CI Blog: Education in the United States and International Rankings

When the rankings came out, alarms rang, sirens abruptly went off, and a mixture of disappointment and fear for the future diffused throughout the United States. A country of so much power, innovation, and progress, was deemed average at best when compared to other countries. How did the beautiful country of America, such an economic power in the world, whose presence is all too noticeable, fail to produce the smartest and brightest students on the planet?

In 2010, the three yearly Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report compared the knowledge and skills of 15 year olds in seventy different countries and discovered that the US ranked 14th out of 34 in reading, 17th for science, and 25th (below average) for math.

These rankings caused a bit of panic and demonstrated to the world that we aren’t a superhero country after all – our education system needs reform. Speaking of our education system, the US was one out of the total 50 countries tested by the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), which examined the various different education system.  It combines international test results and data such as literacy rates and graduation rates between 2006 and 2010. US’s education system ranked a lower 17th out of 50. It’s not surprising that such call for reform has been heard multiple times.

It all stems back from culture. What the EIU found was that the countries with a higher ranked education system (those in Japan, Singapore, and the Scandinavian countries for example) regarded the teaching profession as something more prestigious than that of the United States, where teachers are actually on average students in the bottom third of their graduating class here.

These tests and ranking systems then, are more than just a function of scores and numbers, but something with deeper roots at the depth of the issue.

So when the United States is getting ranked so lowly in reading, math, and science, we must wonder what is at the root of the problem. Interestingly enough, this is where the issue of education equity kicks in. We cannot take the surface number rankings as what they are. According to the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Economic Policy Institute, the socioeconomic status of the students in the United States is skewing our international rankings. The authors and researchers of this study at Stanford found that the low score on the PISA is due in part because of the greater amount of US students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds or who do not speak English as a first language. With that part of the population taking the international exams, their performance weighs down the US ranking simply because the US has the most disadvantaged social class groups.

Carnoy and Rothstein, the researchers of this study, then calculated how the rankings would have changed is the social class composition was similar to that of the top-ranking nations. They found that the US would rise to sixth from 14th in reading and from 13th from 25th in math.

So why do we have such a low ranking? Well some of it may be due to the lack of a good education culture where we don’t respect the profession of teaching as much, but there’s a good sizeable chunk that lowers our ranking because of the stratification of upper and lower class. The divide is so strong in the United States, more so than many other countries,  and it’s reflecting in our numbers and rankings.

How much weight should we be putting on international rankings and test scores that compare the United States to the other countries? Should a test score hold as much weight as it sometimes receives? Is it a good representative of where the United States stands in terms of educational progress and status?

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Is it a boy or a girl?!?! Uhh…we don’t know…

Have you heard of a thing called intersex? It’s exactly what it sounds like: spanning between two different sexes. This means the chromosomes, gonads, and genitals aren’t distinct; it’s not dominantly male or female, but in fact an undifferentiated version. Boy or girl? We don’t know.

Mutations in sexual development are still a mystery for scientists. Researchers at the University of Geneva, however, are uncovering how we develop into males or females or how we don’t develop to either of those. The mechanisms that govern sexual development and the factors that are responsible are under investigation.

Ever heard of insulin? Chances are, you have, especially when it comes to diseases like diabetes.

INSULIN…don’t think it’s actually green 😉

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas and is vital in regulating our carbohydrate intake and fat metabolism. It turns out that its function spans beyond this! When insulin and insulin growth factors, specifically IGF1 and IGF2 (Insulin Growth Factor 1 and 2) are absent during sex determination, the embryos that result are essentially sexless and are missing their adrenal glands as well. From this new insight into sexual development, the science world is hoping that this will eventually progress to improve “diagnosis and genetic counseling practices for individuals with disorders of sex development”.

Sexual development is a long process that begins with the mother’s egg and the father’s sperm and a little love. When the two fuse to create a zygote, the zygote will eventually divide and divide and differentiate to give rise to who we are today (isn’t pretty damn crazy to think we were once just one single cell? LIKE THAT IS S0 $ICK).

