Why installing software updates makes us WannaCry

File 20170515 7005 1kosynyPeople don’t want to be interrupted to update their software.
irin73bal via Shutterstock.com

Elissa Redmiles, University of Maryland

The global ransomware attack called “WannaCry,” which began last week and continues today, could have been avoided, or at least made much less serious, if people (and companies) kept their computer software up to date. The attack’s spread demonstrates how hundreds of thousands of computers in more than 150 countries are running outdated software that leaves them vulnerable. The victims include Britain’s National Health Service, logistics giant FedEx, Spanish telecom powerhouse Telefonica and even the Russian Interior Ministry. The Conversation

The security flaw that allowed the attack to occur was fixed by Microsoft in March. But only people who keep their computers updated were protected. Details of the flaw were revealed to the public in April by the Shadow Brokers, a group of hackers who said they had stolen the information from the U.S. National Security Agency.

Attackers got into computers through that weakness and encrypted users’ data, demanding a ransom from anyone who wanted the data made usable again. But they didn’t win the race to exploit the flaw as much as people and computer companies collectively lost it. Our human tendencies and corporate policies worked against us. Research, including my own, tells us why, and offers some suggestions for how to fix it before the inevitable next attack.

Updating is a pain

All people had to do to stay safe from WannaCry was update their software. But people often don’t, for a number of specific reasons. In 2016, researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Indiana University asked 307 people to discuss their experiences of installing software updates.

Nearly half of them said they had been frustrated updating software; just 21 percent had a positive story to tell. Researchers highlighted the response of one participant who noted that Windows updates are available frequently – always the second Tuesday of every month, and occasionally in between those regular changes. The updates can take a long time. But even short updates can interrupt people’s regular workflow, so that study participant – and doubtless many others – avoids installing updates for “as long as possible.”

Some people may also be concerned that updating software could cause problems with programs they rely on regularly. This is a particular concern for companies with large numbers of computers running specialized software.

Adrienne Porter Felt Tweet

Is it necessary?

It can also be very hard to tell whether a new update is truly necessary. The software that fixed the WannaCry vulnerability came out in a regular second-Tuesday update, which may have made it seem more routine. Research tells us that people ignore repeated security warning messages. Consequently, these monthly updates may be especially easy to ignore.

The companies putting out the updates don’t always help much, either. Of the 18 updates Microsoft released on March 14, including the WannaCry fix, half were rated “critical,” and the rest were labeled “important.” That leaves users with little information they could use to prioritize their own updates. If, for example, it was clear that skipping a particular update would leave users vulnerable to a dangerous ransomware attack, people might agree to interrupt their work to protect themselves.

Even security experts struggle to prioritize. The day the fix was released, Microsoft watcher Chris Goettel suggested prioritizing four of the 18 updates – but not the one fixing WannaCry. Security company Qualys also failed to include that specific update in its list of the most important March updates.

Security pros, and everyone else

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The most common recommendation is to update everything immediately. People just don’t do that, though. A 2015 survey by Google found that more than one-third of security professionals don’t keep their systems current. Only 64 percent of security experts update their software automatically or immediately upon being notified a new version is available. Even fewer – just 38 percent – of regular users do the same.

Another research project analyzed software-update records from 8.4 million computers and found that people with some expertise in computer science tend to update more quickly than nonexperts. But it’s still slow: From the time an update is released, it takes an average of 24 days before half of the computers belonging to software engineers are updated. Regular users took nearly twice as long, with 45 days passing before half of them had completed the same update.

Making updates easier

Experts might be quicker at updating because they understand better the potential vulnerabilities updates might fix. Therefore, they might be more willing to suffer the annoyances of interrupted work and multiple restarts.

Software companies are working on making updates more seamless and less disruptive. Google’s Chrome web browser, for example, installs updates silently and automatically – downloading new information in the background and making the changes when a user quits and then reopens the program. The goal is for the user not to know an update even happened.

That’s not the right choice for all kinds of updates, though. For example, the Windows update needed to protect against the WannaCry attack requires the computer to restart. Users won’t tolerate their computers shutting down and restarting with no warning.

