Current Events: In Brief

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When Teachers Work Together, Students Benefit

Researchers have long noted that teachers benefit from being part of a professional community. But a new study completed last year reveals for the first time that participation in such a community—whether through a school or network of like-minded colleagues—has a powerful effect on how well teachers are able to adapt their instructional strategies to meet student needs.

The five-year, federally funded study by the Center for Research on the Context of Secondary Teaching found that the most effective teachers had hooked up with a network of professionals who addressed problems and found solutions together. “Not one of the teachers studied who was able to develop sustained and challenging learning opportunities for students was in isolation,” says Milbrey McLaughlin, director of the center, which is located at Stanford University. “Each belonged to a professional learning community.” By contrast, she said, “without support, many teachers fell back on their old practices or left the profession.”

The study was based on indepth research at 16 schools in seven districts—including two independent schools—in California and Michigan. The researchers also analyzed data from national surveys, including the 1984 High School and Beyond study of teachers and the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988.

Teachers agree, the researchers say, that students are the context that matters most to what they do in the classroom and that today’s students differ in many ways from students of the past. “The problem of reform,” McLaughlin says, “can be summed up as the problem of today’s students and yesterday’s teachers.”

Many of the teachers studied responded to the challenges presented by students by attempting to enforce traditional standards or by “dumbing down” or turning their backs on curricular content, the report says. In those cases, teachers and students ended up becoming burned out and cynical.

But the most effective teachers, the study found, rejected the view that students were “the problem” and instead altered their practices to provide opportunities for students to learn challenging content. In analyzing why some teachers made effective adaptations to today’s students and others did not, the researchers found a striking pattern: The teachers who thrived were part of a professional community that enabled its members to discuss problems and mutually develop strategies for dealing with them.

As an example, Joan Talbert, the center’s associate director, cites the case of two high schools in the same California district. Both served roughly the same student population, and both lived under the same rules and regulations. One of the schools, however, had high student-failure and dropout rates, while the other had among the highest test scores in the state and sent 80 percent of its students to college. The difference was reflected in the professional characteristics of the schools, Talbert says. In the school with high failure rates, teachers complained frequently, came to work late, left early, and held meetings in front of the school mailboxes, if at all. By contrast, the successful school held frequent schoolwide meetings to solve problems and, as a result, developed unusual solutions.


Can We Assess Students But Not Schools?

A bill drafted by the Clinton administration that would authorize national standards for student performance has highlighted a related issue that is among the most troublesome now facing policymakers: whether to establish similar standards for schools.

The U.S. Education Department was forced in March to delay the introduction of the school reform bill after a contentious meeting with House Democrats. A key sticking point was the lawmakers’ insistence on balancing the student standards with what they called “school delivery” or “opportunity to learn” standards designed to ensure that every school has the capacity to bring all of its students to high levels of achievement.

Supporters of strong delivery standards maintain that they are necessary to guarantee that students are not penalized for failing to clear high academic hurdles while they attend schools with poor facilities and inadequately trained teachers. But critics of the idea—including the nation’s governors—warn that a national set of standards for schools could lead to a “cookie cutter” approach that might limit states’ flexibility and impose costly mandates.

“States understand the serious equity problem, the serious problem of not having consequences for kids unless they have an opportunity to learn,” explains Susan Traiman, director of education policy studies for the National Governors’ Association. “But how states provide the opportunity to learn needs to be figured out at the state and local levels, not mandated at the national level.”

While the debate rages among federal policymakers, though, researchers and state officials from around the country have been working quietly to define standards for schools and to begin to find ways to measure progress toward them. “We have made a commitment to begin to define what those opportunity-to-learn standards should be,” says William Lepley, chairman of the governing board of the New Standards Project, a group of 19 states and six school districts that is developing an assessment system for students.

Although the issue of determining whether students have had the opportunity to learn material on which they are tested is not new, it burst onto the national policy agenda early last year with the release of the final report of the National Council on Education Standards and Testing. In addition to calling for national standards and a related assessment system to measure student performance against them, the congressionally mandated panel recommended the adoption of delivery standards to assess whether schools are giving students a sufficient education.