Sperm swarming the egg

During the fertilization process, the sperm donates either its X chromosome or its Y chromosome which will combine with the egg’s X chromosomes to either form a cell with an XX pair of chromosomes or an XY pair of chromosomes. XY = male and XX = female. At this point, the embryo’s sex is genetically determined, which will dictate the gonadal sex (whether ovaries or testes will be produced), and these gonads will then secrete specific hormones that cause the fetus to masculinize or feminize. Testosterone anyone? … I think I’ll keep with the estrogen for now thanks….lol

Now where do these insulin growth factors come into play during sexual development? Well reproduction isn’t isolated at all from metabolism and growth, the two functions that insulin has an effect on, and thus they have a big responsibility in dictating the production of a male or female. To see the effects that these hormones have on determining our sex, the researchers at the University of Geneva worked with mice whose receptors for insulin and the insulin growth factors were inactivated. Researchers discovered that during sex determination, the gonads produced were unable to develop into either the ovaries or the testes; without these growth factors ad insulin, we are sexless. Could you imagine not having a sex….? The societal effects and pressures, the personal fight, it’s all hard to really understand. And it’s hard to believe that this is rather common, where 1 newborn in every 3000 births have the sexless sex determination mutation.


Hopefully this research is leading us the way to finding out how we become boys and girls.

But will that matter in time?

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CI Blog: Education Reform by the Government

It’s not difficult to see that America’s education system may need a little more work. There are those who complain about the graduation rates, our international rankings against other countries, and how there doesn’t seem to be much progress lately. In fact according to the Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, countries like Germany, Hong Kong, and Brazil are doubling, even tripling our academic improvement (Zhao). And there’s the issue of education equity, where the rich are receiving all the resources that the poor only hope to get. So what are we trying to do to fix these problems? The government isn’t backing down. There are different initiatives the government has taken to address the issues infecting our education system.

When we think of education reform by the government, we most often think about the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. And the stigma attached to it isn’t so good. But why?

The NCLB Act was signed into law by President Bush on January 8, 2002. Its main purpose was to provide incentive so that each and every student had proficient skill sets in reading, math, writing, and science. It hoped to boost the academic performance across the nation for all. Specifically, it expanded the federal role in education and took a particular aim at improving the education for disadvantaged students. Its method to measure our nation’s academic performance was standardized testing. The act states that states were required to begin testing for students in grades three to eight annually in subjects like reading and mathematics. By 2007 to 2008, they tacked on science testing in all tiers of secondary education. Through the scores on these tests, the nation could measure if a certain school was doing its job and performing at sufficient levels. Individual schools had to meet at “adequate yearly progress”. Whether a school achieved that was based on a formula detailed in the law; if a school failed to meet this mark two years in a row, the school would be provided technical assistance and its students could choose to go to another public school.

So what about NCLB caused such a whirlwind in education reform? It’s the issue that NCLB is a one size fit all education reform law. The problem with that is that we are not one size. Many state that its requirement to evaluate school progress through one test, one test that every students needs to take, including those who speak English as a second language and those who are in special education. Thus, those schools who have a higher population of this group of children are at a disadvantage, not because the school is bad, but because the students are being compared to other students who maybe have more resources or those students whose first language IS English. As Susan J. Hobart states in her article in “The Progressive”, “whether they have a cognitive disability, speak entry-level English, or have speech or language delays, everyone takes the same test and the results are posted. Special education students may have some accommodations, but they take the same test and are expected to perform at the same level as general education students. Students new to this country or with a native language other than English must also take the same test and are expected to perform at the same level as children whose native language is English. Picture yourself taking a five-day test in French after moving to Paris last year”. So many argue that NCLB doesn’t fix broken, less well-off schools with a poorer student body (mostly those in big cities), but penalizes them with removal of funding. And many argue that it removes the stimulating material that teachers are passionate about teaching. Instead, teachers are forced to teach testing skills and teach to those national tests. Where’s the magic in that?

