Pacific Standard Magazine

Racism in Schools: Unintentional But No Less Damaging

Just Communities is dedicated to teaching educators about unintentional racism, which it says is a key contributor to the persistent achievement gap.

Racism in Schools: Unintentional But No Less Damaging

Alejandra is the daughter of Mexican immigrants who speak little English and hold down jobs cleaning houses and working in a hotel. Last year, she graduated from a high school in Santa Barbara, Calif., where the student population is roughly half poor Latino and half affluent white.

Their worlds rarely intersect, with most white students taking high-level courses and most Latinos enrolled in the general-ed classes. But during her high school years, Alejandra was the exception.
She was the only Latino student with immigrant parents enrolled in a college-level program known as International Baccalaureate studies. Many of the fellow students came from the Santa Barbara County community of Montecito, one of the wealthiest enclaves in the nation (Oprah Winfrey has a home there). It was often an uncomfortable experience.

Alejandra finished high school with a 3.3 GPA — no small feat given her background and the rigorous program from which she graduated.

Nonetheless, when it came time to talk to her guidance counselor about future plans, the counselor dissuaded Alejandra from pursuing her dream to attend a four-year university. The counselor instead advised her to go to the local community college. Alejandra complied, and today is a student at Santa Barbara City College.

The experience, she said, filled her with self-doubt.

“I thought, maybe I’m not as good as I think I am,” she told

Battling Subtle Messages
Though racism in the public education system no longer takes the overt form of segregated schools, white students spitting on black students with impunity or National Guardsmen with rifles blocking the entrance to a school, several nonprofit organizations around the country focusing on racial justice in public schools say it’s still ubiquitous.

Although the counselor no doubt had Alejandra’s best interests in mind, the decision to steer her away from a four-year university was a classic example of unintentional racism, said Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of Just Communities Central Coast, a nonprofit based in Santa Barbara and dedicated to dismantling institutional racism in schools. (The group was founded in 2001 as The National Conference for Community and Justice of California’s Central Coast, which in turn had its roots in the venerable National Conference of Christians and Jews.)

“Most of the racism in schools today is not born out of intense hate and does not come from this place of wanting the worst for students of color,” he said. “It’s subtle.”

The organization spends much of its time informing educators about the everyday red flags that may be invisible to them, but glaringly obvious to many minority students and teachers of color.
A well-meaning high school counselor, for instance, may learn the names of all her white students, but barely any of her Latino pupils. A white teacher may call on students of color only for the easy questions. A teacher may embarrass a student of Korean descent by assuming the student knows how to pronounce a word in Vietnamese.

In May 2000, on the 40th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education — the landmark case that ruled segregated schools unconstitutional — the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of California that brought the essence of institutionalized racism into sharp focus. Filed on behalf of 100 students in San Francisco, the case was named after Eliezer Williams, then a seventh-grader at Luther Burbank Middle School in San Francisco.

At Williams’ school, the textbooks were so scarce, students could not take them home; they were so old they still did not recognize the collapse of the Soviet Union. At certain times during the school day, there were no bathrooms; attorneys said students had urinated or defecated on themselves for lack of a restroom. The school was infested with vermin.

The suit argued that the state was failing to provide thousands of California students with the basic necessities for a decent education. Most of the students in question were poor minorities. In 2004, the case was settled, with the state setting aside $138 million for improving the textbooks and facilities of underserved student populations across California.

In a paper, Terry Keleher and Tammy Johnson of the Applied Research Center — a racial justice think tank — argued that the Williams case shows that institutionalized racism is alive and well in the 21st century.

“Institutional racism is frequently subtle, unintentional and invisible, but always potent,” they wrote. “Often, institutional racism involves complex and cumulative factors; for example, when many students of color, year after year, do not have access to fully credentialed teachers, high-quality curriculum materials and advanced courses.”

Just Communities operates under the premise that unintentional racism is a key contributor to the “achievement gap,” in which the test scores of some ethnic groups — usually Latino and African-American students — are consistently below those of their white and Asian peers.

For three years, Just Communities has held annual seminars for educators primarily from the Santa Barbara School District. It also partners with California Conference for Equality and Justice to give seminars in the Long Beach and San Diego areas. The goal is to make headway in eliminating the stubborn achievement gap.

The organization asserts that the achievement gap cannot be adequately addressed until educators recognize the system’s built-in tendency to make minority students feel unintelligent, despised or marginalized.

The weeklong seminars — which are open to parents — can be tearful events, as teachers and administrators come to grips with their own racial issues, or recall their past lives as students, recounting to their peers what it was like to attend schools in an atmosphere of inequity.

Success in St. Louis
Thus far, Schwartz said, it’s too early to quantify the organization’s progress in Santa Barbara, as it generally takes about five years to collect meaningful statistics. But Just Communities grew out of a program in the St. Louis metro area that is beginning to see some quantifiable results.
Called “Leadership and Racism: Closing the Achievement Gap,” the project has been in place for eight years.

Phil Hunsberger, one of the organization’s four principal consultants, provided with one example of measurable success, though he was careful to add that the improvements may or may not be the direct result of the training.

At Alton Middle School in Alton, Ill., which has been in the program for four years, the reading scores of white sixth-graders improved by 7.5 percent from 2007 to 2008, and the scores of black sixth-graders rose by 20.9 percent.

“The school’s ambition is to diminish the achievement gap while challenging all students,” Hunsberger wrote in an e-mail.

Hunsberger said much of his work involves helping educators understand the “architecture” of oppression, in which a dominant group sustains power by targeting a subordinate group, often unconsciously.

“I don’t call people racist — that is too confrontational and offers no new insights,” he said. “I do suggest that we must all understand how we participate in racism — the architecture.”
Meanwhile, in Santa Barbara, when it comes to closing the gap, there’s a long way to go. A recent report shows that the gulf in scores in math between white high school students, whose proficiency rate hovers around 70 percent, and Latino students, whose proficiency rate is more like 30 percent, hasn’t really changed since 2003.

Still, the Just Communities program appears to be making inroads on setting higher expectations for minority students. The students, in turn, are meeting them.

At La Colina Junior High in Santa Barbara, about a third of the students are Latino. Two years ago, the principal — after attending the Just Communities seminar — noticed that almost no Latino students were taking advanced courses. The principal recruited promising Latino students for the classes, bringing their enrollment more in line with the demographic makeup of the school. Now, Schwartz said, almost all of the Latino students in those classes are earning A’s and B’s.

Schwartz is hoping that counselors, too, will begin to reassess their assumptions.

He said Alejandra’s experience — in which she was steered to community college despite making high marks — is all too common. Usually, he said, the counselors’ intentions are good: They assume that sending a Latino student to college instead of a trade school would be setting him or her up for failure. But he said that sort of protection does them no favors.

“Many students of color — Latino and African Americans — have grown up all their lives not being pushed to go to college, or they grow up seeing people who look like them in trades or other positions that don’t require college,” he said. “And so if they don’t have that counselor pushing them, it’s easy to say, ‘This is the path that’s available to me.’”

In addition to holding seminars for teachers, Just Communities hosts a kind of social-justice summer camp for high school students. Called Community Leadership Institute, it encourages students to view the presumptions of their teachers and administrators with a critical eye.

One student who attended the leadership sessions was Tessa, a senior at a high school in Santa Barbara. A white student, Tessa said that after having her eyes opened at the camp, “it’s really hard to close them.”

Tessa told of a recent run-in with her principal. She and a couple other white girls were in the hallways when they should have been in class, and one of them was talking on her cell phone, even though the school enforces a strict ban on cell phone use during the school day. When the principal spotted them, he struck an avuncular tone, saying just because the girls had 4.0 grade point averages didn’t mean they shouldn’t be in class.

Then, she said, the principal saw a pair of Latino boys roaming the halls, and snapped at them, ordering them back to class.

“The thing is, they probably have higher GPAs than me,” she said.

The Three Rs
In its seminars with educators, Just Communities staff members tell teachers and administrators that the key to improving relations with — and therefore the performance of — students of color is to learn the organization’s three R’s: relationships, relevance and rigor.

Perhaps the best way to understand the meaning of these abstract words is to consider the practices of a particular inner-city teacher whom Schwartz considers a marvel.

His name is Kadhir Raja, a 26-year-old teacher in the most crime-ridden neighborhood of Sacramento.
Raja’s school, Grant Union High, is among the top 10 in the state for football, producing several NFL draft picks like as Donté Stallworth, a standout wide receiver for the Cleveland Browns.

But it is among the state’s most dismal performers in academics. Only about 60 percent of the students who start school at Grant graduate, Raja said. In a 1-to-10 ranking system based on test scores, the school most recently received a one, meaning it fares among the bottom 10 percent across the state.

