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Neighborhoods Impact A Child’s Future Income

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Surprising New Discoveries in Research Revisited   

New research shows that where we grow up influences the rest of our lives, and that wealth isn’t the whole story. The findings suggest place plays a big part in which poor kids escape poverty as adults, and that a childhood move to a better neighborhood can change a life trajectory.

After the Los Angeles riots 20 years ago, Congress created an antipoverty initiative called Moving to Opportunity, which provided vouchers to help poor families move to better neighborhoods.  The vouchers were randomly assigned so that researchers could study the neighborhood effect. Initially, little economic difference was found. Though some health benefits were identified, the program was considered a failure.

In a new study on upward mobility across America, researchers examined earnings records of millions of families who moved with children.  The mass of data they gathered showed poor kids who grew up in some cities and towns had a much better chance of escaping poverty as adults than similar poor kids who grew up elsewhere.  The researchers, Harvard economist Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, found that among those who had moved, every year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood contributed to measurably improved economic outcomes as adults. For kids whose families relocated to worse neighborhoods, adult economic outcomes changed by the same degree but for the worse. The research is described in a New York Times story by David Leonhardt, Amada Cox, and Claire Cain Miller.    

“The data show we can do something about upward mobility,” Chetty told The Times. “Every extra year of childhood spent in a better neighborhood seems to matter.” Because each year had an impact, the research showed a teenagers’s year in a better neighborhood mattered as much as a younger child’s year. Chetty and Hendren reexamined Moving to Opportunity, and with longer-term and more recent data, found that those children too benefited financially as adults.

Places most conducive to upward mobility shared several traits: good elementary schools, stable families, high levels of civic involvement, less income inequality, and more residential integration of affluent, middle income and low income families.  Future prospects for low income children varied significantly depending on location. . For instance, data showed the probability of a child reaching the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile is 4.4 percent in Charlotte but 12.9 percent in San Jose.  

Areas that fostered measurable upward mobility for poor kids included large cities—San Francisco,  San Diego, Salt Lake City, and Providence, R.I., and suburban counties such as Fairfax, VA, Bergen, NJ,  Bucks, PA, and Macomb, MI.

Researchers found low income children from Baltimore faced the worst odds of escaping poverty. Boys who grew up poor in Baltimore earned 25 percent less as adults than similar low-income boys who were born there and moved away as children. Other places where poor kids faced daunting odds included areas of some of the nation’s biggest cities, including Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, The Bronx and parts of Manhattan. The Times published charts showing how childhood location influenced adult income.  See The Times interactive map on the best and worst places for upward mobility.   The researchers’ Equality of Opportunity Project has a wealth of information, including a listing of the future income impact for poor kids in the country’s 100 largest counties. 

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Can One Prosecutor Disrupt Mass Incarceration of Black Men?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Monday, May 11, 2015

A Prosecutor as a Change Agent


The mass incarceration of African American men and the high percentage of young and middle-aged African America men missing from life in their communities is a growing focus for scholars and political and social leaders. There is even growing agreement across the political spectrum that we incarcerate too many people. But where can reformers start?


State and national criminal justice systems are huge collections of entities that interact but don't necessarily collaborate productively. Elected politicians legislate definitions of crimes and their penalties. Police decide whom to arrest, and prosecutors, grand juries, trial juries, judges, lawyers and probation and parole officers, all operating in their own distinct environments, influence individual fates and the way the law is carried out.


In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and civil rights advocate, documents historical, economic and social forces that coalesced in recent decades to cause the disproportional incarceration of black men. She and other scholars say the inducement of millions of dollars of federal funds in the 1980s led local police departments to target black communities in the War on Drugs. Alexander wrote that in 2003 the justice system employed nearly 2.4 million people, and that government figures showed the U.S. spent $185 billion on police protection, detention and related activities, a figure that had risen to $212 billion a year by 2013. That's a lot of jobs and strong economic incentive to maintain the criminal justice system as is.


