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Tracking Patterns Persist

It's one of the toughest questions in elementary education: Should low-achieving students be singled out for special programs designed to help them catch up? Or do such programs relegate children to the educational slow lane for years to come?

Two researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore have shed some light on the debate: Common approaches designed to help such children, they conclude, fail to return them to the educational mainstream.

Sociologists Karl L. Alexander and Doris R. Entwisle studied 1st graders in Baltimore who were referred to special education, placed in low reading groups, or held back a year. Those students, they found, remained in lower educational tracks at a higher rate than their classmates through grade 6.

The researchers caution that the study does not show that the educational practices harm the students; they just don't appear to help much.

"It infers that some of these placements are long-lasting, so that people better watch out and not do them," Ms. Entwisle said. The sociologists suggest that schools should begin to seek more effective instructional approaches that will help more students succeed.

The researchers base their analysis on longitudinal data from their Beginning School Study. The project has been following the academic progress and personal development of 790 students in 20 public schools in Baltimore since 1982.

More than 16 percent of the 790 students were held back at the end of 1st grade; 13 percent received special education in 1st or 2nd grade; and 22 percent were placed in the lowest reading group in their 1st grade classrooms. About 15 percent of children experienced all three practices.

Students placed in lower academic tracks in the 1st grade were much more likely than their classmates to repeat at least one grade during their elementary school years, the researchers found.

Almost three-fourths of the children who were placed in the lowest 1st grade reading group ended up repeating at least one year, and 35 percent were retained a second time. Children placed in special education also were more likely to be held back.

In addition, 44 percent of children who repeated the 1st grade were retained twice, compared with only 6.5 percent of those who were promoted at the end of grade 1.

Henry M. Levin, a professor of education at Stanford University and the director of the Accelerated Schools Project, a reform network that seeks to bring at-risk children into the educational mainstream, said the findings are in line with existing research.

"You have kids who come to school and their functioning level, in terms of school-valued activities, is low," he said. "Schools tend to put these students in placements that slow things down, reduce challenges, and then--guess what?--it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But many factors in these students' lives--both in and out of school--might account for their persistence in the lower educational tracks, the Johns Hopkins researchers note.

"We know, because we have data from when these children began school, that the ones who are held back in 1st grade have terrible problems to start with," Ms. Entwisle said. "And so, later on, when children who have been retained do not do well, all of that deficit in performance cannot be attributed to the fact that they've been held back."

Views of the Summit; etc. ...

Educational researchers were notably absent from the 1996 National Education Summit in Palisades, N.Y. But in the November and December issues of Educational Researcher, several scholars let the politicians and business leaders know what they thought of the whole thing. The two issues feature essays that critique the recommendations that emerged from the summit and some other popular school-reform strategies and offer a few new ideas. ... Educational researchers in the United States aren't alone when it comes to lamenting the lack of investment in research and development. At the annual meeting of the European Educational Research Association, incoming president James Calderhead, an education professor at the University of Bath in Britain, bemoaned the low status and inadequate funding for educational research in Europe. What's more, he said in a speech that was reprinted in the Oct.11 issue of The Times Educational Supplement of London, European research is underrepresented in the major international journals. "The majority of the high-circulation educational research journals are published in the United States," Mr. Calderhead pointed out. And researchers here thought they had it bad.

When Money Does Matter

In the seemingly endless debate about whether spending more money on schools improves student achievement, researchers on both sides of the issue have agreed on at least one thing: Schools need better incentives to spend their money wisely.

In the fall issue of the Review of Educational Research, Rob Greenwald, Larry V. Hedges, and Richard D. Laine present what they argue is the most conclusive evidence yet that money matters when it comes to student performance.

The researchers from the University of Chicago reanalyzed data from 32 existing studies to determine the strength of the relationship between educational resources and student achievement. After crunching the numbers, they concluded that higher per-pupil expenditures, better teacher salaries, more educated and experienced teachers, and smaller class and school sizes are indeed strongly related to improved student learning.

But money isn't everything, they caution: "How we spend the money and the incentives we create for both children and teachers are equally important."

Eric A. Hanushek, a professor of economics and political science at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y., wrote a response that appears in the same issue of the journal. Mr. Hanushek has concluded from his own previous research that additional resources generally have no effect on student learning. ("Does Money Matter? Both Sides in Debate Have a Point", Oct. 19, 1994.)

Mr. Hanushek's article criticizes the research methodology chosen by Mr. Greenwald and his colleagues and argues that schools, overall, use their money inefficiently.

But he also emphasizes the importance of incentives. "The inability to identify why resources count at some times and not at others suggests that more use should be made of decentralized performance incentives," he argues.

His fellow researchers seized upon the apparent consensus. "Policies must change to ensure that all children have sufficient resources and that incentives to spend those resources wisely are in place," they write in a rejoinder to Mr. Hanushek. "Even Hanushek now appears to concede this point."

Now, if only the researchers could say exactly which incentives will work.

—LYNN OLSON

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