In California, the biggest predictor of whether a student will graduate is how he or she performs in Algebra I. At Grant Union High, the students performed abysmally — until Raja started teaching the class two years ago.

By the end of the first semester this year, about 90 of Raja’s 110 sophomores were on track to earn an A or B. Raja insists this isn’t grade inflation: Even though the tests are multiple choice, students must show their work. If they don’t, he marks the answer wrong, even if they got it right.
Regarding the first R — for relationships — Raja scores an A-plus, Schwartz said.
This is not because he simply engages in small talk with them. Rather, Raja puts himself in a position to punish and reward. At the beginning of the quarter, he immediately adds the numbers of their guardians to his cell phone. These are the people the students genuinely fear — not the administrators.

Raja teaches class with his phone at the ready. If a student misbehaves or under-performs, Raja makes a point of going out into the hallway on the spot to call the student’s parent (or grandparent, as is often the case). On the flip side, if a student shows progress, Raja does the same, sometimes in front of the whole class.

“There has to be some love, there has to be some fear,” he told “It’s gotta be constant reinforcement, to the point where it just becomes second nature. Where the kid is like, ‘Man I like doing good.’”

Regarding the second R, Raja makes the curriculum culturally “relevant” by teaching math in a language his students can relate to.

Take this simple algebraic equation: X – 2 = 4.

To explain the concept, Raja knows he needs to grab their attention. The X, he says, is a dog that doesn’t like numbers in his neighborhood. The numbers in the dog’s neighborhood thus must cross the bridge — the equal sign — but to do so must change their sign, in this case from a negative to a positive. X = 6.

Finally, Raja — who has not experienced a Just Communities seminar — demonstrates “rigor” not only by demanding a lot of his students, but also of himself.

“If the student fails, the teacher fails,” said Raja, whose parents emigrated from Ethiopia and raised him in Chicago. “If a teacher fails 50 percent of his class, that’s like a doctor that is killing 50 percent of his patients.”

Raja, who is working toward his doctorate in urban education at California State University, Sacramento, is starting to attract national attention. Later this year, he’ll bring several students to Washington, D.C., where he will speak to the National Council of Teaching Math.

In addition to exhibiting an uncanny mastery of Schwartz’s “three R’s,” Raja’s success also underscores the power of good teaching. In a December New Yorker article, Stanford economist Eric Hanushek was quoted as saying students of a very good teacher learn about a year-and-a-half’s worth of material in one year, while students of a very bad teacher learn just half a year’s worth.
Still, finding inspiring teachers is a major challenge, and some researchers say it is more fruitful for school districts to institutionalize the process of cultivating teacher excellence, such as through mentorship programs for teachers.

In any case, many of Raja’s students failed algebra for three consecutive years before getting to his class, where they earned an A. Because Raja is a new teacher, it’s still too early to tell whether this will be a gateway to college for some of those students. But Raja has high hopes.

“They’re just killing it,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, for the first time in my life I’m actually smart. … Their self-esteem goes up. Their confidence goes up. They do better in other classes, because they are smart now.”

Pacific Standard Magazine

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

Amid the hand-wringing over the parlous state of U.S. education, experts suggest that successes demonstrate that lasting reform will require constellations of effort, not just stars.

What Are American Schools Doing Right?

We hear it over and over again: The public education system in the United States is broken. Smart teachers burn out and leave early. The achievement gap between poor minority students and their affluent white peers won’t budge. America is losing ground to other developed nations on test scores.

By now, anyone who has ever read a newspaper — assuming, alarmists may add, that you can read at all — understands that the American public education system is rife with problems. But, surely, some practices work. Isn’t there a way to look at examples of success and replicate them?

With these questions in mind, talked to a handful of leading education experts. Some say the American public education system is ripe for a re-boot and should emulate European countries like Finland, where students don’t take standardized tests, and where local teachers and administrators — not the government — design the curriculum. Others point to the early success of a program in Chicago in which every new teacher receives an instructional coach for two years. Still others argue that while there is always room for improvement, schools in the United States remain the world’s finest and are performing at peak levels.

Whatever the case, there are, of course, plenty of success stories. Often, they center on the innovative efforts of an inspiring, charismatic individual who is able to single-handedly boost the test scores and overall learning experiences of hundreds of students.

Take the story of a 35-year-old teacher in California named Alex Kajitani, now known as “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

The Rappin’ Mathematician
By 2006, Kajitani had been teaching for a couple years and was on the verge of burnout. It’s a typical scenario: Half of the nation’s new teachers quit the profession by their fifth year.

Raised in Boulder, Colo., Kajitani had landed his first job as an educator teaching eighth-grade algebra in one of the poorest parts of the San Diego metropolitan area. At Mission Middle School in Escondido, 9 in 10 students are Latino, and just as many are categorized as poor. More than half are still learning English, and two-thirds of their parents never finished high school.

What’s more, the neighborhood sees gang activity and violent crime thrive.

Needless to say, it was difficult to get the kids interested in learning their quadratics and polynomials.

“I couldn’t get them to pay attention or remember anything I was teaching,” Kajitani said. “Then I noticed a rap song came out on the radio on Monday, and by Tuesday, they pretty much had the whole thing memorized.”

Kajitani had an epiphany. He would write a rap song based on algebra. That night, he labored away on a song called “Itty Bitty Dot.” It was about decimals.

The next morning, a reinvigorated Kajitani came to school equipped with a large pair of sunglasses. At the beginning of the class, he put them on and performed his rap for the students. Their reaction wasn’t encouraging.

“It was just an absolute disaster,” he said. “I got completely laughed at.”

Kajitani figured he was finished. Dejected, he trudged off to lunch. Then, a funny thing happened. While walking past a table in the cafeteria, he heard kids singing the “Itty Bitty Dot” song. The next day, the students ran into his room, eager to be there, asking if he had plans to appear on MTV.

Kajitani wrote more songs. The test scores of his students soared. He cut a professional CD with the help of a music producer and gave himself a catchy, if endearingly nerdy, moniker: “The Rappin’ Mathematician.”

Later, Kajitani began bringing a boombox into the classroom. His unorthodox method caught the attention of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Kajitani was nominated to become the teacher of the year in the Escondido Union School District. He won, putting him in the running for 2009 teacher of the year in San Diego County. Again, he won, making him a candidate for the California’s Teacher of the Year award.

Once again, the Rappin’ Mathematician prevailed, earning him the praise of California’s superintendent of public instruction, Jack O’Connell.

Now, Kajatani is one of four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year award. (The winner will be announced in April.) His CD is sold to teachers around the country, and his students are scoring “proficient” in all algebraic categories, putting them just above the statewide average.

“Now that I look back on it, it wasn’t really about rapping, it was about connecting,” Kajitani said. “It’s connecting with my students on their level in a way that is actually culturally relevant to them.”

Like Robin Williams’s performance as a spirited, book-destroying teacher in the critically acclaimed movie Dead Poet’s Society, Kajitani’s story is inspiring. Upon hearing it, school districts everywhere might consider purchasing his CD by the dozen. Inner-city teachers might be tempted to write songs around their lessons, or at least figure out ways to become more culturally relevant to their students. Administrators might strive to make room in their budgets for boomboxes and sunglasses.

If only it were that easy.

After spending years researching successful education systems, Boston College professor Andrew Hargreaves likes to issue a warning that, at first blush, seems a little odd: Beware the educational innovators.

Beware of Innovators
It’s not that the results of people like Kajitani aren’t legitimate. It’s just that an innovator’s successes usually cannot be replicated and tend to fizzle in the wake of his or her departure, said Hargreaves, the Thomas More Brennan Chair in Education in the Lynch School of Education at Boston College.

“You can always point to an interesting example of innovation; they always exist: a teacher here, a school there,” he said. “Our evidence is that most of those collapse over time and are not sustainable — because they are exceptions.”

Does this mean the quest for sustainable reform is fruitless? Absolutely not, says Hargreaves, author of the award-winning book Teaching In The Knowledge Society: Education in the Age of Insecurity.

According to Hargreaves, though educational innovators are beneficial, the best beacons of reform are not individual teachers, principals or schools but entire districts, cities and even nations.

Because every district, city and nation has its own unique history, what works for one might not work for all. In other words, successful system-wide reform comes in many shapes and sizes. But Hargreaves argues that the standouts share several underlying principles. It’s the principles, he says — not any specific practice — that must be internalized.

One of the key principles, Hargreaves said, is this: Successful reformers know how to build on the best aspects of their cultural past to take them into a prosperous future.

As an example, Hargreaves and many others point to Finland. The Nordic country of 5 million people is the world’s top performer on a global test called the Programme for International Student Assessment, which is given to students of every developed nation for comparative purposes.