Who can initiate changes? Legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin describes the central role played by prosecutors: they decide whether to drop a case or take it to trial, what charges to bring, and whether to demand prison time or accept probation. In his New Yorker article "The Milwaukee Experiment" Toobin tells how Milwaukee County Prosecutor John Chisholm is fostering reform. He invited independent researchers examine the work of his own office and they found racial disparities in charges and prison time for low level drug offenses, prostitution and property crimes. Chisholm initially thought the larger number of white people arrested for property crimes suggested some racial balance until further probing found suburban property crimes got more attention. What the data really meant, he told Toobin, was that "we devalue property crimes in the center city." Car theft? Probably just a junker anyway. In Chisholm's view, that was one more disparity to address.


Chisholm began what he called an "evidence-driven public health model." He wanted his staff to do more than just process cases. He realized the least experienced staff members were handling the most minor cases, and generally following what had been done in the past, without examining whether the person should be charged with a crime and whether incarceration was necessary. Chisholm began community outreach and an early intervention program that allowed some low risk offenders to be diverted into unofficial probation or more intensive post-arrest supervision initiatives and drug rehab. Those who successfully completed alternate programs could have their criminal records expunged, increasing their chances for employment. A Chisholm staff member convinced Habitat for humanity to renovate houses in a particularly crime-ridden neighborhood, and the crime rate dropped precipitously. Still, Chisholm's approach has had critics. Governor Scott Walker and allies who favor tough arrest and sentencing policies are adamant ideological opponents.


The effort has been partially successful. Chisholm's office is sending far fewer low level offenders to prison. But violent offenders are still being locked up and racial disparities in incarceration persist. Chisholm says broad forces beyond prosecutorial control-poverty, hopelessness, lack of education, addiction and the easy availability of guns-impede solutions. Toobin calls that a lesson in humility. "We redesigned our system," Chisholm told him, "but we learned that no individual actor can change the dynamics of what goes on in a complex larger system like a city." Read Toobin's piece here.  


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Healthcare with the Mail: A Novel Delivery System

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, May 02, 2015

Take Two Apps and Tell Us How You Feel

A partnership of Apple, IBM and a company called Japan Post plans the in next five years to provide millions of elderly Japanese people with new health services that combine electronic gadgetry and data analysis with personal visits.

Japan Post Ltd. is a government-owned holding company that runs a postal service. It already offers a service called “watch over,” which charges a small fee to have postal employees check up on elderly customers  and report back to their families on how they are doing. The plan is for Japan Post to buy some five million iPads from Apple and distribute them to elderly customers. The iPads will be loaded with apps for scheduling medical appointments, hiring home maintenance professionals, coordinating travel and getting reminders to take medicines, and other “quality of life” apps. When postal employees visit, they will explain how to use the devices and answer any questions about the apps. Japan Post will charge a fee for the service.

As a Fast Company story by Sarah Kessler points out, it’s smart for a company with workers that have daily access to people’s homes delivering mail to expand into elder care. It’s also a good deal for Apple to have a big market for all those iPads. IBM, which is designing the apps, will analyze the data collected through their use.  Customers will be able to share their data with their postal helpers, or have IBM make it anonymous.

Japan Post does more than handle mail. According to its website, it has 24,000 post offices and 195,000 employees—making it Japan’s largest employer. It’s also a bank and an insurance company, and CEO Taizo Nishimuro says it is the biggest life insurer in Japan.  Fast Company reports IBM executives say the data will help identify trends, effectiveness of treatment and medicines, and enable personalized healthcare on an unprecedented scale.

As a Forbes story by Mathew Herper notes, Japan Post already has a massive big-data style collection of health care information, and additional information could help its insurance business by helping customers live longer, healthier and more independent lives.  

Japan has a rapidly aging population; 25 percent of its people are aged 65 or older now, and the population I that age group is expected to grow 40 percent in the next 40 years. A siliconangle story by Collen Kriel reports the global aged population is expected to rise from 11.7 percent to 21 percent by2050.

Would a program of the type planned in Japan work in the U.S.?  Herper of Forbes writes that many pilot studies, including initiatives by Apple and IBM are being tried in the U.S. But he says the U.S. healthcare market is far more fragmented than it is in Japan and no one company has the reach that Japan Post does. In addition, he writes, “trust issues about giving information to insurers are a bigger hurdle in the U.S. than in many other countries.