But President Obama is presently attempting to reform NCLB in addition to placing new reforms to improve our education system. In March of 2010, the Obama Administration sent Congress a Blueprint for Reform of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, addressing the issues created by No Child Left Behind while pursuing high standards and closing the achievement gap. The reforms include putting in place an accountability system that will “recognize and reward high-poverty schools and districts that are showing improvement in getting their students on the path to success, using measures of progress and growth” (White House). The blueprint for reform also mentions creating methods in order to effectively evaluate teachers to “enhance the profession”, which is vital in attracting bright teachers to teach the next generation of innovators.

The Obama Administration also is putting in place Race to the Top, which targets the vital piece of education, teaching effectiveness. This initiative offers bold incentives to states willing to spur systemic reform to improve teaching and learning in America’s schools. Because it’s difficult to attract good teachers, especially in those inner city schools where one teacher can spark the minds of many students.

It’s exciting to think of reform happening right now. The NCLB, although raised a controversy, did put much attention onto the issue of America’s education system. What results from the new initiatives put into place is yet to come.


Zhao, Emmeline. “Education Olympics: How Does America Rank Compared To Other Countries? (INFOGRAPHIC).” The Huffington Post., 27 July 2012. Web. 27 Mar. 2013.

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Printing Parts

I recently watched a TED talk by Anthony Atala, the director of the Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine. According to him, we have a pretty big issue on our hands: the demand of organs and the lack of supply. Rather than focusing on having a shortage of crops, a shortage of sustainable fuels, or a shortage of technology, Atala focuses on our shortage of organs. He states that in the last ten years, there has been a double of demand for organs; yet, the number of transplants has stayed stagnant. And thus, he presents a new frontier of technology in regenerative medicine! We have become capable of growing our own organs.

A bit like CHIA pets!




What Atala presents is fascinated. He shows us what we may be using on a daily basis in a hospital clinic to combat the issue of lack of usable organs for those who are in need of it.

Currently, we’ve become accustomed to utilizing different biomaterials as scaffolds to attach living stem cells and watch an organ naturally form. Cue cellular cotton candy machine!

Tube formed by this "cotton candy" spray machine!

Tube formed by this “cotton candy” spray machine!

Fascinating, beautiful, and usable. And even better, we’ve reached a new threshold however. Something that literally blew my bind (like literally, mind = blown = mind in air = mind is gone)…

This new technology is the act of printing new organs. YES PRINTING. You thought printing a nicely written poem or a few pictures was cool, or most likely have simply print on a daily basis and thus is nothing of amazingness to you. BUT, how ‘bout if we print a new stomach? Or a new kidney? Is that something less mundane than a regular printer.

printer Looks normal doesn’t it?

What happens is that a printer sprays on the appropriate cells that form an organ. The print head literally goes back and forth, spraying the cells and “printing” out this structure. Then a 3D elevator goes down one layer at a time after each time the printhead goes back and forth. Thus, a structure is formed! Like this one

printed structure

printed structure

Atala has performed some successful work on bladders. In this case, a small piece of the patient’s own bladder is grown outside the body (in vitro) and used to coat a scaffold. This is then placed in an oven at human like conditions: 37 degrees C and 95% oxygen! Here’s a picture of the bladder.




Believe it or not, but this can be implanted back into the patient, assimilated well because it is the patient’s own cells, and have it functioning.

The next level following this is the use of printers not just to make new organs but also to print things ON the patients. Here’s a diagram:

Printing on Patients

Printing on Patients

For wounds that need dramatic formation, Atala and his team of regenerative medicine researchers, the printer is the way to go. First, a scanner first scans the wound on the patient and then it comes back with the printheads actually printing out new layers that are needed by that individual patient.

Filing wound with the right cells!

Filing wound with the right cells!

The biggest challenge: the solid organs, ones that need multiple blood vessels and the such.

But I have a feeling that challenge can be overcome.

Here’s a successfully printed kidney:

Printed kidney!

Printed kidney!


Hopefully soon organs won’t be an endangered species.


PS, here’s the awesome TED talk! Enjoy!

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Do you have a heart?

Sometimes, I have to wonder whether some people really have heart, and sometimes, it’s hard for me to believe that they do. And then there are those people who I really just want them to undergo a change in heart (yes, people have their own choices and decisions to make…but sometimes, my opinion is just obviously better….derr people!). But all jokes aside, maybe these individuals can receive a new heart….with stem cell therapy! Because, sorry, sometimes love just can’t repair everything. But honestly, I hope no one needs a new heart because it can only mean that the heart is damaged.

