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Students Want and Need More Time With Adults

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S.A.T. Scores: Miserable or Miraculous? by Sam Redding

When Adele Simmons, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, took the microphone at Chicago's Orr Community Academy last month to announce a new philanthropic initiative to assist Chicago school reform, about 100 Orr students were there, black high-school students with thoughts of their own about urban education. Ms. Simmons asked for questions, and the students obliged her. The questions were direct, unadorned, and delivered with a sense of personal urgency.

The first came from a young woman who stood, faced the bright lights of the television cameras, and asked if she and her schoolmates would receive "more teachers who will give us more time and more help with our studies." Later, another student asked the same question with a different slant: "Wouldn't it be best to concentrate on the grammar schools? If the teachers in grammar school spent more time with us and helped us more, we wouldn't need so much help in high school."

The students were pleading for what seems to be in such short supply today--time with teachers. The plea is especially poignant in a society that is also drastically deficient in another resource for children--time with parents. The Orr high-school students asked for more time and more help from those who have lived longer, know more, and should care most about them.

They asked only for what education research tells us they need most. When educators call for more "time on task" and "direct instruction," they euphemistically seek what the Orr students requested more simply and eloquently. They seek time and help from teachers: purposeful time, effective time, precious time. Even "cooperative learning," far from a laissez faire retreat of the teacher, is a highly-structured attempt to engage the teacher in the construction of social arrangements in the classroom that facilitate learning.

We have seen the comparisons of American schools with Japanese and European schools. Our children, especially those in urban schools, spend less time in school6each day and fewer days in school each year than children in other countries. They spend less time with teachers. And when the school day ends, urban children stand and watch their teachers drive away to the suburbs where they live. They stand and watch and then go home, where too often there is no father and too often mother has too little time to give to too many children.

The retreat of adults from the lives of children is not an inner-city phenomenon. Single-parent families are everywhere. Families in which both parents work outside the home are now the rule, not the exception. Few parents rely on children to help with the family business or do chores on the family farm--activities that once demanded time spent with adults. Today, children's time with parents is likely to be spent watching television. To say that this is time together is to miss the point of what children need from adults. Children need time with attentive adults. They need to be listened to and spoken with.

Parents and teachers wish that children needed something less scarce than time with attentive adults. How can a single parent find more time? Where is the spare time in the lives of the busy mom and dad caught up in the demands of their professions? Can a harried, fatigued teacher be expected to give even more than she is already giving? What about the teacher who is also a parent? To which children does she give more time, her own or those in her class? Who makes up for the inattention of parents who are grossly neglectful of their children?

Children need more time and help from attentive adults; this fact is simple and bare, but finding time is not simple. It is, perhaps, the greatest challenge facing our society today.

Schools can do their part to see that students get more time with attentive adults and that the time they get is productive. First, schools must view time as education's most precious commodity. Then schools can:

Examine the way time is spent each school day, carefully considering the opportunity-cost of each activity.

Increase the length of the school day and the school year.

Use available adults, college students, and senior citizens, to compensate for the time once given by parents--particularly non-employed mothers. Mentoring programs, big-brother and big-sister programs, adopted-grandparent programs, and volunteer tutor programs are examples.

Remember that the first objective of "parent involvement" is to increase the constructive involvement of parents with their own children, not to increase the involvement of parents in contrived activities at the school.

Provide education for parents to encourage their constructive involvement with their children and to draw them into greater association with one another. Teach busy parents how to efficiently use their limited time with their children.

Be careful not to usurp parental responsibilities, instead place clear demands on parents for participation in their children's education.

Realize the special power of extracurricular activities to bring parents and teachers together for events that give attention to children. Broaden the scope of extracurricular activities, expect the attendance of teachers and parents at events, and use these events to promote the values and goals of the school.

Set as a goal for the school community that each child will receive each day a few minutes of the undivided attention of an adult (teacher, parent, volunteer, trusted neighbor) for the purpose of allowing the child to talk about his school experience, his studies, his learning.

For Chicago students of high-school age, nearly half their school years have begun with teacher strikes--the withdrawal of time with students as a tool in negotiation. These same Chicago students have also witnessed a massive reform effort that has formed councils of parents and teachers to govern each school; teachers and parents are spending more time with each other. Now let teachers and parents find ways to spend more time with children.

Sam Redding is executive director of the Academic Development Institute in Chicago.

S.A.T. Scores: Miserable or Miraculous?

By Gerald W. Bracey

I recently read an article by the Washington Post's syndicated columnist Richard Cohen entitled "Johnny's Miserable sat's." I don't have to tell you its contents or how Mr. Cohen feels. This diatribe differed from other education-bashing pieces so much in vogue lately, only in that it blamed the kids themselves and their parents more than the schools for the miserable state of affairs.

Mr. Cohen shares the prevailing view that sat scores are in decline and reflect the abysmal state of education. At the risk of appearing a fool, a Pollyanna, or both, I would like to declare that current sat scores are much higher than we have any reason or right to expect.

To claim that something may be O.K. with the condition of education sounds so strange, even to my ears, that I didn't believe my own thinking. Fortunately, I used to work for the sat's producer, the Educational Testing Service, and could call on some expert buddies still there. They affirmed my reasoning.

To understand my unexpected conclusion, one needs to look at the current state of sat scores and compare that with the state of the scores in 1941. That's right, 1941.

Currently, the million-odd seniors who take the sat each year score as an average of 424 on the verbal test and 476 on the mathematics test. In 1941, the tests' developer, the College Board (ets did not exist yet), scaled the sat's so that the average student taking the tests scored 500 on the verbal and 500 on the math, and so that all test takers scored between 200 and 800. New editions of the sat are produced for each administration of the test, but all sat's are equated back to this 1941 version. A 500 in 1990 means the same thing as a 500 in 1941.