The country’s economy is bustling, owing in large part to its technological creativity and corporate transparency. (Although in recent months, Finland’s economy has taken a hit like nearly all the others in the world.)
It wasn’t always this way. In the 1950s, the country was considered a rural backwater. Its education system went unnoticed by most experts in the field. Through the 1970s and ’80s, Finland’s economy depended on trade with its neighbor, the Soviet Union. But the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in 1991 opened up trade to other parts of the world for Russia — Finland had lost its captive market.

A crisis ensued. Unemployment in Finland shot up to nearly 20 percent. The nation’s leaders convened in emergency meetings to brainstorm ways to reinvent themselves. As a small country covered in snow for half the year, Finland does not enjoy the luxury of easily accessible natural resources.

Eventually, the leaders concluded that the country’s most valuable resource was its own people. After all, it’s a creative population: The country boasts more musical composers and orchestras per capita than anywhere else in the world. The leaders decided to build an economy based on knowledge, which required providing its citizens with the finest public education anywhere.

The general idea, Hargreaves said, was to connect its cultural past of creativity to a future of economic innovation.

It worked.

In his research of Finland, Hargreaves made several key observations. There, it is not easy to become a teacher. Only 1 in 10 applicants get the job, which affords the position a certain cachet. In keeping with the country’s creative past, all students take performing and creative arts until they graduate high school. With an eye toward the country’s economic future, students are also exposed to a rigorous math and science curriculum.

On a policy level, the standards and expectations are clear but broad: Local educators enjoy a good deal of professional flexibility. The details of the curricula are decided not by the government but the local teachers themselves, who hammer it out together in a culture of trust and cooperation, Hargreaves said.

“They feel responsible for all the children, not just the ones in their grade or department,” he said. The teachers, in other words, feel like they are a part of something large and important.

Moreover, there is no standardized testing. Every year a random sample of students is assessed but only to decipher how well any given school is performing. This discourages instructors from “teaching to the test,” because they don’t know who will be tested.

Hargreaves notes that critics of looking at Finland as an educational paragon often point out that the small, homogenous country can’t be compared to large, diverse nations such as the United States.

But he said many of the same principles are at play in other miracle-story school systems, with entirely different student populations.

The Story of Tower Hamlets
Hargreaves cites Tower Hamlets, an impoverished borough of London filled with Bangladeshi immigrants.

In 1997, of all the local school districts across England, the district in Tower Hamlets fared dead last based on test scores. By 2007, the district, which includes about 100 schools, was scoring at or above the national average in every subject while the demographics of the system remained the same.
What had changed?

In this case, it started with a strong leader who sought to re-configure the system in a way that would outlast her tenure, Hargreaves said.

As in the United States, the United Kingdom sets the improvement targets for all the nation’s school districts. But the new leader decided that in order to spur reform, new standards and targets had to be crafted for Tower Hamlets that were more ambitious than those given to them by the government.

Similar to what has been done in Finland, the district’s educators were brought in to set the new targets together.

Also, in 1997, teacher quality was often poor. This is because many teachers came from out of the country for the purpose of enjoying London for a couple years before moving on. More energy was devoted to attracting and retaining teachers who either hailed from the community or had designs to stay there.

In addition, in Tower Hamlets, the stronger schools band together to help the weak. A high-performing school may lend a struggling school extra resources — such as teachers or administrators — during tough times. When this occurs, the stronger school is reimbursed by the district.

Finally, Hargreaves said, in Tower Hamlets, the district makes a point to hire assistants for virtually every teacher. The assistants often are residents of the community, meaning many are Bangladeshi parents. In fact, about half of every school’s total number of paid employees are assistants from the community. This accomplishes two things: It frees up time for teachers to focus on instruction, and it fosters a relationship between the school staff and the parents, Hargreaves said.

Despite the radical differences between the Bangladeshi immigrants of the Tower Hamlets district and the largely homogenous population of Finland, Hargreaves argues that the two systems benefited from some of the same underpinning principles.

In both places, the professional educators were called upon to take ownership of an urgent mission, local educators were tasked with the responsibility of crafting their own set of standards, the school systems made conscious attempts to hire good teachers, and, rather than competing against one other, all the schools within each system rallied together, pooling resources and — in the case of Tower Hamlets — devoting extras to the laggards. (Hargreaves said the Finnish system doesn’t really have laggards.)

“What matters are the principles,” Hargreaves said. “What we have in most of America are principles that completely contradict everything I’ve just discussed, except for the sense of urgency.”

One thing Tower Hamlets didn’t do, in the face of then-Prime Minister Tony Blair’s national program, was farm out schools to the private sector.

One counterintuitive conclusion that Hargreaves touts is that school districts have a better shot at turning around weak schools when they are bigger. This flies in the face of the “smaller is better” ethos of many American public school educators.

“Some people want to put an end to districts, but I don’t think that is realistic,” he said. “Change that and you change one of the foundations in American democracy. But you can open your district up to learning from other districts.”

Hargreaves, however, allows that U.S. school-reform efforts are succeeding on one front: teacher training.

Chicago New Teacher Center
Over the past decade or so, a movement to pair new teachers with coaches or mentors has been growing in America. One such program, called the Chicago New Teacher Center, started three years ago. There, every new teacher in the schools serving the roughest areas of the city receives a coach for two years. The neighborhoods include some of the most violent in the country, including the one where the mother, brother and nephew of actress and singer Jennifer Hudson were killed in October.

As part of the program, the coach — typically a seasoned teacher, yet many years away from retirement — visits the classroom a couple times a week to act, at first, as a kind of assistant, helping to set up bulletin boards and decorate the classroom. As the weeks wear on, the coach assumes the role of confidant, asking the new teacher to talk about the most difficult aspects of the job.

Eventually, the coach provides feedback, which is expected to be non-threatening because the coaches are employed by the nonprofit New Teacher Center, not the school district. The idea is to objectively gauge how well a teacher is preparing his or her students to meet the state standards.

The coaches may offer pointers on handling some of the more delicate aspects of the job, such as parent-teacher conferences.

“Start with something positive,” advises Tamiko Clark, who taught elementary- and pre-school-aged kids in the Chicago area for 18 years before being recruited by the New Teacher Center. “Then you might get some information from the parents — ask what their concerns are.”

Only after making these efforts, she said, should teachers delve into their concerns about the child.

During the first two and a half years of the Chicago program, the retention rate of the roughly 90 teachers who received a coach the first year is 83 percent. So far, at least, the retention rate is on pace to significantly surpass the dismal national rate of 50 percent by the fifth year.

Also, early evidence suggests the test scores of the students are on the rise.

“School districts across America are starting to pay attention to this aspect of the work,” said Ellen Moir, executive director of the New Teacher Center at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which helped spearhead the Chicago project. “In the last few years, we’ve seen greater emphasis on teacher quality, instead of just letting them sink or swim.”

Middle School Success
Effective educational practices are especially vital when it comes to teaching what may be the most challenging age group: middle-schoolers. It’s an interesting and even difficult age as students learn to think abstractly.

Middle-school students, in their study of social-justice issues, develop an intellectual understanding of the concepts of fairness and egalitarianism. Yet when the bell rings, they don’t think twice about tormenting someone in the hallway.

“They can think about how, ‘Yeah, I know that’s the right thing to do,’ but they can’t always put it into practice,” said Debby Kasak, executive director of the National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform.

Since 1999, the forum has identified nearly 200 exceptional middle schools and summarized the highlights of each school on its Web site.

Unlike the gold-star schools that have come to characterize the perennial lists of U.S. News & World Report, the forum’s exemplars tend to post test scores that are average. But average scores are often a major achievement for schools serving disadvantaged populations.

Take Torch Middle School in Los Angeles County’s City of Industry. Ninety-four percent of the students are Latino — a third are still learning English, and 86 percent are considered poor.

Torch’s test scores have skyrocketed in three years, and now not only hover around the state average but also fare in the top 10 percent when stacked against schools across California with similar demographics.

At Torch, students are required to wear uniforms, thereby discouraging social competition. To ease the transition from the elementary grades to high school, movement from class to class in minimized: Sixth-graders leave their classroom only for their elective and P.E., and seventh- and eighth-graders split their day into two main 104-minute periods.

As with many of the schools deemed successful by the forum, teachers at Torch meet with each other frequently and are good at sharing information on individual students. The students’ writing portfolios, for instance, are passed from one grade level to the next.

“Another thing we find is that the teachers and the administrators love being at these schools,” Kasak said. “They are great places to work. Over time, the culture has been built up.”

United States Still No. 1?
Not all education experts agree that American schools are on the wrong path.

Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said that contrary to what we always hear, American schools have never been better.

“I happen to be one of those people that very much is convinced that in spite of the issues we have in public education in America, it’s still the best school system in the world,” he said. “We are the standard.”