CEOs of Apple and IBM spoke at a news conference announcing the initiative in Japan. Tim Cook of Apple hailed the prospect of building a useful service that will be scalable around the globe and “put a ding in the universe.”Ginni Rometty of IBM said the service could “re-imagine life” for the largest generation of elderly the world has ever had.  

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System Leaership: Crossing New Thresholds

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, April 24, 2015
Updated: Friday, April 24, 2015

System Leaders Inspire Others to Lead 

System leadership requires a new capacity to catalyze the leadership abilities of other people in multiple sectors who can then work together on intractable problems, business theorists say. Climate change, ecosystem destruction, growing water scarcity, poverty, inequity and unemployment, they suggest, typify the systemic challenges that are beyond the reach of existing institutions and hierarchical authority structures.

In a Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton and John Kania describe the systemic and collective leadership skills and commitments that collaborative initiatives need to function and flourish.  These authors join the scholar Otto Scharmer in tracing ancient understandings of leadership.

The verb “lead” comes from the Indo-European root “leith,” which means “to go forth,” “to cross a threshold,” or even “to die,” Scharmer has written, and embracing leadership in that sense includes realizing that a threshold needs to be crossed  and that something must be left behind for something new to emerge. That means letting go of what we think we know or want to control, he writes, and that may be experienced as a form of death to what has been familiar.  


Senge and colleagues say Nelson Mandela exemplified transcendent system leadership with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a radical innovation that allowed those who had suffered and those whose actions had caused suffering, to “face another, tell their truths, forgive and move on” to build South Africa’s future together.  The authors call the work a “profound gesture of civilization,” and a “cauldron for creating collective leadership.” They note the process would have been impossible without the leadership of others, including Bishop Desmond Tutu and former President F.W. de Klerk.


 Mandela is an iconic national hero, but Senge and colleagues say the core systemic leadership capacities that he and other lesser known leaders have practiced can be learned and developed. One capacity is seeing—and helping others see—the larger system existing beyond any one individual view.  When people come to share that larger vision, they can pursue health of the whole system rather than fragments of it.

A second, the authors say, is a capacity to foster shared reflection and more generative conversations. That requires deep listening, self awareness and the ability to appreciate the reality experienced by others who differ from us. The authors call those abilities essential for building the trust necessary for collaborative creativity.  The third capacity, the authors say, is the ability to shift “the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.” This is generally a gradual and deliberate process, in which leaders help people to build an inspiring vision of the future, recognize difficult present realities, and use tensions between vision and reality to inspire new approaches.

The authors describe successful system leadership in Roca, Inc., a Boston community group that has evolved to work with urban youth at a critical interface with gangs, police, courts, parole boards, schools and social agencies. Among other practices, Roca leaders used American Indian “peacekeeping circles” to get all participants to describe their deepest intentions. The idea was to illuminate how the community is impacted by everything that impacts individuals.

They point to another systemic leadership success in the evolution of Nike’s effort to eliminate toxic chemicals from its top running shoes. The head of Nike’s research department discovered the toxin and engaged dozens of people throughout the organization to design and produce toxin-free apparel. A result of that collective leadership is a movement throughout the sports apparel industry on waste, water, toxicity and energy.  Today the Joint Roadmap Towards Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals is a joint initiative of Greenpeace, Nike, Puma, Adidas, New Balance, and others.

The kind of systemic leadership Mandela practiced in South Africa was depicted recently in a New York Times story about division and disention in modern Turkey over the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman Turks 100 years ago. The official position of the Turkish government has been a century of silence or denial, leaving an Armenian population with psychic wounds passed through generations. In the Kurdish southeast of Turkey, the Times reports, a different narrative of reconciliation, apology and acknowledgement of a painful past is underway. Kurdish authorities in Diyarbakir helped restore the Surp Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East, where descendants of Armenians kidnapped as babies and raised to believe they were Muslim and Kurdish have recently been gathering to discover their family roots.

