Do teachers who follow an alternative-certification route teach as well as traditionally trained teachers? With teacher shortages looming nationwide, the question has taken on new significance. But experts say the studies that have addressed the issue so far tend to be either contradictory or poorly designed.
One careful look at the question appeared in the May-June issue of the Journal of Teacher Education. Attempting to overcome problems that have plagued previous studies, researchers from Florida State University and Georgia State University matched each of 41 graduates of Georgia State's alternative-certification program with a traditionally trained teacher working in the same middle schools. All 82 had been on the job for three years.
Observers, who had no idea which teachers were which, watched them at work and noted how frequently they used good, agreed-upon teaching practices. Did they offer appropriate reinforcement, for example, or give effective lessons?
The researchers also tested students in nine classrooms of alternatively certified teachers and nine classrooms of traditionally trained teachers to look for achievement differences.
On both measures--the observations and the student test scores--the teachers with alternative certification scored no differently from their counterparts with education degrees.
The researchers found some differences, though, when they interviewed the teachers and asked them to reflect back on their first-year experiences. Although all the teachers said they felt unprepared at first, the traditionally trained teachers said that feeling was natural for anyone starting a career. The alternatively trained teachers, in comparison, felt something was missing in their preparation.
"I think this demonstrates that it's possible to have an alternative-certification program," that, over time, can produce teachers who "are as good as teachers who go through traditional programs," concludes John W. Miller, the lead author of the study and the dean of Florida State's education school.
He cautioned, however, that Georgia State's alternative program may be better than some. In their first teaching year, the students are closely mentored by their university supervisors and public school colleagues. On top of their regular coursework, they also take a biweekly class where they can discuss the problems encountered in the classroom.
Studies have shown for years that bright and low-achieving students can both learn when they work together and use effective peer-tutoring strategies. But much of that research has focused on learning simple mathematics skills. What happens, a group of Vanderbilt University researchers wondered, when the math problems are more complicated?
To find out, Lynn and Douglas Fuchs and their colleagues videotaped a group of 10 high-achieving 3rd and 4th graders as they worked on complex problems with the poorest-achieving and the best students in their classrooms. All the students had been trained in peer-tutoring skills.
The results were disappointing. Bright students argued and negotiated more, worked more collaboratively, and were more focused on their work when they were paired with other high achievers. The weaker students were, for the most part, reduced to taking dictation or other menial tasks. Their peer-tutoring skills had failed them.
"It was a dramatic set of differences," says Ms. Fuchs, a special education professor at the university in Nashville, Tenn.
Still, she says, her findings do not suggest that bright students should work exclusively with other bright students---just that they could benefit from such pairings on some kinds of work.
"We haven't quite figured out how best to help teachers provide students with good instruction on this more extended, problem-solving curriculum," she adds. That task, she says, is next on the Fuchses' research agenda. The couple's study was published last summer in the American Educational Research Journal.
The Importance Of Sleep
A study in the journal Pediatrics pinpoints yet another possible cause for bad grades: sleep apnea.
Dr. David Gozal, the director of Tulane University's Comprehensive Sleep Disorder Center, screened 300 Louisiana 1st graders who ranked in the bottom tenth of their classes for possible sleep disorders. He found that 54 of the children--about 18 percent--suffered from sleep apnea, a condition marked by irregular breathing during sleep. That rate, Mr. Gozal says in his Sept. 8 report, is six to nine times higher than it is for the general population, where it occurs fairly infrequently. Sleep apnea is thought to afflict only 1 to 2 percent of all children.
In all the cases, the children's apnea was caused by unusually large tonsils and adenoids. Just under half the children--24 in all--underwent surgery to have those organs removed.
A year after the operations, Dr. Gozal checked with the 2nd grade teachers of all the children who had been diagnosed with the sleep disorder to find out whether their class rankings had improved.
While the pupils whose families had rejected surgery saw no improvements in their grades, their tonsil-free peers had improved their average grades from a C-plus to a B-minus. The improvement, though slight, was enough to raise 22 of the 24 children who had undergone surgery out of the bottom 10 percent of their classes.
"What it's telling us is that there's definitely a component of sleep apnea that affects learning," Dr. Gozal says. He speculates that part of the problem is that the disorder reduces the flow of oxygen to the brain, possibly causing temporary or permanent brain dysfunction. But another reason may be that children with the disorder simply can't get a good night's sleep.
"Everyone who has not slept well overnight," Dr. Gozal says, "knows how he feels the next day."
The Need To Get Along
Gold stars for good behavior, wedged on kindergarten report cards between seemingly more important information on young pupils' academic leanings, may be a much more important gauge of future academic success than parents give them credit for, an Illinois psychologist has concluded.
Gary W. Ladd, an education professor and the director of the Pathways Project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, based his findings on several studies by the project, a seven-year study of 400 Illinois students from kindergarten on up. He found that young children who don't get along with peers and teachers often set themselves immediately on a "problematic pathway" of low and often declining school success.
In elementary school, and especially in the early grades, Mr. Ladd contends, children learn chiefly through interactions with friends and teachers. Those who don't get along, he says, are left out of important learning activities, which can ultimately lead to disenchantment with school.
"The way we look at it is engagement is the number-one thing. If kids don't engage and participate in classroom tasks with others, they're not going to learn as much as children who do," Mr. Ladd writes in a recent paper. "Regardless of how prepared children are academically, they still have to attach and engage themselves with the school environment."
Parents can help prepare their children for school's social component by using early conflicts or problems with other children as an opportunity to teach lessons on playing well, according to Mr. Ladd. Young children, he adds, aren't likely to connect their behavior with why they are liked or disliked.
For more information on the Pathways Project, which is financed by grants from the National Institute of Health, and research on the project, call (217) 244-3346.
--DEBRA VIADERO and KERRY A. WHITE
Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 32