Getting the message out

So computer companies must try to convince us – and we must convince ourselves – that updates are important. My own research focuses on doing just this, by producing and evaluating entertaining and informative videos about computer security.

An entertainment-education video about software updating produced by researchers at the University of Maryland.

In our first experiment evaluating the video, we conducted a month-long study to compare our video with an article of advice from security firm McAfee. The video was effective for more of our participants than the McAfee article was. Our video was also equally or more effective, overall, at improving people’s updating practices. Trying new approaches to teaching security behaviors such as our edutainment video, or even security comics, may be a first step toward helping us stay safer online.

Elissa Redmiles, Ph.D. Student in Computer Science, University of Maryland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How funding to house #MentallyIll, #Homeless is a financial gain, not drain

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A director of a supportive housing center in Bronx, New York, talks with a resident and case worker in December 2015.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

Carol Caton, Columbia University Medical Center

As Congress considers the federal budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 to reduce funding for services to poor and homeless Americans, programs with proven cost-effectiveness should not be on the chopping block. One such program is supportive housing for homeless people with severe mental illness. The Conversation

Supportive housing, funded and coordinated by several different federal agencies and nonprofits, provides homeless people who have severe mental illness with housing coupled with treatment and support services. There is no increase in net public cost compared to street and shelter living.

While it may appear that paying for supportive housing is a drain on the federal budget, research has shown that ending homelessness for the severely mentally ill saves taxpayers money.

Because funding comes from several different agencies, it is hard to know specifically from the president’s budget plan how deep the cuts to supportive housing could be. Yet we do know that the president has proposed cuts in funding to Housing and Urban Development by 13 percent and to Health and Human Services by 19 percent. Both these agencies provide significant funding for supportive housing.

I research mental illness and homelessness. Cutting funds to house the homeless would cost us more money than it would save.

Supportive housing and the homeless mentally ill

Since the 1980s, homelessness has plagued cities and towns across the country. Today, more than a half-million people in the U.S. are homeless. One in every three homeless people suffers from a mental illness, which is often compounded by multiple health problems and substance abuse.

The homeless mentally ill are likely to remain undomiciled and without treatment for long periods of time. This brings a high social and economic cost to society. Disabled by mental illness and unable to work, these individuals have little hope of exiting homelessness without public assistance.

From www.shutterstock.com

Beset with extreme poverty and disability, their inability to work renders them heavily dependent on the largesse of government agencies for disability income, housing support and health care.

The challenges facing homeless people in general are daunting. Security, privacy and creature comforts are in short supply. The daily burden of being homeless involves finding ways to assuage exhaustion and hunger, and to sidestep the violence and victimization that regularly occurs in life on the streets. An estimated 14 to 21 percent of homeless people are victims of crimes, compared to about 2 percent of the general population.

Supportive housing, started in the early 1980s, has shown to make a big difference. Unlike the temporary respite provided by crisis shelters, it provides access to permanent housing, mental health treatment and support from mental health professionals to guide the adjustment from homelessness to stable residence in the community.

Supportive housing tenants must have a behavioral health condition that qualifies them for a federal disability income. Residents pay one-third of the cost of rent and utilities with their disability income (about US$733 per month). The balance is covered by a housing subsidy provided through private or governmental sources. In some cases, eligibility for a housing subsidy is based on duration of street and shelter living.

The numbers tell the story

In concert with the federal plan to “End Chronic Homelessness in Ten Years,” supportive housing has helped to reduce chronic homelessness by 35 percent between 2007 and 2016.

At an annual cost ranging from $12,000 to nearly $20,000 per unit, permanent supportive housing is expensive, but it is substantially less than the annual cost of a stay in a homeless shelter, jail or prison, or psychiatric hospital.

Some of the funding comes from the federal government, including from the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Continuum of Care and from Section 8 housing subsidies. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs also provide funding.

States including New York, California, Washington and Connecticut have helped to fund housing for people with mental illness, as have some city and county governments.