Click here for the Stanford Social Innovation Review article System “The Dawn of System Leadership.”

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Savings Groups: Self-Organizing Agents for Change

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, April 11, 2015

Catalyzing Capacity for Problem Solving


In Just six years, membership in local savings groups in some of the world's poorest regions has burgeoned from one million to ten million people spread across 65 countries, an extraordinary growth rate for a global social movement.


Members of savings groups agree to contribute small savings on a regular basis to a communal fund, and they agree to loan money to each other when need arises. They augment the fund by agreeing to pay small amounts of interest on the loan, and small fees for late or missed deposits. There are no administrative bureaucracies, no subsidies and no institutional support. Once the groups are established, they operate with virtually no outside help.


The task of aid workers is not to provide services, asserts Jeffrey Ashe, a fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire and a research fellow in Global Development and Environment at Tufts University. "It's to catalyze the capacity of people in poor communities to resolve their own problems." In fact, he says, many savings groups around the world have not only maintained their existence for financial purposes, but have developed the social capital and cohesion that has allowed them to expand their reach to community needs in agriculture, health, education, and business literacy.


Ashe is the author, with his colleague Kyla Jagger Neilan, of In Their Own Hands: How Savings Groups Are Revolutionizing Development. It's an inspiring account of achievement and innovation. People experienced with local culture, called animators, helped the groups organize and practice inclusive conversation and reflection that let them develop their own rules and practices.   


Frances Moore Lappe, co-founder of The Small Plane Institute, an international organization devoted to fostering conditions for inclusive democracies, says successful societies have distributed power, transparency in human relationships, and a culture of mutual accountability, all characteristics that are embodied in savings groups. "I see the beginning of self organizing power to meet deep human needs: for connection, for meaning, and for power itself, for power understood as our capacity to create ad make an imprint," she wrote in a forward to the book.


Ashe, a pioneer of microfinance, spent decades helping people in impoverished urban areas in Africa, India and Central America, get small loans to start small businesses and earn money to support their families. He received the first Presidential Award for Excellence in Microfinance from former President Clinton. Despite microfinance successes, Ashe realized it wasn't reaching extremely poor people in rural areas, and people in regions disrupted by conflict and economic collapse. He had learned from experience that very poor people can save, and that people can learn the mechanics of financial operations and record keeping without having had formal schooling. For instance, seeds, pebbles and twigs can be used to tally outstanding loans and interest.  


He launched and led the Oxfam America Saving for Change initiative that catalyzed savings groups among some 650,000 women in Mali, Senegal, Cambodia, El Salvador and Guatemala. The work scaled rapidly because with minimal outside help, members of successful groups helped others start their own savings groups. Ashe and colleagues focused on women savers, because women generally manage households and care for the needs of children¸ and women in African countries traditionally worked together in some way to survive on tiny sums of money. Local NGO workers who understood cultural contexts helped group members design their own procedures, meeting and contribution schedules, and election of officers.  


Interestingly, the same design and organizational processes were successful in Guatemala, where men had traditionally opposed collective action by women. Eventually women who organized savings groups there discovered transformative power in supportive relationships. They turned their energy to safety from domestic abuse and other human rights issues, and won elections to public office. In Mali, sustainable savings groups worked on such local needs as preventing soil depletion and improved agricultural practices.  


Listen to tomorrow's PlexusCall (details below) to learn more about what savings groups have achieved, how they scaled up, and prospects for future growth of savings initiatives in financially underserved populations in the U.S. Ashe was the founder and director of Working Capital, a group based microlending program that operated in Delaware, New England and Florida, and was for several years the nation's largest micro-lender.


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Our Capacity for Interconnectivity Has Limits

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Saturday, April 11, 2015

Does Your Group Pass the "Two Pizza" Test?


Are we hard wired to function best in teams of a certain size? Some scientists and business leaders think our cognition and performance suffer when a team gets too big.


