TIME Brain

Want to Learn a Language? Don’t Try So Hard

If at first you don't succeed, trying again might not help you when it comes to learning languages.

A new study from MIT shows that trying harder can actually make some aspects of learning a new language more difficult. While researchers have known that adults have a harder time with new languages than children do, the latest findings, published in the journal PLOS ONE, suggest that adults’ stronger cognitive abilities may actually trip them up.

Children have a “sensitive period” for learning language that lasts until puberty, and during these years, certain parts of the brain are more developed than others. For example, they are adept at procedural memory, which study author Amy Finn, a postdoc at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, describes as the “memory system we get for free.” It’s involved in tasks we learn unconsciously such as riding a bike, dancing, or subtle language rules. It’s a system that learns from observing and from experience; neural circuits in the brain build a set of rules for constructing words and sentences by absorbing and analyzing information—like sounds—from the world around them.

“The procedural memory is already in place for an infant and working well, and not interacting with other brain functions,” says Finn. However, in adulthood, this system is gradually replaced with one that’s less based on such exploratory, and energy-consuming processes. “As an adult, you have really useful late-developing memory systems that take over and do everything.”

In essence, adults may over-analyze new language rules or sounds and try to make them fit into some understandable and coherent pattern that makes sense to them. But a new language may involve grammar rules that aren’t so easily explained, and adults have more difficulty overcoming those obstacles than children, who simply absorb the rules or exceptions and learn from them. That’s especially true with pronunciation, since the way we make sounds is something that is established early in life, and becomes second nature.

“Adults are much better at picking up things that are going to immediately help them like words and things that will help them navigate a supermarket,” says Finn. “You can learn language functionally as an adult, but you’ll never sound like a native speaker.”

So how can adults remove their own roadblocks to learning new languages? Finn says more research needs to be done to determine if adults can ever go back to learning languages like children, but linguists are looking at a variety of options. A few include “turning off” certain areas of the brain using a drug or a technique called transcranial magnetic stimulation, which might allow adults to be more open to accepting new language rules and sounds.

Finn also hopes to study adults performing a challenging task while they learn a language, which is another way of distracting the cognitive portions of the brain from focusing on the new language, to see if that can help them to absorb more linguistic information.

TIME poverty

Here Are the 5 Worst States for a Child’s Well-Being

Children try to do their homework at an evacuation shelter in a high school gymnasium in Kentwood, Louisiana on August 30, 2012.
Children try to do their homework at an evacuation shelter in a high school gymnasium in Kentwood, Louisiana on August 30, 2012. Frederic J. Brown—AFP/Getty Images

Child poverty rates are rising, but some states are better than others when it comes to kids' overall well-being

A new annual report on kids’ well-being finds that child poverty rates are rising across the country, with nearly a quarter of American children living in families below the poverty line.

The KIDS COUNT Data Book released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation shows that poverty rates had dropped from 1990 to 2000, but began increasing again in the early 2000s. Data shows their health and education are improving, with teen birthrates and death rates at all-time lows and more children showing proficiency in reading and math.

But with families still recovering from the recession and fewer resources available from government programs like Medicaid—as well as higher housing and transportation costs—the report finds that kids are growing up in poor households that are having trouble escaping poverty.

Northern states tend to rank better than ones in the South for kids in terms of economic status, education, health and family and community, which the authors of the study attribute to smart investments in children’s health and educational programs. Here are the five states that rank the highest and lowest for kids’ overall well-being:

Lowest

50. Mississippi

49. New Mexico

48. Nevada

47. Louisiana

46. Arizona

Highest

1. Massachusetts

2. Vermont

3. Iowa

4. New Hampshire

5. Minnesota

TIME Education

Obama to Sign Bill Improving Worker Training

Barack Obama, Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden greets President Barack Obama as he arrives to speak at Community College of Allegheny County West Hills Center, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Oakdale, Pa., about the importance of jobs-driven skills training. Carolyn Kaster—AP

On Tuesday, President Obama and Vice President Biden will announce new executive actions on job training at the signing of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act

Congress and the President have finally found some common ground: Obama will sign the first significant legislative job training reform effort in nearly a decade on Tuesday.

The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed by Congress on July 9 will streamline the federal workforce training system, trimming 15 programs that don’t work, giving schools the opportunity to cater their services to the needs of their region, and empowering businesses to identify what skills workers need for success and help workers acquire them.

