Adonis Diaries

Archive for the ‘education methods/programs’ Category

Working backward to solve problems?

Kind you solved it and trying to figure out how you did it?

Patsy Z and TEDxSKE shared a link.
Imagine where you want to be someday. Now, how did you get there? Retrograde analysis is a style of problem solving where you work backwards from the…
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WHY YOUR DOCTOR SHOULD ALSO BE A SCIENTIST

Scientists practiced in applying the experimental mind?

physician-scientists represent just one out of every 100 doctors.

RESEARCHERS AT THE University of Maryland recently announced a potential breakthrough in the fight against “neuropathic” pain— pain that results from malfunctioning or damaged nerves.

Neuropathic pain afflicts 100 million Americans and costs the nation over half a trillion dollars every year.

WIRED OPINION

Kurt Amsler, PhD, is a professor of biomedical sciences at the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Though the condition isn’t caused by physical trauma, it can nonetheless create a phantom sensation ranging from mild discomfort to debilitating agony.

The Maryland researchers developed a new technique that uses ultrasound waves to neutralize this pain.

That research team has a distinctive feature: It’s composed of physician-scientists. These specialized health care providers treat patients while also conducting research to develop new medicines and procedures.

Unfortunately, the physician-scientist is an endangered species—our country is suffering a severe and growing shortage of them. If we don’t reverse this trend, patients could lose out on the next generation of life-saving treatments.

Physician-scientists are defined by their formal training, which includes both a medical degree and a PhD in the biological and/or physical sciences.

Unlike typical lab researchers, physician-scientists have an intimate perspective of the patient experience. They witness firsthand the interaction between different drugs, the success of key surgical techniques, and patterns among patients. They bring those insights into the laboratory, where they guide research and accelerate the discovery process.

Shortly after the University of Maryland team announced its breakthrough, a physician-scientist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, a large research hospital in Los Angeles, discovered a blood protein that is linked to a common type of heart failure.

Other research teams had failed to find such a clear bio-marker. This finding will likely be used to create a simple blood test to determine patients’ risk of developing a catastrophic heart condition.

Other examples abound.

In June, a group of physician-scientists at Oregon Health & Science University published research on a compound that could stop cancer cells from spreading throughout the body. A few years ago, physician-scientists at the Scintillon Institute in San Diego uncovered a molecular link between Alzheimer’s and type 2 diabetes.

Such monumental discoveries are the specialty of the physician-scientist.

This is the benefit of blending practical medicine with academic research.

Physician-scientists also help patients make informed care decisions. They’re well-equipped to see through flashy pharmaceutical and medical device marketing that saturates the health care industry.

Consider the story of Dr. Jalees Rehman, a physician-scientist at the University of Illinois.

In Scientific American, Dr. Rehman recalled a patient asking him about a controversial heart procedure offered by a private clinic in Thailand. For a small fortune, Thai doctors would treat the patient’s advanced heart disease with a bone marrow injection. The stem cells in the marrow would, supposedly, heal damaged valves, chambers, and nerves.

Dr. Rehman’s research specialty—studying the therapeutic application of stem cells to heart conditions—was directly relevant. He knew the procedure was bogus: Bone marrow actually contains very few stems cells and the injection process presented enormous health risks. He successfully deterred the patient from undergoing the procedure.

It’s increasingly difficult for patients to receive such informed advice.

Between 2003 and 2012, the already meager population of physician-scientists shrunk by nearly 6 percent, according to a survey from the American Medical Association. Today, physician-scientists represent just one out of every 100 doctors.

For the sake of medical innovation, it’s imperative to grow a new crop of physician-scientists.

More federal funding for young physician-scientists would help tremendously. Currently, most funding goes to physician-scientists who are already well established in their respective fields.

From 2012 to 2017, nearly six in 10 NIH pediatric research grants went to senior-level physician-scientists, according to a JAMA study. When young physician-scientists can’t secure grants, they often decide to abandon their research interests and practice medicine full-time.

Funding more research grants, and earmarking them for young physician-scientists, could lead to breakthrough treatments for cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases.

Institutions of higher education also have a role to play. Schools that only offer traditional medical degrees could create physician-scientist programs to attract more bright young people to the profession. My school—the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine—recently launched a seven-year DO/PhD program.

Physician-scientists bridge the gap between scientific theory and practical medicine. We need to boost their ranks.

Re-designing: opportunity to reframe problems and solutions.
Today’s problems are increasingly complex. Take health for example. In a country where access to healthcare costs the same for everyone, we are seeing more inequality than ever.

The wider determinants of health developed by Public Health England show that in fact, things like someone’s education, their job, who their friends are, how they get on with family, and where they live can actually determine how long they will live – even if they’re using the same doctor as someone living down the road but who is likely to live 10 years longer.

In the last two decades, design has been demonstrating a refreshing approach to addressing such complex problems.

This is because design provides the opportunity to reframe problems and solutions. It explores ways of doing things that haven’t been tried before, to address problems that haven’t been well understood before.

In this age of complexity and multiple dependencies, problems are constantly and rapidly changing, and so must solutions. We need to move away from the romantic notion that a solution – whether it’s a service, product or policy – needs to go through a one-off and well-polished design process, beyond which it will continue to be relevant forevermore.

Reality is very different. So we’re making the case here that as designers, we have a mission to build the capabilities of non-designers who work within the organisations that are transforming our future.

This means they are equipped with the problem-solving mindset to constantly interrogate, improve and innovate as realities quickly evolve, and things that worked yesterday soon become obsolete.

image: https://www.uscreates.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/uscreates_asset_mapping_2-1024×683.jpg

Asset MappingWhy this is important

Urgency for prevention and early intervention:

There is a sense of urgency to pre-empt problems before they happen in order to save time, resource and often even lives. The recent NHS Sustainability and Transformation Partnerships (STPs) demonstrate this urgency.

With an ever-increasing population, public services are at breaking point. But since two-thirds of deaths among those under 75 are a result of preventable illness, there is a growing recognition that keeping as many people as possible healthy is the most sustainable investment.

This is where a lot of the STP plans are focusing their energy. Because design offers a lens into the future and a provocation for possible realities, it provides those committed to prevention and early intervention with the ability to understand future problems and to design solutions that can forestall them.

Systemic complexity

We can no longer think of products, services and policies outside of the systems they exist within and interact with. For example, we worked with the Healthy London Partnership on a deep dive to understand the root causes of childhood obesity and to try out new ways of addressing this chronic challenge.

Our insight revealed that a one-pronged approach will never do. We need to create positive and synchronised triggers at different points in the system: we need behavioural nudges that change the habits of individuals, we need social movements that influence and inspire whole communities, we need levers that transform physical obesogenic environments, and we also need legislation and regulation such as the Sugary Drink Tax to reduce temptation.

Design invites diverse people across the system to confront problems collaboratively, by creating solutions that leverage the collective power of everyone’s experience, expertise, resource and authority.

Ongoing transformation:

In a time of austerity, we just can’t afford to keep slowly chipping away at the problem through little tweaks and tricks in the hope that it will one day disappear. We need to completely and continuously re-imagine how things might work better. When working with a national charity, we realised that funding for children’s centres was at risk, and that they were struggling to reach diverse families.

This meant we needed to completely transform the service, into one where children’s centres can go (literally ‘in a box’) into the homes of those who most need them, for a ninth of the cost and nine times the reach.

A design approach to problem-solving offered staff the opportunity to experiment with transformational ideas at a small and safe scale, fail quickly, learn fast and build confidence in the direction of travel.

What capabilities

Organisations need to develop a number of problem-solving capabilities to future-proof their solutions. In a recent Touchpoint article, my colleagues Jocelyn Bailey and Cat Drew argue that these capabilities are presumably less about skill and more about mindset and culture.

