July 2008 Up Front

What parents think about school climate

Keisha Hooper knows her son, Keenan, is not perfect. But she wonders why her child, a self-described motormouth and practical joker, has been suspended so many times and sent home from school.

“Teachers need order in the classroom, I agree,” Hooper told the Minneapolis Star Tribune recently. “I think where we part ways is that they seem to lose patience with the black kids more than they do the white.”

Hooper’s statement, which was part of a series of stories examining suspension rates in Minnesota’s schools, is mirrored in What We Think, the third installment in the National School Boards Association’s research study on school climate. The report, issued by the Council of Urban Boards of Education, found significant differences in minority parents’ perceptions and trust of their children’s teachers and administrators.

“Different racial groups are experiencing schools, and their interaction with schools, differently,” said study author Brian Perkins, who has led all three research projects and is a member of Connecticut’s New Haven Board of Education. “The research is a bit surprising. They have indicated either that they don’t feel welcome, or they feel a difficulty visiting the schools and knowing who the teachers are.”

According to the report, African-American parents were most negative about the climate in their schools. More than 78 percent said they are less likely to trust their child’s teachers and almost 69 percent said teachers generally do not respect their students. Hispanic parents said they also feel more marginalized than white parents.

What We Think, which received the support of the National PTA, examined the responses of more than 10,000 parents in 112 urban schools in 17 states. Parents were asked their perceptions about about bullying, expectations of student success, the influence of race, and safety, among other things.

The report’s major findings included:

• A majority of parents believe their child’s school is safe, but 58 percent said they believe students fight a lot at school. Forty percent said they were not sure whether children carry guns or knives to school.

• A majority of parents are actively involved in their child’s school. Three-fourths of parents said that they visit the school to support activities.

• Parents believe their children can perform well on standardized exams. Most parents agreed that their children would pursue opportunities in higher education at the community college or university level.

• Just over half of parents surveyed feel teachers could stop bullying, with close to 30 percent not sure if it is possible. More than 25 percent of parents have spoken to an administrator about bullying. Parents with middle grades students were the largest group to report that their child was bullied during the school day at least once per month.

• 70 percent of parents said race is not a factor in the success of children in their child’s school.

That last finding does not appear to be the case in Minnesota, where the Star Tribune estimates that African-American students are being suspended six times more than whites. The figure is twice the national average.

At Champlin Park High School, where Keenan Hooper recently finished ninth grade, Principal Rhoda Mhirpiri-Reed has placed a particular focus on school climate and closing the achievement gap. In April, a voluntary assembly to talk about academics and discipline drew almost 400 students. Teachers, students, and staff members also meet twice a month to talk about improving the climate and, ultimately, achievement.

It seems to be working. The number of African-American students suspended at the school, according to the Star Tribune, has been cut in half. Or, as Mhirpiri-Reed said: “There’s improvement.”

Report raps Reading First

Reading First, a $6 billion federal program designed to improve elementary school reading skills, has had no “measurable impact” on reading comprehension, according to a study mandated by Congress and the U.S. Department of Education.

The program, which serves about 1.5 million students in about 5,200 schools, has come under fire for its emphasis on phonics and claims that top officials mismanaged the handling of contracts for textbooks and testing materials. Congress slashed funding for Reading First by 60 percent this year.

A key component the No Child Left Behind law, the program uses scripted instruction and detailed analyses of students’ skills to measure reading ability. The study, conducted by the Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES), was detailed as well; more than 100,000 students were evaluated in three samples conducted between 2004 and 2006.

According to IES Director Russ Whitehurst, Reading First teachers spend about 10 more minutes per day on instruction, usually emphasizing phonics. But reading scores don’t reflect the added instruction; achievement levels on standardized tests were not significantly higher or lower than non-Reading First schools.

“For all intents and purposes, the kids read at the same level in each grade,” Whitehurst told USA Today.

Congressional leaders criticized the Bush administration’s handling of the program and said Reading First will continue to face harsh scrutiny. Rep. George Miller, the California Democrat who presided over the Reading First scandal hearings in April 2007, said the study “shows that we need to seriously re-examine this program and figure out how to make it work better for students.”

And Sen. Edward Kennedy, a key backer of the original NCLB, did not spare words either. In a statement issued before Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor, the senator said Bush educational officials have “put cronyism first and the reading skills of our children last.”

“This report shows the disturbing consequences,” Kennedy’s statement said. “Instead of awarding scarce education dollars to reading programs that make a difference for our children, the administration chose to reward its friends instead.”

Notes on student health and safety

Have you noticed that studies and reports on a particular topic tend to come out in bunches? One month it’s a series on testing. This time, it’s a series related to students’ health, safety, and achievement.

Here is a sample of what has crossed our desks recently:

Gender and obesity: The two biggest headline grabbers were separate reports released by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The reports, which focused on gender disparities in the classroom and childhood obesity, treaded on now-familiar ground, but each added a new twist.

The AAUW, which issued a groundbreaking report in 1992 that said girls were shortchanged in the classroom, said in a report released in mid-May that academic gains made by girls over the past decade and a half “have not come at boys’ expense.” The report takes aim at researchers and advocates who claim that schools are facing a “boys’ crisis.”

Boys now trail girls in several areas, including high school graduation rates and college enrollment. But the report says disparities are greater among different races, ethnicities, and income levels instead of gender.

