Study 'From Inside' Finds a Deeper Set Of School Problems

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NEW YORK--An unusual study that examined 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 in 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 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 schools studied exhibited a "pervasive sense of despair,'' the authors write.

"If the relationships are wrong between teachers and students, for whatever reason,'' John Maguire, the president of the Claremont University Center and Graduate School, which conducted the study, said at a briefing held here late last month, "you can restructure until the cows come home, but transformation won't take place.''

"If that is right, the national conversation about restructuring schools has to change,'' he said. "You can't get the answer right if you don't ask the right questions.''

Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy and a prominent leader in national school-reform efforts, said last week that 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,'' Mr. Tucker said.

The report does not offer specific recommendations for change. But the authors said that the participatory process they undertook in conducting the study could serve as a way of allowing schools to change themselves.

They also said that 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.

"We can't afford to spend any more money or time trying to enact changes that will not increase the ability of practitioners to relate and spend their energies and talents with students,'' said Mary Poplin, the director of Claremont's Institute for Education in Transformation and the study's director.

'Surprising' Findings

The study differs markedly from most of the 300 or more reports on school reform issued in the past decade, according to Mr. Maguire. Unlike most such studies, which examined schools "from the outside in or from the top down,'' he said, the new study went inside schools to find out what the problems are.

The John W. Kluge Foundation funded the study by Claremont, an independent, exclusively graduate-level institution in Claremont, Calif.

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 over 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, drawings, journal entries, and notes, as well as 18 hours of videotapes and 80 hours of audiotapes.

Culling through the data, the researchers--along with members of the school communities, who contributed as part of an unusual "participatory'' form of research--found a surprising amount of agreement around a set of themes that differed sharply from those that usually pervade reports on schooling.

"No one was more surprised by the results of this report than those of us on the outside,'' the authors write. "We, like the authors of previous reports on schooling and teacher education, would have predicted issues such as what to teach, how to measure it, how much a teacher knows, and choice of school would have surfaced; they did not.''

Problems With Relationships

Rather, the report states, the most commonly cited problem identified by the people in the four schools was the issue of "relationships.''

"The typical school day is nothing more than a series of relationships,'' said William Bertrand, the principal of Montclair High School, one of the participating schools.

But the study found that most relationships within schools leave something to be desired. Students reported that, although one of the best aspects of school for them was "seeing their friends,'' they often had a very narrow circle of friends.

They also said that they liked teachers who cared about them, but they complained that they were often ignored or received negative treatment. These attitudes had a direct effect on their schoolwork, Ms. Poplin noted.

"Kids said, 'I do well in classes where the teacher respects me, and I do poorly where the teachers don't like me,' '' she said.

Teachers, for their part, said that they often did not understand students who were ethnically different from themselves. They also complained that they were isolated from other teachers and that their relationships with administrators were often strained.

"We have to put relationships at the core of what we're doing,'' one middle school teacher is quoted in the report as saying.

Race and Culture

In addition to relationships, questions of race, culture, and class ran through every other issue, the report says.

Many students, both white and minority, perceive schools to be racist, it states. These perceptions, it says, reflect incidents of racism on campus as well as a curriculum that they say is heavily weighted toward white Europeans.

"Students from various races and occasionally young women doubt the very veracity of the content of the curriculum,'' the report states. "Students of color rarely see their histories or their literatures adequately addressed in schools.''

One high school student is quoted in the report as saying: "One thing that should be done is to change the history books. Our history books show Hannibal, a man coming from Africa on elephants, as white. It shows Egyptians as tan, and we don't even teach about the Zulu Nation but we teach about the Roman Empire--what's the difference?''

These problems are exacerbated by the fact that most teachers are white, Ms. Poplin said.

She noted that several schools issued edicts not to talk about the controversial verdicts last spring in the Rodney King beating case, despite students' strong interest in the case.

In a more encouraging finding, the study contradicts the popular view that members of different cultures hold different values.

"Different groups and people may express particular values in different ways,'' the report states. "However, in our data, participants across race and class express values of honesty, hard work, beauty, justice, democracy, freedom, decency, and the need and desire for a good education.''

'Pervasive Sense of Despair'

The study also found that many teachers and students held strong views on teaching and learning, and their concerns echo those found in other reform reports.

Many students, it found, consider schoolwork boring and irrelevant to their lives, and teachers find themselves under pressure to cover mandated material so that students can pass tests.

It also found, like previous studies, that students and teachers consider schools unsafe and complain about the physical environment.

But such concerns go beyond the surface-level threats of physical harm and crumbling buildings, noted Mr. Bertrand, the high school principal.

"When students speak of safety, they are talking about psychological safety more than physical safety,'' he said. "That's more at risk.''

It may be due to all of these factors, the report suggests, that there is a "pervasive sense of despair'' in the schools included in the study.

"Teachers and staff have a sense that some students do not perform because they feel hopeless,'' it states.

But it also says that the study itself offered hope by allowing students and teachers to discuss issues of mutual concern.

"All of us agree change is absolutely necessary,'' said Patricia Ortiz, a 6th-grade teacher at Vejar Elementary School and one of the project's participants.

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, Calif. 91711-6160; (909) 621-8287.

Vol. 12, Issue 13

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