Armed with the right mindset, organisations can then develop (and even invent) the unique skills, methods and tools to solve all types of diverse problems. This mindset is characterised by:

Deep human understanding

the approach invites curiosity and determination to explore what lies beneath people’s actions, decisions and perceptions.

Reframing challenges

the insight revealed through deep human understanding can help reframe the challenge to get to the bottom of the hidden root causes, rather than the visible symptoms.

Working with others

a design approach to problem-solving is humble. We admit that we don’t know it all, and we invite others who have experienced the problem in different ways or who are experts in related issues across the system, to come on board and shape the journey.

Learning by doing

the only way to test innovation is to give it a go. Design is a process of solving problems through doing, learning, improving and scaling. Starting small and imperfect can mitigate the risks of failure, and with every iterative cycle and every improved version, more investment and scale can be justified.

image: https://www.uscreates.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/uscreates_prototyping-1024×683.jpg

 

How to go about this

There are various ways that organisations can build the problem-solving capabilities of their workforce. Last year, I wrote an article with Joyce Yee in the Service Design Impact Report that reviewed different design capability models that the public sector draws on. There is not a one-size-fits-all model, and each presents its own benefits:

Structured training: this varies from one-day workshops to bootcamps. These are best for beginners who would like a taster of the mindset to assess whether it provides potential for the nature of their organisation’s challenges.

Experiential learning: in other words, learning on the job. Often this takes the form of design experts facilitating a series of problem-solving sprints within an organisation, based on a real challenge. Staff are invited to shadow the process, reflect on learning, and experience the benefits first-hand.

Coaching: this model is suited for more experienced organisations who have potentially benefited from structured training and/or experiential learning. They would be keen to lead the problem-solving process themselves, with the support of a design coach for strategic guidance, alignment, and constructive provocation.

Internal disruption: a popular example of this is the lab model, where an organisation invests in an innovation team embedded within, with a role to create and grow a movement and a culture that embraces a design mindset to problem-solving.

In today’s complex and rapidly evolving world, organisations need to start thinking differently about how they are future-proofing what they do and how they do it. They need to invest in people, not solutions. By better equipping their people with a problem-solving mindset, they are creating the enablers for ongoing improvement, innovation and future relevance.

Joanna is Design Director at Uscreates. She is a social designer, author, speaker and lecturer with over 15 years of practical experience in the UK, the Middle East and the United States.

She leads on the development and delivery of service design, user centred innovation, design research, business modelling, communication and digital design projects. Joanna has worked with over 50 public and third sector organisations – including Nesta, The Healthy London Partnership, the Health Foundation and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust – to help them better understand and address their challenges.

She has expertise across a broad range of social challenges including health and wellbeing, social integration, social action, employment, education and social enterprise.

Joanna has a Ph.D. in design for social integration in design for social integration and is an RSA fellow. She is an associate lecturer at the University of the Arts London, Kingston University and Ravensbourne University.

Read more at https://www.uscreates.com/capability-training/#rtyugoxJFYpkkelH.9

Mon cher Georges: How Einstein mathematically suggested his famous equation?

In my year of Matheleme (Terminal, last year of high-school), the physic teacher, an old Friar, tall and still robust, solved on the blackboard the double integration for the classical equation of movement. Instead of just integrating for Space as the only variable, Einstein integrated also Time as a second variable.

I covered two large pages on my notebook for the entire integration. The teacher was also very convincing on resolving the constant C to be the speed of light.

It was an eye-opening session of how mathematics can predict phenomenon Not yet subjected to experimentation. I had lost my notebook and feels angry. Anyone who can share with me these integrations, this person will make my day.

In university, the course that I loved most was Nuclear physics because we used the straightforward Einstein/Relativity equation for conservation of energy and momentum of the particles. Nothing to it and no graphs…

For years, we resolved the classical equations for energy and momentum that drove me to the wall and stabbed every fiber of my patience.

In class of 7eme (Certificat), I was relocated from the boarding school in Beit-Chabab to a French catholic school in Furn el Shebaak.

I had completely forgotten my French during the last 6 years and had to start all over. By the end of the year I was doing better than the French students in their language.

I remember that my late aunt Therese spent 2 hours to make me memorize 2 sentences of “Bayard, le chevalier sans peur et sans reproche…” Therese invested countless hours exercising me on dictation.

Therese lived with us for 3 years before she got married and she is the one who initiated me to read books. She bought for me the pink collection then the green collection and I ended up reading big volumes for Stendhal, Victor Hugo, Dumas (father and son)… As soon I came home, I started reading for hours: No one complained as long as quietness was maintained.

One teacher,  Anselm, was a sadistic person (et il louchait) and used to hit students on their hands with a ruler and make them kneel in a corner. Once my hands got blue and he got scared shit: he never again attempted to touch me. I used to wake up at 4 am, go to school and walk the yard for hours to revise my lessons.

In the 6 eme, the French teacher paid my parents a visit to ask them Not to help me in my French essays. He was flabbergasted when he realized that my parents could barely write in French. I remember that the essay I submitted was on our feeling for returning to school covered 5 pages, and I wrote it in one setting, and it was excellent. Also, this booklets was misplaced to my chagrin.

Poor? Even in school?

Low-income strivers face uphill climbs, especially at Ball High School, where a third of the girls’ class failed to graduate on schedule.

By the time, the triplets, Angelica Gonzales, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez donned mortarboards in the class of 2008, their story seemed to validate the promise of education as the great equalizer.

“I just didn’t understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome.”

Who is this Lucy Parsons?
Photo
 Published in nyt on December 22, 2012 under: “For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall”

GALVESTON, Tex. — Angelica Gonzales marched through high school in Goth armor — black boots, chains and cargo pants — but undermined her pose of alienation with a place on the honor roll.

Angelica nicknamed herself after a metal band and vowed to become the first in her family to earn a college degree: “I don’t want to work at Walmart like mother“, she wrote to a school counselor.

Weekends and summers were devoted to a college-readiness program, where her best friends, Melissa O’Neal and Bianca Gonzalez, shared her drive to “get off the island” — escape the prospect of dead-end lives in luckless Galveston.

Melissa, an eighth-grade valedictorian, seethed over her mother’s boyfriends and drinking, and Bianca’s bubbly innocence hid the trauma of her father’s death. They stuck together so much that a tutor called them the “triplets.”

Affluent Students Have an Advantage and the Gap Is Widening

Angelica, a daughter of a struggling Mexican immigrant, was headed to Emory University. Bianca enrolled in community college, and Melissa left for Texas State University, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s alma mater.

“It felt like we were taking off, from one life to another,” Melissa said. “It felt like, ‘Here we go!’ ”

Four years later, their story seems less like a tribute to upward mobility than a study of obstacles in an age of soaring economic inequality.

Not one of them has a four-year degree.

Only one is still studying full time, and two have crushing debts. Angelica, who left Emory owing more than $60,000, is a clerk in a Galveston furniture store.

Each showed the ability to do college work, even excel at it.

But the need to earn money brought one set of strains, campus alienation brought others, and ties to boyfriends not in school added complications. With little guidance from family or school officials, college became a leap that they braved without a safety net.

The story of their lost footing is also the story of something larger — the growing role that education plays in preserving class divisions.

Poor students have long trailed affluent peers in school performance, but from grade-school tests to college completion, the gaps are growing.

With school success and earning prospects ever more entwined, the consequences carry far: education, a force meant to erode class barriers, appears to be fortifying them.

“Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer — the place where upward mobility gets started,” said Greg J. Duncan, an economist at the University of California, Irvine. “But on virtually every measure we have, the gaps between high- and low-income kids are widening. It’s very disheartening.”