Other sources of funding include low-income housing tax credits, private foundations and charitable donations to nonprofit housing providers. The Affordable Care Act Medicaid expansion program provides Medicaid reimbursement for services provided to individuals in supportive housing.

And the winner is…everyone

Controlled trials conducted in the United States and Canada have found the majority of people who have had access to supportive housing remain housed for a year or more, showing greater housing stability than that among comparison subjects. In addition, individuals in supportive housing not only stayed longer but also had a reduction in subsequent homelessness and decreased use of emergency departments and hospitals.

Cost offset studies show that supportive housing leads to less use of costly public services.

A landmark analysis of administrative data from multiple public service systems examined the impact of supportive housing placement on 4,679 individuals and their use of the public shelter system, public and private hospitals, and correctional facilities. The study found that persons placed in supportive housing experienced significant reductions in use of homeless shelters, hospitals and time incarcerated. In fact, public service cost reductions following housing placement nearly offset the cost of the housing itself.

Significantly, supportive housing is nearly half the average cost per year of $35,578 for a chronically homeless person. Part of the reason is that stable housing resulted in a shift in service use from expensive crisis services to less costly community-based care.

Strong and compelling evidence indicates that supportive housing is a “win-win” for both the homeless mentally ill and the holders of the public purse. It offers people with mental illness safe and adequate housing and greater access to treatment, essential elements in their recovery. And it can lead to greater cost-efficient use of public services.

Currently there are not nearly enough supportive housing units to house the thousands of individuals with severe mental illness who are currently unstably housed or are at risk of falling into homelessness.

It would not make economic sense to cut funding for a cost-effective intervention that provides a solution to homelessness. Rather, what we need now is the public will to bring supportive housing to scale so that the most fragile among us might achieve stable residence in the community. They, too, deserve the opportunity for personal fulfillment and involvement in mainstream society.

Carol Caton, Professor of Sociomedical Sciences (Psychiatry and Public Health), Columbia University Medical Center

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

DNC lawsuit: “you’re morons to believe us” — PART 1 of 3

The Florida Squeeze

In the matter of the DNC fraud lawsuit, the absolute worst outcome for the Democratic Party would be to win their argument for dismissal. And yet, if it isn’t dismissed Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the DNC will still be in a world of hurt.

PHOTO BY: Brook Hines

Arguments for dismissal of the DNC fraud lawsuit were delivered Tuesday, April 25 in the United States District Court, Southern District of Florida, before the Hon. William J. Zloch. After reading the complaint and the transcript for dismissal, it’s clear to me that the DNC has been caught in a catch-22.  From a legal standpoint, the only hope the DNC has is to win dismissal. If they lose the argument for dismissal, the whole matter will go to trial. This means Democratic Party elites will be called to take the stand (and respond to discovery) under penalty of perjury. Donna Brazile and Debbie Wasserman Schultz will…

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Trump’s offshore oil drilling push: Five essential reads

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Shell’s drilling rig destined for waters off Alaska met with problems in the Arctic and protesters in Seattle.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Martin LaMonica, The Conversation

This article is based on a collection of archival stories. The Conversation

When it comes to energy, perhaps the only thing President Trump loves more than coal is oil and gas. Just a day shy of 100 days into his presidency, Trump is expected on April 28 to sign an executive order to open more offshore oil drilling in U.S. waters.

The move is meant to spur the economy and reverse President Obama’s decision last December to ban drilling from large swaths of sensitive marine environments. Regardless of whether Trump succeeds in overturning Obama’s protections, it’s clear oil won’t be flowing from new offshore wells anytime soon. Why is that? And will Americans even support this promised offshore boom? Our academic experts offer some answers.

Legally protected?

Obama used an obscure provision of a 1953 law to “indefinitely” protect 120 million acres of marine environments in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans. Environmental law professor Patrick Parenteau from the University of Vermont explains the legal justification for the ban and why Congress is a critical player in Trump’s plans to open up drilling.

The law “does not provide any authority for presidents to revoke actions by their predecessors. It delegates authority to presidents to withdraw land unconditionally. Once they take this step, only Congress can undo it,” Parenteau writes.

