Monthly Archives: June 2014

Parental Involvement: Are We Certain?

Although there are many things in education about which we are unsure, one thing most of us accept as a certainty is that parental involvement matters and that the more parents engage themselves in their children’s education the better. Of course, kids will do better if parents make sure that the kids do their homework, come to parent-teacher conferences, help out at school fund-raisers, talk with their children about what happened today at school.

Unfortunately, finding consistent evidence to either support or refute this belief has been very difficult. Because there is no agreed upon definition of what counts as parental involvement, and because researchers measure different things in different ways, it is difficult to compare research outcomes. Until there is a more universal measure of parent involvement, our understanding of parental involvement will be limited.

Despite these known limitations, two sociology professors, Dr. Keith Robinson of the University of Texas at Austin and Dr. Angel L. Harris, a Duke University professor, did extensive research using longitudinal parent surveys and family questionnaires from the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) using data from three decades (1980s-2000s). The results were published this spring in a book, The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education (2014).

In an interview Dr. Robinson shares that he and his co-investigator were surprised that they found very little impact on student achievement in math and reading that could be linked to the 63 kinds of parental involvement studied in the research. Much that they found turned the conventional wisdom on its hear. For example, it appears that Asian-American parents do not engage in the conventional involvement behaviors at all but their children tend to do well in school.

What did appear to matter was less a specific action than it was conveying a more general message to one’s children about their future. According to Dr. Robinson the most important thing parents can do is to talk

to your kids about their post-high school plans, and this one stood out because it was, pretty much for every racial, ethnic and socio-economic group, positively related to a number of academic outcomes—such as attendance and marks. What this might be hinting at is the psychological component that comes from kids internalizing your message: school is important. It may be with these conversations parents are connecting kids’current education—whether their children are in Grade 2, Grade 3 or high school—to a future, and the children are able to see that bridge. That finding was the most significant.

The question of parental involvement is part of a larger discussion about why large numbers of students in the United States are not doing well in school. Both the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top legislation mandate that schools find ways to encourage greater parental involvement in order to increase student achievement, on the assumption that increased parental involvement would increase student achievement.

The problem is that while parents from all ethnicities and socioeconomic groups do care very much how their children do in schools, there is not very much good information to help them decide how they can support their child in school. In fact there are ways that parents involve themselves that can actually cause harm. For example, the research found when children brought home news of poor performance on homework, non-punitive responses by parents (e.g., ensuring a quiet place to do homework) were more likely to result in improvement than were negative responses (e.g., taking away privileges)>

This problem points up the fact that schools are complicated systems with lots of small moving parts whose connections with one another are not always clear. To imagine that focusing on parental involvement will raise student achievement without reference to other parts of the system would be naive even if we were certain what kinds of parental involvement mattered and how it should be done.


Further Reading

Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris. “Parental Involvement is Over-Rated. New York Times, April 12, 2014.


Brian Bethune“Parents Should Talk with their children about post-high school plans: In Conversation with Keith Robinson,” McLean’s Magazine, December 2, 2013.


Dana Goldstein, Don’t Help Your Kids with Their Home Work. The Atlantic, March 19, 2014.


Mai Miksic. Is Parental Involvement Really a Waste of Time? CUNY Institute for Education Policy, April 23, 2014.


Mario Luis Small, “Mutual Obligations and Commitments. NY Times, February 9, 2014.

The Water Cycle, Revisited

We do lessons on the “water cycle.” But is our version of the water cycle complete? New information suggests that our version of the water cycle may not be complete.

Our story begins with the work of two investigators, one a mineralogist from Northwestern University, the other a geophysicist at the University of New Mexico and continues to include a large scale NSF-funded project called Earthscope. Earthscope is a multi-disciplinary project to explore the Earth in depth through the lens of geoscience in order to advance our understanding of the materials that compose it, its systems, and how the whole functions.

First, the mineralogist, Dr. Jacobson has done research on the minerals that are found in transition zone of Earth’s mantle, 300-400 miles deep. In his lab he attempts to recreate the temperatures and pressures in order to synthesize and study the minerals that exist deep in the Earth. In particular he has recreated in his lab a naturally ocurring mineral called ringwoodite, a kind of olivine but with the remarkable ability to hold water in the form of hydroxide ions. It is thought to be one of the most abundant minerals in the mantle. In the ringwoodite created in Dr. Jacobson’s lab, the mineral contains water at the rate of 2.6 percent of the mineral’s weight. The implication is that there is a huge amount of water locked up in the Earth’s mantle. But this is a finding in the lab not in the mantle.

