understand not only what the study says but who the researchers are and how they arrived at their conclusions.

For today's study, researchers relied heavily on one standardized test, the NAEP (aka the "Nation's Report Card"). They took NAEP scores in reading and math from 28 states, then broke them down by schools' funding per student.The report found, as other research has shown, that student performance at charter schools is roughly on par with public school performance.

But, the researchers argue, because charter schools tend to have smaller budgets (according to previously published research from this same University of Arkansas department), "these differences amount to charter schools overall being 40 percent more cost-effective in math and 41 percent more cost effective in reading, compared to traditional public schools."

Patrick J. Wolf is the study's lead author and a professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas. "The headline of this report is that the charter school sector in states across the country is more productive in generating desirable student outcomes at a lower cost than the traditional public schools," Wolf says.

That is, indeed, the headline. But the math behind it—and the conclusions Wolf and his team draw from it—may not be that simple.

Advocacy Research

Ted Kolderie is a senior associate with Education Evolving, an education policy nonprofit. Some call Kolderie the "godfather" of the charter school movement because of his work dating back to the late 1980s in Minnesota. He says he takes the findings of this new report with a grain of salt.

"This is the kind of quote-unquote 'study' we've been seeing for years that falls into the category of 'advocacy research,' " he says. "Pretty soon you'll have another study showing just the opposite."

Kolderie takes issue with the report's dependence on NAEP scores alone to make determinations about school effectiveness. The National Assessment Governing Board, which produces NAEP, was not involved in the study.

"This is a simple-minded notion, that performance is how students score on assessments," whether NAEP, the international PISA test, or state accountability tests, Kolderie says. "Is achievement, performance, success, quality really one-dimensional?"

The finding that charter schools are more cost-effective rests on the University of Arkansas group's earlier research claiming that charter schools have less money to spend per student than traditional public schools. According to a review by the National Education Policy Center, that report failed to take into account that charters sometimes depend on districts to help pay for school lunches, transportation, special education, and other services, and that they often serve a less needy population.

Wolf defends the design of the new report, saying "test scores are an important metric of effective education" and that, currently, NAEP scores are the only way of measuring student performance across state lines. He insists the study provides important evidence that "the money invested in charter schools is more productive than the money invested in traditional public schools."

The Department of Education Reform

Both the NAEP study and the earlier budget study came from the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. The Department's work often focuses on return on investment in public schools and promotes alternatives to the traditional public system. It was established in 2005 with help from outside donors including the Walton Family Foundation (which is also a donor to NPR).

The late philanthropist John Walton, son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, was an outspoken champion of charter schools and gave generously to the charter and voucher movements.

Patrick Wolf, the author of the new study, says today's findings aren't meant to be used as an argument to reduce funding to traditional schools. Still, he says, "Public policy in education can't ignore cost. Money is scarce, so it's a service to policymakers for them to know which education sectors are most productive."

Joe Nathan is the director of the Center for School Change in Minneapolis. Nathan helped write the nation's first charter school law in Minnesota in 1991. Like Kolderie, he too is wary of studies like this one: "I have been very dubious about research that has tried to compare charter schools and district schools," he says. "I think the charter idea is a brilliant idea, but we need to handle it responsibly...Trying to make sweeping statements about charter schools or district schools does not advance the overall cause of improving American public education."

The ultimate goal, Nathan says, should be to help all young people to be successful.

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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl cover ( )

How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A 'Fantastic Laboratory'

Jul 22, 2014 (Fresh Air)

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When Germany invaded the Soviet Union during World War II, Nazi commanders had another worry besides the Red Army. Epidemics of typhus fever, which is transmitted by body lice, killed untold numbers of soldiers and civilians during and after World War I.

As World War II raged, typhus reappeared in war-torn areas and in Jewish ghettos, where cramped, harsh conditions were a perfect breeding ground for lice.

So the Nazis employed Dr. Rudolf Weigl to produce a typhus vaccine. Weigl created a technique that involved raising millions of infected lice in a laboratory and harvesting their guts to get the materials for a vaccine.

