Ideas & Findings

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High school valedictorians rarely turn out to be top achievers in life, says a Boston College researcher who has tracked 81 of them.

Karen Arnold, an associate professor of education, followed 46 women and 35 men who were at the top of their high school classes when they graduated in 1981. She found that, by age 32, few turned out to be outstanding in their chosen fields and few had chosen unconventional paths.

"They're extremely well-rounded and successful, personally and professionally," Arnold says. "But they've never been devoted to a single area in which they put all their passion. They obey rules, work hard, and like learning, but they're not the mold-breakers."

For the most part, she found, the former valedictorians chose careers in accounting, law, medicine, engineering, and teaching. And women's career ambitions faded as they grew older. Midway through college, they often switched their majors from a highpowered technical field to occupations traditionally dominated by females--even though their grades had been high. Seven women quit their jobs later on to raise children.

"They decided there are lots of ways to be intelligent, not just through occupational success," Arnold says.

Arnold also discovered that, as college students, the valedictorians were never sufficiently mentored on choosing and developing a career. Four never even finished college. "Just because they could get A's doesn't mean they can translate academic achievement into career achievement,"she adds.

Her findings are the subject of a new book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Homework that requires middle school students and their families to work together can improve students' grades and writing skills.

So say three Johns Hopkins University researchers who presented their findings last month at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting. The researchers call the homework process they have created "Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork," or TIPS. The assignments, all of which focus on language arts, require parents to work with their children and solicit their opinions on how the process is working.

They tested the approach over the course of a school year with more than 600 6th- and8th-grade students in inner-city schools. Overwhelmingly, the researchers found, parents and teachers liked TIPS homework. Students were less enthusiastic, but they said their schools should continue to use TIPS assignments anyway.

What is more, the researchers found that students made gains in writing and reportcard grades regardless of how well they were achieving at the beginning of the year. In fact, the more homework assignments the students did, the better their report-card grades were in the spring.

"Before, few parents had any way of regularly checking in with the homework with which their children were involved," comments Joyce L. Epstein, the researcher who led the study. "This shows that, overall, families in inner-city schools can become more involved."

A new analysis suggests that high schools have little effect on student learning in reading and mathematics.

Researchers from the National Center on Education Statistics, Wilmington College, and the University of Delaware used test-score data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a federally sponsored study of 28,000 students, to gauge how much students learn over four years of high school.

From 8th grade to 12th grade, they found, students' scores improved only modestly--an average of only 0.17 8th-grade standard deviations a year. That means that 12th graders have mean reading scores equal to 8th graders who score at the 68th percentile. In math, seniors' mean scores are equal to 8th graders at the 75th percentile. In other words, many 8th graders score higher than the average 12th grader. Many 12th graders score below the average 8th grader.

"This implies that despite efforts of educators to reform education and improve achievement, achievement of 12th graders as a group still looks a lot like the achievement of 8th graders," writes John Ralph, the lead investigator of the study, in an upcoming policy brief on the project for the U.S. Department of Education's statistics center.

On the bright side, however, the researchers also conclude that high school does not widen existing achievement gaps between white and minority students.

"Despite all the obvious differences in the high schools that black, Hispanic, and white students attend," says James Crouse of the University of Delaware, "the amount they learn depends largely on how much they knew when they entered high school."

--Debra Viadero

Vol. 15, Issue 33

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