AERA President-Elect Carol Leemoderated a Division G Vice-Presidential session Thursday entitled Research on Schools, Neighborhoods and Communities: Implications for Research Methods on Social Contexts. The participants were Shirley Brice Heath, Kris Gutierrez, Margaret Beale Spencer, and Steve Raudenbush. Heath and Gutierrez emphasized the cultural features of contexts in their remarks. Heath argued that a central task of educational research is studying the co-occurrence of contexts with specific behaviors. She made a case for quantitative data records that allow for comparisons across contexts and time periods, using a study of the role of language in the context of young children coming to think of themselves as scientists as an example.
Kris Gutierrez argued for the importance of studying the resources and constraints of ecologies that constitute families’ everyday lives, especially in nondominant communities. A key example she drew on was the difficulty of understanding behaviors without a deep understanding of the setting. For example, in one study, there was evidence that Latino children spent more time watching TV than did children in other groups. A conventional interpretation of this pattern might be that Latino parents are lax in not clamping down on this unproductive activity. But a deeper look might reveal that keeping children inside watching TV is an adaptive response to parents’ perceptions that their neighborhood is unsafe. Gutierrez suggested that a cultural view of human learning requires attention to the mechanisms that account for regularity, variation and change.
Margaret Beale Spencer and Steve Raudenbush focused on neighborhoods. Spencer noted the importance of cross-classifying the presence or absence of risks and protective factors; each of these four configurations represents a different context for children’s development. In a study she carried out in 41 Philadelphia-area high schools, she found that neighborhood characteristics affected the behaviors and perceptions of high school students. Neighborhood quality was associated with the fear of neighborhood risk. Moreover, youth from higher-quality neighborhoods perceive that teachers have higher opinions of them than do youth from lower-quality neighborhoods, and these perceptions may influence their school engagement and performance.
Raudenbush discussed a study he carried out with Rob Sampson on the effects of neighborhood disadvantage on the verbal skills of Black children. A major methodological problem is that individual risk factors are correlated with neighborhood risk factors, and Raudenbush skimmed over some fancy statistical footwork to make an argument for large neighborhood effects on cognitive achievement. Neighborhood poverty doesn’t tell the whole story: we can classify neighborhoods (i.e., census tracts) according to the percentage of the residents who are on welfare, who are poor, who are unemployed, and who are single parents, as well as the percentage in the neighborhood who are children under the age of 18. In Chicago, 24% of Black children live in the highest quartile of concentrated disadvantage. Shockingly, not a single white or Hispanic child lived in the highest quartile. Raudenbush linked his argument to William Julius Wilson’s book The Truly Disadvantaged, and suggested that one mechanism by which neighborhood disadvantage might stunt cognitive development is isolation from the academic English needed to succeed in school.
Spencer and Raudenbush’s presentations led me to think about the difficulty of constructing defensible value-added models of school and teacher effects on student learning and development. Both of them have documented that neighborhoods matter in ways that go beyond the simple demographic characteristics of students and the schools they attend, which are the customary inputs (along with prior achievement) in value-added models. I think we need to think about neighborhoods as contexts that represent affordances or constraints for student learning, and to control for these contexts in value-added models, because neighborhood characteristics are largely beyond the control of schools and teachers. Shirley Brice Heath’s comment on Raudenbush’s argument was that we need to build out-of-school time into the model, since kids spend a lot of time out of school in their families and communities, again in ways that may not be under the control of schools and teachers. I’d add that many kids are out of school during the summers, and yet value-added models generally rely on annual testing that is not synchronized with exposure to schools and teachers.
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