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From Sassy to Statistics: Running the Research Gamut

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San Francisco

When the nation's largest group of educational researchers gathered here last month for the 76th annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, its ranks numbered more than 11,000.

The researchers were able to choose from more than 2,000 sessions at three different hotels. Or they could network, a common pastime throughout the six-day meeting.

Session topics ranged from pop culture to complex questions of research methodology. In one afternoon alone, participants could choose between "Reading Teen and Sassy: Teen Magazines and Identity Production of Asian Canadian Girls" and "Sample Weighting for Multilevel Analysis in Panel Designs."

And, for $15, the academics could even take a four-hour mini-course on "Jocular Approaches to Teaching Measurement, Statistics, and Research Design"--probably a session their college students would say is much needed.

A hot topic at the meeting was school finance. Among the sessions on the issue, one described an upcoming study that promises to add yet another ripple to the ongoing debate over whether additional spending has made a difference in long-term efforts to improve schooling.

Economists from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, are examining education spending from 1967 until 1990 in an effort to determine, as the title of their study suggests, "Where Has the Money Gone?"

Separate research reports published last year by Eric Hanushek of the University of Rochester and by Larry V. Hedges and other researchers at the University of Chicago dealt with versions of that same question. (See Education Week, 10/19/94.)

Rather than use the Consumer Price Index to account for inflationary increases as other researchers have done, the Economic Policy Institute is using an indicator that measures increases in the costs of services alone.

The measure, published by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, is known as the Services Less Medical Care Index. By that index, educational and other services that would have cost $3,340 during the 1966-67 academic year would be worth $5,566 in 1990. That is a much steeper climb than that shown by the Consumer Price Index.

Using the services index could make the growth in educational expenses that occurred over the study period loom less large. The institute plans to publish its report on Dec. 1.

Whether 8th-grade girls have an opportunity to do laboratory work in their science classes could make a difference in how well they do in that subject.

Two University of Michigan researchers, Valerie E. Lee and David T. Burkam, reached that conclusion after analyzing data on 18,000 students who took part in the National Education Longitudinal Study.

In a presentation at the A.E.R.A. meeting, Ms. Lee described her efforts to determine why 8th-grade boys tended to outscore girls on the physical-science questions in the federally financed NELS.

She said the differences were particularly alarming because they occurred, for the most part, among the most able students--those most likely to seek careers in science. Boys and girls scored about evenly, however, on questions dealing with life sciences.

The researchers looked at a number of factors, ranging from participation in science clubs to whether students visited science museums or had female science teachers. The strongest differential effect, they found, had to do with how often students conducted hands-on laboratory experiments in their physical-science classrooms.

"Lab has special importance for girls, but it doesn't seem to do much for boys," Ms. Lee said.

In another session, researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles offered some of the first evidence in support of something critics have said for a long time: Charter schools tend to benefit students in middle-class, mostly white communities.

In 1992, California became the second state to adopt a policy allowing communities to set up charter schools, which receive state funding but are mostly free from the control of the state or the local school district.

The U.C.L.A. researchers--Cynthia Grutzik, Dolores Bernal, Diane Hirshberg, and Amy Stuart Wells--studied the growth of charter schools in the state.

They looked, in particular, at the three districts with the highest concentrations of charter schools--the Los Angeles, San Diego, and Western Placer unified districts. The researchers found that most of the schools were in predominantly white, middle-income communities.

The researchers also noted that some of the proposals for charter schools asked parents to sign a contract saying they would participate actively in the schools.

That requirement, they feared, would create problems for some low-income parents who could not afford to take time off from work or who had no transportation.

Other charter proposals called for opening the schools to all students, yet made no provisions for transporting students.

"Undoubtedly, districts would not have approved charter proposals that were blatantly discriminatory, sectarian, or inaccessible to most students," the researchers write in a paper on their project. "However, in our brief examination of 20 charter proposals in three districts, our questions about access to educational opportunity are reinforced."

The researchers here closed their meeting on April 22 with little intention of ever returning to the Golden State--at least not in the near future.

In protest of Proposition 187, a ballot measure passed in California last November to cut off most state-financed social services to illegal immigrants, the association's governing board passed a resolution vowing not to return until the measure is repealed.

--Debra Viadero

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