Enter Dr. Brandon Schmandt, a geophysicist at the University of New Mexico who has done extensive analysis of data developed by the USArray project, part of the Earthscope. The USArray consists of 400 mobile seismographs that have been used to measure energy waves resulting from Earth motions. It has previously been observed that where tectonic plates meet, one plate will be pushed down and the increased pressures will cause the minerals to lose their water.  It has also been demonstrated that the loss of water will drastically lower the melting temperature of the rock. This is known as “dehydration melting.” So the minerals pushed downward at the edge of the tectonic plates, lose their water, lowering the melting temperature and creating the magma “hotspots” that account for the vulcanism where tectonic plates meet.

What had not been observed before was was evidence of melting much farther down in the mantle’s transition zone. The seismic data from USArray indicated a sudden reduction in the velocity of in the downwelling of minerals caused by the convection in the mantle. The loss of velocity is a sign of melting in the rock.  

Drs Jacobson, Schmandt did additional laboratory experiments as well as developing mathematical models that support the conclusion that “suggest hydration of a large region of the transition zone and that dehydration melting may act to trap H 2 O in the transition zone.

So what about the water cycle?

It may no longer be accurate to view the water cycle only in its circulation between the oceans, lakes, and other surface water and the atmosphere. It appears that there is another circulation; that between the water locked into minerals like ringwoodite and the surface. In this circulation, evaporation is replaced by dehydration melting at the top of the mantle.

Science is about explaining natural phenomena. What is so interesting about the science enterprise is that the more one asks questions, the more that is found out. If you think you understand it all, you probably haven’t asked the right questions or looked hard enough. 





How did water come to Earth:It took an out-of-this-world arrival to get that perfect chemical combination for water to fill our planet. Brian Greene, Smithsonian, May 2013


The Earth’s Hidden Ocean, NYTimes, June 16, 2014.


Dehydration melting at the top of the lower mantle in Science 13 June 2014: 

Vol. 344 no. 6189 pp. 1265-1268 

Brandon Schmandt,*, Steven D. Jacobsen,*, Thorsten W. Becker, Zhenxian Liu, Kenneth G. Dueker


Melting in the mantle: Joint MIT, Harvard and WHOI seminar “Mantle Convection”
Spring 1998  Lecture by Timothy L. Grove


Learning Their Letters: Pencil or Keyboard?

During the past century the way that children are taught their letters has changed as the writing technologies have changed;  from chalk on a slate, to fat pencil on lined paper, to a keyboard with letters appearing on a computer screen.

Since using a keyboard can make writing easier, faster, and more legible, should we not complete the switch over to technology and teach children their letters using the available modern technologies?

The argument supporting this argument follows the logic expressed in the following quotation:  

In order for students to accelerate their writing skills, they must first master the keyboard, then they must have quick and easy access to digital writing tools. The more often students write digitally, the better and more fluent their writing becomes.

The evidence presented to support this particular argument is that “success” on the exams that will used to test the Common Core will be contingent upon kids’ ability to fluently express their ideas on an online test.

But science is argument from empirical data; that is, evidence. 

What evidence supports keyboarding over hand writing or hand writing over keyboarding? 

If you do look for research-based evidence about the difference between learning to write using a keyboard versus using hand writing, it turns out that there is solid empirical evidence from a variety of sources that children who learn their letters using hand-writing have better outcomes that those who learn their letters with using a keyboard. (For more information, click)

Learning to write is a complex of cognitive and psychomotor tasks that are best learned when the psychomotor and the cognitive parts are closely linked. In one study, young children were taught to recognize letters by either free-hand copying the letter, tracing the letter shape, or by using a keyboard. After the treatment, students repeated the tasks under a brain scan, those children who shaped the letters free hand showed activity in three parts of the brain that are activated in adults who are reading. The children who used the tracing method or keyboard showed little activity in those same areas.

The study’s principal investigator suggests that the reason for the difference may be in the variability of the free hand reproduction of the letters. The child approximates the shape of the letter and then tries to improve the match between the model and what he or she produces.  That struggle to reduce the variability may enhance the learning of the shapes.

In a study that followed a group of children from grades two to five it was found that printing, cursive, and keyboarding led to distinct outcomes. Children who composed text by hand were able to generate more different words more quickly than did the keyboarders but also developed more ideas for compositions.

The links at the end of the blog refer to additional discussion.

The takeaway: common sense is perhaps not a great guide when we are thinking about the best way to teach. The common sense that “in the modern world, kids need to use a keyboard to write, therefore it is best to use keyboards for learning letters” is not supported by the evidence.

Evidence-based instructional practice matters.


Additional Reading:

What’s Lost as Handwriting Fades? from


What Learning Cursive Does for Your Brain from


The influence of writing practice on letter recognition in preschool children: A comparison between handwriting and typing from


Digitizing Literacy: Reflections on the Haptics of Writing from