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Published in Print: May 13, 1998, as Research Notes

Research Notes

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Who's Your Partner?

These days, it's hard to find a teacher who doesn't form students into groups during at least part of the day. But a new study of cooperative learning suggests that teachers need to be careful about who they pair students up with.

Mark Windschitl, an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, studied 90 Seattle-area junior high school students who were learning about the human cardiovascular system.

Children Studying

First, he tested the students beforehand to find out their misconceptions on the subject. The students spent the next two weeks working in pairs on a computer simulation designed to correct their mistaken ideas. Then they took a test that gauged whether any conceptual change had occurred.

Mr. Windschitl also asked three teachers who knew the students well to rate them according to their level of assertiveness. He found that students whose partners were more assertive than they were learned less.

"The highly assertive student took over, and the low-assertive student became a passive observer," he says. "When you're passive, you don't learn very much."

To keep less aggressive students from getting steamrolled during group work, Mr. Windschitl says teachers should consider pairing up students with similar levels of assertiveness.

But in practice, he notes, teachers often do the opposite: They pair quieter students with outspoken ones, thinking the bolder students will keep the discussion going. He says teachers can also assign students specific tasks or coach them in group work.

Mr. Windschitl presented his findings last month during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association in San Diego.

Tracking Detracking

Four years ago, as part of a long-standing court order to desegregate its schools, California's San Jose district was ordered to stop tracking students by academic ability.

The district's efforts to carry out that order is the subject of a recent study by three researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The researchers--Jeannie Oakes, Kevin Welner, and Susan Yonezawa--spent three years following the district's progress and interviewing parents, teachers, school officials, and students.

Their finding: The top-down mandate from the courts didn't accomplish as much as it could have.

While the 30,000-student district took steps to eliminate remedial classes and to establish programs aimed at improving instruction for all students, widespread resistance and far-reaching economic forces undermined further progress, the researchers concluded.

For example, district leaders never tried to persuade the community to buy into the detracking process. And the district never offered teachers training to help them deal with more-heterogeneous classes or to implement multicultural curricula. As a result, the concerns of parents who worried that detracking would jeopardize their children's college chances often prevailed.

In retrospect, should the court still have imposed a detracking mandate? Probably, the researchers say.

"The reality in many school districts is that much-needed equity-minded reforms will not come about if the decision is left to local policymakers," they write.

But the researchers also say the court might have avoided some of the resistance by being more specific in its order or providing more oversight. Even so, they added, equity-minded reformers need to recognize that court mandates are only part of the strategy for making schooling more equitable for all students.

A summary of the research and information about ordering the full report are available on the World Wide Web at www.ucop.edu/cps/oaks.html.

Testing and Income

Several years after high school, students who took minimum-competency tests earn more than graduates of schools that don't require such tests, a study has found.

The study looked at the effects of the basic-skills and other more challenging kinds of tests that several states have made a requirement for high school graduation.

Researcher John H. Bishop and colleagues from Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., analyzed data on 1980 and 1992 high school graduates from two nationally representative studies--the National Education Longitudinal Study, a continuing federal project launched in 1988, and High School and Beyond, a federal study that ran from 1980 to 1992.

They adjusted the numbers to take into account differences in grades and socioeconomic status between test-takers and those who didn't take the tests.

They found that test-taking students earned an average of 3 percent to 5 percent more per hour than their counterparts from schools with no minimum-competency tests. And the differences were greater for women, with as much as 6 percent higher earnings for those who had taken the tests.

The researchers also compared students from the same samples who took remedial studies with those who took more challenging courses, such as the regents' courses required in New York State, and found comparable gaps in hourly earnings.

The researchers describe their findings in a working paper published by Cornell's Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies earlier this year. Copies are available for $10 from the center at 187 Ives Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853.

The Charter Effect

Advocates have long argued that one of the greatest benefits of charter schools is their potential to spur change in nearby schools and districts.

But a California researcher, in a study that looked at the independent public schools in eight states, found that such schools rarely prompt school reform in the districts where they operate.

The study by Eric Rofes, a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, is one of the first to examine the impact of charter schools on districts. Most studies have focused on the charters themselves, looking, for example, at the students' demographic makeup or achievement scores.

Mr. Rofes spent most of last year interviewing teachers, district officials, and charter school founders and leaders in 25 districts in eight states.

Supporters often claim that charter schools will foster competition by forcing districts to shape up or lose students. But only 24 percent of the districts Mr. Rofes studied had accelerated their reform efforts in response to charters.

"The majority of districts had gone about business as usual and responded to charters slowly and in small ways," he writes.

Some districts reported losing financing as students left the traditional public schools, while others pegged the financial loss as minimal. In other districts, officials were relieved to see the charters drawing away disgruntled parents or troublesome students.

And in some places, staff morale dropped when charters opened.

The districts hit hardest by the arrival of charters tended also to be those that had actively responded to them. But they were not necessarily the districts that had made the most dramatic changes.

Mr. Rofes says the fact that, several years into the movement, the charters had prodded stepped-up reform efforts in fewer than a fourth of the districts was not necessarily bad news for the charter approach.

"If you know the history of school reform, that is in fact a really impressive statistic," he says. "The fact that there are a handful of superintendents who view the charter reform as something they can use strategically to undertake their own reforms is also, I think, an exciting finding."

The study was conducted under the auspices of UC-Berkeley's Policy Analysis for California Education. Copies of it are available for $10 through PACE at 3653 Tolman Hall, Graduate School of Education, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720; (510) 642-7223.

--DEBRA VIADERO dviadero@epe.org

Vol. 17, Issue 35, Page 32

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