The bipartisan, bicameral bill is a response to a projection that by 2022, 11 million workers will lack the education necessary to succeed in a 21st century workplace including bachelor’s degrees, associate’s degrees, and vocational certificates.

“Workforce training is critically important to help grow the American economy still recovering from recession and bridge the widening skills gap separating thousands of unemployed workers from promising careers in 21st century workplaces,” said Senator Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) when the bill passed.

The Obama Administration apparently agrees. On Tuesday, when Obama signs the bill into law, he and Vice President Joe Biden will also announce new federal and private sector actions to address the need for an improved job training system, which currently serves about 21 million Americans including veterans, Americans with disabilities, the unemployed, and those who lack skills to climb the career ladder. The Obama administration’s new actions also complement the new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act by improving federal training programs not included in the bill.

Earlier in 2014, President Obama tasked Biden with reviewing the federal training system to find ways to improve it. As a result of that review, Biden will issue a report Tuesday that outlines “job-driven” strategies that the Administration says will make the federal training system “more effective, more responsive to employers, and more accountable for results” in Tuesday’s report.

Chief among these strategies is a new “job-driven checklist,” a tool that measures how effective programs are in preparing students for careers that will be incorporated into applications for all 25 federal training grants, at a total of about $1.4 billion, starting Oct. 1. The checklist requires programs to engage with local employers in designing programs that cater to their needs, ramp up opportunities for internships and apprenticeships, and keep better data on employment and earning outcomes.

“From now on, federal agencies will use specific, job-driven criteria to ensure that the $17 billion in federal training funds are used more effectively,” a senior White House official said on a Monday evening press call.

The Obama administration will also expand opportunities for apprenticeships, considered a “proven path to employment and the middle class,” according to a White House statement. After completing these programs, 87% of apprentices gain employment at an average starting salary of $50,000.

In addition to using competitions and grants to bolster job training in the U.S., the administration will also use technology. On Tuesday, Obama and Biden will announce $25 million award from the Department of Labor to develop a web-based “skills academy” for adult learners. And the Department of Education will experiment with education models that award skills based on a person’s tangible skills rather than their performance in a classroom setting.

“Too often job training programs are focused on providing the skills needed for yesterday’s jobs, not the jobs of today and tomorrow,” an administration official said Monday. “And teaching methods are often rooted in outdated, class-based models that haven’t kept pace with technology and new training techniques.”

TIME Education

School Administrators: Kids Like Healthy Lunches Just Fine

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Female student carrying tray in cafeteria Tetra Images—Getty Images/Brand X

According to a new survey published in the Childhood Obesity journal

As the battle rages on over whether or not to scrap healthier options in public school lunch, a new survey suggests students actually like the nutritional meals they’re being offered. Well, at least they like it enough to keep from complaining to school administrators about it.

Last school year, administrators reported students started off complaining about the healthier take on lunch, after the USDA introduced new standards in 2012 that called for a reduction in sugar, sodium and fat in meals and the addition of more whole grains, vegetables, and fruit in an effort to confront childhood obesity.

But most had come around by the spring, they reported in a new study backed by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Now, around 70% of elementary school students “generally like the new lunch,” they said. Middle and high school administrators reported similar reactions, with 70% and 63% of students “generally” liking the new lunches, respectively.

Schools also report few drop-offs in school lunch participation with the advent of the new standards. About 64.6% of elementary schools said “about the same” number of students purchased school lunches last school year, compared to the year before.

“The updated meals standards are resulting in healthier meals for tens of millions of kids,” said Lindsey Turner, lead author of the first study, and co-investigator for Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which funded the study in a statement. “Our studies show that kids are okay with these changes, and that there have not been widespread challenges with kids not buying or eating the meals.”

Yet, according to the new survey to be published in an upcoming issue of the Childhood Obesity journal, high school students and students in rural schools have been more reluctant to accept the changes. About 25% of middle and high school administrators reported noticing “a little more” plate waste during the 2012-2013 school year, while 16% of middle schools and 20% of high schools reported noticing “much more” waste.

Administrators at rural schools also reported more plate waste and more complaints than their urban counterparts, which is troubling given the higher rates of obesity among youth in rural areas. But among poor urban youth, the researchers found higher rates of consumption and more meal purchases—suggesting those kids opting out of the school lunch program are those who can afford to eat elsewhere.

“It is possible that widespread implementation of national policy has been effective for improving the diets of socioeconomically disadvantaged children,” said the study’s authors, “but more research is needed to understand the effect of changes in the meal standards on children’s participation and dietary intake.”