“Perhaps the most compelling evidence against the existence of a boys’ crisis is that men continue to out-earn women in the workplace,” the report states.

Meanwhile, the CDC study brought some encouraging news on the childhood obesity front. After increasing for more than two decades, the percentage of children who are overweight or obese has plateaued over the past eight years. The study, which appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said obesity rates among school-age children remain critical, but the new numbers are reason for some optimism.

Next year, the CDC will release an analysis of data for 2007-08, which will provide better evidence of the direction children are heading in, officials said.

Chemical exposure studies: On another front, a CDC study says children who stayed in temporary government housing following Hurricane Katrina could face lifelong health problems due to exposure to formaldehyde fumes. The housing, supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, contained fumes that were up to five times the safe level.

The fumes, which were used in interior glue, were detected in a large number of the 143,000 trailers that were placed along the Gulf Coast in 2006. Residents stayed in the trailers until this past February, which researchers say placed kids -- especially those of elementary school age and younger -- at particular risk.

On an unrelated note, a report says exposure to lead in early childhood can lead to violent crime in early adulthood. The report, part of the Cincinnati Lead Study, supports earlier research that links aggressive behavior to lead exposure. What makes this study -- conducted in Hamilton County, Ohio -- different is that it started in 1979 and has followed for almost 30 years children born in four clinics that serve poorer areas of Cincinnati.

Lunch required: Our last story is not an actual report, but a welcome trend -- mandatory lunch periods. In Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., the school day is being extended and class times are being cut to reduce stress on overworked teens who are caught up in the frenzy of trying to pack in as much work as they can.

Psychologist Madeline Levine, author of The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, has co-founded a project at Stanford University that is working with public and private schools to help students strike a balance between school and a healthy lifestyle.

“Kids who are not eating, or eating under stressful circumstances are not cultivating healthy eating habits,” Levine told the New York Times. “We want to send the message that a big part of growing up is how to manage yourself and not just getting good grades.”

Talk About It
Our monthly list of topics worth discussing

Class size increase

Budget realities have forced some school districts to increase class sizes, even though more than 30 states have launched initiatives to limit the number of students in classrooms. In Fairfax County, Va., the largest school district in the Washington, D.C., area, officials say they will save $11 million by adding half a student per teacher to the staffing formula. Smaller class sizes are popular with parents and educators, making the moves difficult, but other school districts took similar steps as they were forced to decide between staffing cuts and lower raises. All in all, it’s a tough budget year for almost everyone.

Dropouts and inexperienced teachers

Who is teaching your high school freshmen? If the staff is inexperienced and not certified, then you could be contributing to your district’s dropout rate, a recent study says. The study, published in the May issue of the American Journal of Education, says ninth-graders in Phila­delphia were more likely than their high school peers to have younger, less- experienced teachers who were not certified in their subjects. The report does not conclusively tie teacher assignment patterns to the dropout rate, but it says students with novice or unqualified teachers have more absences -- a key indicator for dropouts.

Single-sex classes

Districts that are considering single-sex classes will want to keep tabs on a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against Kentucky’s Breckinridge County School District and the U.S. Department of Education. The lawsuit alleges the classes offered at the district’s middle school are “fundamentally unequal and unlawful.” District officials assigned students to all-male, all-female, or co-ed classes without consulting parents, but then offered an opt-out policy after multiple complaints.

Single-gender education has become increasingly popular in South Carolina, where 97 schools now have classes divided between boys and girls, and Boston is planning a program as well. Nationwide, about 400 public schools in 37 states and the District of Columbia have at least one school with some single-gender classrooms, according to the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.

Testing incentives

Does your school district offer incentives to students to improve achievement? In Atlanta, 35 students recently ended a privately funded pilot program in which they were paid $8 an hour to study. The $60,000 program was aimed at students who were performing below average in math and science. Officials say grades and study habits improved during the 15-week program, which was underwritten by a private citizen and administered by the Learning Makes a Difference Foundation.

Incentive programs appear to have improved reading achievement across grade levels in charter schools, according to an analysis by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes. The study, which looked only at charter schools, found no impact on math performance but says students improved reading by an average of 4 percentage points.


• Kentucky’s Jefferson County Board of Education has approved revisions to the district’s student assignment plan in response to the 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling. The new plan, based on almost a year of research, development, and community input, assigns students based on geographic areas determined by multiple criteria, including the family’s household income, level of parent education, and race. Additionally, elementary schools are now organized in contiguous clusters, two new district-wide elementary magnet schools were added, and some elementary school boundaries were adjusted.

• The Arizona Court of Appeals has ruled that taxpayer-funded vouchers that subsidize private school tuition are unconstitutional. The decision, which followed a lawsuit filed by a coalition of parent, civic, and education organizations, reverses two laws enacted by the Arizona Legislature in 2006. The laws allowed parents of private and religious school students to seek tuition reimbursement.

• The state of Connecticut’s claim that the federal government forced it to spend its own money to comply with the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was dismissed by a federal judge in early May. The lawsuit, filed in 2005, alleged that NCLB’s “unfunded mandates provision” says no state or school district should be forced to spend money on expenses not covered by the federal government. A second lawsuit, filed by a teachers’ union and school districts in several states, is scheduled to be reheard later this year.