In their book Connected: the Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler discuss the work of psychologist Robin Dunbar, who studied the size of different kinds of human groups. The basic Roman army unit was 120 men, and armies throughout many centuries have had 150 men in a unit. Analogous modern armies tend to be about 180 soldiers. Those numbers suggest that despite technological advances, there's an upper limit to the size of a group in which members can function in a coordinated, comprehensive way. Dunbar identified four as the optimum size for a human conversational group, and Connected authors say other researchers studying restaurant patrons, dinner parties and beach goers found people tend to gather in conversational clusters of four.


So what's the right size for a group assembled to launch a product or a sales campaign, to do research, or seek innovation? Rich Karlgaard, in a piece in "Forbes" magazine, advises "Think (Really) Small." Karlgaard notes Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, advocates the "two pizza rule" for team size. A group that needs more than two pizzas is too big, Bezos has asserted. Bezos thinks people communicate more effectively and productively in small groups, and get more done more quickly. In her management blog, Janet Choi describes some of the science behind this idea, and it supports Dunbar's finding that there are limits on the numbers when it comes to effectiveness in groups of people working closely together.


Karlgaard and Choi explain that the issue is how we manage all the connections between and among people, and organizational psychologists have come up with a formula that shows how the complexity of the network expands exponentially with each additional member. If you multiply the number of people in a group by that number minus one, and divide by two, you'll see the number of links or connections. Karlgaard provides a chart:


2 members = 1 connection

3 members = 3 connections

4 members = 6 connections

6 members = 15 connections

16 members = 256 connections

32 members = 1,024 connections


Karlgaard says if a team reaches 1,500 members, and some big company divisions do, the number of interconnections reaches 2.25 million. Our brains can't handle that, and in very large groups, relationships tend to degrade. Choi quotes research suggesting that people in very large teams are more stressed, work more slowly, and are more vulnerable to miscommunication and misinformation.


Researchers and business leaders vary on optimum size, but most advocate keeping working team membership in the single digits. The Two Pizza rule means it's six or seven. Organizational psychologist J. Richard Hackman likes five and he says don't have more than 10. Management expert Bob Sutton says the U.S. Navy Seals consider four people the optimal number for a combat team."


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The Uncertainties in Incentive Design

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 27, 2015


The Heisenberg Principle in Evaluations

 When great emphasis is placed on one element of an evaluation, people will focus on that measure, sometimes with good results that are in line with a desired objective, and sometimes to game the system and cheat. 

 New York Times Columnist Eduardo Porter says that phenomenon is best known as Goodhart’s Law, after British economist Charles Goodhart. Porter adds that Luis Garicano, of the London School of Economics, calls it the “Heisenberg Principle of incentive design,” likening it to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.  As Porter summarizes, “a performance metric is only useful as a performance metric as long as it isn’t being used a performance metric.” 

Porter’s recent column cites several examples of Goodhart’s Law. In 2004 the Chinese government decreed that there should be far fewer accidental deaths, and provincial authorities began a “no safety, no promotion” campaign, which tied bureaucrats’ fates to accidental death rates.  In seven years the death rate dropped in half. But scholars who studied the figures found that local officials had gamed the system. People severely injured in traffic accidents were counted as accidental deaths if they died within seven days. Officials who arranged to have the victims kept alive for eight days improved their statistics.  Porter writes that U.S. hospitals have been known to do “whatever it takes” to keep fragile patients alive at least 31 days after an operation, to beat the Medicare 30-day survival yardstick.  Further, Porter writes, Chicago magazine found that the city was able to report a reduced crime rate because some incidents were reclassified as non-criminal.

American education has begun an experiment in incentive design, Porter says, in which  most states have established teacher evaluation systems based on gains their student make on standardized tests, along with some more conventional criteria such as evaluations by principals. The relevance of testing is based on sophisticated research.  A study by Columbia Professor Jonah Rokoff and two Harvard colleagues,  Raj Chetty and John Freidman,  found teachers who improved student test scores—called  high value added teachers—raised chances for student success in higher education and careers.  But heavy reliance on testing has been extremely controversial and generated heated debate about the impact on children, and about whether education becomes less meaningful if there is relentless focus on testing success.