There has been much debate over the Department of Agriculture’s updated school nutrition standards this year. In fact, Monday’s survey results stand in contrast to a recent USDA report that showed about 1 million fewer students chose to eat school meals every day during the 2012-2013 school year. The School Nutrition Association, a long time supporter of healthy options for kids, rolled back some of its support earlier this year due to the burden the standards place on already cash-strapped schools.

In May, House Republicans ok’d a spending bill that would allow schools to opt out of following the healthy school rules, which pump up the amount of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains served to kids at school while reducing fat, sugar, and sodium. But champions of the standards, including First Lady Michelle Obama, argue rolling back the standards would be a bad choice for kids.

In a statement Monday, the School Nutrition Association said the survey’s “perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality.”

“More kids aren’t buying lunches,” Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, tells TIME.

TIME Education

Teachers Turn to Crowdfunding to Open Preschools

Teachers and parents in Chicago are turning to crowdsourced online funding to open preschools

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In Chicago, VOCEL – a small education non-profit for children from under-resourced communities – is behind one of the first initiatives to use crowdfunding to open a preschool, the AFP reports.

“Many for-profit organizations have used crowdsourcing in the past several years to get off the ground, to spread their ideas among a wide crowd, and we thought why couldn’t we do this for a non-profit?” Jesse Ilhardt, director of education for VOCEL, told AFP.

VOCEL started a $70,000 campaign online, asking the public to contribute funds for a preschool center in Chicago. To learn more about crowdfunding in education, watch the video above.

TIME Education

Elizabeth Warren Slams Mitch McConnell on Student Loans

Yellen Testifies on Monetary Policy
Senator Elizabeth Warren (Democrat of Massachusetts) listens to testimony from Janet L. Yellen on "The Semiannual Monetary Policy Report to the Congress." on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 15, 2014. Ron Sachs—Corbis

Massachusetts Democrat accuses GOP leader of asking students to “dream a little smaller”

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren publicly took Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell to task Wednesday on her bill to lower interest rates for government student loans, which failed the Senate last month just two votes shy of breaking a Republican filibuster.

“Last week Mitch McConnell was asked about the student loan bill,” Warren told an obviously friendly crowd of 1,000 young progressives gathered in Washington for the Center for American Progress’s Make Progress Summit. “Mitch McConnell actually suggested that the solution for college affordability is for young people to lower their expectations and become more cost conscious, because he said not everyone needs to go to Yale.”

McConnell made the remarks in a town hall meeting last week, when explaining his support of proprietary education—or for-profit schools—as, he said, it increases competition with traditional colleges:

…I think the best short-term solution is for parents to be very cost-conscious in shopping around for higher education alternatives. Not everybody needs to go to Yale. I don’t know about you guys, but I went to a regular ol’ Kentucky college. And some people would say I’ve done okay.

Warren then asked everyone in the room who had student loans and didn’t go to Yale to raise their hands—and the vast majority did. “His vision for America is that no one reaches higher than they can already afford,” Warren scoffed. “Mitch McConnell may think that the solution to the exploding student loan debt is to dream a little smaller. Well, he is wrong… We are going to build a better country than the one Mitch McConnell envisioned.”

Request for comment from McConnell’s campaign wasn’t immediately answered.

Warren then said the only way to fix the situation was to convince two senators to change their minds, an endeavor she asked the students in the room to help with. Because it’s either change their minds, or elect those that don’t “hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers,” she told the roaring crowd, who gave her an ovation.

The Massachusetts Democrat’s remarks came two weeks after she campaigned for Alison Grimes, McConnell’s Democratic challenger in this November’s elections.

TIME Thailand

And Then There Was the College Lecturer Who Gave Out Grades in Return for 7-Eleven Coupons

Inside A 7-Eleven Store Ahead Of CP All Pcl Full-Year Results
A customer exits a 7-Eleven convenience store, operated by CP All Pcl, in Bangkok, Thailand, on Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014. Dario Pignatelli—Bloomberg/Getty Images

“She might have thought it was ordinary practice,” said her boss

A university lecturer in Thailand has been caught offering top grades in exchange for 7-Eleven coupons, or stamps, redeemable at the convenience store chain for small gifts or discounts.

When a class at Kalasin Rajabhat University, in northeast Thailand, complained to the lecturer about the selling of test scores, she rebuked them, and someone in class filmed her doing so.

