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Testing Prospective Teachers

In the 1980s, a lot of school reformers lamented the academic quality of students entering the teaching profession. But a pair of researchers say those critics ought to take a second look.

Catherine E. Cardina, an assistant professor at State University of New York College at Brockport, and John K. Roden, the director of technology for the Alexander, N.Y., school district, studied data from a nationally representative sample of 13,276 students who were high school seniors in 1992.

Besides having completed questionnaires on their career interests, all of the students in the sample had taken a battery of tests in mathematics, science, and reading.

The researchers found that the teacher hopefuls in the group scored as high as students planning to major in psychology, business, or the health professions, though not as high as prospective engineers.

The tests did, however, reveal a few knowledge gaps in specific areas.

Young men planning to become teachers, for example, were the least likely of all the career groups studied to score at high levels of proficiency in math. And, with the exception of students planning to enter engineering, women were weak in science across the board.

The findings, Ms. Cardina said in an interview, suggest that earlier criticisms of prospective teachers' academic backgrounds "were not really based on anything other than a general feeling or idea that teachers aren't competent in academic areas." She plans now to look at two-year follow-up data on the study sample to see how those students fared in college. Her study is published in the January-February issue of the Journal of Teacher Education.

Boys, Girls, and Mathematics

Studies over the years have shown that, among mathematically precocious children, boys usually outnumber girls.

Now a new study suggests that even when very young mathematically talented girls are placed in a program designed to nurture their abilities, they still don't catch up to their male counterparts.

The study by researchers from the University of Washington's Halbert Robinson Center for the Study of Capable Youth began with 276 preschoolers and kindergartners from the Puget Sound area who scored at the 98th percentile or higher on math tests. Because 60 percent of the children who initially qualified for the program were boys, researchers excluded some eligible boys and recruited more girls. They eventually wound up with a more balanced mix of 148 boys and 128 girls.

All of the children took part in "Saturday clubs" that were focused on helping the children see the world as a mathematical place and to see themselves as mathematicians. The clubs met for 2« hours at a time about 28 times over two years.

"We hoped that the girls' skill levels, as they got experience and encouragement in math, would pick up. But they didn't catch up. The very top scorers tended to be boys, both before and after being given the enrichment program," says Nancy Robinson, the principal investigator for the project and the director of the Seattle-based center.

The researchers were at a loss to explain the stubborn gender differences, although Ms. Robinson theorized that the boys may have been getting more attention from their regular teachers at school.

The study also compared the children with a control group of similarly talented students who did not participate in any kind of enrichment program. Researchers found that all the mathematically talented children stayed ahead of their classmates in math regardless of whether they attended the Saturday clubs.

"Most likely, children with mathematical talent are receiving more individualized attention in the classroom than anyone previously thought, and these children are given opportunities to move ahead at their own pace," Ms. Robinson says. "School may not be an exciting place, but it is not knocking the props out from under them."

The Extracurricular Edge

Do high school extracurricular activities reinforce the racial and economic divisions already in society? Yes and no, says a University of Connecticut researcher.

In a study published in the January-February issue of The Journal of Educational Research, Ralph B. McNeal Jr. analyzes data on nearly 15,000 students who entered 8th grade in 1988 to find out which students took part in what kinds of extracurricular activities.

He found that across most areas of extracurricular activities—athletics, cheerleading, fine arts, service clubs and student government, newspaper and yearbook, and academic organizations—students from families with higher-than-average incomes had a distinct advantage. Similarly, for more high-status activities such as sports, cheerleading, and band, students stood little chance of participating in high school if they had not already had a head start in middle school.

"Unfortunately, what sometimes happens by the time you talk about high school athletics is you're talking about highly specialized athletes," says Mr. McNeal, an assistant professor of sociology at the university.

Girls were overrepresented in every area except athletics, Mr. McNeal found, but when he adjusted the numbers to account for socioeconomic differences among the students he studied, he found that race, at least, was not a barrier to participation.

All other things being equal, black students were slightly more likely than whites to take part in a wide range of activities. They were 1.2 times more likely to participate in athletics, 1.4 times more likely to participate in cheerleading, 1.3 times more likely to take part in fine arts activities, and 1.4 times more likely to work on yearbooks than were whites.

Mr. McNeal says his findings suggest that school officials should exercise caution in cutting out extracurricular activities or in initiating "no pass, no play" policies that bar students from taking part in after-school sports if they don't meet certain grade requirements.

"They might be excluding the activities that are most needed for poor and minority kids to stay in school," he says. "That's how some kids find their niche."

Building Better Arguers

Adolescents already spend a fair amount of time arguing. But a University of Akron professor is teaching them to do it better.

Andrew Rancer, a communications professor, contends that young people lash out at one another--both physically and verbally--because they don't have the communication skills to carry on a logical argument.

"But if you have the ability to argue, you're much less likely to engage in verbal aggression and, as we all know, verbal aggression leads to physical aggression," he says.

Mr. Rancer and his colleagues gave 239 Ohio 11- and 12-year-olds a week of training in argumentation skills and compared them with 30 untrained students. After the sessions, the trained students were more willing to argue--and were better at it--than were students in the control group. They generated twice as many arguments as they had before their training, and a year later, 40 percent of them were still using the skills they had learned.

On the downside, however, the training did not dampen students' tendencies toward verbal aggression. Mr. Rancer and his colleagues are working on a training program to remedy that problem. A report on the researchers' experiment appears in the October issue of the journal Communication Education.

--DEBRA VIADERO dviadero@epe.org

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