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Current Events

February 01, 1993 18 min read

Researchers Look At Problems Inside Schools

An unusual study that looked at schools “from the inside” has concluded that the policy remedies offered by most education reformers bear little relation to the problems identified by students, teachers, and parents.

The study, based on 18 months of in-depth conversations at four Southern California schools, found that such issues as low student achievement and problems in the teaching profession, which many reforms are aimed at addressing, are in fact the consequences of what the authors see as the real problems in schools.

These underlying issues include unsatisfactory relationships between and among students and staff members, differences of race and class, and deep concerns about school safety. Perhaps as a result of such factors, the authors write, the schools studied exhibited a “pervasive sense of despair.”

“If the relationships are wrong between teachers and students, for whatever reason, you can restructure until the cows come home, but transformation won’t take place,” says John Maguire, president of the Claremont University Center and Graduate School, which conducted the study. “If that is right, the national conversation about restructuring schools has to change. You can’t get the answer right if you don’t ask the right questions.”

Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a prominent leader in national school reform efforts, says the Claremont report is consistent with his group’s analysis of the need for reform. “Any effort to restructure schools for high performance has got to take into account the realities they report on,” Tucker says.

The report does not offer specific recommendations for change. But the authors say they plan to spend the next few years identifying policies and practices that impede schools from addressing the problems identified in the study, with an eye toward dismantling them.

The study, which was paid for by the John W. Kluge Foundation, differs markedly from most of the 300 or more reports on school reform issued in the past decade, according to Maguire. Unlike most such studies, which examined schools “from the outside in or from the top down,” he says, the new study went inside schools to find out what the problems are.

The research team chose four schools in the area surrounding Claremont, which is 35 miles east of Los Angeles. The schools—two elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school—are made up of low-income urban populations as well as affluent suburban students. They are representative of the schools of California and the nation, according to the study directors.

The researchers spent more than a year in the schools, held more than 160 meetings with members of the school communities, and received written comments from them. In all, they heard from 4,000 students, 1,000 parents, and 200 teachers, administrators, and other employees. The meetings generated 24,000 pages of transcriptions, essays, journal entries, and notes, as well as 18 hours of videotapes and 80 hours of audio tapes.

Copies of the report, Voices From the Inside, are available for $5 each from the Institute for Education in Transformation at the Claremont Graduate School, 121 East 10th St., Claremont, CA 91711-6160; (909) 621-8287.

State’s Innovative Assessment Found Wanting

A report analyzing Vermont’s pioneering assessment system has found severe problems with it and raises serious questions about alternative forms of assessment. The system, which is being closely watched by educators around the country, is the first statewide assessment program to measure student achievement in part on the basis of portfolios.

But the report by the RAND Corp. found that the “rater reliability” in scoring the portfolios—the extent to which scorers agreed about the quality of a student’s work—was very low. As a result, the researchers urged the state to release the assessment results only at the state level, advice Vermont officials say they will take.

“If you’re not rating reliably, you’re not rating,” says Daniel Koretz, a senior social scientist at RAND and the report’s author. “You can’t measure anything unless you measure it reliably.”

Since the report was released, officials from the state education department have met with RAND researchers and teachers to discuss changes that might boost reliability. Among other things, the officials have decided to revamp the way teachers are trained to score portfolios and to select a group of highly trained teachers to generate state and regional data. They note, however, that improving reliability will take some time.

Under the program, 4th and 8th graders are assessed in writing and mathematics in three ways: a standardized test consisting of both multiple-choice and open-ended questions; a portfolio of classroom work; and a “best piece” chosen by the student from the portfolio.

In a preliminary report on the first year of implementation, RAND researchers found that teachers and administrators considered the assessment a time-consuming burden. But the study also found that educators felt the program had led to positive changes in the curricula and a greater understanding of student abilities.

The new report, which examined how well the system fared as a measure of student performance, offers a far less positive picture. Unlike traditional tests, in which computers register whether a student has filled in the correct bubble, the portfolios were scored by teachers, who evaluated each according to several criteria on a four-point scale.