Lessons from Shell’s misadventures

Meanwhile, are oil and gas companies clamoring to get into the Arctic and other offshore sites? Two years ago, Royal Dutch Shell pulled out of the waters off Alaska, citing disappointing results from its exploratory well. It also ran into serious troubles, requiring help from the U.S. Coast Guard, after its offshore drilling rig broke loose and ran ashore. Despite all the technical challenges, though, oil majors have been eyeing the Arctic for decades – and facing opposition to their plans, writes historian Brian Black from Penn State.

“A dramatic emphasis on Arctic drilling reopens debate on the pros and cons of development, arguments that have remained largely unchanged since interest commenced in the 1960s. These include the challenges of technology and climate; impacts on wildlife and native peoples living in the region; and strong resistance from environmental organizations,” Black says.

When it comes to safety, Shell’s about-face in the Arctic was instructive, says Robert Bea, an expert on assessing and managing risk from the University of California, Berkeley. While guidelines for offshore drilling have been updated following the Deepwater Horizon blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Department of Interior guidelines do not follow the best available safety processes, Bea says.

“Reliance is being placed on the Department of Interior best practices of experienced-based, ‘piece by piece’ prescriptive guidelines and regulations. These have not been proved or demonstrated to be adequate for the unique drilling systems, operations and environment involved in Shell’s operations in the Chukchi Sea this summer,” he wrote in reviewing Shell’s troubles.

Public opinion?

Even with these safety concerns and relatively low oil prices, the industry is moving ahead in the Arctic, in part because of fracking, the drilling technique that revolutionized the energy industry onshore, from Pennsylvania to North Dakota.

“Although it has gone largely unnoticed outside the industry, foreign firms are partnering with American companies to pursue these new possibilities. I expect this new wave of Arctic development will help increase U.S. oil production and influence in world oil markets for at least the next several decades,” Scott Montgomery from the University of Washington wrote recently.

Meanwhile, how does the U.S. public feel about offshore drilling overall? Certainly, few consumers will complain about cheaper gasoline – one of the justifications for boosting oil production. But support for offshore drilling dipped substantially after the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010, according to an analysis of public polling by David Konisky from Indiana University.

“The fluctuating nature of recent public opinion suggests sensitivity to external factors such as accidents, oil prices, and Middle East politics. But more broadly, one can reasonably interpret the U.S. public as divided on how to achieve the right balance between energy development and environmental protection,” he wrote.

Martin LaMonica, Deputy Editor, Environment & Energy Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

‘Anumeric’ people: What happens when a language has no words for numbers?

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A Pirahã family.
Caleb Everett, CC BY-SA

Caleb Everett, University of Miami

Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.” The Conversation

In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.

But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.

Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.

Numberless cultures

Cultures without numbers, or with only one or two precise numbers, include the Munduruku and Pirahã in Amazonia. Researchers have also studied some adults in Nicaragua who were never taught number words.

Without numbers, healthy human adults struggle to precisely differentiate and recall quantities as low as four. In one experiment, a researcher will place nuts into a can one at a time, then remove them one by one. The person watching is asked to signal when all the nuts have been removed. Responses suggest that anumeric people have some trouble keeping track of how many nuts remain in the can, even if only there are only four or five in total.

This and many other experiments have converged upon a simple conclusion: When people do not have number words, they struggle to make quantitative distinctions that probably seem natural to someone like you or me. While only a small portion of the world’s languages are anumeric or nearly anumeric, they demonstrate that number words are not a human universal.

It is worth stressing that these anumeric people are cognitively normal, well-adapted to the environs they have dominated for centuries. As the child of missionaries, I spent some of my youth living with anumeric indigenous people, the aforementioned Pirahã who live along the sinuous banks of the black Maici River. Like other outsiders, I was continually impressed by their superior understanding of the riverine ecology we shared.

Yet numberless people struggle with tasks that require precise discrimination between quantities. Perhaps this should be unsurprising. After all, without counting, how can someone tell whether there are, say, seven or eight coconuts in a tree? Such seemingly straightforward distinctions become blurry through numberless eyes.

Children and animals

This conclusion is echoed by work with anumeric children in industrialized societies.