Unfortunately, for many Americans, the heart is damaged. According to PhRMA, more than 82 million adults – more than one in three – have suffered one or more types of cardiovascular disease. To add to that, around 2,200 Americans die from a heart attack PER DAY. That’s one person every 39 seconds. The number one cause of deaths in America is heart disease. We’re obviously in need of a solution to improve our heart conditions.

Diseases of <3

Introducing stem cell therapy. In February of 2012, researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute may have found a way to regenerate damaged heart muscle in adults who have had heart attacks. They accumulated and harvested heart stem cells from seventeen individuals who have gone through heart attacks and later implanted these cells back at the site of damage. This stem cell infusion process was done on these patients after around three months of their heart attack and was then subsequently monitored. What they found were positive results. Six months after the stem cell infusion treatment, patients experienced less scarring of the heart muscle and an INCREASE in the amount of healthy heart muscle. They compared this to the heart of patients who did not receive the treatment and found that their heart muscle had more scarring and less healthy muscle tissue. In fact, one year after the stem cell transplantation, the scar size decreased by 50 percent.

When I look at this I am amazed at the progress of stem cell therapies. From petri dishes (look at this Youtube video of heart differentiated stem cells in a petri dish beating like a heart! ), to mice, to other model organisms, we are finally using this IN HUMANS. And we’re seeing noticeable results. I’m amazed by the lab transition from lab bench to the bedside of sick patients. This treatment can save the lives of so many heart attack patients whose heart eventually fails to repair itself.

What’s next? Who says we need to stop at the heart? This treatment, already successful with bone marrow and blood, now has improved our heart health, and will travel to other organ and organ systems.

So feel free to rip out my heart. I CAN JUST GROW A NEW ONE. Like this:

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CI Blog 3: Charter Schools

When the topics of reforming education and education equity surface, we hear the words “charter school” quite often. In fact, they have gained a reputation as the fix for America’s public education system. I was introduced to the concept of the charter school when I watched the documentary “Waiting for Superman”. They were the schools the children the documentary  followed wanted so badly to get into. Why? Because these charter schools were said to provide better educations to these students than the average normal public school available to these children. And because so many of these children wanted to attend these schools, the lottery system was put into place in order to fill up the limited amount of spots.

But why the desire to attend these charter schools? Are they really the fix to the American education system that so many are wanting to reform?

Well, what is a charter school? According to the National Education Association’s article “Charter Schools”, a charter school is a primary or secondary public school that essentially has much more flexibility than the tradition public schools. They receive public money as well as private donations and must follow the rules that are put into place for all other public schools, and they are free. Their flexibility stems from the charter schools creating their own charters, a “statutorily defined performance contract detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success”. They run this show. One of the biggest characteristics of a charter school is that they are held accountable for their student achievement, and if they aren’t doing their job, they can be closed.

The idea of the charter school was developed by Professor Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 1988, individuals were already asking for a reformation of the education system. His solution? Establishing charter schools or “schools or choice”.  Thus, charter schools are essentially alternatives to the traditional public school; if that public school doesn’t fit your needs or just isn’t good enough, there would be more options of schools to pick from.

The biggest when pondering charter schools is whether they have been successful in being a good alternative to public schools – are they better and do they actually improve educational outcomes? There are mixed reviews. In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University found that about 17% of charter schools reported academic gains that were significantly better than traditional public schools. 46% showed no difference from public schools and 37% were worse than their traditional public school counterparts. More charter schools were WORSE than their traditional public school counterparts. Additionally, the U.S. Department of Education found in its Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program: Final Report in 2003 that charter schools were out-performed by the public schools; however, the reason for this is ambiguous. It could range from several minor things or simply be a random factor that cannot be anticipated or factored into this study. In March of 2009, the Center of Education Reform found that 657 out of more than 5250 charter schools were closed due to lack of achievement and lack of interest in enrollment.

An interesting observation is that charter schools, despite being out-performed by the public school counterparts, actually improve these public schools by creating competition within the same area. Their presence actually makes these public schools want to do better to attract more students.