“For a variety of reasons, such as the variability of tasks used, it may be unrealistic to expect a portfolio program to reach as high a level of reliability as a standardized performance-assessment program,” the report states. “However, the reliabilities obtained in Vermont in 1992 are sufficiently low to limit severely the uses to which the results can be put.”

On the positive side, the study found no evidence that teachers assigned higher or lower scores to their own students than did other raters.

Vermont Commissioner of Education Richard Mills says the state is committed to continuing with the new system and plans to seek a doubling of the program’s budget. Despite the reliability problem, the assessment program has reaped other benefits, he says, including improvements in curricula and instruction. Teachers, he adds, “have told me in great detail how terribly difficult this is and how important it is for us to persist and get it right. We will.”

A Definition For Social Studies

The National Council for the Social Studies, voting at its annual convention this past November, agreed on a definition for “social studies” for the first time in its 71-year history.

Under that definition, social studies is described as the “integrated study of the social sciences and the humanities to promote civic competence.”

The term social studies was first coined near the turn of the century, but, since that time, efforts to actually define the field have proved largely unsuccessful. “I can even remember debates over whether social studies was a singular or plural noun,” says C. Fredrick Risinger, a former president of NCSS.

Members of the organization have also disagreed over what disciplines to include under the social studies umbrella. The new definition addresses that question. Social studies, it states, draws in a “coordinated, systematic” way from a range of disciplines, including anthropology, archaeology, economics, geography, history, law, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology. Appropriate content, it adds, may also be drawn from mathematics and the sciences.

Overall, the definition says, the primary purpose of social studies in schools is “to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”

The adoption of the definition comes as the NCSS is drawing up national standards for the social studies—an effort to give the field greater coherence and visibility at a time when separate projects are under way to set standards for history, civics, geography, and economics.

Court Approves Student-Led Graduation Prayer

A federal appeals court has ruled that a Texas school district’s policy of letting each high school senior class decide whether to have student-led prayers at its graduation ceremony does not violate the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled this past November that the Clear Creek school district’s policy does not conflict with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision banning school-sponsored graduation prayer by clergy in the Providence, R.I., public schools.

The appeals court’s ruling in Jones vs. Clear Creek Independent School District is significant, lawyers say, because it creates a way to include prayers in graduation ceremonies without running afoul of the High Court’s ruling in the Rhode Island case.

In that case, the High Court held that a Providence middle school principal violated the Establishment Clause by inviting a rabbi to deliver prayers at a promotion ceremony. The school administration’s involvement meant that, in effect, the government was compelling students to participate in a religious exercise, the Court said.

The Texas case began in 1987 when the Clear Creek district’s policy was challenged in federal court by two students. A federal district judge and the Fifth Circuit Court upheld the policy. The students appealed to the Supreme Court, which held onto the case while it decided the similar appeal from Rhode Island. Last June, the High Court vacated the Fifth Circuit Court’s original ruling and asked it to reconsider the case in light of the Rhode Island decision.

The three-judge panel did that, but unanimously concluded that Clear Creek’s policy allowing student-initiated prayer did not fail the “coercion analysis” set forth in the Rhode Island decision.

“We think that the graduation prayers permitted by the [district’s policy] place less psychological pressure on students than the prayers at issue in [Rhode Island] because all students, after having participated in the decision of whether prayers will be given, are aware that any prayers represent the will of their peers, who are less able to coerce participation than an authority figure from the state or clergy,” said the opinion by Senior Circuit Judge Thomas Reavley.

The panel also noted that the district’s policy does not mandate a prayer; it merely allows for one if the senior class agrees. Also, it states that the prayer must be given by a student volunteer and be “nonsectarian and nonproselytizing in nature.”

“The practical result of our decision,” the opinion states, “is that a majority of students can do what the state acting on its own cannot do to incorporate prayer in public high school graduation ceremonies.”