Prior to being spoon-fed number words, children can only approximately discriminate quantities beyond three. We must be handed the cognitive tools of numbers before we can consistently and easily recognize higher quantities.

In fact, acquiring the exact meaning of number words is a painstaking process that takes children years. Initially, kids learn numbers much like they learn letters. They recognize that numbers are organized sequentially, but have little awareness of what each individual number means. With time, they start to understand that a given number represents a quantity greater by one than the preceding number. This “successor principle” is part of the foundation of our numerical cognition, but requires extensive practice to understand.

None of us, then, is really a “numbers person.” We are not predisposed to handle quantitative distinctions adroitly. In the absence of the cultural traditions that infuse our lives with numbers from infancy, we would all struggle with even basic quantitative distinctions.

Number words and written numerals transform our quantitative reasoning as they are coaxed into our cognitive experience by our parents, peers and school teachers. The process seems so normal that we sometimes think of it as a natural part of growing up, but it is not. Human brains come equipped with certain quantitative instincts that are refined with age, but these instincts are very limited. For instance, even at birth we are capable of distinguishing between two markedly different quantities – for instance, eight from 16 things.

Alex, an African gray parrot, was trained by ethologist Irene Pepperberg to count objects.
AP Photo/File

But we are not the only species capable of such abstractions. Compared to chimps and other primates, our numerical instincts are not as remarkable as many presume. We even share some basic instinctual quantitative reasoning with distant nonmammalian relatives like birds. Indeed, work with some other species, including parrots, suggests they too can refine their quantitative thought if they are introduced to the cognitive power tools we call numbers.

The birth of numbers

So, how did we ever invent “unnatural” numbers in the first place?

The answer is, literally, at your fingertips. The bulk of the world’s languages use base-10, base-20 or base-5 number systems. That is, these smaller numbers are the basis of larger numbers. English is a base-10 or decimal language, as evidenced by words like 14 (“four” + “10”) and 31 (“three” x “10” + “one”).

We speak a decimal language because an ancestral tongue, proto-Indo-European, was decimally based. Proto-Indo-European was decimally oriented because, as in so many cultures, our linguistic ancestors’ hands served as the gateway to realizations like “five fingers on this hand is the same as five fingers on that hand.” Such transient thoughts were manifested into words and passed down across generations. This is why the word “five” in many languages is derived from the word for “hand.”

Most number systems, then, are the by-product of two key factors: the human capacity for language and our propensity for focusing on our hands and fingers. This manual fixation – an indirect by-product of walking upright on two legs – has helped yield numbers in most cultures, but not all.

Cultures without numbers also offer insight into the cognitive influence of particular numeric traditions. Consider what time it is. Your day is ruled by minutes and seconds, but these entities are not real in any physical sense and are nonexistent to numberless people. Minutes and seconds are the verbal and written vestiges of an uncommon base-60 number system used in Mesopotamia millennia ago. They reside in our minds, numerical artifacts that not all humans inherit conceptually.

Research on the language of numbers shows, more and more, that one of our species’ key characteristics is tremendous linguistic and cognitive diversity. While there are undoubtedly cognitive commonalities across all human populations, our radically varied cultures foster profoundly different cognitive experiences. If we are to truly understand how much our cognitive lives differ cross-culturally, we must continually sound the depths of our species’ linguistic diversity.

Caleb Everett, Andrew Carnegie Fellow, Professor of Anthropology, University of Miami

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is the US immigration court system broken?

A man has his fingerprints scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait their turn. Reuters/Jeff Topping
A man has his fingerprints scanned by a U.S. Border Patrol agent while others wait their turn. Reuters/Jeff Topping

Is the US immigration court system broken?

Lindsay M. Harris, University of the District of Columbia

In the U.S. today, a single immigration case takes an average of 677 days simply to get to the initial scheduling hearing. The Conversation

There are more than half a million cases in the system, and just over 300 judges working on them. The Trump administration’s push to aggressively enforce immigration laws will make this backlog worse.