Porter doesn’t take sides on specific matters of research and testing. But he says it’s a good idea to keep Goodbhart’s Law in mind because when the fate of individual teachers and schools depends on high stakes testing, the temptation for bad behavior is high.  Several districts across the country have been accused of blatant cheating on tests, and others have used more subtle manipulations to create illusions of improvement.  A recent New York Post story and Diane Ravitch’s blog showed state test scores artificially elevated by deletion of four questions large numbers of students got wrong or left blank.      


So will schools face massive unintended consequences as states institute more fully developed teacher evaluation systems?  Porter quotes educators who say while evaluations are necessary, any system needs to be examined for unintended consequences.  He quotes Professor Rockoff, who has defended the results of his own study, on preconditions for successful evaluations:  “The obvious answer is do not put too much weight on any single measure.”  Read Porter’s column here.

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Algoithms for Mastering Math

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 20, 2015

Innovations Need Experiments and Many Iterations

In a Brooklyn, N.Y. middle school,  three walls have been knocked down to create one giant classroom where four seventh grade math teachers circulate among 120 students. Four different learning areas are signified by shelving and different colored carpets and chairs. An airport style monitor just outside the door tells kids where to go.

The program, Teach to One, is designed to let each student learn at his or her own level, and master each skill before moving on to a next step.  Tina Rosenberg, in her New York Times column “Fixes,” notes that kids who have missed an essential math skill or concept in an early grade are likely to keep falling further behind in successive grades, eventually joining a permanent math underclass of students who find math incomprehensible.

This classroom combines many learning methods and activities with a range of sophistication. . Some children work at computers,  some use work sheets in groups, and some solve equations. The subjects include manipulating fractions and negative numbers, graphing expressions on a number line, and working out a multi-day probability project.  Some worksheets show wrong answers and ask students to identify the mistakes that led to them.

At the end of each session, student take a short quiz testing their mastery of the subject, letting student and teacher know the successes and deficits of the moment.  Rosenberg says the next step is the real innovation. Each student’s quiz is fed into an algorithm,  which produces the next day’s lesson for that student based on individual mastery, and even on what has been shown to be the best learning modality for the studentsuch as learning best with games, or liking to learn alone.  (Teachers get a preview and can override the computerized schedule if they think it necessary). The program identifies 77 math skills, and has a library of 12,000 lessons to teach them. Some lessons are created by staff, others bought from education companies.

Teach to One evolved from School of One, a math teaching program created by Joel Rose, an education expert, and Chris Rush, an educational consultant, both of  whom had worked for the New York City Department of Education. The two formed Classroom Innovation Partners, and Rosenberg reports the model is being used in 30 schools in New York, New Jersey, Washington DC, Georgia and North Carolina.  Early results have been very promising some schools and less so in others. The initiative has not been without controversy.

New Classrooms funded a study by scholars at Teachers College of Columbia University, to measure results. In the first year, math progress for Teach for One kids was about at the national average. The New York Daily News blasted the program as a pricy reject, and it was expensive. One school spent $140,000 on computers for every child.  Second year results were much more encouraging, with progress of the kids ranging from 47 percent to 60 percent above the national average. 

In a thoughtful piece in Forbes, Michael Horn wrote that innovations are rarely instant successes. Instead, he said, they tend to require messy experimentation with many modifications and iterations. Further, Horn wrote, formative evaluation that measures grade level achievement doesn’t identify nuanced individual progress of youngsters who have come from behind and those who have soared. He suggests the second year improvements indicate that earlier gaps in math knowledge may have been filled during that first year. A middle school in Charlotte Mecklenburg reports with enthusiasm on its program. Rosenberg calls it a work in progress worthy of continued use and experimentation. “School of One takes comprehensive advantage of technology in ways that let teachers concentrate on teaching,” she said.  “That’s worth getting right.”     

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Words that Heal and Reveal

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Friday, March 13, 2015

In his early research career, Dr. James Pennebaker learned that keeping secrets is bad for your health. In fact, he and colleagues found, people who suffered traumas and kept them secret sought treatment for illnesses 40 percent more often than people who talked openly about their past adversities. But you don’t always have to tell the world.