Domenech said that partly due to the American education system’s constant push for improvement, it’s easy to view the data pessimistically.

“Yes, we can point to the fact that the graduation rate is only 70 percent and we should be doing better,” he said. But “it’s not like we dropped from 80 percent. The graduation rate continues to grow year after year. Fifty years ago, the percentage of kids graduating from high school was maybe 30 or 40 percent.”

Domenech concedes that the test scores of some countries have surpassed those of the United States, such as Singapore, New Zealand and, yes, Finland.

But these countries are small and homogenous, he said.

“Do we want to compare Finland to one of our rich suburbs? … Let’s face it, some of the finest schools in the world are in our suburbs.”

As an example, Domenech cites Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Va., where he once served as superintendent. In December, for the second year in a row, U.S. News & World Report listed Jefferson High as the nation’s No. 1 public high school.

“Does Finland have a better high school than Thomas Jefferson? I doubt it,” he said.

What separates America from the rest of the world, Domenech said, is diversity.

“In Japan, all the students are Japanese,” he said. “In Fairfax, we had over 140 languages that were spoken. I didn’t even know that there were that many languages spoken in the world.”

Domenech said America’s educational success comes down largely to the country’s abundance of money.

With money, he said, American schools have been able to reduce class size, hire teachers at higher salaries, purchase sophisticated grading and attendance software and furnish classrooms with good computers.

Invariably, he said, the schools that fall behind are the ones filled with students who are poor.

“This isn’t brain surgery here,” he said. “The more wealth, the better the kids are going to do in school. If we want to close the achievement gap, we need to drive the money and the resources.”

Pacific Standard Magazine

The Sun Is Bad For You; The Sun Is Good For You

The Sun Is Bad For You; The Sun Is Good For You

Go outside without sunscreen and risk melanoma, the deadliest version of skin cancer. Fail to get enough sunlight and risk dying of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and a host of other awful maladies. It’s enough to cause paralysis-by-analysis over a simple walk in the park.

In the past few months, a spate of surprising studies has added to a growing body of evidence suggesting that getting adequate amounts of vitamin D — the “sunshine vitamin” — protects against the risk of not only the osteoporosis and depression that people have long known about, but also colon cancer, breast cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and even multiple sclerosis.
This summer, media outlets such as the Los Angeles Times, U.S. News & World Report and The Dallas Morning News have responded to the studies by vaunting the value of the sun. They’ve also implied — and even reported — that sunscreen enthusiasts are taking their message too far.

“Don’t run from the sun’s vitamin D benefits,” proclaimed the Morning News in July.

Meanwhile, in a newly launched national ad campaign, the American Academy of Dermatology is trumpeting what seems to be the opposite message: Limit your exposure to ultraviolet rays. Called “Indoor Tanning Is Out,” the campaign that began in July includes TV public-service announcements featuring the testimonials of young women talking about the link between indoor tanning and melanoma.
The academy’s warnings about UV exposure don’t stop at the tanning booth.

Dr. William Hanke, president of the American Academy of Dermatology, told that there is almost never a good reason to stay out in the sun without protection.

“If you’re going to play golf or tennis, play early in the day, use sunscreen, cover up,” he said. “We’re not advocating, ‘Don’t go outdoors.’ What we’re advocating is, ‘Protect your skin from UV radiation.’ It’s the only skin you’re ever going to have.”

It’s a quandary. How can we reduce melanoma risk without cutting off the vitamin D supply that, according to recent studies, protect against all those other diseases?

Researchers on both sides of the debate agree — to a point, at least — that there’s an answer: vitamin D supplements.

Certain foods can also be helpful, but not as much as you might think.

Vitamin D generally cannot be found in fruits or vegetables and really only exists naturally in fish, especially of the larger ocean-dwelling variety, such as tuna. Also, certain foods, such as milk and orange juice, have been artificially fortified with the vitamin. But one would have to down 20 glasses or milk a day to get the minimum 1,000 International Units of vitamin D that institutions such as the Harvard Public School of Health and University of California, Berkeley now recommend.
In general, researchers — sun enthusiasts and sun-phobics alike — are urging people to take vitamin D supplements every day. Younger adults generally are recommended to take about 1,000 International Units; older adults, 2,000. These amounts greatly exceed the official recommendations of the Institute of Medicine, which suggests between 200 and 600 units, but many now think the official guidelines are out of date.

In any case, it’s probably no surprise that Hanke gets his daily 2,000 units of Vitamin D through supplements.

More tellingly, another advocate of the pill form is University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Hector DeLuca, who by all accounts is among the world’s brightest vitamin D stars.

DeLuca’s research on the benefits of vitamin D spans decades and has been extensively cited in media articles focusing on the benefits of getting more sun. But DeLuca himself doesn’t believe there’s much need to go into the sun without protection.

“I think the only real way to go is by mouth,” he told

As for going into the sun unprotected, he added, “I’m not going to do it because I don’t want to deal with the skin-cancer risk.”

In the late 1960s, DeLuca discovered that vitamin D must pass through the liver and kidney to work its magic. This paved the way for synthesis, and then vitamin D-based drugs — such as DeLuca’s namesake Hectorol — used to combat bone diseases like osteoporosis.

DeLuca concedes sunlight can be beneficial, although he cautions that the surprising epidemiological studies on vitamin D’s relationship to protecting the body from those diseases so far have merely pinpointed a strong correlation, not causation. Still, he said as early as the late 1970s, it was observed that multiple sclerosis rates were lowest in high-sunlight areas and vice versa.

Nonetheless, DeLuca said he is in complete agreement with the dermatologists who say it’s generally a bad idea to go out into the sun without protection.

“I like to garden, but I wear big hats and protect my body with clothes,” he said.

DeLuca said there is no meaningful difference between how the body processes vitamin D from a capsule and from sunlight, except the former doesn’t leave a person vulnerable to skin cancer.
“I don’t want to tangle with melanoma,” he said.

Even one of America’s most controversial sun enthusiasts is a vitamin D pill-popper. Boston University Medical Center professor Michael Holick wrote the incendiary book The UV Advantage, which advocated getting more sun.

Despite Holick’s love for the sun, he still ingests 1,400 units of vitamin D in the form of a capsule and a multivitamin every day.

But unlike DeLuca, Holick still urges people to get moderate amounts of direct sunlight.

Holick’s career actually began as a grad student working under DeLuca. He went on to become the chief of endocrinology, nutrition and diabetes and a professor of dermatology at Boston University. But in 2004, the head of the dermatology department fired him from his dermatology professor post in response to his book, calling it “an embarrassment.” (He is now a professor of medicine, physiology and biophysics at the university.)

Holick believes he was punished for challenging the anti-sun dogma of the dermatology world. He also believes it’s unrealistic to expect every man, woman and child in the world to take the supplements that he does.

“Most humans on this planet depend on and have always depended on the sun for their vitamin D,” he said.

In addition to taking supplements, Holick makes a point to absorb sunlight for two to three hours a week while cycling or playing tennis. He said he typically applies sunscreen to his face but leaves his arms and legs bare. His vitamin D blood levels, he boasts, are usually right in line with what many researchers now recommend: between 40 and 50 nanograms per milliliter.

Holick’s recommended dosage for sunlight depends on a range of variables, such as a person’s skin color and whereabouts. In general, the darker the skin — and the farther away from the equator — the longer a person needs to stay in the sun to absorb healthy levels of vitamin D.
A fair-skinned person, say, at Cape Cod around noon in June, he said, should get maybe 10 to 15 minutes a day, but African Americans generally need to be out in the sun five-to-10-times longer, he said.

When it comes to melanoma, which kills about 8,000 Americans every year, Holick’s view is nuanced. On the one hand, he believes moderate sunlight exposure actually decreases one’s risk of acquiring the disease, citing a study of Navy personnel in 1990. (The surprising study found that sailors who worked indoors displayed higher rates of malignant melanoma that those who worked outdoors.)
But burning, Holick said, is always bad.

“Never get a sunburn,” he said. “It’s the most likely way to increase your risk of malignant melanoma. … That’s why moderation is so important.”

Although Holick says he doesn’t advocate indoor tanning, his studies are routinely celebrated by the indoor tanning industry. In a 2007 study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, Holick concluded that adults who visited a tanning salon at least once a week showed healthier levels of vitamin D at the end of the winter than adults who merely took a multivitamin. (Multivitamins are not the same as vitamin D supplements. In general they contain just 400 units of vitamin D, compared to the supplements, which usually contain 1,000. The Harvard School of Public Health suggests taking one of each daily.)

