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Middle schools are changing for the better. So says a nationwide study of middle-level education.

Jerry Valentine, a professor of education at the University of Missouri, led a small group of researchers who over the past four years analyzed millions of pieces of data from some 500 of the nation's 12,000 middle-level schools.

The researchers found that the schools, regardless of whether they are called junior high schools or middle schools, are using more interdisciplinary and team-teaching techniques. The percentage of schools trying out these teaching methods rose from 33 percent in 1989, Valentine says, to 57 percent in 1992. He warns, however, that some of these schools may only have one or two teams in place at a single grade level.

Backed by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the study also notes an increase in "exploratory courses," required classes that expand students' horizons beyond the traditional core curriculum. Participation in middle school clubs and other co-curricular activities are on the rise, too, according to the findings.

"We find that if children are not exposed to a variety of things early on, they will not venture out later on in high school," Valentine says.

But the news wasn't all good. The researchers also found that vestiges of more traditional methods remain stubbornly intact. Most schools continue to group or track students by ability level, for example, despite persistent calls from researchers and policymakers to abandon the practice. Only 18 percent of the schools studied use no ability-grouping practices at all. Among the rest, however, most either plan to eliminate tracking or are studying that possibility.

Valentine has shared his findings at several recent national conventions. A full report of the study was published last fall in the N.A.S.S.P.'s book Leadership in Middle-Level Education.

Most textbooks are written in the voice of what one writer has called the "anonymous, authoritative author." Recently, however, a University of Washington researcher decided to find out what would happen if the textbook author became more visible.

Susan Bobbitt Nolen, a professor of educational psychology at the university, randomly assigned 47 female college students one of two passages to read from statistics texts. In one, taken from Stephen Jay Gould's book The Mismeasure of Man, the author uses a number of rhetorical techniques to make his presence known. For example, he talks about his childhood and his passion for baseball. In the other passage, taken from a more traditional textbook, the writer remains anonymous.

As the students read, Nolen prompted them to discuss what they were thinking. The women reading Gould's passage tended to interact more with the author, referring to him more often in their responses. What's more, that interaction tended to influence how they felt about both their assignments and their level of comprehension.

For example, readers who doubted their statistical abilities tended to view Gould more negatively. The opposite held true of more confident students, who welcomed the author's attempts to inject some humanity into the text. Also, readers who found the text hard to understand tended to blame the visible author more often than the anonymous one.

"The variation in responses among the women in this study suggests that there may be no clearly best approach to text design," Nolen writes in a report published this month in Educational Psychology. But, at the same time, she adds, "by becoming visible, an author can represent science and mathematics as what they are: fallible human enterprises."

Children who speak "black English" may use more advanced syntax than peers who use more standard English, a University of Michigan study has concluded.

As part of a federally funded project examining the possible inappropriate placement of black children in special-education classes, researchers Julie A. Washington and Holly K. Craig analyzed a total of 4,000 utterances made by Detroit-area African-American children between the ages of 4 and 5-1/2. Of the 45 children in the study, 12 used black-English forms frequently, or about 30 percent of the time. Another 19 children used black dialect in 17 percent of their speech, while the remaining 14 children spoke it only 8 percent of the time.

The more often children used the dialect, the researchers found, the more likely they were to also use complex syntax, such as linking two clauses. The researchers call the connection intriguing. But they warn that the findings need to be replicated with larger, more diverse samples of children. A report on their study appeared in the July 1994 issue of Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools.

--Debra Viadero

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