Column: Research

November 29, 1989 4 min read

Policymakers have not yet addressed questions about the efficacy of certain education-reform strategies that, if left unanswered, could “relegate school restructuring to the proverbial graveyard of educational fads,” a new report concludes.

In “Restructuring American Schools: The Promise and the Pitfalls,” Lorraine M. McDonnell, a senior political scientist with the rand Corporation, examines initiatives to decentralize authority over schooling; hold schools accountable for student performance; alter the content and process of instruction; and strengthen links between schools and the community.

The report observes that such reforms address different parts of the education system, and that “few efforts are being made to design any type of comprehensive strategy.”

Moreover, it says, the relationship between the problems of poor educational performance and the solutions embodied in restructuring proposals “are not always clear or well articulated.”

Although reforms are usually justified by their presumed effects on student outcomes, the benefits most often discussed are “teacher empowerment, parental choice, and public credibility,” the paper states. In fact, Ms. McDonnell concludes, current research is insufficient to establish either a causal or an empirical link between the various strategies and improved student performance.

Policymakers should be able to show what changes are likely to be associated with a restructuring approach, she advises.

In addition, not enough attention has been focused on what reforms will cost and what new investments in staff retraining need to be made, the report says.

And, it notes, the “profound questions” about how public education should be governed frequently are considered only after policies are implemented.

Copies of the draft report are available for $5 each from the Institute on Education and the Economy, Teachers College, Columbia University, Box 174, New York City, N.Y. 10027. Checks should be payable to i.e.e. Publications.

Two psychobiologists say they have confirmed the theory that some kinds of learning actually cause physical changes in the circuitry of the brain.

Richard F. Thompson of the University of Southern California and William T. Greenough of the University of Illinois announced their findings this month after two years of experimentation.

Mr. Greenough said the apparent confirmation of the so-called “hard wiring” memory theory explains why some skills, such as riding a bicycle, are never forgotten.

The researchers said they triggered changes in the brains of test animals by conditioning them to respond to certain cues.

By planting electrodes in the brains of rabbits and rats, the researchers found that the conditioning had altered the pattern of connections between brain cells associated with the conditioned responses.

Mr. Greenough described the study as the first in a line of research that may someday yield a better understanding of human learning and learning disabilities.

The financial benefits of having a college education are increasing, while the consequences of inadequate schooling are becoming more severe, a recent university analysis asserts.

Using updated lifetime earnings figures and recent U.S. Census data, researchers at the University of Utah have concluded that a male who gets a bachelor’s degree can expect lifetime earnings of about $1.9 million, about $480,000 more than a high-school graduate and $750,000 more than a dropout.

For each dollar made by male high-school graduates, male college graduates made $1.28 in 1981 and $1.39 in 1987, the analysis found.

Women with bachelor’s degrees can expect to make in a lifetime about $1.15 million, nearly $300,000 more than a female high-school graduate.

Children’s appraisal of the factors leading to success in sports changes as they mature and differs markedly according to sex, a new report says.

Bruce A. Watkins, a developmental psychologist and professor of sports management at the University of Michigan, posed questions about athletics to 229 children in grades 3, 6, 9, and 12 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The survey, whose results are scheduled to appear in the December issue of Child Development, found that 3rd graders believed they could become excellent athletes merely with practice. In contrast, adolescents said athletic success results from a combination of innate ability, concentration, teamwork, and desire.

The report concludes that children are most likely to drop out of sports between the ages of 11 and 13, when they start to compare themselves based on their physical ability but are unable to see the importance to athletics of mental skills such as concentration.

Competitiveness actually may work against these children, prompting them to give up on sports when they do not excel at them, Mr. Watkins said.

Adolescent boys surveyed were more likely than girls to credit athletic success to natural ability. Girls were found more likely to credit such success to external sources, such as parents, siblings, and peers, thereby highlighting the importance of outside support in keeping them in sports.--ab & ps

A version of this article appeared in the November 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Column: Research