Who’s Your Partner?: A new study of cooperative learning suggests that teachers need to be careful about how they group students. Mark Windschitl, an assistant professor of education at the University of Washington, studied 90 Seattle-area junior high school students who were learning about the human cardiovascular system. After the students were tested to determine their misconceptions on the subject, they spent two weeks working in pairs on a computer simulation designed to correct their mistaken ideas. Then they took a test that gauged their learning. Finally, Windschitl asked three teachers who knew the students well to rate their assertiveness. Using the test data and the teachers’ ratings, the researcher found that students who were more timid than their partners learned less. “The highly assertive student took over, and the low-assertive student became a passive observer,” he says. “When you’re passive, you don’t learn very much.” To keep less aggressive students from getting steamrolled during group work, Windschitl says, teachers should consider pairing up students with similar temperaments. But in practice, he notes, teachers often do the opposite: They pair quieter students with outspoken ones, thinking the bolder students will keep the discussion going. He says teachers can also assign students specific tasks or coach them in group work. Windschitl presented his findings last spring during the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association.
Off Track: Four years ago, as part of a long-standing court order to desegregate its schools, California’s San Jose district stopped tracking students by academic ability. The district’s detracking effort is the subject of a recent study by three researchers from the University of California at Los Angeles, and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The researchers-Jeannie Oakes, Kevin Welner, and Susan Yonezawa-spent three years following the district’s progress and interviewing parents, teachers, school officials, and students. Their finding: The top-down mandate from the courts didn’t accomplish as much as it could have. Though the 30,000-student district moved to eliminate remedial classes and to establish programs to improve instruction for all students, widespread resistance and far-reaching economic forces undermined further progress. For example, district leaders never tried to persuade the community to buy into the changes. And the system never offered teachers training to help them deal with more-heterogeneous classes or to implement multicultural curricula. As a result, parents who worried that detracking would jeopardize their children’s college chances often prevailed. The researchers say the court might have avoided some of the resistance by being more specific in its order or providing more oversight. Even so, they added, equity-minded reformers need to recognize that court mandates are only part of the strategy for making schooling more equitable for all students. A summary of the research and information about ordering the full report are available at www.ucop.edu/cps/oaks.html.
The New America: It happened sooner than the U.S. Census Bureau had predicted: The number of Hispanic children has surpassed the number of non-Hispanic black children, making Hispanics the largest minority group among children younger than 18. As of July 1, an estimated 10.5 million Hispanic children were living in the United States, outnumbering African American children by 35,000. Hispanics now make up 15 percent of the U.S. population under 18 and are expected to make up more than 20 percent by 2020. But even that projection could be conservative if current patterns continue, says Greg Spencer, chief of the Census Bureau’s population-projections branch. Several reasons could explain why young Hispanics now outnumber young blacks, including continuing Hispanic immigration. “But one factor has got to be the reduction of black fertility,” Spencer says, referring to a recent decline in births among African American women, particularly teenagers. The birthrate among Hispanic women is about 40 percent higher than it is for black women. The report, America’s Children: Key National Indicators of Well-Being, was published by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, which was set up by President Clinton in 1994 to improve communication between the various agencies that produce information on children.
-Debra Viadero and Linda Jacobson