Holick’s study was panned by critics who noted that it was partly funded by the indoor tanning industry; he responded that the industry’s support amounted to just 2 percent of his budget.
One major Holick supporter, the Indoor Tanning Association, in March launched its own public relations gambit to counter the campaign of the American Association of Dermatology. The association’s home page is filled with links to recent articles lauding the benefits of the sun.
Association spokeswoman Sarah Longwell said there is no proof that tanning beds cause melanoma.
“It’s been frustrating to see dermatologist after dermatologist speak about it as though it was a fact,” she said. Longwell conceded that sun-burning is bad and said the industry standard is to encourage moderation by imposing limits on the number of visits a person can make in a specified period of time.

“One thing about tanning salons that is superior to sun exposure is that it is a controlled environment,” she said. “When I go out in the sun, I am likely to burn. I fall asleep, my foot gets sunburned because I missed it with sun lotion.”

But one thing the American Association of Dermatology has that its adversary doesn’t is the power of anecdotal stories. Take 24-year-old Meghan Rothschild, whose story is featured in the association’s print ads.

A member of a fair-skinned family in Massachusetts, Rothschild was no sun-worshipper as a teenager. But when she returned from a family vacation in Florida with an attractive tan on her stomach at age 17, she decided to maintain it.

Over the course of about 2½ years, she went to a tanning salon once a week, for about 20 minutes each time.

“I’d actually been told tanning was much safer than the sun,” Rothschild told
When Rothschild discovered a slightly itchy mole on her stomach, she was worried enough to see a doctor, but the doctor told her it didn’t look like anything malignant. She nonetheless had it removed, and went to the tanning salon the same day. But in January of 2004, when getting the stitches removed, she was startled by the grave expression on the face of her new doctor.
“Is there anyone here with you?” he asked her. Puzzled, she said no. Then, he dropped a bomb: she had stage II melanoma.

“He starts throwing out words like ‘cancer,’ ‘survival rate,’ ‘lymph nodes’ and ‘treatment,’” Rothschild remembers. “Basically I’m traumatized for the next two weeks.”

A month later, after a three-hour surgery, a six-inch chunk of skin was removed from her stomach, leaving a C-shaped scar. The surgery required 75 internal and external stitches.

Although Rothschild’s extended family has some history of cancer — her grandmother had breast cancer and an aunt had stomach cancer — Rothschild said she is the only one who has contracted melanoma. She firmly believes the tanning bed caused it.

The cancer has remained at bay, but now Rothschild doesn’t go anywhere outside without sunblock. Complicating matters, she works as an event-promotions manager at Six Flags, which requires her to spend much of her time outdoors. “I can’t hibernate — I’m 24 years old,” she said. “I just have to be really proactive.”

Meanwhile, vitamin D experts warn that it’s also possible to overdo it with the supplements.
When this happens, a person starts to experience the hardening of soft tissues, such as kidneys. Oddly, this cannot happen through sun exposure: Once the body burns, it stops producing vitamin D.
“The debate now is where is the safe place, and where is even 1 percent of the population at risk,” DeLuca said. “We don’t know that. Some people think we can go as high as 10,000 units a day. I think 2,000 units a day is safe.”

Pacific Standard Magazine

Big Tobacco’s ‘Other’ Products Catch Fire

Also on the rise is the ‘cool quotient’ of mini cigars, which are not subject to the same level of legal scrutiny as cigarettes.

Big Tobacco’s ‘Other’ Products Catch Fire

Just because cigarette sales have been steadily falling in recent years doesn’t mean the tobacco industry is going up in smoke.

On the contrary, sales of other tobacco products, such as snuff, snus, roll-your-owns and especially cigars are on the rise, according to a new Harvard University study.

Two years ago, R.J. Reynolds purchased moist snuff manufacturer Conwood. Philip Morris in the past two years has also begun testing snuff and spit-free snus in Dallas and Indianapolis.

Meanwhile, the popularity of mini cigars is exploding among young people, especially in the hip-hop world. In the last eight years, their sales have mushroomed by more than 100 percent, according to the study.

The most popular brand of mini cigar in the hip-hop culture is Black and Mild, a name taken up by several small-time rappers and DJs. In December, Philip Morris purchased the brand from John Viet Middleton Inc.

Researchers attribute the growing demand for the other products partly to the fact that the federal and state governments and the courts don’t seem to apply the same level of scrutiny to them as they do cigarettes.

In what the researchers call a “loophole for death,” the other products are cheaper due to lower taxes. The federal tax on cigarettes is at least 10 times higher than that for snuff, snus, roll-your-owns and cigars, according to the study.

Also, the leading producer of anti-smoking ads — the American Legacy Foundation — is prohibited by court order from targeting any type of tobacco product other than cigarettes.

The foundation’s hands are tied by the terms of a landmark settlement in 1998 between the tobacco industry and 46 states called the Master Settlement Agreement. Part of the $206 billion settlement required the tobacco companies to fund anti-tobacco ads, but the focus was on cigarettes because they were the product being marketed to minors at the time, said Najma Roberts, communications manager for the foundation.

Now, she said, the foundation is stepping up its research of mini cigars to determine whether they should ask the federal government to allow them to train their crosshairs on that tobacco product as well.

“They are big in the urban community, specifically among Hispanics and African Americans,” Roberts told “There’s definitely a misconception that they are not as bad as cigarettes.”

Meanwhile, Congress is moving ahead on giving the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the power to regulate tobacco products with a bill that in part would outlaw sweet- and spice-flavored cigarettes. Specifically omitted from that ban on “any artificial or natural flavor” is menthol, a flavor especially popular among African-American smokers. The Congressional Black Caucus has protested the exclusion.

In the eight-year Harvard study, which was published in the June 11 edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers concluded that the growing demand for the other products has offset by one-third the 18 percent drop in the sale of cigarettes since 2000.

Put another way, even though the sale of cigarettes has fallen by 18 percent in eight years, the sale of all tobacco products in that time has decreased by only 12 percent due to the rising consumption of cigars, snuff, snus and roll-your-owns.

“The apparent magnitude of overall decline in tobacco use in the U.S. may be illusory,” the authors of the study said in a statement.

Associate researcher Hillel Alpert, one of the study’s two authors, told that he is worried about what seems to be a widespread belief that cigars and the other alternative tobacco products are somehow healthier than cigarettes.

“If somebody were to jump out of a tall building, it doesn’t matter whether they jump from the 10th story or the 20th story — it leads to the same result,” he said.

In the study — the first of its kind in the U.S. — the researchers attributed the growing demand of the other tobacco products largely to their lower prices. Ever since the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, the largest civil settlement in American history, cigarettes have been heavily taxed but not the other tobacco products.

The researchers urge the federal and state governments to tax the other products equally.

“Lower federal and state taxes on these non-cigarette products are keeping tobacco addiction affordable and encouraging preventable disease and death,” professor Greg Connolly, the study’s lead researcher and the director of Harvard’s Tobacco Control Research and Training Program, said in a statement. “State campaigns to curb tobacco use should address this loophole for death.”

Meanwhile, the American Legacy Foundation isn’t the only tobacco watchdog that would like to take aim at mini cigars.

Similarly hamstrung is the National Association of Attorneys General, which, although it is allowed to go after tobacco companies for using inappropriate marketing tactics to sell cigarettes, roll-your-owns and smokeless products, is prohibited from going to court over the portrayal of small cigars such as Black and Mild. The association has argued that the “cigars” are erally just cigarettes in disguise.

Because such products are wrapped in tobacco leaf, rather than paper, they fall under the category of cigar and are thus exempt from many restrictions that apply to cigarettes, according to a study from the Baltimore City Health Department. But the study also says that the mini cigars, unlike regular cigars, tend to be inhaled.

Like the American Legacy Foundation, the Association of Attorneys General is trying to change the rules pertaining to mini cigars. It has requested that the federal government broaden its definition of cigarettes to include them but, so far, to no avail, said an attorney with the association who asked that his name not be used because he is not authorized to speak to the press.

Meanwhile, mini cigars are the fastest-growing tobacco product on the market.

In 2000, Americans bought enough cigars to equal 112 million packs of cigarettes. By 2007, that number had jumped to 242 million.

Cigarettes are still by far the biggest seller. In 2007, Americans purchased 17.4 billion packs. The next most prevalent form of tobacco consumption is moist snuff, which in 2007 sold the equivalent of 2.9 billion packs of cigarettes — a 30 percent increase over the amount sold in 2000. The consumption of roll-your-own cigarettes has also sharply risen, jumping in that time frame from the equivalent of 281 million packs to 537 million.

The amount of money the tobacco industry spends on marketing has also increased in the past decade. Between 1996 and 2005, the amount spent on smokeless tobacco ads more than doubled, from $121 million to $251 million, according to a report from Tobacco Free Kids. The amount spent on cigarette ads rose in tandem, from $5.1 billion to $13.1 billion, according to the organization.

