Reporter’s Notebook

September 08, 1999 5 min read

Year-Round Schedule May Increase Inequities, Calif. Study Finds

Moving from a traditional school calendar to a year-round schedule can worsen inequities between racial and ethnic student groups, and those inequities are affecting student performance, according to a pair of California researchers. Douglas E. Mitchell and Ross E. Mitchell studied elementary schools in an urban Southern California district that had moved to a year-round schedule with four staggered tracks. The father-and-son research team presented the findings here during the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

In the unnamed district they studied, the two most popular tracks were those with breaks that approximated traditional school vacations--in the summer, the winter holiday season, and the spring. Those tracks had the highest percentages of white students and the most experienced teachers. The least desired tracks had higher proportions of nonwhite students, non-English-speaking students, children from poorer families, and newer teachers. More than half the teachers in one such track were first-year teachers.

A more important finding, the researchers said, was that the segregation resulted in real achievement differences. Math and reading scores in the most popular track were the highest, while the least popular track, which offers no breaks in the summer, tended to have the lowest average test scores.

And that gap only widened over time--possibly because parents were migrating toward the high-performing tracks.

“What you see is an accumulation of advantage,” said Ross Mitchell, a research fellow at the California Educational Research Cooperative, a nonprofit research group based at the University of California, Riverside. He conducted the study with his father, Douglas Mitchell, a UC-Riverside education professor and the director of the cooperative.

The younger Mr. Mitchell added that the findings were significant because year-round schools are increasingly being used to respond to demands by parents and policymakers for smaller classes. In California, where schools are operating under a 3-year-old incentive program to shrink class sizes in the early grades, an estimated one quarter of all schoolchildren attend year-round schools.

And of the roughly 3,000 year-round school systems operating nationwide, around 42 percent use a multitrack system much like the one the Mitchells studied, according to the National Association of Year- Round Schools, a nonprofit group based in San Diego, Calif.

The 32,000 students in the California district effectively sorted themselves because track placements were offered on a first-come, first-served basis, the Mitchells found. Better-informed parents and families with a stay-at-home parent or a parent who could afford to take time off from work to sign up for the desired tracks were more likely to land their first-choice tracks.

“It’s the simplest form of parental choice,” Douglas Mitchell said.

Senior teachers won spots in the most coveted tracks because they had preferential transfer rights under the terms of their union contracts.

The Aug. 6-10 meeting of the sociological association drew an estimated 5,000 participants. The education-related sessions at the conference, which dealt with everything from the effects of smaller classes to honesty among teenagers, all drew fair-sized crowds.

The association’s Sociology of Education section, with a stable 566 members, is one of the few sections of the group that have not seen their memberships dip in recent years.

One of the education sessions explored the link between equity and academic excellence in schools with varying racial compositions. Contrary to popular belief, sociologist Shelly Brown found, high schools with enrollments that are almost entirely white do not necessarily produce the best academic outcomes for all students.

The ideal racial mix, Ms. Brown said, is probably 61 percent to 90 percent white or Asian-American and 10 percent to 39 percent black and Hispanic. Schools with that racial composition have the highest academic achievement and the smallest gap between the races in grades and test scores, according to Ms. Brown.

Ms. Brown, a doctoral student at the University of Michigan, based her findings on an analysis of achievement data on 7,000 10th graders and 5,000 12th graders who took part in a 1990 follow-up to the National Educational Longitudinal Study.

She also found that achievement decreased as the minority populations of schools rose--mostly because the students in high-minority schools tended to come from poorer neighborhoods.

The bottom line: A minority population even as small as 10 percent can translate into better achievement for all students.

The trends held even when the numbers were adjusted to account for socioeconomic differences among students.

Can adopting several widely used school- improvement practices hurt student achievement? Possibly, according to two Pennsylvania researchers who also presented a report at last month’s conference.

Roger C. Shouse, an assistant education professor at Pennsylvania State University, and Lawrence J. Mussoline, the superintendent of the Pine Grove schools northeast of Harrisburg, also used data from the 1990 NELS follow-up survey on 371 public high schools.

From that group, they identified 50 predominantly poor schools that had adopted at least three common reform practices. Such practices might, for example, include cooperative learning, team teaching, or “authentic” assessment methods--ways of testing designed to measure what students can do rather than just what they know.

Compared with students in demographically similar but more traditional schools in the group, the researchers found, students in the restructured schools had lower average math scores. And the achievement gap between the restructured and nonrestructured schools was greatest for the poorest of the poor schools studied and for those schools that had adopted their reform practices sometime within the previous three years.

“There’s a risk factor involved in many restructuring practices,” Mr. Shouse said. “Some of these technologies are complex and perhaps strain the resources of low-socioeconomic-status schools. If you attend an affluent school, you tend to have a larger safety net.”

But what is not known, some of the researchers who attended the session observed, is whether those poor, low-achieving schools were worse off academically than the other schools in the first place. Given more time, they asked, might the teaching changes yet pay off?

—Debra Viadero