The growing role of class in academic success has taken experts by surprise since it follows decades of equal opportunity efforts and counters racial trends, where differences have narrowed.

It adds to fears over recent evidence suggesting that low-income Americans have lower chances of upward mobility than counterparts in Canada and Western Europe.

Thirty years ago, there was a 31 percentage point difference between the share of prosperous and poor Americans who earned bachelor’s degrees, according to Martha J. Bailey and Susan M. Dynarski of the University of Michigan. Now the gap is 45 points.

While both groups improved their odds of finishing college, the affluent improved much more, widening their sizable lead.

Likely reasons include soaring incomes at the top and changes in family structure, which have left fewer low-income students with the support of two-parent homes.

Neighborhoods have grown more segregated by class, leaving lower-income students increasingly concentrated in lower-quality schools.

And even after accounting for financial aid, the costs of attending a public university have risen 60% in the past two decades. Many low-income students, feeling the need to help out at home, are deterred by the thought of years of lost wages and piles of debt.

In placing their hopes in education, the Galveston teenagers followed a tradition as old as the country itself. But if only the prosperous become educated — and only the educated prosper — the schoolhouse risks becoming just another place where the fortunate preserve their edge.

“It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder,” said Sean Reardon, a sociologist at Stanford. “What we’re talking about is a threat to the American dream.”

High School

No one pictured the teenagers as even friends, much less triplets. Angelica hid behind dark eyeliner, Melissa’s moods turned on the drama at home, and Bianca, in the class behind, seemed even younger than she was.

What they had in common was a college-prep program for low-income teenagers, Upward Bound, and trust in its counselor, Priscilla Gonzales Culver, whom everyone called “Miss G.”

Angelica was the product of a large Mexican-American family, which she sought both to honor and surpass. Her mother, Ana Gonzales, had crossed the border illegally as a child, gained citizenship and settled the clan in Galveston, where she ruled by force of will. She once grounded Angelica for a month for coming home a minute late. With hints of both respect and fear, Angelica never called her “Mom” — only “Mrs. Lady.”

Home was an apartment in a subdivided house, with relatives in the adjacent units. Family meals and family feuds went hand in hand. One of Angelica’s uncles bore scars from his days in a street gang. Her grandmother spoke little English.

With a quirky mix of distance and devotion, Angelica studied German instead of Spanish and gave the fiesta celebrating her 15th birthday a Goth theme, with fairies and dragons on the tabletop globes. “Korn chick,” she fancifully called herself, after the dissonant metal band.

But school was all business. “Academics was where I shined,” she said. Her grandmother and aunts worked at Walmart alongside Mrs. Lady, and Angelica was rankled equally by how little money they made and how little respect they got. Upward Bound asked her to rank the importance of college on a scale of 1 to 10.

“10,” she wrote.

Melissa also wanted to get off the island — and more immediately out of her house. “When I was about 7, my mom began dating and hanging around a bunch of drunks,” she wrote on the Upward Bound application. For her mother, addiction to painkillers and severe depression followed. Her grandparents offered her one refuge, and school offered another.

“I like to learn — I’m weird,” she said.

By eighth grade, Melissa was at the top of her class and sampling a course at a private high school. She yearned to apply there but swore the opposite to her mother and grandparents. Protecting families from their own ambition is a skill many poor students learn. “I knew we didn’t have the money,” Melissa said. “I felt like I had no right to ask.”

New to Upward Bound, Melissa noticed that one student always ate alone and crowded in beside her. “She forced her friendship on me,” Angelica said.

Bianca joined the following year with a cheerfulness that disguised any trace of family tragedy. As the eldest of four siblings, she had spent the years since her father’s death as a backup mother. To Bianca, family meant everything.

She arrived just in time for the trip at the heart of triplets lore — the Upward Bound visit to Chicago. While they had known they wanted more than Galveston offered, somewhere between the Sears Tower and Northwestern University they glimpsed what it might be. The trip at once consecrated a friendship and defined it around shared goals.

“We wanted to do something better with our lives,” Angelica said.

Ball High was hard on goals. In addition to Bosco, a drug-sniffing dog profiled in the local paper, the campus had four safety officers to deter fights. A pepper spray incident in the girls’ senior year sent 50 students to the school nurse. Only 2 percent of Texas high schools were ranked “academically unacceptable.” Ball was among them.

Melissa now marvels at what a good parent her mother has become to her younger brother after she stopped drinking and was treated for her depression. But when she returned from the high school trip to Chicago, the conflicts grew so intense that Miss G. took her in one night.

“I really put her through a lot,” said Melissa’s mother, Pam Craft. “Everything she did, she did on her own — I’m so proud of her.” Miss G.’s notes variously observed that “there are limited groceries,” “student is overwhelmed” and “she’s basically raising herself.”

While faulting her mother’s choices in men, Melissa made a troubling choice of her own with her less ambitious boyfriend. Among the many ways he let her down was getting another girl pregnant. Yet as many times as they broke up, they got back together again. “He is going to bring her down,” Miss G. warned.

Despite the turmoil, Melissa earned “commended” marks, the highest level, on half her state skills tests, edited the yearbook and published two opinion articles in the Galveston newspaper, one of them about her brother’s struggle with autism.

Working three jobs, she missed so much school that she nearly failed to graduate, but she still finished in the top quarter of her class. It was never clear which would prevail — her habit of courting disaster or her talent for narrow escapes.

Returning from Chicago, Bianca jumped a grade, which allowed her to graduate with Melissa and Angelica.

Angelica kept making A’s on her way to a four-year grade-point average of 3.9.

“Amazingly bright and dedicated,” one instructor wrote. A score of 1,240 on the math and reading portions of her SAT ranked her at the 84th percentile nationwide. When the German teacher suddenly quit, the school tapped her to finish teaching the first-year course.

Outside school, Angelica’s life revolved around her boyfriend, Fred Weaver, who was three years older and drove a yellow Sting Ray. Fred was devoted — too devoted, Mrs. Lady thought, and she warned Angelica not to let the relationship keep her from going to college. Fred’s father owned a local furniture store, and everyone could see that Fred’s dream was to run it with Angelica at his side.

Senior year raced by, with Miss G. doing her best to steer frightened and distracted students though the college selection process. Despite all the campus visits, choices were made without the intense supervision that many affluent students enjoy. Bianca, anchored to the island by family and an older boyfriend, chose community college. Melissa picked Texas State in San Marcos because “the application was easiest.”

Angelica had thought of little beyond Northwestern and was crestfallen when she was rejected. She had sent a last-minute application to a school in Atlanta that had e-mailed her. Only after getting in did she discover that she had achieved something special.

Emory cost nearly $50,000 that year, but it was one of a small tier of top schools that promised to meet the financial needs of any student good enough to be admitted. It had even started a program to relieve the neediest students of high debt burdens. “No one should have to give up their goals and dreams because financial challenges stand in the way,” its Web site says.

Plus an unseen campus a thousand miles away had an innate appeal. “How many times do you get the chance to completely reinvent yourself?” Angelica said.

Rich-Poor Gap Grows

If Melissa and Angelica felt that heading off to university set them apart from other low-income students, they were right. Fewer than 30% of students in the bottom quarter of incomes even enroll in a four-year school. And among that group, fewer than half graduate.

Income has always shaped academic success, but its importance is growing. Professor Reardon, the Stanford sociologist, examined a dozen reading and math tests dating back 25 years and found that the gap in scores of high- and low-income students has grown by 40%, even as the difference between blacks and whites has narrowed.

While race once predicted scores more than class, the opposite now holds. By eighth grade, white students surpass blacks by an average of three grade levels, while upper-income students are four grades ahead of low-income counterparts.

“The racial gaps are quite big, but the income gaps are bigger,” Professor Reardon said.