In debating the standards council’s recommendations, however, House Democrats contended that the panel did not go far enough. They argued that no national system of assessments should be used for high-stakes purposes unless school delivery standards were also in place. Otherwise, they asserted, students in poor schools would be penalized. Said one lawmaker, “Without delivery standards, you don’t know if the school is failing or if students are failing.”


Full Inclusion Gets A Plug

Advocates for the “full inclusion” of students with disabilities in public school classrooms received a boost earlier this spring at an unlikely forum—the 65th annual Academy Awards show.

Educating Peter, a 30-minute film about the experiences of a boy with Down syndrome over the course of a year in a regular 3rd grade classroom, was the winner of the Oscar for best documentary short subject. Gerardine Wurzburg, the film’s co-director and co-producer, accepted the award from actors Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington during the March 29 televised ceremony. “To the advocates who are promoting full inclusion, let us move forward,” Wurzburg said during her brief acceptance speech.

The film looks at the fullinclusion issue through the experience of Peter Gwazdauskis, a child with Down syndrome who previously had to travel by bus each day to a special education school. When he reached the 3rd grade, Peter was invited by school officials in Blacksburg, Va., to attend a regular classroom in his neighborhood school. The Virginia district has been at the forefront of the full-inclusion movement, which calls for the integration of students with disabilities into regular classrooms instead of placing them in special education facilities or mainstreaming them for only a portion of the day.

In May, a wide audience will be able to view the documentary on cable television’s Home Box Office, which funded the documentary. HBO will first air Educating Peter on May 12 at 9:30 p.m. (EDT). It will be repeated on May 15, 17, and 23.


Scientists Guide Teacher Leaders

Over the next three years, beginning this summer, 153 of the nation’s most creative and innovative middle and high school science and mathematics teachers will participate in a newly established AT&T Teachers & Technology Institute. A panel of American Telegraph & Telephone Co. experts will select six finalists from each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, and the winning teachers— to be designated Governors’ Fellows—will be selected by 16 governors and the mayor of the District of Columbia.

The 51 teachers selected for this summer will participate in intensive two-week workshops at the company’s Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. World-renowned scientists at Bell Labs, including Nobel laureates, are responsible for some of this century’s key inventions and developments, including the transistor, the laser, and stereo sound.

Under the tutelage of such scientists, the teachers, working in groups, will:

• Explore new visions for the future of science and mathematics education;

• Investigate how the latest technologies will affect their classrooms and lives;

• Discuss the skills students will need to be successful in the work force of the future;

• Develop curricular tools, ideas, and plans to share with their students and colleagues back home.

Applicants to the institute must be full-time 7th-12th grade math or science teachers in a U.S. public or private school. According to the statement announcing the program, “The primary criterion for selection is a demonstrated and articulated commitment to an innovative vision of the future of math and science education.”

AT&T will provide transportation to and from Bell Labs, as well as housing, meals, and local transportation. Each Governors’ Fellow will also receive a $1,000 stipend and will be enrolled in the AT&T Learning Network for the fall 1993 semester at no cost to the participant. Interested teachers may obtain an application through their school or by calling (908) 221-7350.


Girls Say Sexual Harassment Often Occurs In Public

When Seventeen magazine surveyed its readers about sexual harassment last fall, 4,200 girls from 4,000 schools replied, all saying they had experienced some form of sexual harassment at school.

According to the girls, who ranged in age from 9 to 19, suggestive gestures, looks, comments, or jokes are the most common kinds of harassment. And most of the incidents, they said, occur in public and are initiated by male peers. Thirty-nine percent of the girls who responded to the survey said they had been harassed at school on a daily basis during the previous year.

The survey questionnaire, designed by researchers at the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and co-sponsored by the center and the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund, appeared in the September issue of the popular girls’ magazine. The researchers based their report on an analysis of a random sample of 2,002 of the 4,200 questionnaires returned, including a 10 percent representation of responses from members of minority groups. The survey was not scientific nor intended to document the prevalence of sexual harassment in schools. Instead, it was a first attempt to obtain a picture of the problem, or, as Nan Stein, a research associate at the center and the principal author of the report, puts it, to identify “the typical scenario.”