Lice that had been infected with typhus bacteria would be allowed to feed on human volunteers, says Arthur Allen, who wrote the new book The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl. "And then, after about five days," Allen tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies,"[the lice] would be taken and dissected individually."

Scientists would pull out the "louse gut," where the typhus bacteria grow and multiply, put it in a pot and, basically, mash it up with a chemical solution to make the vaccine.

Weigl's lab in Lviv, Poland, sheltered Polish intellectuals and resistance fighters from the Nazis by employing them as lice feeders, meaning the volunteers allowed hundreds or thousands of lice — some infected with typhus, some not — to suck their blood. The lice were put in tiny cages that were attached to people's legs. To avoid catching the illness themselves, these human volunteers had to be clean, have healthy skin and be able to resist scratching.

"All the intellectual life basically migrated to Weigl's laboratory," Allen says. "There were ... tables full of mathematicians who would be doing their work as mathematicians while lice fed on their blood."

The lab sent weakened vaccines to the German army. And Weigl helped smuggle the stronger product to Jews in a Polish ghetto.

Allen says there was also a black market for the vaccine.

"It was one of the most valuable black market commodities," he says, "because it was thought as being one of the only ways you could save yourself from typhus in the ghetto."

Interview Highlights

On typhus symptoms and how it spread

Typhus would begin with a terrible headache and back pains, leading to fever, vomiting, nausea, diarrhea; and around the time the fever began, there would be a rash that often broke out on the abdomen that was described as looking like little red jewels. ... And eventually you would have deafness, terrible hysterical fits of laughter and tears, and sometimes suicide. ... And sometimes the long-term effects could include things like loss of limbs — people were known to lose toes and fingers or a penis from gangrene.

... Back in the day ... everyone was carrying lice. And they were as much a part of our armature as our clothes. Typhus could happen in a number of different places where people were wearing their clothes and didn't change them.

... But basically, ... starting in the late 19th century, early 20th century, when people [started bathing more regularly], it became a disease that was really only associated with these very extreme situations of war — concentration camps, barracks, ghettos, places where people really didn't have running water, didn't [have] access to changes of clothes. And then it spread very quickly in these kinds of environments.

On how the disease is transmitted

People originally thought it was because of the bite, because the louse sticks a little needle into you to extract your blood. But it turns out that the mouth of the louse is actually sterile. And what happens is that as the louse bites you, it excretes, and you scratch because it itches. And when you scratch, you're sort of inoculating yourself with the bacteria that are in the louse poop, as it were.

On the Nazis' use of louse imagery

The Nazis ... always described the Jews as "vermin" and sometimes used the word "lice." ... And this was an ideology that was belittling and obviously also associating Jews with, sort of, filth and contamination, parasitism — all of these things that you metaphorically can link lice to.

[The Nazis] made it very concrete after they took over the first Polish cities. ... There were signs that went up all over Warsaw, for example ... that would have a picture of a bearded Jew with a louse that said, "Lice, Jews, typhus," to make that association in the minds [of] Poles — the idea of keeping them from protecting Jews, [of] seeing Jews as part of this invasive, parasitic, dangerous force that they had to avoid and exterminate.

On the underground community associated with Weigl's lab

During the interwar period, all of the intellectual life in Lviv, [Poland], was in the cafes. Well, the cafes were all closed during the Nazi occupation, or only Nazis went there, or collaborators. And all the intellectual life basically migrated to Weigl's laboratory.

People would go in there. ... There were geographers, poets, all kinds of biologists, every kind of walk of life. In particular, there were many university professors and students who worked there. There were also people from the Polish underground who worked there.

It was a perfect cover, to be an underground organizer because you had this pass that said "typhus institute" on it. You showed that to a Nazi S.S. person. And, on the one hand, they were terrified that anyone having to do with this typhus institute could be infected with typhus, was dirty, was associated with Jews and lice. ... And, on the other hand, [the Nazis] were told not to bother these people because they were making a product that was key to the German health defense.

On the Weigl vaccine going to the German soldiers

There was a certain amount of sabotage that went on in the lab, where the doses of the vaccine that were headed for the Eastern front [to Germans] were sometimes weakened.

... In general, this was legitimate vaccine that did go to protect [the Jews'] enemies.

