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Ideal High School Size Found To Be 600 to 900

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New York

The ideal high school enrolls 600 to 900 students--no more and no less, says a study released here at the recent annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.

"Students learn less in small schools," said Valerie E. Lee, an associate professor of education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "And in large high schools, especially those enrolling over 2,100 students, they learn considerably less."

Ms. Lee and her co-author, Julia B. Smith of the University of Rochester in New York, based their conclusions on a study of nearly 10,000 students in 789 public, Roman Catholic, and elite private high schools. Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, a federally supported testing program that is following 24,000 students, the researchers examined the test scores of the same group of students as they moved from 8th to 10th to 12th grade.

What they found was that the relationship between higher test scores and smaller schools is not a linear one. Some schools are either just too small and resource-poor to support learning or too large and impersonal.

"Moreover, size seems to matter more for some students than others," Ms. Lee said. "In schools enrolling large numbers of minority and low-income students, learning falls off sharply as the schools become larger or smaller than the ideal."

The reality, however, is that most high schools--especially those in urban areas with high concentrations of disadvantaged students--enroll more than 900 students. A reasonable solution, according to the researchers, might be to create schools-within-a-school. But they also offered two cautions for educators looking to try that approach: Don't make the newly created schools too small, and don't make them into "specialty shops" for select groups of students.

More than 11,000 international researchers came here for the AERA's meeting April 8-12.

Besides offering a forum for researchers to network and to present their work to their colleagues, the annual gathering also provides an occasion for the group to recognize some of its members' efforts. Among the award recipients this year were David C. Berliner and Bruce Biddle, who won the organization's "outstanding book" award for The Manufactured Crisis. The book, which attempts to debunk the prevailing view that schools are failing, attracted attention--and controversy--when it was published last fall. (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1995.)

Mr. Berliner also received an award for distinguished contributions.

In addition, Linda Darling-Hammond, the group's president, passed the gavel to its incoming president, University of Michigan researcher Penelope L. Peterson. During a separate session, Ms. Peterson, who was at one time both a researcher and a classroom teacher, talked about ways to plug the organization into the mainstream of schools and the public. One suggestion she offered: booking a group of education researchers on Oprah Winfrey's syndicated television talk show.

Next year's AERA meeting is scheduled for Chicago--Ms. Winfrey's hometown and the city in which her show is taped.

Linda Rosen, the executive director of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, asked a panel of experts at a discussion session here: Are you optimistic that the NCTM standards will have a significant impact on teachers and classroom instruction?"

The answers, essentially, were yes, no, and maybe.

"I think it is unlikely that much change will be accomplished" without other institutional reform, said Deborah L. Ball, an associate professor of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Though the standards may have spurred some curricular improvements, she said, she doubted that broader change would happen without, for example, investment in teacher education to better prepare teachers to use the standards.

The voluntary standards adopted by the NCTM in 1989 emphasize problem-solving and higher-order thinking skills. They have since become models for many state and local standards projects. They have also come under fire in some districts in California and other states. (See story, page 1.)

"I think change will be at a much slower pace than people expected," said John Dossey, a professor of mathematics at Illinois State University in Normal. "It's easy to talk about changing the content," he said. "What's more difficult to change is the pedagogy."

The panelists remarked that measuring the standards' effect on teaching is difficult because of the lack of agreement on what researchers mean by "effect."

"This question of impact and interpretation and implementation is really muddy," said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, a math professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Ms. Ball agreed. "What is meant by impact? The standards are at best a set of visions that are being interpreted differently by different people."

Without much more research, it is difficult to tell whether the standards will significantly change teaching, said Andy Porter, the director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We don't know nearly all we'd like to know," he said.

On that, the experts agreed.

Public school teachers consistently rate female principals as more effective than male principals, yet far fewer women hold those jobs, two researchers said in separate papers here.

For her doctoral dissertation at Youngstown State University in Ohio, Kathleen Nogay surveyed teachers at the 38 high schools in Ohio that had female principals in 1994-95, out of 610 public high schools statewide. Ms. Nogay, the principal of Hickory High School in Hermitage, Pa., also surveyed educators at 38 randomly chosen high schools that had male principals.

In seven of the eight areas for which respondents were asked to rate their principals--such as framing school goals, coordinating curriculum, and promoting professional development--women scored higher than men, she found.

Henry Y. Zheng, a 1995 AERA research fellow at the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and a doctoral student in public policy and management at Ohio State University in Columbus, obtained similar results from a broader study that used national data.

He analyzed the center's 1993 Schools and Staffing Survey and explored the relationships between perceptions of a principal's leadership and various other characteristics, including gender, level of education, school size, and type of school.

Among his findings were that at public schools, "female principals are overwhelmingly more positively rated by their teachers."

--Debra Viadero & Steven Drummond

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