Explaining the mean girls (and boys)

A study from the most recent American Sociological Review is getting attention because of its finding that popular kids in middle and high school are more likely to be mean:

[A] paper released Tuesday in the American Sociological Review, which found that the more central you are to your school’s social network, the more aggressive you are as well — unless you’re at the top of the heap, in which case you’re more likely to give your peers a break.

“By and large, status increases aggression, until you get to the very top,” said the study’s lead author, UC Davis sociologist Robert Faris. “When kids become more popular, later on they become more aggressive.”

Three larger trends seem to be converging in this research: analyzing social networks of teenagers/emerging adults while also looking into bullying/aggressive behavior.

The network analysis is based on a measure common now to sociological surveys and research:

Faris and UC Davis sociology Professor Diane Felmlee followed almost 4,000 middle and high school students in three North Carolina counties, asking each child to name their five best friends. They were also asked to identify up to five people they bullied and five classmates who picked on them.

The researchers mapped each student’s popularity based on their personal relationships and compared it to aggressive behavior.

I’m curious to know if this analysis would also apply to adults.

Your social network might lead to disease

A study of the passing of swine flu among a set of schoolchildren found that the disease was primarily spread through one’s social network:

A new study of a 2009 epidemic at a school in Pennsylvania has found that children most likely did not catch it by sitting near an infected classmate, and that adults who got sick were probably not infected by their own children.

Closing the school after the epidemic was under way did little to slow the rate of transmission, the study found, and the most common way the disease spread was a through child’s network of friends…

The scientists collected data on 370 students from 295 households. Almost 35 percent of the students and more than 15 percent of their household contacts came down with flu. The most detailed information was gathered from fourth graders, the group most affected by the outbreak.

The class and grade structure had a significant effect on transmission rates. Transmission was 25 times as intensive among classmates as between children in different grades. And yet sitting next to a student who was infected did not increase the chances of catching flu.

Social networks were apparently a more significant means of transmission than seating arrangements. Students were four times as likely to play with children of the same sex as with those of the opposite sex, and following this pattern, boys were more likely to catch the flu from other boys, and girls from other girls.

This sounds like a very interesting dataset as it was collected in real-time as the disease spread. Hopefully, we will get more data like this in the future so that we aren’t left with the problem of trying to trace a disease’s spread after the fact. But getting this kind of data would require more intense observation (or records) of a specific group of people.

If closing the school is not the answer, how then should authorities respond in order to slow down the spread of disease?

Sounds like another advantage for Social Networking Sites where you can interact with your friends with only the threat of a computer virus…

Teaching 9/11 in schools

Now that we are nine years removed from September 11, 2001, this is something I’ve wondered: how do schools teach about this day? According to the Christian Science Monitor, there seems to be a variety of approaches.

Another place to look would be school textbooks. With evidence that textbooks either just plain get it wrong or present biased perspectives, how younger generations learn about 9/11 will be something to watch.

Overall, both specific school lessons and textbooks will help shape the American collective memory regarding the event. This collective memory can take time to develop and is likely to be controversial; just look at how long the 9/11 memorial is taking to shape up at Ground Zero.

Ending summer vacation

Time makes an argument for ending the typical American summer vacation from school. Numerous studies indicate that children lose ground during the summer and low-income students lose a lot of ground:

And what starts as a hiccup in a 6-year-old’s education can be a crisis by the time that child reaches high school. A major study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University concluded that while students made similar progress during the school year, regardless of economic status, the better-off kids held steady or continued to advance during the summer — while disadvantaged students fell back. By the end of grammar school, low-income students had fallen nearly three grade levels behind. By ninth grade, roughly two-thirds of the learning gap separating income groups could be blamed on summer learning loss.
The article also mentions the romanticism linked with summer vacation: trips, outdoor activity, freedom. This seems particularly crucial for American teenagerdom when teenagers get a first taste of being away from their parents. Even though I really liked school, I did enjoy summer vacation and all the options that were available to me (which not everyone has).
Would it be too difficult to split the summer vacation into two sections of about a month or a month and a half long? This seems like a reasonable compromise: some time off for everyone, shorter gaps for students to lose knowledge.

More evidence: start school day later for teens

It seems like I have been reading for years about studies that say that teenagers perform much better in school when the starting time is pushed back. Here is another study that suggests starting the day 30 minutes later leads to “stunning” results.

It raises a question: why don’t more schools respond by changing their starting times? I’ve heard arguments about this interfering with after-school activities, particularly sports. It may conflict with schedules for siblings in schools with different starting times or may lead to a shortage of buses since early high school times mean the buses can be used again for elementary students. And there are more reasons that get thrown around, many probably legitimate.

But: if the real goal of educators (and the supporting parents) is to help students succeed in school (specifically: boost learning), isn’t this something that needs to change?