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Evaluating Literacy Programs

Though President Clinton wants to spend $2.75 billion to mobilize an army of volunteers to help ensure all U.S. children learn to read by the end of 3rd grade, theres no guarantee the ambitious plan will pay off, warns a researcher from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

After reviewing evaluations of 16 literacy programs that use volunteers, Barbara Wasik concluded that there is not an adequate research base to determine which ones work and which don't. The programs she looked at included all those listed in materials accompanying proposals for the president's America Reads Challenge. ( "Effectiveness of Clinton Reading Plan Questioned," Feb. 26, 1997.)

The problem, she writes, is that only two of the studies she found are true experiments in that they compared program students with others who were not receiving tutoring. What is more, she adds, those studies involved a total of just 50 experimental students and 50 control students.

"Evidence from 100 children does not provide an adequate basis for public policy," writes Ms. Wasik, a research scientist at the university's Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk.

The lack of data doesn't mean the programs won't succeed, she notes in an unpublished, federally funded study.

Some efforts, such as the Book Buddies program begun at the University of Virginia, show a lot of promise.

But the programs, she found, vary widely. The tutors they utilize, for example, range from senior citizens to AmeriCorps volunteers. Some use paid, certified teachers to supervise tutors' lessons; others don't. And the training requirements for tutors range from none to 150 hours.

"To put some of that $2.75 billion into research would be worth the while," Ms. Wasik writes. "To believe that anyone can teach reading is as naive as saying that anyone can, with a little training, do brain surgery."

The Brighter Side of TV

In the early 1980s, researchers at the University of Kansas and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst studied 650 preschoolers who watched educational TV programs at home.

They found good news: Children really do learn lessons from shows like "Sesame Street" and "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." In particular, poorer children who watched such programs performed better on tests of vocabulary, math, and early reading skills than those who did not.

What the researchers didn't know then was how long those educational gains would hold. To answer that question, they recently tracked down as many of the children as they could from the original sample--a total of 570 in all.

This time the news was even better: The more educational programming that children had watched at age 5, the better their grades in high school. In fact, they conclude, watching an hour of "Sesame Street" a day as a 5-year-old can lead to an increase of about a quarter of a point in a student's high school grade point average.

"I think it's very surprising that we're still seeing some of these relationships," said Aletha C. Huston. Now a professor of child development at the University of Texas at Austin, she took part in both studies along with John C. Wright, a lecturer and senior research scientist at the university. The other researchers in the project are Patricia Collins, Daniel Anderson, and Kelly Schmidt, all of the University of Massachusetts.

The researchers theorize that the long-lasting gains may directly result from the initial boost that watching educational TV gave children. "This early success creates a cascade of positive academic experiences which are traceable all the way through high school," they write.

The links the researchers found are stronger for boys than they are for girls and more consistent for "Sesame Street" than for other educational shows.

On the downside, however, the researchers are finding, as other studies have before them, that the negative effects of early TV-watching can last just as long. Children who as preschoolers were very focused on the violent cartoons they watched at home tended to be more aggressive as teenagers.

Blacks in Children's Books

At the height of conflicts between blacks and whites in the United States more than three decades ago, the faces of African-Americans all but disappeared from children's picture books.

After a decade spent reviewing thousands of such books, three sociology professors found that virtually no blacks were depicted in those published from 1958 to 1964.

The researchers--Elizabeth Grauerholz, an associate professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., Bernice Pescosolido, an associate professor at Indiana University, and Melissa Milkie, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland--examined 2,400 picture books published from 1937 to 1993. They will publish their findings next month in American Sociological Review.

Blacks, they found, were more likely to be represented, albeit stereotypically, in books published during the earliest period of their study, from 1938 to 1957.

But those images disappeared as the civil rights movement flared onto the national scene. "Publishers seemed to be aware of some of the issues about race, but they had not yet figured out which images should replace stereotypic images," Ms. Grauerholz said in an interview.

Black characters were reintroduced later in the 1960s, but in ways considered "safe." For example, some books were reissued with blacks replacing white characters. Books with all-black characters began to show up at about the same time, but those stories tended to be set in Africa.

Since 1965, the proportion of black characters in children's picture books has stayed around 20 percent to 30 percent, the researchers found. Now, however, there are more books by black authors, more stories about contemporary American black characters, and more books that explicitly address racial issues.

But Ms. Grauerholz said children's books are still lacking when it comes to depicting interracial relationships among characters. "Children are not receiving messages about racial harmony," she said. "They're receiving messages about segregation."

The Economics of Choice

In school districts noted for their good schools, open-enrollment policies can lead to a decline in property values, according to a University of Kentucky study.

William Hoyt, a professor of economics, looked at property values in 45 Minnesota school districts in 1992--about six years after the state put in place an open-enrollment policy that allowed students to attend schools in neighboring districts.

"Under the traditional public school system, if you bought a house in a good school district, you sort of had exclusive consumption rights," Mr. Hoyt said. "The open-enrollment program changed all that. This means you could live in a neighborhood where housing is cheaper and possibly get to go to the good school."

He found that property values declined in districts with desirable schools and rose in nearby districts where the homes were less expensive.

For his study, which has not yet been published, Mr. Hoyt analyzed the changes in property values two ways. He looked at property values in districts that lost or gained large numbers of students, and he compared 1992 values with those in 1986.

"They both confirm that there is this depression of property values in sought-after districts," he said.


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