However, charter schools aren’t simply an attempt to provide a choice. They have had some positive effect that cannot be ignored. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) is a string of charter schools in cities, such as Philly and the Bronx that provide students who are of a lower income bracket the chance for a better education than those that the public schools can provide. It has been found that these settings allow charter schools to flourish; in cities, those public schools are abysmal (and thus there is such a desire for charter school enrollment in these cities as seen in the “Waiting For Superman” documentary). It was found that at KIPP, the students perform much better as reflected in standardized testing. The children who attend this charter school stay in school from 7:30am to 5:00pm and have alternating Saturday activities as well as lessons in the summer. For more information, check out this article:

It seems like charter school success may be a function of its location and thus has drawn criticism for racial segregation. In these cities, the lower income African Americans and Hispanic individuals are often found. What happened to diversity?

Regardless, the idea of a charter school has sustained since now, but the advantages and disadvantages are complex and there are many factors that just can’t be placed into a numerical equation to assess its success.

Did any of you attend a charter school? How was your experience there?


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Who ever said drinking was bad…?

Well, PSYCH, it still can be.

BUT what if you drink some classy and sophisticated red wine? You’ll look like these very fine individuals.





And even better, researchers at Harvard Medical School say it’s not too bad. In fact, it may help us fight against anti-aging. Keep Calm and Drink On? (But actually…)*


Or we can simply eat the skin of grapes, some peanuts, and delicious berries. What do these all have in common? They all taste pretty damn delicious and possess a compound called resveratrol, a magical compound that has been found to fight against diseases of aging. It is a literal switch that turns on a protein that increases the longevity in animals, like us!

the little molecules are resveratrol!

the little molecules are resveratrol!

This isn’t magic – it’s science. According to Harvard Medical School, the science of aging has focused on sirtuins, genes which are thought to prevent or inhibit diseases that are related to us getting wrinkly (but wiser, obviously). Resveratrol increases the activity of SIRT1, a sirtuin. By doing so, it’s fueling our mitochondria, the major power house of our cells. They are responsible, as you’ve probably learned sometime in your high school career, for creating ATP, the energy currency our body is constantly using. As we age, these lil’ mitochondria start to lose a bit of their gusto. That’s pretty bad; if they are getting weaker, we’re not creating enough energy, the basis of much of what we do, from the molecular level to the macroscopic. So, by giving our mitochondria an extended life, we are getting an extended life. In fact, this drug resveratrol has extended the lifespans of mice, nematode worms, flies, and bees. Humans next!

Breath-taking micrograph

What’s in the future? Researchers are looking to engineer something better than resveratrol, something more precise and efficient in what resveratrol magically does.

Do you think this type of research is necessary? In our sustainability deliberation, we discussed the issue of overpopulation. Is living longer necessary? Won’t our resources run out and our earth suffer? Do we have a moral obligation to be a little less selfish and know when to go when the time is right? And moreover, will we want to live longer once we are physically capable? Life is beautiful because it is transient, a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things. Knowing we are so fragile lets us see the beauty around us.

Not that I don’t think this research is fascinating and has great applications, but it’s an issue I think is worth pondering over.

*The author of this blog does not promote nor encourage drinking in any way. She just thinks she’s witty and shit.

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Of Mice and Brains

Turns out, if we place some of our own brain cells into a mouse’s, they become smarter.

The future of extraordinaryly intelligent rodents is in the near future, and the human race is in danger! Superior Rodents vs. Humans. WHO WILL REIGN SUPREME?

But actually, researchers at University of Rochester Medical Center and UCLA have placed human glial progenitors into the brains of newborn mice and later observed them when they reached adulthood. (Glial cells are cells in the brain that provide nutrients and support to neurons). Some of these cells remained premature, but some grew into structures that resembled human astrocytes. These cells have many projections that come into contact with other brain cells and blood vessels, much more so than those found in mice. The development of these astrocytes caused our internal signals to be relayed faster by three times! This demonstrated an improved connection between the neurons and the brain, and thus help improve significantly learning and memory capabilities in the mouse. For example, the mice with human cells were able to find their way through a maze in half the amount of time than normal mice, and they were far better at recognizing familiar objects in a shorter amount of time.