One explanation is simply that the rich have clearly gotten richer. A generation ago, families at the 90th percentile had five times the income of those at the 10th percentile. Now they have 10 times as much.

But as shop class gave way to computer labs, schools may have also changed in ways that make parental income and education more important. SAT coaches were once rare, even for families that could afford them. Now they are part of a vast college preparation industry.

Certainly as the payoff to education has grown — college graduates have greatly widened their earnings lead — affluent families have invested more in it. They have tripled the amount by which they outspend low-income families on enrichment activities like sports, music lessons and summer camps, according to Professor Duncan and Prof. Richard Murnane of Harvard.

In addition, upper-income parents, especially fathers, have increased their child-rearing time, while the presence of fathers in low-income homes has declined. Miss G. said there is a reason the triplets relied so heavily on boyfriends: “Their fathers weren’t there.”

Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the affluent also enjoy an advocacy edge: parents are quicker to intervene when their children need help, while low-income families often feel intimidated and defer to school officials, a problem that would trail Melissa and Angelica in their journey through college.

“Middle-class students get the sense the institution will respond to them,” Professor Lareau said. “Working-class and poor students don’t experience that. It makes them more vulnerable.”

Matthew M. Chingos of the Brookings Institution has found that low-income students finish college less often than affluent peers even when they outscore them on skills tests. Only 26% of eighth graders with below-average incomes but above-average scores go on to earn bachelor’s degrees, compared with 30 percent of students with subpar performances but more money.

“These are students who have already overcome significant obstacles to score above average on this test,” Mr. Chingos said. “To see how few earn college degrees is really disturbing.”

Triplets Start College

Melissa lasted at Texas State for all of two hours. As soon as she arrived, her car battery died, prompting a tearful call to Miss. G., who arranged a jump. Her dorm mates had parents to haul boxes and hover. Melissa unpacked alone. With four days left until classes began, she panicked and drove 200 miles back home.

For all the talk of getting away, her tattoo featured a local boast: she was “B.O.I.” — born on the island. Her grandparents ordered her back to school. “I really didn’t want to leave” the island, she said.

Midway through the semester she decided she had made a mistake by going to Texas State. She had picked the wrong time to leave home. She would move back to Galveston, join Bianca at community college and transfer to a four-year school later. But when she tried to return the financial aid to Texas State, she discovered it was too late. A long walk across the hilly campus led to an epiphany.

“I realized there was nothing in Galveston for me,” she said. “This is where I need to be.”

Angelica had a costlier setback. For an elite school, Emory enrolls an unusually large number of low-income students — 22% get Pell grants, compared with 11 percent at Harvard — and gives them unusually large aid packages. But Angelica had failed to complete all the financial aid forms.

Slow to consider Emory, she got a late start on the complex process and was delayed by questions about her father, whom she did not even know how to reach. Though Emory sent weekly e-mails — 17 of them, along with an invitation to a program for minority students — they went to a school account she had not learned to check. From the start, the wires were crossed.

As classes approached, she just got in the car with Mrs. Lady and Fred and drove 14 hours to Atlanta hoping to work things out. But by then Emory had distributed all of its aid. Even with federal loans and grants, Angelica was $40,000 short. The only way to enroll was to borrow from a bank.

Forty thousand dollars was an unfathomable sum. Angelica did not tell Mrs. Lady, to protect her from the worry. She needed a co-signer, and the only person she could ask was Fred. That would bind her future to her past, but she feared that if she tried to defer, she might not have a future — she might never make it back.

“I was like, ‘I don’t care what kind of debt it puts me in — I’ve got to get this done,”‘ she said.

Fred answered her request with his. They got engaged.

A few weeks later, Hurricane Ike hit Galveston, with Katrina-like consequences. About a sixth of the population never returned. Mrs. Lady lost her apartment and much of what she owned. Fred, consumed with rebuilding the store, reduced the modest sums he had promised to send Angelica.

Social life was awkward. She often felt she was the only one on campus without a credit card. Her roommate moved out, with no explanation. But one element of college appealed to Angelica and Melissa alike: the classes. Other debt-ridden students might wonder why the road to middle-class life passed through anthropology exams and lectures on art history.

But Melissa was happy to ponder tribal life in Papua New Guinea and Angelica stepped off the 18-hour bus ride home and let slip an appreciative word about German film.

“My family said ‘O.K., now you go to some big fancy school,’ ” she said.

With A’s, B’s, C’s and D’s, her report card looked like alphabet soup. “I was ready for Galveston College — I wasn’t ready for Emory,” Angelica said. But she salvaged a 2.6 GPA and went home for the summer happy.

“I thought the hard part was over,” she said.

At the end of the summer, Angelica and Melissa marked their ascent as college women with the perfect road trip. Melissa had decided to become a speech therapist. Angelica would practice child psychology. Somewhere between the rainbow in Louisiana and the blues bar in Orlando, they talked of launching a practice to help poor children. Fortune smiled all week.

“We were where we should be and we had the world at our feet,” Melissa said.

Melissa

She returned to a campus that was starting to feel like home. She had a roommate she liked and a job she loved, as a clerk in a Disney store. But despite the feeling of deep change — or perhaps because of it — she got back together with her high-school boyfriend. “That was one of the stupidest things I’ve ever done,” she said.

In the middle of Melissa’s sophomore year they became engaged. He moved near the campus to live with her, and Melissa charged most of their expenses on her credit cards. He was enrolling in the Job Corps program, and they agreed they would pay down the bills together after he became an electrician.

Melissa hit an academic pothole — a C in a communications course, which kept her out of the competitive speech therapy program. But she decided to aim for graduate-school training, and her other grades soared, placing her on the dean’s list both semesters her junior year. When her mother made a rare campus visit, Melissa hurried to show her the prominent display on the student center wall.

“That was one of the proudest moments of my life,” Melissa said.

Just before her senior year, Melissa planned a trip to celebrate her 21st birthday. Preparing to leave, she discovered her money was missing. Only one person had her bank code. After finishing Job Corps, her boyfriend was jobless once again and acting odd — as if he were using drugs.

No one but Melissa was surprised. Although she returned the engagement ring, she could not return the $4,000 in credit card debt he had promised to help pay. With her finances and emotions in disarray, she started her senior year so depressed she hung up black curtains so she could sleep all day. She skipped class, doubled her work hours, and failed nearly every course.

“I started partying, and I was working all the time because I had this debt,” she said.

If the speed of her decline stands out, so does her lack of a safety net. It is easy to imagine a more affluent family stepping in with money or other support. Miss G. sent her the names of some campus therapists but Melissa did not call. She waited for an internal bungee cord to break the fall. She came within one F of losing her financial aid, then aced last summer’s classes.

She is now a fifth-year senior, on track to graduate next summer, and her new boyfriend is studying to be an engineer. At home, she had a way of finding the wrong people. “I haven’t found any wrong people out here,” she said.

With more than $44,000 in loans, she can expect to pay $250 a month for the next quarter century, on top of whatever she may borrow for graduate school. She hides the notices in a drawer and harbors no regrets. “Education — you can’t put a price on it,” she said. “No matter what happens in your life, they can’t take your education away.”

Bianca

Bianca missed the Florida road trip, though no one remembers why. She liked to talk of getting away, until it came time to go.

Among the perils that low-income students face is “under-matching,” choosing a close or familiar school instead of the best they can attend.

“The more selective the institution is, the more likely kids are to graduate,” said Mr. Chingos, the Brookings researcher. “There are higher expectations, more resources and more stigma to dropping out.”

Bianca was under-matched. She was living at home, dating her high-school boyfriend and taking classes at Galveston College. A semester on the honor roll only kept her from sensing the drift away from her plan to transfer to a four-year school.

