Minds in Motion: Student Results Impress Lawmakers

Lt. Gov. Dewhurst, Rep. Shapiro Visit School Implementing Research Findings

Jan. 5, 2009

At Dealey Montessori and International Academy in Dallas, Texas Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and State Sen. Florence Shapiro chatted about Russian literature with a group of middle school students.

The seventh- and eighth-graders knew their Tolstoy, were able to infer the novelist’s intent and identify the major themes in his work.  It was a window into the developing pre-teen mind, and the assembled adults in the room listened with rapt attention.

“To see how our middle-school students are being taught new ways to look at a complex story and pull out the important aspects is fascinating, and yet another way we can help them learn and become even better students,” Dewhurst said.

The classroom exchange was the first time Dewhurst and Shapiro, chair of the Senate Education Committee, had observed a research project in action that both had supported in the last legislative session with a $6 million appropriation in federal stimulus funds. The Middle School Brain Years (MSBY) project is focused on improving higher-order thinking skills in adolescents, in this case complex verbal skills.  Because pre-teens are still developing their frontal lobe, the seat of critical thinking, UT Dallas brain scientists say this is the best age to intervene to prevent academic failure later on.

“We’re missing the critical brain years and building a brain that doesn’t reason,” said Dr. Sandra Chapman, chief director of the Center for BrainHealth and a co-investigator on the research project, along with research scientist Dr. Jacquelyn Gamino. “We need to move away from fact-based learning alone.”

At the heart of the research project is a curriculum designed by BrainHealth scientists that teaches kids to block out unnecessary information, think more strategically about abstract principles and find relationships between ideas for a deeper meaning of the subject matter. 

During the next two years, the program will measure strategic reasoning skills in 6,000 students across North Texas, but only 1,000 students will take part in the special curriculum, called SMART, or Strategic Memory and Reasoning Training.  Of the 1,000 students in SMART classes, BrainHealth plans to do brain imaging on 75 adolescents to measure frontal lobe changes from before and after the SMART training.

Dealey is one of eight middle schools in Dallas and Plano taking part in the research project. Dewhurst and Shapiro, along with Dallas Independent School District Trustee Edwin Flores, visited the class to get a progress report. They used the occasion to call on Texas to do a better job of preparing middle school students for success in high school.

“As we look at the issue of dropouts, and drill down to its root, we recognize that we lose those students in middle school. That’s when they check out — not necessarily physically, but they check out mentally in middle school,” said Shapiro, who is a former high school English teacher. “This UT Dallas program is a golden opportunity for us to look very closely at the middle school age and find out why students check out.”

The MSBY project is attracting a lot of attention from important Texas lawmakers. Just a few weeks before the Dewhurst classroom visit, Jim Pitts, chairman of the Texas House Committee on Appropriations, came to Dallas to meet with BrainHealth scientists about the project. 

“Education has always been a passion for me,” said Pitts, a former president of the Waxahachie School Board and a nine-term House member serving District 10. “The Dallas Independent School District and its students are receiving fabulous benefits from the center’s program.  I am thrilled that the state has had a part in making this program a reality.”

Researchers say they are still gathering data, so it is too soon to know what the future holds for the project, but if students show significant gains on the verbal section of the TAKS tests, as did a group of students in a pilot study last summer, they would like to see the SMART program expanded to every middle school in Texas.

“Texas is going to lead this effort because of this program,” Flores said. “People will be coming here from all over the nation to figure out how this program achieved what it did.”


Media contact: Meredith Dickenson, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, meredith.dickenson@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and State Sen. Florence Shapiro (center right) visit Dealey Montessori and International Academy in Dallas. With them were Dr. Sandra Chapman (center), chief director of the Center for BrainHealth, and Edwin Flores (right), Dallas Independent School District trustee.

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