Is this standard-setting important? It is crucial. Let us ask who took the sat in 1941. Were these test takers a representative sample of the country as a whole? Hardly. They were just the 10,654 students who happened to show up and take the test.

And how can we characterize these 11,000? Alas, the College Board, which originated the sat in 1926, no longer has descriptions of these students. However, one of my former colleagues at ets says we can be relatively certain that these students mostly came from affluent families, resided mostly in Northeastern states and were headed mostly for the private, Ivy League, and other selective colleges in those states. They were probably mostly white males. (My friend's credentials for these conclusions are impeccable: He took the sat in 1937 and joined ets in 1949.)

How different this group is from the test takers of today! The College Board's statistical procedures insured that this elite group averaged 500 on each of the two tests. In 1990, an incredibly mixed batch of 1 million-plus poor kids, rich kids, black kids, white kids, etc., scored 424 and 476. The colleges, searching for warm bodies, even lukewarm bodies, now that the baby boom has passed, are recruiting intensely and more of them require the sat than ever before. But these non-select, grab-bag bodies huddle anxiously on Saturday mornings and score pretty damn well in comparison with the elite college-bound of 1941. I'd bloody well call it a miracle.

And, of course, it's not just the kids who have changed. Critics do not paint kind pictures of the current teaching force, or of the curriculum they seek to impart to students. Even objective observers note that the civil-rights and feminist movements, by opening up opportunities for minorities and women, siphoned off many of education's most talented minds. John Goodlad's newly published report on the condition of teacher education is grim. A recent article by Michael Apple and Susan Jungck in the American Educational Research Journal argues that, despite the calls for professionalization, teaching continues to be "deskilled."

In spite of this, in spite of drugs, gangs, family breakdown, social turmoil, television, and the rest, our students continue to look good against the cream of 1941.

Oh, you may say, a 24-point difference and a 76-point difference don't look good to you. Remember, first, that we are dealing here with a 600-point scale. A few points mean very little. Translating the points into the number of questions missed, students today are missing, on average, about two more items (out of 60) on the math test and about 10 questions (out of 90) on the verbal test. While this is unlikely to bring joy in many quarters, it hardly leads to the conclusion, recently voiced by the College Board's president, Donald Stewart, that "reading is in danger of becoming a lost art." And it certainly doesn't mean, as Richard Cohen concluded, that today's students are dumb.

Obviously, however one interprets declines of 24 and 76 points, the fact remains that the national average for the sat has fallen. This fall occurred between 1963 and 1977, when the ethnic, gender, and socioeconocmic composition of test takers changed dramatically. A blue-ribbon commission attributed most of the decline between 1963 and 1970 to this change, and said the decline from 1970 to 1977 was most likely due to "distractions"--television, Vietnam, Watergate, and the like. The commission found more reasons for the decline than there were points of decline. That should have tipped us off that education was holding its own (the commission did not ask the potentially more interesting question of how the scores had remained so stable from 1941 to 1963 in spite of a 90-fold increase in test takers).

In the 13 years since the commission's report, we have continued to become a more ethnically heterogeneous nation. The percentage of high-school seniors taking the sat has increased from 33 percent in 1973 to 40 percent in 1990 (one might think that dipping this much further into the talent pool alone would lower the scores.) The percentage of minority test takers has at least doubled. A larger percentage of our population has sunk below the barbarous official poverty line ($12,750 for a family of four). In many families, both parents work (if, indeed, there are two parents) and are less involved with the school, less able to assist their children. Given the increase in adverse conditions, one might certainly expect to see sat averages falling further still. And what has, in fact, happened to the averages? The verbal score has declined by a meager three points, the math score has risen by six points.

Suppose we had a group of sat takers in 1990 identical to the original 1941 group. How would they score? We can't answer that exactly, since we do not know the exact character of the 1941 sample. But we can make approximations. We can reasonably assume that this group was all white and largely male. In 1990, whites scored 446 verbal, 491 math. About 52 percent of this group were women, who score lower than men on both tests.

If we further assume that the 1941 sat takers were themselves the scions of college graduates, the averages go up: in 1990, white students from homes where at least one parent had a bachelor's degree scored 454 verbal, 505 math. For those who came from homes where at least one parent had a graduate degree, the scores rise to 484 and 534, respectively. In sum, as you get close to the demographic characteristics of the 1941 standard, you get very close to the original 500 that they averaged--and may even surpass them.

Yes, we may have to achieve more in education in the future to compete internationally. Yes, television may turn children into aliterates. Yes, our children may not know geography or the dates of historical events (which strongly suggests they weren't taught, since kids, even our putative ignoramuses, tend to learn what they're taught). But on those skills tapped by the sat, students continue to perform better than we have any right or reason to expect.

Why, then, do politicians, journalists, even some educators continue to use the sat as a club to beat up on education? Beats me. When people persist in a course of action in spite of evidence to the contrary, it suggests ulterior motives.

Obviously, there is a dark side to the data presented above: If we take it that the skills on the sat are important, and they are strongly correlated with success in college, it means that we have not brought our dominant minorities, blacks and Hispanics, into the mainstream of academic culture. (Those who would explain the differences among ethnic groups in terms of "bias" are left with the difficult job of explaining the extraordinary performance of Asians, 43 percent of whom in 1990 still said English was not their native language.)

To say that today's white students score well in comparison to an elite of 50 years ago is not to say there aren't major problems in bringing minorities into full participation. But that's quite a different focus than using scores, as many are wont to do, to paint all of education unthinkingly with the tar brush of failure

Gerald W. Bracey is director of research and evaluation for Cherry Creek Schools in Englewood, Colorado

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