Now you may be wondering, why does this happen? Why do human brain cells allow for improved mental functions? It’s because human astrocytes secrete more tumor necrosis factor alpha, a protein that mice do not produce as much of. This increases the number of receptors for the neurotransmitter glutamate in the membranes of mice neurons, causing the signal between the neurons to be quicker and more efficient.


Why do we care if these mice got smarter? It’s not so much as to show that we can make genius rodents, but that we can create a more human like body system into an experiment organism. This work will potentially lead to new ways of investigation psychiatric disorders, allow for a better and new way of testing for treatments, and the ability to conduct brain evolution studies. The brain is a complicated organ, and this is a large step towards understand and treating the problems that arise. Maybe it IS all up in yo’ mind.





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Civic Issues Blog 2: When Education is a Lottery

The cage spins. The papers rattle. A hand plunges into the pool of fate and pulls out someone’s destiny. This is the lottery system. A student’s education can be determined by this lottery. It’s random, yet the chances are equal. Some will leave with smiles, some with tears.

Why do we let the education of the many of the next generation up to a lottery?

Because there are too many students and parents hoping for a better education, yet there are not enough schools that can provide one.

The lottery system is a system used by charter schools when the school receives more student applicants than spots available. It is a system required by the US law. According to the District of Columbia Charter School Board, during the lottery process, all completed and accepted applications submitted during the enrollment period are PUBLICLY drawn in random order until all spots are filled. It is said to be the way for all children to receive an equal opportunity to enter the charter school, as chance is fair; everyone has equal probability to get picked. Kids aren’t handpicked.  But it’s receiving quite a lot of criticism. I was exposed to this system in the documentary by David Guggenheim “Waiting For Superman” and it opened my eyes to some of the issues regarding public education in America and has in fact inspired me to discuss the issues regarding education equity. The thing that surprised me the most was the lottery system, and thus I am here to investigate it further and expose its use in our education system.

Let me pose a question. Is this system truly fair? While within its own context, yes. There is no bias as to which children get picked; it’s completely up to chance where statistically, the probabilities for all children entered are equal. In addition, supporters describe the benefits of this random mix of students from different backgrounds. It prevents a socially exclusive school.  But is it a random mix? That’s the thing, all those that entered in the lottery system have an equal chance. Which students can apply brings upon a barrier for some, and stratification is the consequence. Applying to charter schools is self selective; those that are unaware of the application and physically cannot apply or do not have the resources to apply, due to unstable family, for example, have yet again less opportunity to receive a better education that they would have at their local public school. Thus, those that cannot apply do not have the same chance as those who can apply, and even among the ones who can apply, some children do not have luck on their side. Lottery winners gain tickets to success, an education that can provide them a career and thus sustainability for their own children, for themselves, for their family. Those who do not get that golden ticket are left in the inferior public school education that is battered by lack of teachers, resources, and motivated children.

According to politicsdaily, 68% of eighth-graders cannot read at their own grade level, more than 6,000 students drop out, and half of these dropouts under age 24 cannot receive a job.

Is it fair that these children, due to their lack of income, lack of a stable lifestyle cannot receive the same chances as other children? Is there another solution?

And who says charter schools can really provide a better education than those of public schools?

That’s a big point of contention that I will dissect next time.

For those that are interested, this is the trailer for “Waiting For Superman”. I highly recommend the documentary; it’s an eye opener, and it has changed my commitment to education. Now it has become an important part of my values. Watch it here:




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What is education?

While perusing some articles for my next Civic Issues Blog, which is about education equity and class stratification, I stumbled upon this quote that reminded me of last semester:

“My biggest concern . . . was the focus on testing and test results. I really did not want my kids to be labeled at that time, nor did I want them to focus on getting good test scores. Instead, I wanted them to feel the intrinsic value of knowing something, to want the reward of growing their own capabilities. I did not want them to judge their efforts based on other’s metrics.” – Alesia Duncombe, a mother of four in Corvallis, Oregon.

I agree.

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