A Question Of Character

An “unacceptably high” number of 15- to 30-year-olds are willing to lie, cheat, and steal, a new survey involving nearly 9,000 teenagers and adults nationwide suggests.

“Young people didn’t invent lying or stealing or cheating,” says Ralph Wexler of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, which conducted the survey. “But they are, in effect, perfecting them.”

The California-based institute drew its conclusions from a survey of 3,243 high school students, 3,630 college students, and 2,092 other people—most of them over age 30—who were not in school. The survey found that 33 percent of the high school students questioned and 16 percent of the college students said they had stolen merchandise from a store within the past year.

About one-third of the students in each group said they were willing to lie on a resume, a job application, or during a job interview to get a job they want. And 16 percent of the high school students said they had already done so at least once.

Such unethical behaviors also extend to school; 61 percent of the high school students and 32 percent of college students admitted to having cheated on an examination once in the past year. In addition, the survey found, 83 percent of the precollegiate students and 61 percent of the college students said they had lied to their parents during the past year.

In comparison, the researchers said, dishonesty and other unethical behaviors were less prevalent among those over age 30 who were surveyed. “Clearly, part of this is the maturation process,” Wexler says. “But part of it has to do with a real change in society’s values.”

Copies of the study, Ethical Values, Attitudes, and Behaviors in American Schools—1992, can be obtained for $15 each, plus shipping and sales tax, from the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, 310 Washington Blvd., Suite 104, Marina del Rey, CA 90292; (310) 306-1868.

Voc. Ed Students Benefit From Academics

Challenge students, even those not bound for college, and they will rise to meet the challenge. That, in effect, is the conclusion of a five-year pilot program and study by the Southern Regional Education Board.

More specifically, the project found that an advanced curriculum that weaves together academic study and instruction about the world of work can dramatically improve the performance of high school students in vocational and general education tracks.

Students in the participating schools that made the greatest strides in combining academic and vocational programs showed significant improvement on national reading, mathematics, and science tests, according to the SREB, which launched the project in 1987 and now guides 100 such programs in 19 states.

The findings from the SREB’s “High Schools That Work” project—the most widespread current program testing the combination of academic and vocational subjects—were contained in a report released late last year. The study looked at the project’s 28 original pilot sites in 13 Southern states.

The results demonstrate that noncollege-bound students are capable of much higher achievement than typically has been expected of them, says Gene Bottoms, director of the SREB program. “It takes a lot of work, but we can move from an atmosphere that simply accommodates these students to one that really accelerates them,” he says. “We’re beginning to document that we’ve underestimated what these students can do.”

In conjunction with the release of the report, Making High Schools Work, the DeWitt Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund announced a $2 million grant that will expand the SREB network to 300 sites within two years. The program to date has primarily tapped existing state and local funds, with some money coming from the SREB.

Rather than installing a single-model curriculum, the program draws on curriculum materials that were designed in each state under SREB guidance. The pilot schools agreed to replace low-level academic courses with classes that take content from college-preparatory classes and give students “real-world” experiences. As the academic courses were revamped, vocational courses were overhauled to provide stronger doses of math, science, and English. Requirements were changed to mandate four English credits and three each in math and science.

“If we want students to be able to use what they learn in high school, we must give them authentic problems to solve,” the SREB report says. “We must help them understand why they are learning something and how it will help them on the job, at home, and in the community.”

Copies of the study are available for $10.95 from the SREB, 592 10th St., N.W., Atlanta, GA 30318-5790; (404) 875-9211.

Atheists’ Case Doesn’t Stand

A federal appeals court has upheld as constitutional an Illinois law that says children shall recite the Pledge of Allegiance in school.

The decision, handed down late last year, represents a setback for the plaintiffs, Robert Sherman and his 10-year-old son, Richard. The two atheists filed suit in 1988 when the younger Sherman was a 1st grader in Wheeling Community Consolidated School District 21 in Cook County. In their suit, they argued that the law unconstitutionally required students to say the pledge’s phrase “under God.”