Since 2002, funding for immigration enforcement has more than quadrupled, from US$4.5 billion to $20.1 billion in 2016. During the same time period, resources for immigration courts have increased by much less – 74 percent.

President Donald Trump’s budget for fiscal 2018 and request for supplemental funds for fiscal 2017 indicate he will continue this trend of funding immigration enforcement but not adequately funding immigration courts.

His budget requests would add to the more than $40 billion that the Department of Homeland Security will receive this year. It would include $4.1 billion to start building a border wall and $2.65 billion to increase the number of immigration detention beds. In comparison, the fiscal 2018 budget requests $80 million to add 75 new immigration judges.

As a law professor, I have devoted my career to representing asylum seekers and studying our nation’s immigration courts. I witness the daily effects of the immigration court backlog on the lives of immigrants.

Backlogged immigration courts

The U.S. has 57 immigration courts nationwide. The judges in these courts preside over cases in which an individual is in the U.S. and the U.S. government alleges that they may be removable. This includes immigrants who have recently arrived and are seeking asylum protection, lawful permanent residents rendered potentially removable due to a criminal conviction and undocumented immigrants who may be allowed to stay in the U.S.

An asylum seeker outside immigration court with his lawyer in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
An asylum seeker outside immigration court with his lawyer in Los Angeles. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

In 2015, the TRAC Immigration Project out of Syracuse University estimated that full resolution of cases in the backlog would take from 2 to 6 ½ years. Asylum applicants who are seeking U.S. protection from persecution in their home countries may wait five or more years simply for an interview to assess their claim.

The backlog has arisen largely because of an increase in the number of Central American women and children seeking asylum. Many families without authorization are sent to detention centers to be held while they undergo expedited removal.

The expedited removal process was created to bypass the immigration court system and allow for the swift removal of undocumented immigrants. However, if those immigrants say they’re afraid to return home, the Department of Homeland Security must give them a “credible fear interview” to determine if they are eligible for asylum. These individuals can then take their cases to immigration court.

Asylum officers are sent to detention centers to conduct credible fear interviews. Approximately 85 to 90 percent of families interviewed are granted the right to present their case in immigration court.

Asking asylum seekers to present their cases before both asylum officers and judges is repetitive and time consuming. It would be more efficient to either allow asylum officers to grant asylum after a credible fear interview when they see a strong case, or simply bypass this step and allow all asylum seekers to present their cases in court.

As of February 2017, there were only 527 asylum officers working in the nation’s eight asylum offices, even though the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services has authorized hiring as many as 625. The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates that 272 of those officers are needed just to conduct credible fear interviews.

Effects of the backlog

As I have detailed in my work, delays in processing immigrants cause hardships for asylum seekers.

While an asylum seeker is awaiting a decision in their case, they often face financial instability, difficulty finding employment and prolonged separation from immediate family members. Years of delay also make it more difficult for immigrants to find pro bono legal representation.

Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly has cited the “historic backlogs” in immigration courts to justify increasing expedited removals.

There’s evidence that such expedited removals circumvent due process for asylum seekers. In some cases, U.S. border officials have even failed to properly implement safeguards to protect asylum seekers from being returned to harm or death. Recently, the U.S. government did not attend a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights regarding Customs and Border Patrol illegally turning asylum seekers away from our southern border.

The nonprofit Human Rights First estimates that the U.S. needs at least 524 judges working to address the immigration court backlog, in addition to more law clerks and administrative support.

More asylum officers are also needed. Human Rights First estimates that with 800 asylum officers on the job, we could get rid of the backlog by 2022.

Solving the problem of our nation’s backlogged immigration courts should be a priority for any administration to ensure that the system functions in a timely and efficient manner.

Lindsay M. Harris, Assistant Professor of Law, University of the District of Columbia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Kindergartners get little time to play. Why does it matter?

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Has play gone out of kindergarten?
Navy Hale Keiki School, CC BY

Christopher Brown, University of Texas at Austin

Being a kindergartner today is very different from being a kindergartner 20 years ago. In fact it is more like first grade. The Conversation

Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.