Her grandfather’s cancer, and chemotherapy treatments, offered more reasons to stay. She had lived with him since her father had died. Leaving felt like betrayal. “I thought it was more important to be at home than to be selfish and be at school,” she said.

The idea that education can be “selfish” — a belief largely alien among the upper-middle class — is one poor students often confront, even if it remains unspoken. “Family is such a priority, especially when you’re a Hispanic female,” Miss G. said. “You’re afraid you’re going to hear, ‘You’re leaving us, you think you’re better.’ ”

In her second year of community college, Bianca was admitted to a state university a hundred miles away. Miss. G. and her mother urged her to go. Her mind raced with reasons to wait.

“I didn’t want to leave and have my grandfather die.”

“I had to help my mom.”

“I think I got burned out.”

Bianca stayed in Galveston, finished her associate degree, and now works as a beach-bar cashier and a spa receptionist. She still plans to get a bachelor’s degree, someday.

“I don’t think I was lazy. I think I was scared,” she said. In the meantime, “life happened.”

Angelica

After the financial aid disaster in her first year, Angelica met the next deadline and returned as a sophomore with significant support. Still, she sensed she was on shakier ground than other low-income students and never understood why. The answer is buried in the aid archives: Emory repeatedly inflated her family’s income without telling her.

Angelica reported that her mother made $35,000 a year and paid about half of that in rent. With her housing costs so high, Emory assumed the family had extra money and assigned Mrs. Lady an income of $51,000. But Mrs. Lady was not hiding money. She was paying inflated post-hurricane rent with the help of Federal disaster aid, a detail Angelica had inadvertently omitted.

By counting money the family did not have, Emory not only increased the amount it expected Angelica to pay in addition to her financial aid. It also disqualified her from most of the school’s touted program of debt relief.

Under the Emory Advantage plan the school replaces loans with grants for families making less than $50,000 a year. Moving Angelica just over the threshold placed her in a less-generous tier and forced her to borrow an additional $15,000 before she could qualify. The mistake will add years to her repayment plan.

She discovered what had happened only recently, after allowing a reporter to review her file with Emory officials. “There was no other income coming in,” she said. “I can’t believe that they would do that and not say anything to us. That seems completely unfair.”

Emory officials said they had to rely on the information Angelica provided and that they will not make retroactive adjustments.

“The method that was used in her case was very standard methodology,” said J. Lynn Zimmerman, the senior vice provost who oversees financial aid. “I think that what’s unusual is that she really didn’t advocate for herself or ask for any kind of review. If she or her mother would have provided any additional information it would have triggered a conversation.”

Unaware she had any basis for complaint, Angelica found a campus job she loved, repairing library books. It was solitary and artistic work, and it attracted a small sisterhood of women who appreciated her grandmother’s tamales and her streak of purple hair. One day her boss, Julie Newton, overheard her excitedly talking about Hegel.

“She was an extremely intelligent woman and an unusual one,” she said.

Yet even as Angelica’s work hours grew, so did the rigor of her coursework. Meetings with faculty advisers were optional and Angelica did not consult hers. When it came time to declare a major, she had a B-plus average in the humanities and D’s in psychology. She chose psychology.

By the end of her second year, she felt exhausted and had grades to show it. Her long-distance love life was exhausted, too, and she briefly broke up with Fred. She went home for the summer to work at Target and dragged herself back to a troubled junior year.

She moved off campus to save money but found herself spending even more. “I would sit and debate whether I could buy a head of lettuce,” she said. Fred was no longer helping, and her relationship with him snapped. That he had backed a $40,000 loan only made the split harder. They had been together since she was 15.

“It was days of back and forth, crying,” she said.

This was no time to tackle Psychology 200, a course on research methods required of majors. The devotion of the professor, Nancy Bliwise, had earned her a campus teaching award. But her exacting standards and brusque manner left student opinion divided.

“Quite possibly the greatest professor at Emory,” wrote one contributor to the Web site Rate My Professor. Others found her “condescending,” “horribly disrespectful,” and “plain out mean.”

Midway through the semester, Angelica just stopped coming to class. Professor Bliwise called her in and found her despondent. “She was emotionless and that scared me,” the professor said in an interview. Angelica said she had to work too much to keep up, but could not drop the course without losing her full-time status and her aid. So she planned to take an “F.”

Alarmed, Professor Bliwise raised other options, then asked — empathetic, the professor thought — if Angelica had considered cheaper schools. She herself had worked her way through Cleveland State then earned a doctorate at the University of Chicago.

Angelica sat stone-faced, burning. All she could hear was someone saying she was too poor for Emory. “It was pretty clear if I couldn’t afford to be there, I shouldn’t waste her time,” she said.

That was the beginning of the end. Angelica failed that course and three others her junior year, as her upside-down circumstances left her cheating a $200,000 education for a $9-an-hour job. She was not one to make it easy, but Emory never found a way to intervene. “Is there a way to reach out to her?” Professor Bliwise asked in an e-mail to the dean’s office.

The dean’s office left messages. Angelica acknowledged that she was slow to respond but said she got no answer when she did. The school did an electronic key card check to verify whether she was still on campus. More professors expressed concerns. “Personal issues are interfering with her ability to concentrate,” one warned. Angelica contacted campus counseling but said all the appointments had been taken.

Emory can hardly be cast as indifferent to low-income students. It spends $94 million a year of its own money on financial aid and graduates its poorest students nearly as often as the rest. Its failure to reach Angelica may have come up short, but that is partly a measure of the sheer distance it was trying to bridge.

When Angelica finally found a way to express herself, she did so silently. Her final piece for a sculpture class was a papier-mâché baby, sprouting needles like a porcupine. No one could mistake the statement of her own vulnerability.

“It was a shocking piece,” said her professor, Linda Armstrong. “She had a way of using art to tap into her deepest emotions and feelings. I don’t think she understood how good she was.”

Angelica spent the next summer waiting for an expulsion letter that never came. Another missed deadline cost her several thousand dollars in aid in her senior year, and Emory mistakenly concluded that Mrs. Lady had made a $70,000 down payment on a house. (In describing the complicated transaction with a nonprofit group, Angelica failed to note that most of the money came from a program for first-time home buyers.)

Emory officials said the mistake did not affect her aid, but the difference between the school’s costs and her package of loans and grants swelled to $12,000 — a sum she could not possibly meet.

She skipped more classes and worked longer hours.

“I felt, I’m going to be on academic probation anyway, I might as well work and pay my rent until they suspend me.”

Finally, Emory did — forcing her to take a semester away with the option of reapplying.

The tale could be cast as an elite school failing a needy student or a student unwilling to be helped, but neither explanation does justice to an issue as complicated as higher education and class.

“It’s a little of both,” said Joanne Brzinski, a dean who oversees academic advising. “We reached out to her, but she didn’t respond. I always fault myself when students don’t do as well as we’d like them to.”

“It’s such a sad story,” she added. “She had the ability.”

Ms. Newton, Angelica’s former supervisor at the library, wondered if her conflict went beyond money, to a fear of the very success she sought. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say she was committing self-sabotage, but the thought crossed my mind,” she said. “For someone so connected to family and Grandma and the tamales, I wondered if she feared that graduating would alienate her.”

A long bridge crosses the bay to Galveston Island. Angelica returned a year ago the way she had left, with Mrs. Lady and Fred at her side. She is $61,000 in debt, seeing Fred again, and making $8.50 an hour at his family’s furniture store. No one can tell whether she is settling down or gathering strength for another escape.

A dinner with Melissa and Bianca a while back offered the comfort of friends who demand no explanations. Melissa suggested they all enroll at Texas State. But Bianca does not know what to study, and Angelica said that she had gone too far to surrender all hopes of an Emory degree.