The meteoric ad budget seems a little counterintuitive, given how the 1998 settlement banned cigarette ads on billboards and how cigarette ads seldom make appearances in newspapers or magazines anymore. Now the ads show up in the form of in-store promotions, coupons and direct mail.

Speaking on behalf of Philip Morris, Greg Mathe, spokesman for parent company Altria, made no bones about the fact that the industry is trying to grow and make money. But he said the tobacco company knows better than to try to target minors.

“We have an adult-only focus,” he said.

What’s more, he said, the company does not try to pitch any of its products as somehow healthier than others.

“There is no such thing as a safe cigarette,” said Mathe, who, when asked, said that he does not use tobacco products. “Tobacco products are harmful. They cause serious diseases and they are addictive.”

Pacific Standard Magazine

Red Meat: A Healthy Choice?

An award-winning journalist says not red meat but refined carbohydrates are responsible for heart disease, diabetes, cancer and many other maladies of civilization. He and other experts weigh in.

Red Meat: A Healthy Choice?

In the wake of the meteoric rise and fall of the Atkins Diet, the concept of eating red meat in recent years has taken a beating in the wider public consciousness.

From books like Fast Food Nation — which brought to light the foul quality of much of the meat in fast food — to attack ads like a recent PETA campaign portraying Inconvenient Truth-teller Al Gore as a portly hypocrite for eating meat, the general message has been that meat is bad. Even environmentalists have joined in, stressing that a calorie of cow has a much larger carbon footprint than a calorie of carrot.

Moreover, many nutritionists and doctors have for decades warned that eating too much red meat is unhealthy.

“The less red meat, the better,” Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Time magazine in 2001, in an article titled “Red Alert on Red Meat.” “At most, it should be eaten only occasionally. And it may be maximally effective not to eat red meat at all.”

At the same time, vegetarianism is increasingly associated with going green and living healthfully. In What to Eat — a widely praised book that came out in 2006 — leading nutritionist Marion Nestle says vegetarians are “demonstrably healthier than meat eaters.”

But are steak dinners really so bad for our health? A controversial, award-winning journalist who is making the rounds on the university lecture circuit says no. In his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes isn’t so much endorsing red meat as he is challenging the very foundation on which the nutrition establishment bases its advice.

“(The balanced diet) has the advantage of being politically correct,” he wrote. “Whether it is healthier, however, than, say, a mostly meat diet absent any refined or easily digestible carbohydrates … is still anybody’s guess.”

His 450-page book, which came out in the fall, hypothesizes that the maladies of western civilization — heart disease, cancer, obesity and even Alzheimer’s — are caused not by the red meat and saturated fat we’ve been told to avoid but by the refined carbohydrates that until recent years were largely overlooked and in many cases even encouraged.

The book isn’t necessarily setting out to vindicate the Atkins Diet, which encourages people to eat meat, eggs, cheese and animal products and abstain from white bread, sugars, potatoes and other carbohydrates. Still, its conclusions amount to a tacit endorsement.

To some extent, Taubes’ book, which delves deep into the history of nutrition research, is bolstered by a surprising spate of recent studies indicating that the Atkins Diet not only may be the most effective weight-loss method but may also protect against heart disease.

Nonetheless, experts of all stripes say long-range studies are still lacking.

Agreement — Up to a Point
Speaking with, Taubes, a self-described carnivore, said his research has led him to believe that humans can thrive on all-meat diets. Indeed, he says, some of the world’s healthiest populations lived this way for centuries.

“The fuel for the low-fat dogma was a kind of anti-meat movement that started in the 1960s,” he said. “I think back to the ’80s, when I was eating skinless chicken breast, pasta and burritos and believed if I had a steak I was going to kill myself. But there never was any particularly compelling evidence that red meat, per se, was particularly bad for you.”

Taubes’ ideas are shunned by much of what he likes to call the nutrition establishment. By now, most of the experts in the field know his name, and many resent his characterization of their life’s work as fatally flawed. His 2002 New York Times article, “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?,” is widely credited for single-handedly reviving the Atkins craze — for a time. The headline alone suggests today’s nutrition experts might be about as wrong as the ones who once insisted that the sun rotates around Earth. In fact, it’s an analogy that Taubes regularly invokes to illustrate how backward he thinks many dieticians have it.

For all of Taubes’ contrarian views, some experts are coming to his defense. His book has been endorsed by Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In his latest book, In Defense of Food — published this year — Pollan refers to Good Calories, Bad Calories as an “important new book.”

To Taubes’ own shock, his work has been publicly praised by Dr. Andrew Weil, the alternative-medicine guru who has long warned against eating too much red meat. In October, shortly after the release of Good Calories, Bad Calories, Weil, who shares a publisher with Taubes, was the lone expert in a group of three on Larry King Live who spoke favorably of the book. The TV moment created a mini-stir in the diet world and was streamed on YouTube.

“I think this is a very important book; I have been recommending it to my medical colleagues and students,” said Weil, eliciting a somewhat relieved-looking nod from Taubes, who had spent the first segment of the show sparring with Oprah Winfrey’s doctor. “He raises big questions, and I think there are some very big ideas in this book. One of them is that there is absolutely no scientific evidence for the belief that fat is the driver of obesity.”

(Later in the show, Winfrey’s doctor, Mehmet C. Oz — co-author of the best-selling You: On a Diet — called Taubes “psychotic” adding, “I think you really believe it’s true.”)

Both Pollan and Weil embrace one of Taubes’ biggest points: that the science leading to the government’s enduring recommendation to eat less fat — and in particular less saturated fat — was flawed, and alternative hypotheses, such as the one condemning simple carbohydrates, were pushed to the margins.

However, both Pollan and Weil stop short of sharing Taubes’ enthusiasm for red meat. Pollan urges people to “eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Weil repeats his praise for Taubes on his own Web site, which produced a deferential article called “The Surprising Reason People Get Fat,” but says he draws the line at the recommendation to eat a lot of meat. Instead, he steers people toward eating fish.

At least one meat-endorsing expert finds this paradox puzzling. Sally Fallon, who co-authored Eat Fat, Lose Fat with longtime nutrition maverick Dr. Mary Enig, criticized Pollan for not taking a stronger stance, even though his book gives props to the work of Enig. “He talks about (the merits of) traditional foods. Then when you get to his recommendations, they are the opposite of what he just said,” Fallon told “It’s like he forgot what he said.”

Disagreement Is the Spice of Life
Taubes is lecturing at more and more universities and academic conferences. The growing list includes the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, Canada’s McGill University and the University of Southern California.

Taubes also may speak soon at the University of Minnesota, the birthplace of the now increasingly questioned notion that saturated fat and red meat cause heart disease.

One of Taubes’ critics is Willett, chair of the nutrition department at Harvard University, who was quoted in the Time article. Speaking to, Willett stood by his statement from seven years ago on the dangers of red meat.

He said he agrees that sugars and starches, from candy to potatoes, are problematic. In fact, he said, now that trans fats are on the run, refined carbohydrates have replaced them as the No. 1 nutritional problem in the United States. But just because those carbohydrates are bad, he said, does not mean red meat is good.

“You’ve got two bad things being compared,” said Willett, author of the best-selling Eat, Drink, and Be Healthy. “Empty calories increase weight gain. … If you replace that with red meat, it’s just about a wash.”

When it comes to heart disease, Willett, one of the leaders of a decades-long project called the Nurses’ Health Study, said he agrees that a diet heavy in red meat is no more dangerous than a diet heavy in refined carbohydrates. But he said red meat seems uniquely correlated to other ailments, such as colon cancer.

“It does look like you would be better eating less red meat,” he said, “particularly processed red meat.”

Willett recommends a diet high in polyunsaturated fats, the kind found in olive oil, fish, nuts, beans, poultry and “maybe some eggs.” Asked to comment on Taubes and his thesis, Willett said, “Taubes has simplistic answers, but there is no simple path to truth.”

Another expert, Dr. Diana Schwarzbein, says eating too few carbohydrates can be just as damaging as eating too many. Unlike Willett, Schwarzbein, an expert on hormone replacement therapy, says there is nothing wrong with eating red meat in moderation. But she says a dearth of carbohydrates leads to a shortage of the insulin needed to keep serotonin levels normalized in the brain. This, she says, can lead to such side effects as sugar cravings, depression, weight gain around the midsection and sleep disturbances.

In general, she believes people should consume two carbohydrate grams for every protein gram. Back in the high-carb craze of the 1980s, she says, the ratio was more like 10-to-1 or 20-to-1. But now “with the pendulum swung to the other end, and the overconsumption of protein, it’s more like 1-to-10 to 20,” she said.

“How ironic is it that the guy (Taubes) who says, ‘Hey, that (high-carb diet) is going too far’ is now advocating something extreme that is low-carb?” she said. “I believe in moderation.”