Dr. Pennebaker, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a pioneer in studying  the healing use of language, found that adults who endured the suicide or sudden death of a spouse were healthier a year later if they had talked about it. Gays and lesbians who were open about their sexual status were healthier than those who kept it hidden. Over decades of studying how people dealt with traumas of all sorts—the death of loved ones, natural disasters, divorce, criminal assault, sexual traumas and the Holocaust—he looked at how we use language to process emotional devastation.  And he discovered that writing about deeply disturbing events—even if the writer showed no one else and destroyed the written account—improved the physical health and emotional resilience of those who wrote.

Those who benefit most, he explains, are able to construct a meaningful story of their experience, express more optimism as they acknowledge the worst, and change perspectives. In his newest book, Expressive Writing: Words that Heal, he tells how brief, simple writing exercises have helped people who put their traumas into words. Computer analysis showed many participants in the writing studies had fewer illnesses and improved immune function. Three studies showed higher student grades, possibly, he writes, because more working memory is available for present endeavors if we’ve detoxified past traumas so that we don’t have to be preoccupied with them.  

Dr. Pennebaker has spent decades exploring the power and significance of how we select, use and combine words. In his book The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, Dr. Pennebaker examines function words, including pronouns, prepositions and articles, and made some surprising discoveries. He says our words are linguistic fingerprints and keys to the soul.

Pronouns yield profound insights. Scientists interviewed couples after one partner suffered a heart attack and asked them how they had coped and what they had done best.  The more the spouses used the we-words, that is we, us and our, in their answers the healthier the patients were six months later. We-words even impact safety. Researchers have found the most effective airline cockpit crews are close-knit and feel part of a team. In analyzing cockpit recordings of airlines that crashed, the ones clearly characterized by human error are associated with far fewer we-words than were used by the crews of planes that crashed because of unavoidable mechanical error.

Of course, Dr. Pennebaker notes, communal use of we differs greatly from the royal we, often employed by males of superior status, as in, “We need to analyze that data.” Pennebaker calls that the “we as you” use, in which the speaker is trying to be pleasant while issuing an order. There’s also a restrictive we, that means my friends and me, but not you, as in describing a joint activity that didn’t include the listener.

The first person singular holds many clues about mental health, outlook, and power. Analyzing the Twitter feeds of pregnant women, Microsoft computer scientists were able to accurately predict who would suffer postpartum depression. Indicators include increasing use of self-referential pronouns with growing self-focus.  In interaction between people, Dr.Pennebaker’s computer studies have shown, persons with higher social status uses fewer I words and people with lower social status use more I words.

Dr. Pennebaker says he always considered himself an egalitarian guy who treated everyone with the same respect, and he was surprised by a computer analysis of his own emails. In responding to his students, who used many I swords in their messages to him, Dr. Pennebaker rarely used I words. In an invitation to a famous professor he hoped would attend a conference, he used I words liberally.  

Pronouns also show shifting emotion and allegiance, Dr. Pennebaker found. When our favorite sports team is successful, we say “We won.” When the team goes down to defeat, we tend to say “They lost.”

If you’re interested in some self-insights, do some of Dr. Pennebaker’s exercises

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Should Advanced Practice Nurses Have More Authority?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Wednesday, March 11, 2015

New Jersey Doctors and Nurses Spar Over Death Certificates

New Jersey legislators have passed a bill,  awaiting Gov. Chris Christie’s signature, that would allow  advanced practice nurses (APNs) to sign death certificates when a physician isn’t available.  APNs, who receive graduate training in diagnosing and treating illnesses, contend they are often closest to patients and best positioned to attend routine needs, and that broadening their scope will help address a growing need for primary healthcare providers. Doctors argue that giving more authority to APNs will lead to a decline in the quality of healthcare because physicians have more extensive training and education than APNs have. They also say team based healthcare should always be led by a physician. The legislature passed a similar measure a year ago, but it got a pocket veto from the governor.

 Read the NJ Spotlight story by Andrew  Kitchenman.

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