From the conversation, it appears that 25 coupons earned a one-grade bump, with one student shelling out 400 coupons for an A+, reports the Bangkok Post.

“Khanittha got 17 points in psychology class. She gave me stamps,” the teacher says on the video. “Then, I gave her A+. Do you think you got that grade by your own brain?”

Thailand boasts some 7,000 7-Elevens nationwide — the third-largest presence for the chain after Japan and the U.S.

On Tuesday, the Council of Rajabhat University Presidents of Thailand — known by its unfortunate acronym CRUPT — ordered an investigation.

“Teachers should never exploit their students for any purpose,” said CRUPT president Niwat Klin-Ngam.

Despite suspending the lecturer, who worked for the university’s pre-school education department, acting Kalasin Rajabhat University rector Nopporn Kosirayothin said there may be extenuating circumstances.

“She might have thought it was ordinary practice,” he said. “Judging from what I heard, some lecturers at other places also exchange grades for some beer.”

[Bangkok Post]

TIME Education

More Than 60 Colleges Attend Dartmouth’s Sexual Assault Summit

Administrators face pressure to end the mishandling of assault investigations and put effective prevention measures in place

Dartmouth College President Philip Hanlon wants parents of women on his campus to know that the school is working to address the issue of sexual assault. During a hour-long conversation on New Hampshire Public Radio Tuesday, Hanlon said the school is “open” and “upfront.” “You should not be worried if a campus is talking about [sexual assault],” Hanlon said. “You should be worried if a campus is not talking about it.”

And Dartmouth is certainly talking about it. The school is hosting nearly 300 representatives from over 60 colleges, national experts, and government officials for a four day summit on preventing campus sexual assault, just days after a Congressional survey found that 41% of colleges polled have not investigated a sexual assault on their campuses in the past five years.

The Department of Education also launched investigations into 55 schools across the country this year, including Dartmouth, for allegedly mishandling of incidents involving an assault. This week’s summit is an opportunity for school and government officials to discuss best practices for addressing the issue, with representatives from Duke University, Rice University, Pomona College and Georgetown University on hand to discuss interactions between students and school administrators.

Hanlon said Tuesday that Dartmouth intends to position itself as a national leader in the effort to combat sexual assault on campus. He’s been in office for one year and named the issue one of his top priorities. In June, the college implemented a new policy for handling reports of sexual assault that requires outside investigators to look into complaints The policy also requires mandatory expulsion for some perpetrators of assault.

“As a nation we will reach a tipping point where nonconsensual sexual encounters on our college campuses are a thing of the past,” U.S. Representative Ann McLane Kuster (D-NH) said Sunday at an opening session of the summit. Research has shown that one in five college women will become a victim of an attempted or actual sexual assault while on campus. A TIME cover story from May detailed the crisis, which has been called an epidemic, and also examined the efforts to curb the trend.

On Monday, representatives from the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice addressed the summit attendees affirming the federal government’s commitment to keeping student’s safe. “Every student needs to be safe,” said Catherine Lhamon of the Department of Education’s office of Civil Rights. Attendees have also been actively engaged on Twitter where conversations around the absence of males, student voices, and the need for more collaboration proliferated.

https://twitter.com/DartmouthChange/status/488760727008989184 https://twitter.com/DancingGrapes/status/488716002776322049

TIME Nigeria

All Malala Wants for Her Birthday Is Safe Return for Boko Haram Girls

Calls kidnapped girls her "sisters" during visit to Nigeria

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Girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai met Sunday with parents of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram and pledged again to fight for their safe release.

“I can see those girls as my sisters… and I’m going to speak up for them until they are released,” she told a crowd of parents, Reuters reports. “I can feel… the circumstances under which you are suffering. It’s quite difficult for a parent to know that their daughter is in great danger.

“My birthday wish this year is… bring back our girls now, and alive,” she added.

More than 200 schoolgirls have been missing since they were abducted by Islamist terror group Boko Haram on April 14 as they were preparing to take exams near Chibok, in the northeast region of the country. In the months since the abduction, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan has been unable to secure their release amid widespread international focus, even as Boko Haram leaders threatened to “sell them in the market.”

Malala, who became renowned as an international advocate for girls’ education after she survived a Taliban assassination attempt, is scheduled to meet with the Nigerian leader on Monday. She turned 17 on Saturday.

