School & District Management


By Debra Viadero — September 04, 1996 4 min read
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The Curse Of The Valedictorian

High school valedictorians rarely turn out to be top achievers or risk-takers in life. That’s what Boston College researcher Karen Arnold found after tracking 46 women and 35 men who were at the top of their high school classes when they graduated in 1981. By age 32, few of the valedictorians, Arnold found, had turned out to be outstanding in their fields or had taken unconventional paths. “They’re extremely well-rounded and successful, personally and professionally,” says Arnold, who is an associate professor of education. “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 the career ambitions of the women faded as they grew older. Midway through college, many of the women switched their majors from a high-powered technical field to occupations traditionally dominated by females--even though their grades had been high. Seven women quit their jobs later to raise children. “They decided there are lots of ways to be intelligent, not just through occupational success,” Arnold says. She 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 says. Her findings are the subject of a new book, Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians, published by Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Does High School Matter?

A study by researchers from the National Center on Education Statistics, Wilmington College, and the University of Delaware has turned up a startling conclusion: that high schools have little effect on student learning in reading and mathematics. Using test-score data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a federally sponsored study of 28,000 students, the researchers attempted to gauge how much students learn over four years of high school. From 8th to 12th grades, they found, students’ scores improved only modestly--an average of 0.17 8th-grade standard deviations a year. That means that 12th graders have a mean reading score equal to 8th graders who score at the 68th percentile. In math, seniors’ mean score is equal to 8th graders at the 75th percentile. In other words, many 8th graders score higher than the average 12th grader, and 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, lead investigator of the study, in a policy brief on the project for the U.S. Department of Education’s statistics center. On the bright side, 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.”

The Algebra Advantage

Taking algebra in 8th grade can add up to greater mathematics achievement in high school, concludes researcher Julia Smith in a journal article published in the May 1996 issue of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. Smith, an assistant professor in the University of Rochester’s Warner Graduate School of Education and Human Development, analyzed data on 9,158 high school students who took part in the High School and Beyond Study, a federally sponsored longitudinal research project. She found that students who took algebra prior to high school had enrolled in more advanced math classes by their senior year than other students and that they had scored higher on standardized math tests, as well. Even when students from both groups exhibited similar mathematical knowledge at the beginning of 10th grade, the students who had taken 8th grade algebra still came out ahead two years later. Part of what might happen, the researcher hypothesizes, is that early exposure to algebra gives students a “credentialing advantage,” in the way that academic degrees and diplomas do. Students are effectively socialized into taking more advanced math--and, thus, learn more--regardless of whether they started out mathematically smarter than their peers.

Dress Down

Teachers who want students to think they’re friendly and interesting might do well to dress down--rather than up--for class, according to three West Virginia University researchers. Tracy Morris, Joan Gorham, and Stanley Cohen invited four graduate teaching assistants to present lectures to their psychology classes in three different styles of dress: formal professional clothes, such as business suits; casual professional clothes, which meant a tie but no jacket for men and a sweater and skirt for women; and, finally, casual attire like jeans, flannel shirts, and T-shirts. For the most part, the 401 college students in the classes rated the instructors more interesting, extroverted, and sociable when they were casually clad. But the students also tended to rate the casual teachers as less competent--a finding that supports previous studies. All the instructors got high marks for knowledge and composure; students rated them 4.5 or greater on a 5-point scale measuring how well-informed they seemed. The researchers’ conclusion: Dressing down, rather than up, does little harm--and may even do some good--when it comes to teaching. The study appears in the April 1996 issue of Communication Education, a journal published by the Speech Communication Association.

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A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Findings


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