A Polarizing Figure
A three-time winner of the Science in Society award from the National Association of Science Writers, Taubes studied physics at Harvard and has written well-received books about other scientific controversies, such as cold fusion.

But he touched a nerve with “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” The gist of the article was that Atkins, who had always been widely maligned by experts, might have had it right all along. Maybe the diet was not only the best way to lose weight but also — contrary to what the leading authorities were saying — better for your health.

The article sparked an uproar. Reason magazine printed a scathing article about Taubes called “Big Fat Fake.” And some of the sources in Taubes’ article — including Willett — claimed they were quoted out of context.

In any case, “Big Fat Lie” led to a $700,000 book advance for Good Calories, Bad Calories.

The book took five years to write, and though obviously denser than the article, is no less provocative. While it devotes most of its pages to highlighting the flawed science that led to the many still-existing public notions about nutrition, it does dedicate one section to the possible health benefits of a diet that is 100 percent meat.

In this section, Taubes tells the story of anthropologist Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who dropped out of Harvard around 1900 and spent a decade with the Inuit, a tribe in Alaska and Canada. The Inuit ate nothing but animal fats — mostly caribou but also fish, seal, polar bear, rabbits and so on. They ate no fruits and vegetables and no carbohydrates.

“The Inuit, (Stefansson) insisted, as well as the visiting explorers and traders who lived on this diet, were among the healthiest if not the most vigorous populations imaginable,” Taubes wrote.

That experience later inspired Stefansson to embark on an experiment in which he and another man — Danish explorer Karsten Anderson — were the subjects. In 1928, overseen by a committee of researchers, the two men ate nothing but meat for one year. After a year of eating 2,600 calories a day, not only did the men lose weight; their blood pressure either dropped or stayed low, their kidneys continued to function without flaw and their mineral and vitamin counts displayed no deficiencies.

“The only dramatic part of the study was the surprisingly undramatic nature of the findings,” wrote Eugene DuBois, the Cornell researcher who summarized the results.

Most striking was the good health of the men despite their deprivation of fiber and Vitamin C — two nutrients lacking in a meat-heavy diet. Taubes explains this by positing a still-untested theory: Perhaps people only need these nutrients when their diets include significant amounts of sugars and starches.

However, the passage about Stefansson is the book’s lone example of an all-meat diet, and Taubes acknowledges that few scientists today will pay much heed to a study containing just two subjects. But few if any other all-meat studies have been done, he added.

“It would probably be considered unethical today,” he said.

In any event, Taubes isn’t convinced that it’s vital for diligent carb-watchers to consume much in the way of fruits, fiber or even leafy greens. “Once you remove (the sugars and white bread), I don’t know if you get any benefit from eating vegetables, other than that it might make your mother happy,” he said.

The best modern-day equivalent to the all-meat studies might be those looking into the merits of the Atkins Diet. Until about five years ago, no such studies existed.
The findings are surprising.

In 2003, a pair of studies from Pennsylvania published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that the meat-heavy, carb-light diet showed not only good results on weight loss but also no adverse health effects. In 2007, a yearlong Stanford study comparing the effects of four different diets on obese women showed similar results: The Atkins Diet was, by a modest margin, the biggest pound-shedder. Also, the cardiovascular health of the Atkins women improved significantly: Their triglycerides plummeted, their blood pressure dropped and their high-density lipoprotein (also known as the “good cholesterol”) rose — all good results.

The study was “pretty much in line with what all the other studies have shown comparing Atkins and low-fat diets,” Bonnie Brehm, assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Cincinnati College of Nursing, told The Washington Post.

And just this month, a University of Illinois study concluded that a high-protein diet with lean meats and low-fat dairy foods was more effective for helping women lose weight without losing bone than a conventional weight-loss diet based on the food-guide pyramid.

“This is an important finding because many people, especially women in midlife, are concerned with both obesity and osteoporosis,” said Ellen Evans, a U of I associate professor of kinesiology, in a statement. “Many people lose bone mass when they lose weight.”

Still, it’s unclear in any of the cases whether the pounds stayed off, and researchers say studies tracking long-term health effects of Atkins are still lacking. Also, the Atkins studies certainly don’t jibe with Schwarzbein’s life experience as a practitioner: She blames the diet for the hormonal problems exhibited by many of her own patients.
The Atkins studies aren’t the only surprising developments of late.

In the book In Defense of Food, Pollan writes that the most up-to-date studies show that “the amount of saturated fat in the diet probably may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease.” He furthermore stated that researchers have been backpedaling from this so-called lipid hypothesis quietly, almost sheepishly.

“The lipid hypothesis is quietly melting away, but no one in the public health community, or the government, seems quite ready to publicly acknowledge it,” he wrote.

Origin of the Thesis
The widespread belief that saturated fat leads to heart disease started in the 1950s. The father of the theory was a University of Minnesota scientist named Ancel Keys, who championed a Mediterranean diet consisting primarily of fruits, vegetables, pastas and bread. His work has enjoyed tremendous staying power.

In 1977, when Sen. George McGovern drafted what came to be known as The Dietary Goals for the United States, he drew heavily on Keys’ research. The first recommendation: Increase carbohydrate consumption. The second (of six) was to decrease the amount of fat in the diet, particularly saturated fat. To this day, such carb-laden grains as bread, pasta and cereals still make up the largest share of the five food groups depicted on the Food Pyramid (now known as MyPyramid). The “Meat & Beans” group is still consigned to the smallest.

When Keys died in 2004 at age 101, The Washington Post published an obituary that — in the first paragraph — stated that he had “discovered that saturated fat was a major cause of heart disease.” (Atkins, by the way, died at age 72.)

If Taubes’ beliefs on carbohydrates are true, wrote Pollan, “then there is no escaping the conclusion that the dietary advice enshrined not only in the McGovern ‘goals’ but also in the National Academy of Sciences report, the dietary guidelines of the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society and the U.S. food pyramid bears direct responsibility for creating the health crisis that now confronts us.”

Pollan was referring to the oft-mentioned obesity epidemic, which officially began in the early 1980s, the dawn of the high-carb craze.

Willett acknowledges that some of the conclusions drawn from Keys’ studies were “overly simplistic.” But he says Keys’ contribution to science is still valuable. “The main thing that Ancel Keys did was show there was a huge difference in heart-disease rates in different countries,” he said.

As for the results of the recent Atkins studies, Willett isn’t surprised. “Those are the studies that compare a high-fat diet with a high-carbohydrate, -starch and -sugar diet,” he said. “Most of those studies show not very much of a difference.”

According to Willett, the real story is how the twofold increase in Americans’ consumption of polyunsaturated fats — fish, beans, nuts, lean meats — has coincided with a 50 percent drop in heart-disease deaths over the past 40 years.

“That was a huge public health accomplishment that was sort of overlooked,” he said.

(Pollan counters this point, however, by suggesting that the lower mortality rates may simply owe to better treatment of heart disease.)

Moving forward, Taubes says he would like to see a study comparing the mostly meat diet to the widely accepted idea of a “balanced diet.” To date, he says, it’s never been done.
He also calls for more studies in what he views as a specific area of neglect: the carbohydrate hypothesis, or the idea that eating too many starches and sugars is the main driver of obesity and heart disease.

“Such trials would be expensive,” Taubes wrote. “But it’s hard to imagine that this controversy will go away if we don’t do them.”

Pacific Standard Magazine

The Trouble With Genius

Students diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism, perform as well as or better than their peers academically but, despite their large vocabularies, struggle with social interaction. The Koegel Autism Center, long a world leader on autism research, hopes to teach the students the art of conversation.

The Trouble With Genius

In many ways, Paul Griffin is typical of a talented college freshman.

A gifted artist, perceptive reader and nimble athlete who jumps horses competitively, Paul graduated from high school with a 3.8 grade-point average. He wants to join a fraternity and relishes — only half-jokingly — the thought of “girls and beer.”

Yet, if you talk to him for less than a minute, you realize something is amiss. Paul is one of eight freshmen at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism characterized by difficulties in social communication.

It is no accident that he and most of the others attend UCSB. Long a world leader on research for autism, the university is expanding its focus into the largely uncharted waters of Asperger’s.

For people with the disorder, the key to reducing suffering in later life is early intervention, researchers say. Research on the topic remains limited, however, and in many states, people with Asperger’s — unlike those with autism — do not qualify for government assistance to pay for home visits or behavioral therapy.

“It’s considered a more mild disability,” said Dr. Lynn Koegel, who, with her husband Bob, runs the UCSB Koegel Autism Center. “But it can be as big of an issue as any other disability. If a person can’t get a job or interact socially with other people, their choices are pretty limited.”

Last year, UCSB’s autism center received a nearly $1 million grant to create one of the first research centers for Asperger’s in the nation. In the past year, the center joined a handful of institutions — such as the Asperger’s Study Group at New Hampshire’s Keene State College — in the forefront of a neglected area of study.