After unwanted looks and gestures, reported by 89 percent of the girls, the forms of harassment respondents mentioned next most often were pinching, grabbing, or other touching, reported by 83 percent. Twenty-seven percent of the respondents said they had been pressured to engage in some form of sexual conduct; one in 10 said they had been forced to engage in such conduct.

Most of the incidents involved male students; just 4 percent of the girls reported being harassed by school staff members.

The majority of the girls—76 percent—said they told at least one person about the incidents, most often a friend, although nearly one in five told a parent, teacher, or administrator. When a teacher or administrator knew about an incident, nothing happened to the accused harasser in 45 percent of the cases, the survey found.


Is There An Invisible Killer In Your Room?

Radon is odorless, colorless, tasteless, and dangerous, and 20 percent of the nation’s schools have at least one classroom contaminated with harmful levels, according to early data from an Environmental Protection Agency survey released in March.

A gas produced by the decay of uranium in soil, radon, when inhaled, can damage lung tissues and increase the risk of cancer. In fact, the Surgeon General says radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer, behind smoking, in the United States.

The National School Radon Survey was mandated by the Indoor Radon Abatement Act of 1988 and conducted during the 199091 school year by EPA researchers, who placed detectors in 917 randomly selected public schools in 48 states. The findings of the survey comprise the first statistically significant federal study of radon levels in public schools.

Based on the study, the agency estimates that 73,000 classrooms in more than 15,000 public schools have radon levels above the federal standard of 4 picocuries per liter of air. Although schools with radon problems can be found throughout the country, the percentage of schools with unhealthy concentrations varied by region. The problem is worst in the Northeast, where 4.1 percent of the schoolrooms exceeded 4 picocuries per liter. More than 3.1 percent of schoolrooms tested in the South, 3 percent in the North Central, and 1.1 percent in the West showed levels exceeding the EPA standard.

“Parents and teachers should recognize that each school with an elevated radon level poses a serious long-term hazard,” U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., said at a hearing before the Health and Environment Sub- committee. “In over 10,000 schoolrooms nationwide, a teacher or student is receiving more radiation than the average worker in a nuclear power plant.”


PE And Health Teachers Say, `Don’t Forget Us’

Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action.

More than 800 high school coaches, health educators, students, and college professors earlier this spring marched to the steps of the U.S. Education Department in Washington to demand theirs. Specifically, they were demanding that physical and health education be included in the national education goals and standards-setting efforts.

Wearing T-shirts and carrying placards that read “Educate the whole child,” the marchers presented to members of Secretary of Education Richard Riley’s staff a petition signed by approximately 25,000 educators and students. “To be complete,” the document read, “a student’s education must include knowledge about the importance of good health and physical fitness.”

The national education goals specify that students should demonstrate proficiency in core subject matter, including mathematics, science, English, history, and geography.

In response to critics who had charged that the list slighted some important subjects, Secretary Riley said in March that legislation to codify the national goals would also include the arts and foreign languages. The only mention of health education is under the goal stating that every school be drug-free by the year 2000. That goal says schools should develop a comprehensive K-12 drug- and alcohol-prevention education program and that drug and alcohol curricula should be taught as an integral part of health education.

In addition to pushing for federal recognition of their fields, members of the American Alliance for Health and Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance said they also hoped to persuade Riley to endorse their efforts to create national standards for health and physical fitness. Over the past year, the Education Department and other agencies have sponsored projects to develop standards for student performance in the five subjects named in the goals, as well as in civics, foreign languages, and the arts.

Education Department officials declined to say whether the education goals would be redrawn to include health and PE. But they applauded the groups’ efforts. “We have been proactive on this issue,” says Fritz Edelstein, an assistant to Secretary Riley. “We want to listen, not shut them out.”

Vol. 04, Issue 08, Pages 8-11

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