Strength in Numbers: Districts' Shared Research Pays Off
When a consortium of Mississippi school districts released a study last month suggesting that the state would gain more than it spent by enforcing a strict compulsory-attendance law, the story caught the attention of the media in Jackson, Miss.
Newspapers picked up the story, as did television and radio stations. Wire service articles appeared elsewhere in the state.
The researchers who conducted the analysis for the consortium, called the Program for Research and Evaluation for Public Schools, were pleased to see an important issue receive attention, but they were pleased for another reason, too. After seven years, the work of the highly unusual cooperative research and evaluation program, funded by 30 Mississippi school districts and known as preps, had been brought to the attention of the public.
Although the media have noticed preps only recently, school administrators in Mississippi--and some researchers elsewhere--have come to regard the program--believed to be the only one of its kind--as a model that could be adopted across the country, particularly in small school districts.
Started in 1974 with 10 districts participating, preps is designed to supply the districts with the expertise they need to assess programs and with detailed information on which to base policy decisions, according to Thomas H. Saterfiel, the educational researcher and former school administrator who directs preps. Mr. Saterfiel is one of several researchers paid by the consortium to design and analyze studies for the 30 districts that now participate in the consortium.
The program's structure is simple. The preps advisory panel includes the superintendents of each district. Each year, the council decides on one research project that would be useful to all of the members.
The districts cooperate by providing either data or subjects for the study. The data are analyzed by Mr. Saterfiel and several other researchers. Mississippi State University contributes support services, such as office space. In addition, each district decides on one project that its officials think will be most useful in making policy decisions. Once they have outlined the question, the preps staff works with them in designing the study and in training district personnel to collect and keep track of data.
All districts pay a flat fee--between $1,750 and $2,050--that entitles them to one study of their district and another that the administrators think could benefit all participants, and perhaps others in the state as well. Those who want additional studies pay more money, Mr. Saterfiel said.
Last year, the districts chose compulsory-attendance and dropout rates--the source of considerable political controversy in the state--as the subject of their joint project. This year, the researchers will begin working on a multi-year project that focuses on testing and test writing.
In essence, Mr. Saterfiel said, the researchers act as adjunct staff for the school districts. "We go out and say, 'I am the assistant superintendent for research. You are the boss. You tell us what to do, and we'll do it,"' he said.
If the researchers have reservations about a project proposed by a superintendent, they state them. "But once we tell them what we think, and they say, 'I know and I want it anyway,' we go ahead and do it," Mr. Saterfiel said.
While researchers familiar with the Mississippi program say it is now the only one of its kind in the country, they believe it could be replicated elsewhere. The University of Tennessee, they note, is considering a project modeled along the same lines.
The preps program is "unique and extremely functional," according to Larry Barber, director of Phi Delta Kappa's center for development and research in Bloomington, Ind., and a former administrator.
"I have examined [the] operation and I think it's both an excellent one and a model for other states," Mr. Barber said.
The information gathered in evaluations such as those conducted by preps, Mr. Barber said, tells administrators whether their programs are effective. A good research and evaluation program, Mr. Barber added, ''makes or breaks a school district."
"I wish we could get it [preps] installed in every state in the union," he said. "In my mind, it is an exemplary program."
Moreover, Mr. Saterfiel pointed out, the preps model can provide a system enabling school districts to continue necessary self-study despite the loss of federal funds for evaluation. "They cut the budget and we kept right on rolling," he said.
The subjects of the studies vary, depending on the needs of the districts. Many use preps analyses to evaluate the success of a particular program--in reading or mathemat-ics, for example. In a number cases, the studies' findings have been catalysts for change, officials note.
"The thing that pleases me most about preps," Mr. Saterfiel said, ''is the fact that what we do gets used. It changes policy."
In Natchez, Miss., for example, a preps study conducted in the mid-1970's has led to extensive revisions in the 6,000-student district's mathematics program, according to Superintendent Claude E. Porter.
District administrators had requested a longitudinal study of mathematics achievement so that they could see at what point in the elementary grades mathematics achievement began to drop. Fourth grade, they found, was the crucial year.
"We've rewritten our math program almost completely because of that early study," Mr. Porter said.
The same study also permitted the district to ward off possible legal action by the U.S. Justice Department when school officials were accused of discriminating in assigning teachers to certain schools. By using the data to show that students' achievement was consistent throughout the district, the officials were able to answer the charge.
Another district used a preps study to eliminate four out of five basal readers being used in the elementary school--a move that has saved officials "a lot of money," Mr. Saterfiel said. A comparison of students' reading achievement with various readers showed that the reader they used did not affect their success.
In Sunflower County, a district that enrolls 2,500 students, school officials are using preps to help them design the tests that will eventually be tied into the state's "accountability" program, according to Herbert Hargett, superintendent of education.
For the past two years, the district has sent teachers to Mississippi State University, where they have been trained by preps staff members to develop student tests. When they returned, they in turn worked with other teachers. "We feel that we've developed some really model tests" by working with preps, Mr. Hargett said.
Mr. Hargett said that he also found the preps meetings helpful since they provide a forum for superintendents to compare notes on study results and other issues with other superintendents.
State Policy Affected
The consortium's work has affected state education policy as well, according to Mr. Saterfiel. Several years ago, working with the education department, preps developed the prototype for the accountability plan, which requires each district to come up with a written curriculum plan and goals, as well as a means of evaluating their success.
A program that allowed school officials to hire reading aides for 1st- and 2nd-grade classes in Tupelo, Miss., made possible by a grant of more than $1 million from George McLean, editor and publisher of the local paper, may also be adopted all over the state.
According to the preps study, the program was effective in improving the students' reading skills.
In the next legislative session, Gov. William Winter plans to include a similar proposal in his next legislative education-reform package, according to a spokesman for the Governor.
Among the many factors responsible for the preps program's success, according to Mr. Saterfiel and others involved, the key element is that the study subjects are designated, and the studies paid for, by local districts.
"I am in no way convinced that the program would work if the school districts didn't have to pay for it themselves," Mr. Saterfiel said. Superintendents whose districts participate attend the meetings themselves; they do not send a subordinate. "The superintendents come because it's their money," he said. "These people take the money they spend seriously."
Some of those who participate agree. "I think that if you're using your own money, you're more committed to following through," said Mr. Porter of Natchez.
Benefit to Education Schools
Public schools are not the only institutions that can benefit from a program of this kind, Mr. Saterfiel pointed out. Schools of education, too, can gain both insight into the problems faced by school officials and access to research subjects. "If the universities plan to stay viable, they're going to have to find some way to get into the schools," he said.
But conducting such a program, he noted, requires that researchers adopt a perspective that differs significantly from that found in most schools of education.
Not only must researchers be prepared make their own interests subordinate to those of the administrators, they must also expect to find themselves in the middle of a political fray from time to time.
"You cannot divorce yourself from this stuff," Mr. Saterfiel said. "You can't keep yourself out of local and state conflicts. If you're the guy who wrote the report, you're in it." The preps staff, he said, "works very hard to make sure that we are a research and evaluation organization only, not a political organization." Maintaining this stance, he said, can get "extremely tough."