Ideas & Findings

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First impressions may be as accurate as long-term, thoughtful evaluations when it comes to sizing up good teaching.

That finding, as counterintuitive as it seems, comes from a study conducted by two Harvard University researchers. Psychology professors Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal showed nine undergraduate students 10-second clips of Harvard teaching fellows at work in class. In all the clips, either there was no sound or the teachers' voices were electronically distorted so the students couldn't hear what the teachers were saying.

The researchers asked the students to rate the teachers' performances based on what they had seen. Their collective responses, the researchers say, corresponded remarkably well with other independent ratings of the teachers based on an entire academic term's worth of observations.

"Obviously, students pick up on certain nonverbal cues in teachers," Ambady says, "and their impressions are fairly accurate."

The researchers also repeated the experiment with two- and five-second clips and with high school teachers and their students. They found that correlations between the quick judgments and the more deliberative evaluations, although diminished slightly with shorter clips, remained high in all instances.

Having strong mathematics and reading skills may pay off more today than it did almost 20 years ago. So says a study published last month in The Review of Economics and Statistics.

Harvard education professors Richard J. Murnane and John B. Willett joined up with Frank Levy, a colleague at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to analyze data from two nationally representative studies in which high school seniors took the same basic math and reading tests.

They found that, at age 24, men who graduated in 1972 and who scored high on the math test earned an average of 48 cents an hour more than their low-scoring counterparts did. In comparison, among men who graduated in 1980, high-scorers were earning $1.14 more an hour at age 24 than peers with weak math skills. All of the figures are given in constant 1988 dollars.

For women, the wage differentials at each time period were even greater.

Moreover, the researchers found similar but slightly smaller relationships between reading scores and subsequent earnings.

The study's authors, however, added one caveat: The differences in earnings were much smaller for all students at age 20.

"Cognitive skills matter much more in today's labor market than in the labor market of the 1970's," Murnane says. "However, it takes a while before the skills are rewarded."

A Michigan study of 7th, 9th, and 11th graders makes a case for accentuating the positives--and eliminating the negatives--as a way to prevent teenagers from engaging in risky behaviors.

In "13,000 Adolescents Speak: A Profile of Michigan Youth," researchers explored how 30 "assets," such as having good family support or being involved in a church or synagogue, play a role in helping adolescents make wise choices. The more assets a young person has, the researchers found, the less likely he or she is to take part in sexual activity at an early age, use drugs or alcohol, or participate in other potentially harmful activities.

Released last month, the study also noted that such "deficits" as being left alone at home, having egocentric values, or watching too much television were strongly linked to at-risk behavior. Most students have at least one deficit, according to the study. And by grade 11, 30 percent of them have five or more.

Still, preventive efforts aimed at this age group largely tend to focus on the dangerous behaviors themselves. Given their findings, the researchers argue for approaches that instead seek to promote assets and reduce deficits as a way to curtail at-risk behaviors among teenagers.

"We hear about teen pregnancy, alcohol use, and other behaviors as if these things happen independently," says Joanne Keith, the co-author of the study. "But that's simply not true."

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 14, Issue 40

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