This is a conundrum and a paradox that's unavoidable and it was something that everyone who worked [at the laboratories] had to struggle with. The fact was they were able to employ very few Jews of any kind in the laboratory.

And while this laboratory was protecting many people who were key Poles and key intellectuals and resistance fighters, the destruction of the ghetto was going on at the same time. ... It's something that everyone who worked there — everyone whose life was saved — had to deal with ethically, morally after and during the war.

On the approximately 30,000 vaccine doses that made their way to the Jewish ghettos

It was smuggled in various ways, but one method that Weigl had for doing this was to tell his bosses that they needed to do some experimental work with the vaccine to make sure that it was up to snuff, that it was working well. So this would be a pretense for bringing it into the ghetto and vaccinating people. ... This went on throughout the war.

On Weigl's reputation and legacy

Throughout his life and even into the '80s, there would be occasional remarks about [Dr. Weigl] in the press or in articles that he had been a collaborator.

It wasn't until after the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991] that his reputation was rehabilitated. Some of the people who had gone to the United States or were still in Poland began to write articles.

... Then, eventually, word got to the Israeli authorities ... who recognized gentiles who did work to protect Jews during the Holocaust. [Israel] gave [Weigl] recognition belatedly in 2003 — he was named as "righteous among nations."

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Clear and clean, bubble wrap is well-suited to serve as an array of tiny test tubes. Here a dye solution is injected into the bubbles to measure the hemoglobin concentration in blood. (American Chemical Society )

Don't Pop That Bubble Wrap! Scientists Turn Trash Into Test Tubes

by Nicholas St. Fleur
Jul 22, 2014

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Hate to burst your bubble, glass lab gear. But plastic bubble wrap also works pretty well at running science experiments.

Scientists at Harvard University have figured out a way to use these petite pouches as an inexpensive alternate to glass test tubes and culture dishes. They even ran glucose tests on artificial urine and anemia tests on blood, all with the samples sitting inside bubble wrap.

"Most lab experiments require equipment, like test tubes or 96-well assay plates," says chemist George Whitesides, who led the study. "But if you go out to smaller villages [in developing countries], these things are just not available."

One glass test tube can cost between $1 and $5. Bubble wrap, by contrast, is dirt cheap. One square foot of it, with about 100 to 500 bubbles depending on bubble dimensions, costs only 6 cents, Whiteside and his team reported Thursday in the journal Analytical Chemistry.

"You can take out a roll of bubble wrap, and you have a bunch of little test tubes," he says. "This is an opportunity to potentially use material that would otherwise have been thrown away."

Whiteside is a master at converting cheap, everyday materials into lab equipment. He's made a centrifuge from an egg beater and CD player. And he's designed a glucose detector from paper and tape.

While visiting scientists around the world, Whiteside noticed that many labs in developing countries don't even have simple pieces of equipment, such as test tubes for running blood tests, storing urine samples or growing microbes.

That's when the idea popped into his head: Bubble wrap. The packaging material is readily available all over the globe. And scientists often have it around the lab because other equipment is shipped in it.

So Whiteside and his team tried injecting blood and chemicals into the clear blisters with a needle and syringe. They then sealed the holes with nail polish.

The bubbles held the liquid with no problem. And since the plastic is clear, the team could use the mini-test tubes for tests that involve color changes. For instance, to test for anemia, the scientists added a chemical that changes colors when it reacts with iron in blood. They also successfully grew bacteria and worms inside the bubbles.

But to make a good test tube or petri dish, the bubble wrap also needed to be sterile

So Whiteside's students filled the plastic bubbles with a solution of food for microorganisms and looked to see if bacteria grew in the bubbles. After four days, no microbes appeared. To their surprise, the air and plastic inside the bubbles were completely sterile.

That finding also surprised Michele Barry, a tropical disease doctor at Stanford University, who wasn't involved in the study.

"I had no idea that the bubbles themselves where sterile, which is fabulous," she tells Goats and Soda. "I just assumed it would be colonized by bugs. So this is amazingly interesting."

Labs in poor countries have a great need to store samples, Barry points out. The bubble wrap could also be used to test water for toxic metals, such as mercury, arsenic and lead, she says.