“I could have done some things better, and Emory could have done some things better,” she said. “But I don’t blame either one of us. Everyone knows life is unfair — being low-income puts you at a disadvantage. I just didn’t understand the extent of the obstacles I was going to have to overcome.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

‘How we started a new school from scratch’

Langley Hall took just months to set up under the Government’s free schools scheme.

Apart from that, it’s like any other primary – only better, claim its founders. Richard Garner pays a visit

Jan. 5, 2013

It was some time after the opening of her new school that headteacher Jane Sculpher was being confronted by a journalist. “I don’t get it. All I can see here is a rather good primary school.”

He was obviously expecting something radical to leap out from the classrooms when he visited one of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s first tranche of free schools.

Sculpher took it as a compliment, though. After all, that was what she and the school’s educational director Sally Eaton had been trying to achieve at the new Langley Hall primary academy near Slough in Berkshire.

She would be the first to admit that there were a few teething troubles. However, one problem the school was never going to have was a shortage of pupils.

“I’d seen in the local newspapers that there was going to be a shortage of 342 reception class places in the area so I knew there was a demand for it,” says Eaton.

“Talking to parents, a lot were travelling to schools outside the area by car – because there were no schools in the direct area for them.”

That was one of the reasons why Langley, which has just over 180 pupils and plans to expand to 360, decided not just to start with a reception class and build up to an all-in primary school. They decided to recruit all ages to the school from the beginning.

“In some cases, it might have been a case of parents just wanting a fresh start at a new school. We didn’t think there would be many parents of Key Stage Two (seven to 11-year-olds) who would want to move their children but they did.”

Recruitment for next year is also buoyant.

Recently a neighbouring primary school was put in special measures by Ofsted, the education standards watchdog ,and Langley’s telephones started ringing.

That incident, though, points to one of the criticisms of the free school system. It will be much more difficult for schools to pick themselves up after failing if they face mass desertion by parents.

Gove and his supporters, though, would argue: why should children be left in an establishment that is obviously failing?

Sculpher is not a critic of the “maintained sector”, though. She had been a headteacher at a local authority maintained primary school for 10 years before accepting the post at Langley Hall.

“Jane Sculpher and I had worked together in the past and she wanted to apply,” says Sally Eaton. “The trustees saw her and thought she was the best candidate and opted for her as head.”

The school does have a distinct vision of the education it offers. Every child, for instance, has to sign up for violin lessons during their first four years. They do not have to show any particular aptitude in advance. “We want to start them from scratch,” says Sculpher.

“All those things that are considered extra curricular we do here. Everybody has drama, dance, swimming and music classes. If they want more, they can take part in a swimming club or play musical instruments. It’s a question of building their skills and confidence. Building your confidence in a swimming pool will make you confident in other lessons, too.”

It works on a theory espoused by creativity “guru” Sir Ken Robinson in an interview with The Independent recently. Sir Ken, who headed a seminal inquiry into creativity in the curriculum just over a decade ago, passionately believes that every child has some talent – it is just up to the school or educator to find it.

The school’s vision is spelt out on its website which says: “Children at Langley Hall learn to be thinkers, enquirers, communicators, open-minded and reflective. They are willing to challenge themselves by approaching unfamiliar situations and learning with courage and have a growing sense of independence.” Langley Hall’s motto is Ad Vitam Paramus, which means: “We are preparing for life.”

Free schools have also been given the green light to have non-qualified staff act as teachers – a decision that has puzzled some observers. After all, why would they want to take on untrained teachers if they are designed to raise the standard of state education?

In Langley Hall’s case, they have used it to boost their drama and music teaching. “Our drama teacher is off playing Cinderella in pantomime,” says Sculpher. “The singing teacher will be away singing in Rome. They’re working at what they do. They’re not qualified teachers but they’ve been taught to degree level and are very, very able teachers.”

Not everything was plain sailing during the first term. For weeks the school did not have a landline telephone and all calls had to be made through a mobile. One day there were 150 messages on the voicemail.

However, compared with the time it takes to plan a new local authority maintained primary school from conception to opening, Sally Eaton believes the 24 new free schools achieved a minor miracle.

“I have run schools and nurseries in the past,” she says, “and I’ve set up schools from scratch.” She also spent time developing childcare training. “Then it became apparent that I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve in that field and I was looking for a new challenge.

“That just happened to be at the time when there was a change of government and the free school initiative was launched.” That was just over a year ago. She enlisted the support of the Tribal group, which is aiding a number of free school proposers with their applications to the Department for Education.

The end result was that Langley got the go ahead to open in former college premises as one of the first free schools in the country, at a time when only about 12 per cent of applications were successful.

Looking back at the end of the first term, Eaton and Sculpher say that one of their proudest moments was staging a drama production of Bugsy Malone just before Christmas. Now they believe the teething problems have been ironed out and the school plans to open for its second term with confidence.

Kids Handle Pressure. And Others Fall Apart? Why

PO BRONSON and ASHLEY MERRYMAN, authors of ‘‘Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing’’ Published on February 6, 2013 in the NYT:

“Why Can Some Kids Handle Pressure While Others Fall Apart?”

Noah Muthler took his first state standardized test in third grade at the Spring Cove Elementary School in Roaring Spring, Pa. It was a miserable experience, said his mother, Kathleen Muthler. He was a good student in a program for gifted children.

But, Muthler said, “he was crying in my arms the night before the test, saying: ‘I’m not ready, Mom. They didn’t teach us everything that will be on the test.’ ”

In fourth grade, Noah was upset the whole week before the exam.

“He manifests it physically,” his mother said. “He got headaches and stomachaches. He would ask not to go to school.” Not a good sleeper anyway, Noah would slip downstairs after an hour tossing in bed and ask his mom to lie down with him until he fell asleep. In fifth grade, the anxiety lasted a solid month before the test.

“Even after the test, he couldn’t let it go. He would wonder about questions he feared he misunderstood,” Muthler said.

Students at Shaker Heights High School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Jan. 25, the day before they took the SAT or SAT math subject test.
Clockwise from top left: Elana Ross, Linda Fan, Aryanna Jones,  Sasha Rae-Grant, Patrick Reed, Jeremy McMillan. Platon for The New York Times More Photos »

So this year, Muthler is opting Noah out of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, using a broad religious and ethical exemption.
Just knowing he won’t be taking the tests in March has put Noah in a better frame of mind about school. “The pressure is off his shoulders now,” his mother said. When he doesn’t grasp a concept immediately, he can talk it through without any panic.
“He looks forward to science class and math class again,” Muthler said. “He wants to be a chemical or nuclear engineer.”

Muthler understands Noah’s distress; more mysterious is why her son Jacob, who is in eighth grade, isn’t the least bit unnerved by the same tests. He, too, is in the gifted program, but that seems to give him breezy confidence, not fear.

“You would think he doesn’t even care,” Muthler marveled. “Noah has the panic and anxiety for both of them.” Nevertheless, she will opt out Jacob from the tests, too, to be consistent.

Never before has the pressure to perform on high-stakes tests been so intense or meant so much for a child’s academic future. As more school districts strive for accountability, standardized tests have proliferated. The pressure to do well on achievement tests for college is filtering its way down to lower grades, so that even third graders feel as if they are on trial.

Students get the message that class work isn’t what counts, and that the standardized exam is the truer measure. Sure, you did your homework and wrote a great history report — but this test is going to find out how smart you really are. Critics argue that all this test-taking is churning out sleep-deprived, overworked, miserable children.

But some children actually do better under competitive, stressful circumstances. Why can Jacob thrive under pressure, while it undoes Noah? And how should that difference inform the way we think about high-stakes testing? An emerging field of research — and a pioneering study from Taiwan — has begun to offer some clues. Like any kind of human behavior, our response to competitive pressure is derived from a complex set of factors — how we were raised, our skills and experience, the hormones that we marinated in as fetuses.

