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Published in Print: March 17, 1999, as Research Notes

Research Notes

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Diversity in Charter Schools

Opponents of charter schools have long expressed the fear that the new breed of public schools could intensify the racial and ethnic separation of students. But the handful of studies that have so far looked into that possibility often play down the idea.

Not so a new study published in the online journal Education Policy Analysis Archives. It paints a graphic portrait of racial segregation in Arizona's charter schools.

The problem with most studies examining charter school demographics, researcher Casey A. Cobb says, is that they lump together charter schools and then compare their racial composition with that of the traditional public schools in the state or district as a whole. That kind of bird's-eye view, he argues, can mask important variations from school to school.

Using maps, census tracts, and ZIP code boundaries, Mr. Cobb and his co-author, Gene V. Glass, instead compared the racial and ethnic composition of charter schools with that of regular public schools in the same neighborhoods or attendance zones. Of the 55 urban charters and 57 rural charters they examined, nearly half showed evidence of ethnic or racial clustering.

"Arizona charter schools not only contained a greater proportion of white students, but when comparable nearby traditional public schools were used for comparison, the charters were typically 20 percentage points higher in white enrollment than the other publics," the authors write.

Mr. Cobb says part of the reason stems from Arizona's permissive charter school law. Some other states require charter schools to reflect the ethnic composition of their districts.

"Those regulations are there for a reason," says Mr. Cobb, an associate education professor at the University of New Hampshire. "We need some kind of legal oversight that can step in and say, 'Hey, I think this is getting out of control.' "

The Limits of 'Hypermedia'

A pair of Indiana University Bloomington researchers have cast themselves as Scrooges in the nationwide rush to embrace educational technology. Andrew Dillon and Ralph Gabbard reviewed 30 studies looking at whether using various forms of "hypermedia"--computer software, videodiscs, or Internet Web pages--could help students learn more.

What the researchers found, in their words, was "depressive."

"It's absolutely clear that, for all of this, if you just put hypermedia in schools it will have absolutely no learning advantage," says Mr. Dillon, an associate professor of information science.

To fend off potential criticism of their findings, the researchers reviewed only studies published between 1990 and 1996 and those that compared students using hypermedia with control groups of students using paper and pencil. The studies spanned a wide age group, including middle school as well as college-age students.

The technology was not, however, without any learning benefits, the researchers found. Hypermedia did give students an edge in tasks calling for rapid searching through reams of information. It also helped in visual instruction, such as teaching military personnel to recognize aircraft types. Some of the studies also suggest that students with different learning styles may respond differently to hypermedia instruction.

"Hypermedia clearly has tremendous power and potential, but we have to learn to harness it," Mr. Dillon said in a recent interview, "and harnessing it really requires us to better understand learners--not technology." His report appears in the fall issue of the Review of Educational Research.

The Value of Praise

How can teachers and parents motivate students to complete their schoolwork? The answer may be to praise them, a group of researchers from North Carolina Central University suggests.

Pamela George, a professor of educational psychology, and her graduate students polled 1,063 students ages 8-17 in North Carolina's Piedmont region and asked them what kinds of rewards they preferred to get for completing schoolwork correctly.

Both from home and from school, the students overwhelmingly opted for praise. Fifty-nine percent of the students, for example, said they preferred receiving praise from their parents. Eight percent chose additional play or free time; 8 percent wanted something more concrete, such as food or money. Far fewer chose stickers, certificates, or other sorts of reinforcement devices.

In school, praise even won out over good grades.

"We haven't seen this before," Ms. George says. "We know praise makes a difference, but we haven't understood that students would seek it over an array of other options."

Ironically, though, the researchers also found that students rarely get the rewards they seek. Sixty percent of the students polled as part of the not-yet-published study said they receive no rewards from their parents for completing their schoolwork. And 40 percent get no rewards at school.

"What we've got to do is find out what scratches every child's back," Ms. George says, "and we need to contract with them for what is really rewarding."

-- Debra Viadero

Kudos for Core Knowledge

The Core Knowledge program has been lauded--and lambasted--for spelling out what students should learn in key subjects in every grade from kindergarten through 8th.

Now, the first national evaluation of the program suggests it might be on the right track. The three-year study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Memphis examined the program's effects on 12 schools. It found that in schools with "moderate or high" levels of implementation--meaning that researchers saw evidence of the program in at least half the classrooms--Core Knowledge contributed to more content-rich instruction, more time spent on academics, a more coherent curriculum, and greater collaboration among teachers.

On reading and mathematics tests, students in Core Knowledge schools performed about the same as, or slightly better than, students in four comparison schools that were matched for their demographics. Not suprisingly, students in Core Knowledge schools performed better than students in control schools on tests that measured the Core Knowledge content. Improved test scores were strongly related to better program implementation.

E.D. Hirsch Jr.

Core Knowledge, a comprehensive, or "whole school," reform model based on University of Virginia professor E.D. Hirsch Jr.'s book Cultural Literacy, is now used by more than 800 schools nationwide. Last month, a separate rating of 24 whole-school reforms found the program had "promising" evidence of raising student achievement.

"I think our entire team came out of this study much more positively oriented toward Core Knowledge," said Samuel Stringfield, the lead author of the new study and a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins' Center for the Social Organization of Schools.

In particular, the researchers found, Core Knowledge seemed to increase the clarity of goals and reduce the repetitiveness in the curriculum in schools in which it was used. "We were surprised to find that teachers mostly saw the provision of a specific curriculum as a relief, rather than an imposition," Mr. Stringfield says.

The Core Knowledge Sequence is supposed to cover about half of a school's curriculum. But the program does not specify the books, materials, or lesson plans that teachers should use or recommend particular teaching practices. The researchers found that after three years, nine of the 12 schools had reached moderately high levels of implementation, based on teacher surveys and site visits to each school.

Implementation was highest in schools with strong instructional leadership from the principal, support from the school district, and the financial resources to purchase materials, pay for teacher planning time, and provide professional development. Schools that lacked such support had more trouble adhering to the program. Pressures to prepare for state and district tests that were not aligned with the Core Knowledge curriculum also hampered implementation.

--Lynn Olson

Vol. 18, Issue 27, Page 44

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