But the plastic packaging comes with many limitations. The mini-test tubes must be handled carefully or they'll pop — literally. And bubble wrap is sensitive to light. It degrades over time.

To use the bubble wrap, scientists need needles and syringes — which could be just as scarce as test tubes in a barebones lab, Barry points out.

Whiteside says he doesn't have specific plans to roll out the bubble wrap in labs anytime soon. But he hopes that this proof-of-concept study will inspire other scientists around the world to take the idea and wrap it up.

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Clear and clean, bubble wrap is well-suited to serve as an array of tiny test tubes. Here a dye solution is injected into the bubbles to measure the hemoglobin concentration in blood. (American Chemical Society )

Fresh Air Remembers Actress And Singer Elaine Stritch

Jul 22, 2014 (Fresh Air) — The Broadway star used to describe herself as a Catholic, diabetic, alcoholic. She died July 17 at the age of 89. In 1999, she talked with Terry Gross when she was starring in a revival of Sail Away.

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Walt Whitman High School's Caroline Schweitzer runs through a host of Severna Park High School defenders during a semifinal game in Maryland's Class 4A/3A lacrosse tournament in May. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

As High School Lacrosse Surges In Popularity, So Does Injury Focus

by Scott Hensley
Jul 22, 2014

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Sometimes called the fastest game on two feet, lacrosse is also one of the fastest-growing sports in the U.S.

Between 2008 and 2012, kids' participation in lacrosse climbed 158 percent to a little more than three-quarters of a million, according to a survey conducted by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association/Physical Activity Council. At the same time participation in baseball, basketball, football and soccer has either stagnated or declined.

Kids who play lacrosse will tell you there's lots of action. Now, there's an analysis of injuries sustained by high school lacrosse players that quantifies the risks. Researchers analyzed a database of reports compiled by athletic trainers at high schools across the country.

Overall, there are about 2 injuries for every 1,000 exposures to the game, according to researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health and the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Cincinnati. An exposure was defined as one athlete taking part in a school-sanctioned game or practice.

The most common injuries were strains and sprains, accounting for about 38 percent of those recorded. Concussions were second, at about 22 percent of injuries. Injuries were three times more likely to occur in games than practice. Boys were 1.5 times more likely to be injured than girls.

Boys, in particular, were more likely to sustain concussions than girls — 0.5 concussions per 1,000 exposures for boys compared with 0.35 per 1,000 for girls. The rate of concussions for boys in games was seven times their rate in practice.

How the male and female athletes sustained concussions also differed. "Among boys nearly 75 percent of concussions were the direct result of contact with another player," said Dawn Comstock, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Colorado School of Public Health and senior author of the paper. "In girls, over 60 percent of the concussions occurred when they were struck by the ball or stick."

In boys lacrosse, full-body contact is allowed and helmets are mandatory. In girls lacrosse, full-body contract is forbidden and helmets aren't typically worn. There's been talk about making helmets part of the girls' game. "The data does seem to support the call to put helmets on girl lacrosse players," Comstock said.

Boys lacrosse has injury rates very similar to football and hockey, Comstock said, while injuries in girls lacrosse are in line with those for soccer, basketball and field hockey.

The results were published online Tuesday by the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

While there are risks from playing lacrosse, there are also benefits. "We don't want any parent who hears about this study to be afraid to allow their child to begin playing lacrosse or to continue playing lacrosse," Comstock said. The side effects of an inactive lifestyle are more of a concern, she said, than the very small risk that any young athlete will sustain a serious injury playing lacrosse.

In late 2013, NPR and Truven Health Analytics surveyed Americans about the risk of sport-related concussions for kids, though we didn't ask about lacrosse. Almost all respondents were fine with idea of kids playing basketball or soccer. Three-quarters were OK with football and about two-thirds approved of hockey.

"Parents are very, very interested in their kids being active in sports," Gerald Gioia, a neuropsychologist at Children's National Health System in Washington, D.C., told Shots in February. "We have to make sure that all sports that kids are involved in are understood in terms of the risks — that we are educating and preparing the coaches and the parents and the kids around those risks."

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