TIME Education

Teachers Union Pulls Full-Throated Support for Common Core

Students Taking Tests Common Core
Getty Images

Move by American Federation of Teachers is blow to the White House

After years of battling conservative groups opposed to Common Core, supporters of the testing standards discovered Friday morning that one of their most avid allies, the American Federation of Teachers, is bailing on them too. Et tu, Brutus?

At its annual convention Friday in Los Angeles, AFT president Randi Weingarten is expected to announce that the union will underwrite $20,000 to $30,000 grants for teachers’ projects designed to rewrite and improve the Common Core standards, according to a press release.

While AFT stops short of outright opposing the Common Core, Weingarten has said that that option is not off the table. An hour-long open debate on Common Core is planned for the last day of the convention on Sunday, which could lead to a vote condemning the Common Core in its entirety. Some of AFT’s local chapters, including Chicago, have called for the union to end its support for Common Core entirely.

The AFT’s decision to distance itself from its once-avid support for the Common Core marks a major—and, some say, even potentially lethal—blow to the standards, which the White House has emphasized as its key priority in education.

The real danger is not that the Common Core will be thrown out entirely, but that state policy directors in charge of implementing the standards will be cowed by what they see as a groundswell of anger from teachers, said Michael Brickman, the national policy director at Fordham Institute, which supports the standards. If states choose not to tie the Common Core to teacher and students evaluations, all is lost, he said.

“It’s one thing to have really great standards on paper, but if they’re not tied to anything meaningful in terms of accountability, not a lot is going to improve,” he said.

Backers of Common Core at both the state and federal level have pointed at union support for the standards as validation for the policy. It’s too early to tell whether state policy makers will see the AFT’s withdrawal of support as a reflection of most teachers’ opinions, or of public opinion writ large.

“We do know that it’s a significant shift,” said Amy Hyslop, a policy analyst at New America Foundation who works on Common Core. “The AFT has objected to using the tests for evaluations, but this is first time they’ve been critical of the standards themselves.”

The AFT’s move comes less than two months after the National Education Association, the nation’s biggest teachers union, voted to demand the resignation of Education Secretary Arne Duncan. AFT has not yet considered joining NEA’s call for Duncan’s ouster, but say it’s not out of the cards.

The teachers unions, which strongly supported Obama’s election and once avidly backed the Common Core standards, have been increasingly disillusioned with the administration for years.

Their discontent is fueled in part by what many see as the herky-jerky implementation of Common Core so far. In some schools, teachers were asked to administer Common Core exams before they’d been given textbooks indicating what would be tested.

The unions have also criticized the standards for being too hard, rewarding a small number of “profiteering” companies that make the tests and books, and bringing punitive repercussions for both teachers and students. In many states, teachers’ performance evaluations and whether students are allowed to advance to the next grade level are tied to Common Core test scores.

In some ways, AFT’s announcement seems a long time coming. In April last year, AFT called for a moratorium on using Common Core test scores to judge teachers’ performances and determine whether students should be held back a grade level. In January, the New York state teachers union withdrew its support for the standards, citing major problems with implementation.

Weingarten, who has been a long-time public supporter the Common Core, has made a point in recent months of actively publicizing her members’ discontent over the program.

Brickman, and other education analysts, say the unions’ waning support is probably tied to the fact that they have faced several significant political blows this year. Last month, a California court ruled against tenure and other job protections. Two former Obama spokesmen have also launched a public relations campaign linking tenure with a failure of school reform. Under fire from both conservatives and Democrats, unions may be taking a defensive stance. “I think what they’re doing here is circling the wagons, going back to their bread and butter,” said Brickman.

Other analysts think AFT’s withdrawal of support is a calculated move designed to telegraph to the Obama administration that AFT’s backing is contingent on whether the administration pays attention to its other demands. For example, AFT has long called for the repeal of another federal law, No Child Left Behind, passed by the Bush administration, which mandates annual, multiple-choice tests for most elementary and middle school students.

The Common Core standards were designed in part as a response to unions’ discontent over what they called the “toxic testing” required by No Child Left Behind. The Common Core standards do not require rote, fill-in-the-bubble tests, as NCLB does, but instead involves more rigorous, hands-on problem solving, which is what the unions had demanded originally.

The Common Core standards describe what every student, kindergarten through high school, is expected to know. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia originally adopted the standards, but several conservative states have since dropped them. The Common Core will be implemented for the first time next school year, with teacher evaluations and student progress linked to the tests in 2015-16–which leaves plenty of time for in-fighting until then.

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