But a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that because the 1979 state law says students “shall” recite the flag salute, it is meant to refer to willing students only. Therefore, the court found, the law does not violate the protection of free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court also said the phrase “under God” does not amount to an endorsement of religion because it has lost any religious significance through rote repetition, now amounting to “ceremonial deism.”

Richard Grossman, the Shermans’ lawyer, calls the ruling “completely specious and disingenuous.” He says it “flies in the face of logic” because the law requiring recitation of the pledge is “clearly unambiguous,” as is its religious intent. Grossman says he will appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court but does not expect the justices to accept the case. It’s “too hot to handle,” he says.

Big Contributor

The National Education Association was one of the biggest contributors to the Democratic Party in the 1992 election. The teachers’ union gave $279,202 to the party between Jan. 1, 1991, and Aug. 31, 1992, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. The NEA’s contribution was bested only by the United Steelworkers of America (the top Democratic contributor, with $392,500), the RJR Nabisco Corp., and philanthropist Alida Rockefeller Messinger. RJR Nabisco gave even more to the GOP, which collected twice as much as the Democratic Party overall. The NEA’s donation would barely have qualified it for the Republicans’ top10 list.

Help The Smartest

A new Gallup poll suggests there is substantial public support for special school programs for gifted children, provided such help does not come at the expense of slower learners. Sixty-one percent of the 1,000 adults surveyed said schools should do more to challenge the “very smartest.” As expected, however, support for programs to assist “slow learners” was greater, with 77 percent of the respondents saying schools should do more for such students. But the survey, commissioned by the National Association for Gifted Children, found that 84 percent of Americans would support funding for a gifted program “as long as it did not reduce what was offered to average and slow learners.”


The Principals’ Public Relations Network is producing a series of television public service announcements on the importance of school administrators. The spots, which are scheduled to air this spring on television stations across the country, will highlight how essential principals and assistant principals are in setting high expectations and in inspiring students to achieve. The network, a consortium of the National Association of Secondary School Principals and its 43 state affiliates, decided at its annual meeting in November to add television to the media campaign it launched two years ago with radio spots.

Good News And Bad

Although the percentage of sexually active teenage girls who use condoms grew from 23 percent to 47 percent during the 1980s, the annual pregnancy rate for the group remained relatively flat during the decade, at 110 pregnancies per 1,000 girls, according to a new report by the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts credit the rise in the percentage of girls using condoms to educational campaigns about the dangers of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. But the finding that so many girls are nevertheless becoming pregnant raises troubling questions. “We don’t know how effective condom use has been when you look at the fact that the pregnancy rate hasn’t dropped and more teenagers are using birth control,” says Susan Tew, spokeswoman for the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a group that contributed data to the study.

Time To Plan

Would-be school reformers have paid scant attention to the need to give school personnel enough time to plan, implement, and refine improvement programs, a study by the RAND Corp. asserts. The report, Time for Reform, suggests that if schools want to restructure themselves successfully, they must ensure that their staffs have sufficient time for the training needed to implement and sustain reforms. Among other things, the report suggests that schools create more time by hiring substitutes or enlisting the help of student teachers; reducing paperwork and shortening meetings; recruiting volunteers to perform such administrative tasks as hall and lunch duty; and adding a period to the daily schedule by extending the school day or shortening classes.

Coalition Building

Some 30 youth-service advocates and the Council of Chief State School Officers have established a coalition to give school-based service learning a “stronger voice” and to ensure its full integration into the education reform movement. As one of its goals, the new Alliance for Service Learning hopes to influence the 1993 congressional reauthorizations of both the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the National and Community Service Act. The group wants to see K-12 service learning included in the legislation as a method of “best practice” for education reform, says Barbara Gomez, director of the service-learning project at the CCSSO. The alliance was created in response to discussions at the National Youth Leadership Council’s service-learning conference last April, at which participants realized that “we needed to come together around this issue,” Gomez says.

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Current Events


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