Ideas & FIndings

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Despite widespread moves in the late 1980's and early 1990's to free schools pursuing reform strategies from bureaucratic red tape, waivers and other kinds of deregulation opportunities may be having a limited impact on schools.

That is the conclusion that researchers from the federal Consortium for Policy Research in Education reach in a report published this spring. Susan H. Fuhrman, who directs the Rutgers University-based center, and Richard H. Elmore examined school-deregulation efforts in three states--South Carolina, Texas, and Washington. They also interviewed state deputy commissioners of education in all 50 states.

The pair found that early efforts to waive schools from some regulatory restrictions tended to be limited to schools that were already successful--and thus did not need waivers--or to narrow sets of rules.

Moreover, educators who tried to take advantage of waivers sometimes found that the rules they sought to bypass were less constricting than they had thought.

Later, more ambitious efforts to establish charter schools operating almost entirely free from state control were also limited--partly because only handfuls of schools were allowed to obtain charters.

On the other hand, the researchers said, cutting red tape still has an important symbolic value for school reforms.

As one educator told the researchers, "The waivers allowed things to be turned over to the teachers, to be free to think about whatever, when developing the proposals."

"In my school, teachers began to think they could do anything," the educator added.

Some high schools have always had higher absentee rates than others. In the past, some educators have suggested that the reason for the differing rates may be that some schools tend to enroll disproportionately large numbers of problem students--those who are more likely to become disaffected by school.

But two University of Michigan researchers suggest the issue is more complicated than that. High absenteeism may have as much to do with the way schools are organized as with the students themselves.

During the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association last month, Robert G. Croninger and Valerie E. Lee presented findings on a study of 10,822 students who took part in the 1990 follow-up of the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a federal research effort that tracks high school sophomores and includes data on the schools they attend.

"Students who attend smaller schools, particularly those that emphasize academic achievement and learning, have positive student-teacher relations, and positive normative climates, have better attendance records than those who do not," they write in their paper.

The researchers said that student characteristics do play a role in absenteeism, but just how is not clear. For example, contrary to stereotypical images of truants, the study found that girls tend to miss more days of school than boys and black students tend to miss fewer days than whites.

School-attendance policies, the pair found, tend to have a more moderate influence than student characteristics or school size on curbing student absenteeism.

A University of Miami study suggests that young students' scientific understandings are sometimes colored by cultural differences.

Researcher Okhee Lee interviewed more than 100 4th and 5th graders from areas of south Florida that were hit hard by Hurricane Andrew in 1992. All the students had experienced the storm, yet they interpreted its causes differently.

White students typically explained the storm as a purely natural phenomenon, while African-American and Hispanic students' explanations suggested that people, society, nature, and supernatural forces had all played a role in causing the storm.

Lee and a colleague are also working on a series of studies that explore in more depth the role that cultural, linguistic, and cognitive differences play in teaching and learning science. She presented her findings at the A.E.R.A. meeting.

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 14, Issue 36

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