As a former kindergarten teacher, a father of three girls who’ve recently gone through kindergarten, and as researcher and teacher-educator in early childhood education, I have had kindergarten as a part of my adult life for almost 20 years.

As a parent, I have seen how student-led projects, sensory tables (that include sand or water) and dramatic play areas have been replaced with teacher-led instructional time, writing centers and sight words lists that children need to memorize. And as a researcher, I found, along with my colleague Yi Chin Lan, that early childhood teachers expect children to have academic knowledge, social skills and the ability to control themselves when they enter kindergarten.

So, why does this matter?

All work, and almost no play

First, let’s look at what kindergarten looks like today.

As part of my ongoing research, I have been conducting interviews with a range of kindergarten stakeholders – children, teachers, parents – about what they think kindergarten is and what it should be. During the interviews, I share a 23-minute film that I made last spring about a typical day in a public school kindergarten classroom.

Learning for tests?
MJGDSLibrary, CC BY-NC-ND

The classroom I filmed had 22 kindergartners and one teacher. They were together for almost the entire school day. During that time, they engaged in about 15 different academic activities, which included decoding word drills, practicing sight words, reading to themselves and then to a buddy, counting up to 100 by 1’s, 5’s and 10’s, practicing simple addition, counting money, completing science activities about living things and writing in journals on multiple occasions. Recess did not occur until last hour of the day, and that too for about 15 minutes.

For children between the ages of five and six, this is tremendous amount of work. Teachers too are under pressure to cover the material.

When I asked the teacher, who I interviewed for the short film, why she covered so much material in a few hours, she stated,

There’s pressure on me and the kids to perform at a higher level academically.

So even though the teacher admitted that the workload on kindergartners was an awful lot, she also said she was unable to do anything about changing it.

She was required to assess her students continuously, not only for her own instruction, but also for multiple assessments such as quarterly report cards, school-based reading assessments, district-based literacy and math assessments, as well as state-mandated literacy assessments.

In turn, when I asked the kindergartners what they were learning, their replies reflected two things: one, they were learning to follow rules; two, learning was for the sake of getting to the next grade and eventually to find a job. Almost all of them said to me that they wanted more time to play. One boy said:

I wish we had more recess.

These findings mirror the findings of researchers Daphna Bassok, Scott Latham and Anna Rorem that kindergarten now focuses on literacy and math instruction. They also echo the statements of other kindergarten teachers that kids are being prepared for high-stakes tests as early as kindergarten.

Here’s how play helps children

Research has consistently shown classrooms that offer children the opportunities to engage in play-based and child-centered learning activities help children grow academically, socially and emotionally. Furthermore, recess in particular helps children restore their attention for learning in the classroom.

Focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.

Giving children a chance to play and engage in hands-on learning activities helps them internalize new information as well as compare and contrast what they’re learning with what they already know. It also provides them with the chance to interact with their peers in a more natural setting and to solve problems on their own. Lastly, it allows kindergartners to make sense of their emotional experiences in and out of school.

Children learn through play.
woodleywonderworks, CC BY

So children asking for more time to play are not trying to get out of work. They know they have to work in school. Rather, they’re asking for a chance to recharge as well as be themselves.

As another kindergarten boy in my study told me,

We learn about stuff we need to learn, because if we don’t learn stuff, then we don’t know anything.

Learning by exploring

So what can we do to help kindergartners?

I am not advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. All of the stakeholders I’ve talked with up to this point, even the children, know and recognize that kindergartners need to learn academic skills so that they can succeed in school.

However, it is the free exploration that is missing. As a kindergarten teacher I filmed noted:

Free and exploratory learning has been replaced with sit, focus, learn, get it done and maybe you can have time to play later.

Policymakers, schools systems and schools need to recognize that the standards and tests they mandate have altered the kindergarten classroom in significant ways. Families need to be more proactive as well. They can help their children’s teachers by being their advocates for a more balanced approach to instruction.

Kindergartners deserve learning experiences in school that nurtures their development as well as their desire to learn and interact with others. Doing so will assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.

Christopher Brown, Associate Professor of Curriculum and Instruction in Early Childhood Education, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.