In recent years, psychologists and public schools have gotten better at identifying children with autism. But Asperger’s remains elusive, as those who exhibit the traits tend to perform on par with or better than their peers academically. Their struggles tend to be strictly social, and as children, they tend to be quiet.

“It’s so common to see them walking around the playground, sitting alone in the library — anything that’s anti-social,” said Koegel. “The kids that are troublemakers — they have whole teams working on them. But the kids with Asperger’s, who don’t do any talking, often slip through the cracks.”

Sometimes, such people thrive, perhaps owing to their intense single-minded focus. Indeed, several famous people, alive and dead, are widely believed to be part of the Asperger’s club, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates; Craig Nicholls, frontman of the band The Vines; Andy Warhol; and Albert Einstein.

For most people with the disorder, however, the solitude over time can exact a toll. Adults with Asperger’s syndrome tend to suffer from loneliness or depression. Many never marry, and some never date, even though they’d like to.

With this in mind, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation asked the UCSB center to develop new treatment models that can eventually be used to help Asperger’s clients of all ages around the world.

In meeting Paul and his father, the first thing that stood out was Paul’s inflection, even in a downtown restaurant. Asked about the length of the drive from their home near the greater Los Angeles city of Thousand Oaks to Santa Barbara, Paul provided a monotone answer that everyone in the restaurant could hear: “Oh, I’d say about an hour or so!”

An amiable 19-year-old with an intense gaze, Paul clutched a little bag filled with shiny rocks as he talked. Occasionally he’d take one out and rub it — for good luck, he said. Sometimes, in the middle of a conversation, his eyes would drift dreamily toward a window. When this happened, his dad would gently bring him back into the discussion.

Although Paul can hold his own in a conversation, at times he veers onto strange tangents. While talking about his hopes and fears about college, for instance, Paul at one point got on the topic of world travel. He listed some of the places he’s visited with his family: Australia, England, Hong Kong, South Africa, Singapore.

“London is very clean,” he said. “Singapore also. In Singapore, if you do road rage, you get caned — which I like.”

Paul, who has his driver’s license, went on to describe an unpleasant experience in his hometown in which a motorist yelled at him at an intersection. “If that man had been in Singapore, he’d be caned, and he’d be crying like a little schoolgirl,” he said, loudly.

His dad interjected, in a soothing tone. “Paul, calm down. All you have to do is drive away — say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and just ride on.”

Paul responded, “Yeah, yeah. That’s what the nice thing about Singapore is.

Society Slow to Understand Asperger’s Syndrome
Asperger’s syndrome is named after the Austrian pediatrician Hans Asperger, who in the 1940s wrote a paper describing the “odd” behavior of four boys whom he referred to as “little professors.” In 1981, the term Asperger’s syndrome was coined by an English psychiatrist named Lorna Wing. Professionals, however, didn’t recognize it as an official neuropsychiatric disorder until 1994.

Over the years, many people with the disorder have been misdiagnosed as having depression, schizophrenia or attention-deficit disorder. Due to the past obscurity of Asperger’s, many of the newly diagnosed are adults.

A study of Finnish youth in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry found that about one in 400 children are diagnosed with Asperger’s. The majority are male.

Asperger’s clients tend to be flummoxed by the nuances of social interaction. While most have an average to above-average vocabulary, they often struggle with things like eye contact, facial expressions, slang and humor.

In addition to crippling their love lives, the disorder can ruin their careers (although the focus that accompanies the syndrome has proven positive in areas like information technology). A couple times a year, Koegel said, she receives a call from the county jail on behalf of a client with Asperger’s.

“Some adult that has Asperger’s will get antagonized at work and explode,” she said. “And just as bad are the calls from people who are saying they don’t have any friends or are having trouble getting jobs because they don’t come across well in the interview. They don’t understand what they are doing wrong.”

The Center
Founded in the early 1970s by Bob Koegel, the UCSB Koegel Autism Center marks the spot of the nation’s first special-education classroom for students with autism. (Lynn Koegel started working there in the late 1970s.) In the 1980s, actor Dustin Hoffman visited the center in his quest to nail down the lead part in the movie Rain Man, for which he earned an Academy Award. The movie is widely credited for introducing the concept of autism to mainstream America.

At the time of the center’s inception, most clinicians in the United States attributed the cause of the disorder to bad parenting and sent the vast majority of children with autism to mental institutions. Koegel, however, was convinced that those children could learn and therefore created the classroom.

The Koegels’ research gained steam and exposure as the number of children diagnosed with a form of autism mushroomed over 20 years from one in 10,000 children to the current one in 150.

Having developed a widely used technique called “pivotal response” treatment, in which children with autism are offered incentives, such as colored candy, to talk about certain things, such as their favorite color, the Koegels are now setting out to make similar advances on treating Asperger’s.

The students they are working with tend to be bright; many have aced their SATs. Still, they clearly will not be able to figure out on their own how to talk to people.

To help them, the Koegels this year began videotaping the students conversing with peers in a living room-type setting with couches and chairs.

Afterward, the students watch the tapes with researchers, who help highlight their strengths and gaffes, which range from being argumentative to consistently failing to fill long pauses. One young man was pleased to see that he scored well on being cordial (“I love Italian food,” “Hey, I do too”) but winced at the awkward silences that resulted from his failure to ever ask a question (“So, what’s your favorite restaurant?”). He also realized that he spoke in a monotonic voice.

For the next step, the Koegels will observe the students in a live social setting — in this case, a series of bowling outings. Ultimately, they hope to get the students to a point at which they have real friends and are dating.

For many, going from a laboratory setting to a budding relationship is a slow process, but some have already arrived.

One such student had tried to commit suicide several times before meeting with Lynn Koegel. Like many with Asperger’s, the student had no trouble with academics: He earned straight As but was virtually incapable of talking about anything besides his favorite movie.

As part of his therapy, Koegel began teaching the student how to hold a normal conversation. “If I said, ‘Oh, I had such a good lunch today,’ he had to say, ‘What did you have for lunch?’” she explained.

To be sure, his transformation was far from instantaneous. At one point, he seemed to have become a perfect conversationalist, but it turned out he only thrived in a clinical setting. This limitation became awkwardly apparent when Koegel commended his skills.

“He replied, ‘Yeah, but it’s easy with you, because you’re old,’” she said, laughing. “This happens a lot with people with Asperger’s. They might comment on skin color when it’s not appropriate, or weight. My feeling, or theory, is that they haven’t been socializing for that long, and the only way you learn to socialize is by socializing.”

Still, the student wound up putting his skills to good use: By the end of the year, he was dating.

A Little Professor
The program will also focus on younger children, who, to this day, are still often referred to by experts as “little professors.”

At a university summer camp, Koegel introduced Liam, a precocious 7-year-old with high-functioning autism. (Scientists debate whether high-functioning autism and Asperger’s are really the same thing.) Instead of saying “Hi,” Liam turned his hands into a telescope, closed one eye and began slowly scanning the clouds. Koegel coaxed him into saying hello. He complied, without making eye contact, and then informed me that, while Uranus has only 11 rings, Saturn has 10,000 or more.

He added, in a slow, meticulous cadence, that the rings of Uranus are vertical, not horizontal, as one might expect. “Some scientists believe that something hit (Uranus) that tipped it sideways,” he said, spreading his arms out and turning — like an airplane — to illustrate the tipping planet.

Did he like coming to the summer camp?

“Yes,” he said, “but there are nine planets in our solar system, not eight.” He was referring to the ongoing scientific argument about whether Pluto is a planet or just a moon.

How did he get to know so much about planets?

“Actually,” he answered, “I read a small book about each planet and different areas in space — even far out of our solar system.”

Then, abruptly, he turned around and ambled over to his mother without saying goodbye.
As he walked away, Koegel whispered, “Most kids going into second grade don’t start sentences with the word ‘actually.’”

Liam’s case seems to show how the line between Asperger’s syndrome and autism can be fuzzy.

Like many children with Asperger’s, Liam started reading extremely early, at age 2 or 3. (Most children don’t learn to read until, at the earliest, first or second grade.). In fact, at age 2, Liam could recite Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”

Still, when it came to practical communication, his language development was delayed — a key sign of autism.

“He had a big vocabulary; he could recite poetry,” said his mother, Kelley, who asked that her last name not be used. “But he couldn’t ask for a glass of juice.”

Meanwhile, as is the case with many Asperger’s patients, Liam’s interests are intensely narrow. Lately, he’s immersed himself in astronomy. Last year, geography: Liam could locate every country on a globe.

“He’s a little genius — that’s one of the problems,” Koegel said. “A lot of the kids aren’t interested in ancient Egypt.”