There is also a genetic component: One particular gene, referred to as the COMT gene, could to a large degree explain why one child is more prone to be a worrier, while another may be unflappable, or in the memorable phrasing of David Goldman, a geneticist at the National Institutes of Health, more of a warrior.

Understanding their propensity to become stressed and how to deal with it can help children compete. Stress turns out to be far more complicated than we’ve assumed, and far more under our control than we imagine. Unlike long-term stress, short-term stress can actually help people perform, and viewing it that way changes its effect. Even for those genetically predisposed to anxiety, the antidote isn’t necessarily less competition — it’s more competition. It just needs to be the right kind.

Every May in Taiwan, more than 200,000 ninth-grade children take the Basic Competency Test for Junior High School Students. This is not just any test. The scores will determine which high school the students are admitted to — or if they get into one at all. Only 39 percent of Taiwanese children make the cut, with the rest diverted to vocational schools or backup private schools. The test, in essence, determines the future for Taiwanese children.

The test is incredibly difficult; answering the multiple-choice questions requires knowledge of chemistry, physics, advanced algebra and geometry, and testing lasts for two days. “Many students go to cram school almost every night to study all the subjects on the test,” says Chun-Yen Chang, director of the Science Education Center at National Taiwan Normal University. “Just one or two percentage points difference will drag you from the No. 1 high school in the local region down to No. 3 or 4.”

In other words, the exam was a perfect, real world experiment for studying the effects of genetics on high-stakes competition. Chang and his research team took blood samples from 779 students who had recently taken the Basic Competency Test in three regions of Taiwan. They matched each student’s genotype to his or her test score.

The researchers were interested in a single gene, the COMT gene. This gene carries the assembly code for an enzyme that clears dopamine from the prefrontal cortex. That part of the brain is where we plan, make decisions, anticipate future consequences and resolve conflicts.

Dopamine changes the firing rate of neurons, speeding up the brain like a turbocharger,” says Silvia Bunge, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Berkeley. Our brains work best when dopamine is maintained at an optimal level. You don’t want too much, or too little. By removing dopamine, the COMT enzyme helps regulate neural activity and maintain mental function.

Here’s the thing: There are two variants of the gene. One variant builds enzymes that slowly remove dopamine. The other variant builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine. We all carry the genes for one or the other, or a combination of the two.

In lab experiments, people have been given a variety of cognitive tasks — computerized puzzles and games, portions of I.Q. tests — and researchers have consistently found that, under normal conditions, those with slow-acting enzymes have a cognitive advantage. They have superior executive function and all it entails: they can reason, solve problems, orchestrate complex thought and better foresee consequences. They can concentrate better. This advantage appears to increase with the number of years of education.

The brains of the people with the other variant, meanwhile, are comparatively lackadaisical. The fast-acting enzymes remove too much dopamine, so the overall level is too low. The prefrontal cortex simply doesn’t work as well.

On that score alone, having slow-acting enzymes sounds better. There seems to be a trade-off, however, to these slow enzymes, one triggered by stress. In the absence of stress, there is a cognitive advantage. But when under stress, the advantage goes away and in fact reverses itself.

“Stress floods the prefrontal cortex with dopamine,” says Adele Diamond, professor of developmental cognitive neuroscience at the University of British Columbia. A little booster hit of dopamine is normally a good thing, but the big surge brought on by stress is too much for people with the slow-acting enzyme, which can’t remove the dopamine fast enough. “Much like flooding a car engine with too much gasoline, prefrontal-cortex function melts down,” Diamond says.

Other research has found that those with the slow-acting enzymes have higher I.Q.’ s, on average. One study of Beijing schoolchildren calculated the advantage to be 10 I.Q. points. But it was unclear if the cognitive advantages they had would stay with them when they were under stress outside the security of the lab environment.

The Taiwan study was the first to look at the COMT gene in a high-stakes, real-life setting. Would the I.Q. advantage hold up, or would the stress undermine performance?

It was the latter. The Taiwanese students with the slow-acting enzymes sank on the national exam. On average, they scored 8 percent lower than those with the fast-acting enzymes. It was as if some of the A students and B students traded places at test time.

“I am not against pressure. Actually, pressure is good [for] someone,” Chang commented. “But those who are more vulnerable to stress will be more disadvantaged.”

As of 2014, Taiwan will no longer require all students to take the Basic Competency Test, as the country moves to 12-year compulsory education. The system will no longer be built to weed out children, but to keep them all in school. But academically advanced students will still take some kind of entrance exam. And those elite students will still feel the pressure, which, it bears repeating, will hurt some but help others.

“The people who perform best in normal conditions may not be the same people who perform best under stress,” Diamond says. People born with the fast-acting enzymes “actually need the stress to perform their best.” To them, the everyday is underwhelming; it doesn’t excite them enough to stimulate the sharpness of mind of which they are capable. They benefit from that surge in dopamine — it raises the level up to optimal. They are like Superman emerging from the phone booth in times of crisis; their abilities to concentrate and solve problems go up.

Some scholars have suggested that we are all Warriors or Worriers. Those with fast-acting dopamine clearers are the Warriors, ready for threatening environments where maximum performance is required. Those with slow-acting dopamine clearers are the Worriers, capable of more complex planning. Over the course of evolution, both Warriors and Worriers were necessary for human tribes to survive.

In truth, because we all get one COMT gene from our father and one from our mother, about half of all people inherit one of each gene variation, so they have a mix of the enzymes and are somewhere in between the Warriors and the Worriers. About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.

A number of research studies are looking at COMT, including several involving the American military. Researchers at Brown University have been studying COMT’s connection to post-traumatic stress disorder in veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Quinn Kennedy, a research psychologist at the Naval Postgraduate School, is studying how the gene correlates with pilot performance. Douglas C. Johnson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego, is part of a consortium of researchers called the OptiBrain Center, where he is interested in COMT’s role in combat performance and well-being.

While the studies are ongoing, the early results show those with Worrier-genes can still handle incredible stress — as long as they are well trained. Even some Navy SEALs have the Worrier genes, so you can literally be a Worrier-gene Warrior. In Kennedy’s sample, almost a third of the expert pilots were Worriers — a larger proportion than in the general population.

Kennedy’s work is particularly revealing. She puts pilots through a series of six flight-simulator tests, where pilots endure turbulence, oil-pressure problems, iced carburetors and crosswinds while landing. They are kept furiously busy, dialing to new frequencies, flying to new altitudes and headings and punching in transponder codes.

Among recreational pilots with the lowest rating level — trained to fly only in daylight — those with Warrior genes performed best. But that changed with more experience. Among recreational pilots who had the next level of qualification — trained to fly at night using cockpit instruments — the Worriers far outperformed the Warriors. Their genetically blessed working memory and attention advantage kicked in. And their experience meant they didn’t melt under the pressure of their genetic curse.

What this suggests, Kennedy says, is that, for Worriers, “through training, they can learn to manage the particular stress in the specific pilot training, even if it is not necessarily transferred over to other parts of their lives.”

So while the single-shot stakes of a standardized exam is particularly ill suited for Worrier genotypes, this doesn’t mean that they should be shielded from all challenge. In fact, shielding them could be the worst response, depriving them of the chance to acclimate to recurring stressors. Johnson explains this as a form of stress inoculation: You tax them without overwhelming them. “And then allow for sufficient recovery,” he continued. Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.

