The A.E.R.A. Agenda: From the Grateful Dead to School Finance

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New Orleans--The hundreds of sessions open to more than 9,800 researchers who attended the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association here ranged from the esoteric to the practical.

The esoteric offerings included a report on the "Esthetic Experience in American Culture: A Microethnography of the Grateful Dead Esthetic.''

A study by Lawrence O. Picus, a University of Southern California researcher, on the other hand, dealt with a more practical issue: money.

Mr. Picus synthesized findings from a series of school-finance studies being conducted by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education that explore what the $300 billion spent annually on education in the United States buys.

Citing studies concluding that only 60 percent of education dollars are spent on direct instruction, critics have often accused school districts of being top-heavy bureaucracies. But Mr. Picus said his research shows that those non-instructional expenses are necessary.

"You also have to include classroom maintenance and operation,'' he said in an interview. "You need to heat buildings in winter and cool buildings in summer, and you have lunches and breakfast programs.''

The percentage of education funds that directly support the so-called "administrative blob'' is only 6 percent at the building level and 6 percent at the district level, he said.

"I don't think the problem is 'over-administration,''' he said. "It is over-regulation.''

His findings were based on federally funded spending surveys and on case studies of school finance in four states.

Another national study presented here offers more fuel for the debate over academic tracking and ability grouping in schools.

Thomas B. Hoffer, a researcher at the Social Science Research Institute at Northern Illinois University, used data from a national longitudinal study of nearly 6,000 middle and high school students to examine the long-term effects of grouping on math and science achievement.

The students have been surveyed yearly since 1987 as part of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth, a national study sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Their mathematics and science achievement was measured using test items from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. All students took the same tests the first year but were given varying tests of increasing difficulty in subsequent years that were tailored to their prior performance.

Even after controlling for background differences, Mr. Hoffer said, the study shows that the achievement gap between students in the lower tracks and those in the higher tracks grows as students get older.

Students in the higher mathematics tracks gained 0.6 of a test-score point more than their peers in the lower tracks did at each higher level of coursework.

Vol. 13, Issue 30

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