In the Field: Research Team Settles In for the Long Haul

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Kentucky lawmakers passed their ambitious reform law in the spring of 1990. By September of that year, researchers from the Appalachia Educational Laboratory were already settling into four rural Kentucky districts for a long stay.

"From the beginning the purpose was studying the implementation of large- scale change in state policy at the local level," says Pamela B. Lutz, the associate executive director for the AEL, one of 10 regional laboratories supported by the U.S. Department of Education.

The laboratory's researchers chose geographically dispersed districts in which they believed school leaders would make an earnest effort to carry out the provisions of the Kentucky Education Reform Act. Every month since 1991 the research team has traveled from their homes or from the laboratory offices in Charleston, W.Va., to the four districts for interviews, observations, and document reviews.

By 1995, they had reached some conclusions about KERA, based on their own research as well as that of others.

On the positive side, they said:

  • In all the districts, the momentum achieved by the reform program was sustained.
  • Funding for education increased and was distributed more equitably--a big plus for the poor, rural districts in the study.
  • In primary classrooms, teachers were: giving students fewer drills and less seat work, broadening their instructional approaches, asking students to do more writing, and using more-flexible seating arrangements.
  • Schools added lessons in the arts and humanities, practical living skills, and vocational training--all subjects included in the state's new testing program.
  • The family-resource and youth-service centers mandated by the reforms were helping families obtain eyeglasses, transportation, and appropriate health care.
  • Educators at the school level, rather than school boards and district offices, were beginning to make key decisions about how their schools should be managed.

"In some of these districts you might find only a few schools had councils, but when that happened the board of education decided to treat all schools as if they were school-based-managed schools," says Pam Coe, a co-director of the lab's KERA research program.

Problems Cited

The researchers also identified some potential problems. For one, teachers seemed to doubt whether the new testing program accurately measured school success.

Educators also complained that, in setting aside time to practice for the tests and to help students put together portfolios of their work, they were forced to skimp on instruction in basic academic skills.

"In a course that was built around a textbook, for example, people would worry because they had not gotten as far in the textbook as they should or as they used to," Ms. Coe says.

In the primary grades, the move from single-grade classrooms to classes of students from several grades was giving teachers headaches as well.

"Teachers did get a lot of professional development in the previous year, but it initially focused on instructional practices and not as much on managing heterogeneous groups or on what multi-aging was supposed to accomplish," Patricia Kannapel, the project's other co-director, says.

The researchers plan to stay in the four study districts, which they have never named, for a full 10 years and wrap up their work in 2000. For the second half of the study, the investigators have narrowed their focus, moving from 20 schools to six. They also hope to zero in on what is now the big unanswered question surrounding the state's reform program: What impact has it had on students and on the curriculum?

Vol. 17, Issue 18, Page 39

Published in Print: January 14, 1998, as In the Field: Research Team Settles In for the Long Haul
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