November 01, 1995 3 min read

Snap Judgment: Fleeting first impressions may be as accurate as long-term thoughtful evaluations when it comes to sizing up good teaching. That finding, as counterintuitive as it seems, comes from a study conducted by Harvard University psychology professors Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal. The researchers showed nine undergraduate students 10-second clips of Harvard teaching fellows at work with their classes. In all the clips, there was either no sound or the teachers’ voices were electronically distorted so the students couldn’t hear what they were saying. The researchers asked the students to rate the teachers’ performances based on what they had seen. Their collective responses, the researchers say, corresponded remarkably well with other independent ratings of the teachers based on an entire academic term’s worth of observations. “Obviously, students pick up on certain nonverbal cues in teachers,’' Ambady says, “and their impressions are fairly accurate.’' The researchers also repeated the experiment with two- and five-second clips and with high school teachers and their students. They found that correlations between the quick judgments and the more deliberative evaluations, although diminished slightly with the shorter clips, remained high in all instances.

Does Head Start Pay Off?: The federal Head Start program pays off over the long haul for white children but not nearly as much for African-American children, according to two researchers from the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif., think tank. Economists Janet Currie and Duncan Thomas used data from national longitudinal surveys of mothers and children to analyze the federal anti-poverty program’s cost-effectiveness. Writing in the current American Economic Review, the researchers conclude that white children who participated in Head Start did significantly better on academic tests than siblings who had either stayed at home or gone to different preschools. What’s more, the gains they made seemed to last. They were less likely than their brothers and sisters to repeat a grade in elementary school. In comparison, the large test-score gains that African-American children first made in Head Start faded out over time. And they were just as likely as their nonparticipating siblings to be held back in school. Children of both races, on the other hand, did get better access to health care. But the authors say those benefits did not lead to improvements in longer-term health indicators, such as height. Considering

that the health services the program provides cost only $468 a child, the researchers reasoned, the $3,500-per-child cost for Head Start does not pay off for African-American children. Their controversial findings have raised the hackles of Head Start proponents who point out that other studies have shown just the opposite: that black children gain more from Head Start than white children. Gregg Powell, research director for the National Head Start Association, also says the RAND study fails to account for what happens to families after a child has gone through Head Start. As a result of what they learn through the program, parents may do a better job with younger offspring, he says. Both the researchers and critics agree, however, that black children may reap fewer lasting benefits from Head Start because they come disproportionately from poorer neighborhoods with troubled schools. If those barriers were removed, the researchers write, “the program could probably be judged an incontrovertible success.’'

Grouping Kids By Sex: A recent study points to a simple--but effective--way teachers can cut down on the gender stereotyping in their classrooms: avoid dividing the class into teams or groups of boys and girls. In a report published in the August issue of Child Development, Rebecca Bigler describes an experiment involving elementary school children attending a summer school program. In one set of classrooms, teachers frequently grouped children by gender for classroom tasks. One teacher, for example, gave boys and girls separate bulletin boards and segregated classroom seating by sex. In another group of classrooms, students were randomly classified as either “blues’’ or “reds’’ for activities. In the third group of classes, students were grouped in no special way. After four weeks, Bigler writes, the students in the classrooms that highlighted gender differences were more likely than before--and more likely than the others--to rate certain occupations as appropriate for “only men’’ or “only women.’'

--Debra Viadero

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1995 edition of Teacher as Findings