There are many psychological and physiological reasons that long-term stress is harmful, but the science of elite performance has drawn a different conclusion about short-term stress. Studies that compare professionals with amateur competitors — whether concert pianists, male rugby or female volleyball players — show that professionals feel just as much anxiety as amateurs. The difference is in how they interpret their anxiety. The amateurs view it as detrimental, while the professionals tend to view stress as energizing. It gets them to focus.

A similar mental shift can also help students in test-taking situations. Jeremy Jamieson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Rochester, has done a series of experiments that reveal how the labeling of stress affects performance on academic testing.

The first experiment was at Harvard University with undergraduates who were studying for the Graduate Record Examination. Before taking a practice test, the students read a short note explaining that the study’s purpose was to examine the effects of stress on cognition. Half of the students, however, were also given a statement declaring that recent research suggests “people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better.” Therefore, if the students felt anxious during the practice test, it said, “you shouldn’t feel concerned. . . simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.”

Just reading this statement significantly improved students’ performance. They scored 50 points higher in the quantitative section (out of a possible 800) than the control group on the practice test. Remarkable as that seemed, it is relatively easy to get a result in a lab. Would it affect their actual G.R.E. results? A couple of months later, the students turned in their real G.R.E. scores. Jamieson calculated that the group taught to see anxiety as beneficial in the lab experiment scored 65 points higher than the controls. In ongoing work, Jamieson is replicating the experiment with remedial math students at a Midwestern community college: after they were told to think of stress as beneficial, their grades improved.

At first blush, you might assume that the statement about anxiety being beneficial simply calmed the students, reducing their stress and allowing them to focus. But that was not the case. Jamieson’s team took saliva samples of the students, both the day before the practice test to set a base line, and right after reading the lines about the new science — just moments before they started the first question. Jamieson had the saliva tested for biomarkers that show the level of activation of the body’s sympathetic nervous system — our “fight or flight” response. The experimental group’s stress levels were decidedly higher. The biological stress was real, but it had different physiological manifestations and had somehow been transformed into a positive force that drove performance.

If you went to an SAT testing site and could run physiological and neurological scans on the teenagers milling outside the door right before the exam, you would observe very different bio-markers from student to student. Those standing with shoulders hunched, or perhaps rubbing their hands, stamping their feet to get warm, might be approaching what Wendy Berry Mendes and colleagues call a “threat state.” According to Mendes, an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, San Francisco, the hallmark of a threat state is vasoconstriction — a tightening of the smooth muscles that line every blood vessel in the body.

Blood pressure rises; breathing gets shallow. Oxygenated blood levels drop, and energy supplies are reduced. Meanwhile, a rush of hormones amplifies activity in the brain’s amygdala, making you more aware of risks and fearful of mistakes.

At that same test center, you might see students shoulders back, chest open, putting weight on their toes. They may be in a “challenge state.” Hormones activate the brain’s reward centers and suppress the fear networks, so the person is excited to start in on the test. In this state, decision making becomes automatic. The blood vessels and lungs dilate. In a different study of stress, Jamieson found that the people told to feel positive about being anxious had their blood flow increase by an average of more than half a liter per minute, with more oxygen and energy coursing throughout the body and brain. Some had up to two liters per minute extra.

Jamieson is frustrated that our culture has such a negative view of stress: “When people say, ‘I’m stressed out,’ it means, ‘I’m not doing well.’ It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m excited — I have increased oxygenated blood going to my brain. ”

As the doors to the test center open, the line between challenge and threat is thin. Probably nothing induces a threat state more than feeling you can’t make any mistakes. Threat physiology can be activated with the sense of being judged, or anything that triggers the fear of disappointing others. As a student opens his test booklet, threat can flare when he sees a subject he has recently learned but hasn’t mastered. Or when he sees a problem he has no idea how to solve.

Armando Rodriguez graduated last spring from Bright Star Secondary Charter Academy in Los Angeles, but he is waiting until next fall to start college. He is not taking a gap year to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He’s recuperating from knee surgery for a bone condition, spending his days in physical therapy. And what does he miss about being out of school? Competing.

“It’s an adrenaline rush — like no other thing.” He misses being happy when he wins. He even misses losing. “At least it was a feeling you got,” he said. “It made you want to be better, the next time.” Without a competitive goal, he feels a little adrift. He finds himself mentally competing with other physical-therapy patients.

Rodriguez recorded a 3.86 G.P.A. his senior year of high school and was a defender for the school soccer team. The knee injury happened during a stint on the school’s football team: his doctor had warned that it was too risky to play, but “I just had to try,” he said. He used to constantly challenge his friends on quiz grades; it’s how they made schoolwork fun.

But when he took the SAT last year, he experienced a different sensation. “My heart was racing,” he said. “I had butterflies.” Occasionally, he’d look up from his exam to see everyone else working on their own tests: they seemed to be concentrating so hard and answering questions faster than he was. “What if they’re doing way better than me?” immediately led to the thought, “These people are smarter than me. All the good schools are going to want them, and not me.” Within seconds, he arrived at the worst possible outcome: his hopes of a good college would be gone.

It might seem surprising that the same student can experience competition in such different ways. But this points to what researchers think is the difference between competition that challenges and competition that threatens.

Taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, “I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.” Nobody has ever come out of an SAT test saying, “Well, I won’t get into the college I wanted, but that’s O.K. because I made a lot of new friends at the Kaplan center.” Standardized tests lack the side benefits of competing that normally buffer children’s anxiety. When you sign your child up for the swim team, he may really want to finish first, but there are many other reasons to be in the pool, even if he finishes last.

High-stakes academic testing isn’t going away. Nor should competition among students. In fact several scholars have concluded that what students need is more academic competition, but modeled on the kinds children enjoy.

David and Christi Bergin, professors of educational and developmental psychology at the University of Missouri, have begun a pilot study of junior high school students participating in math competitions. They have observed that, within a few weeks, students were tackling more complex problems than they would even at the end of a yearlong class. Some were even doing college-level math. That was true even for students who didn’t like math before joining the team and were forced into it by their parents. Knowing they were going up against other teams in front of an audience, the children took ownership over the material. They became excited about discovering ever more advanced concepts, having realized each new fact was another weapon in their intellectual arsenal.

In-class spelling bees. Science fairs. Chess teams. “The performance is highly motivating,” David Bergin says. Even if a child knows her science project won’t win the science fair, she still gets that moment to perform. That moment can be stressful and invigorating and scary, but if the child handles it well, it feels like a victory.

“Children benefit from competition they have prepared for intensely, especially when viewed as an opportunity to gain recognition for their efforts and improve for the next time,” says Rena Subotnik, a psychologist at the American Psychological Association. Subotnik notes that scholastic competitions can raise the social status of academic work as well as that of the contestants. Competitions like these are certainly not without stress, but the pressure comes in predictable ebbs and flows, broken up by moments of fun and excitement.

Maybe the best thing about academic competitions is that they benefit both Warriors and Worriers equally. The Warriors get the thrilling intensity their minds are suited for, where they can shine. The Worriers get the gradual stress inoculation they need, so that one day they can do more than just tolerate stress — they can embrace it. And through the cycle of preparation, performance and recovery, what they learn becomes ingrained.

It may be difficult to believe, as Jamieson advises, that stress can benefit your performance. We can read it, and we can talk about it, but it’s the sort of thing that needs to be practiced, perhaps for years, before it can become a deeply held conviction.

It turns out that Armando Rodriguez was accepted at five colleges. He rallied that day on the SAT. It wasn’t his best score — he did better the second time around — but it was not as bad as he feared. Rodriguez had never heard of Jeremy Jamieson. He had never read, or ever been told, that intense stress could be harnessed to perform his best. But he understood it and drew strength from it. In the middle of his downward spiral of panic, he realized something: “I’m in a competition. This is a competition. I’ve got to beat them.”

Editor: Vera Titunik


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

May 2019
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