Study of middle-schoolers’ performance gets personal


By Anindita Dasgupta

Researchers at New York University are asking middle school children and their parents some tough questions about how children’s support systems affect their academic achievement in school.

“On average, how often do you see your father?”

“How much does this person (mother, father, guardian) like or love you?”

“Some people don’t expect me to do well in life because of my ethnicity — (strongly disagree, disagree, in between, agree, strongly agree).”

“A lot of people don’t expect my ethnic group to do well in life.”

These are some of the more-sensitive questions in the study called “Raising Academic Performance: A Study of School, Peer and Parental Influences on Academic Engagement and Performance Among Diverse Urban Youth.”

Dr. Diane Hughes and Dr. Niobe Way are associate professors in psychology in N.Y.U.’s Center for Research on Culture, Development and Education. In 2002, the professors received a grant from the National Science Foundation, allowing them to run the R.A.P. project, which follows sixth-grade students through eighth grade throughout New York City.

Drs. Hughes and Way, who have both been involved with research in the community in psychology for more than 20 years, hope to use the information gathered from the survey to understand what helps and hampers children’s achievement in middle school and what factors contribute to children succeeding in high school as a result of positive middle school experiences.

Two years ago, the researchers embarked on the first phase of the project. In two 45-minute sessions held about a week apart, sixth-grade students were asked to fill out a 40-page questionnaire with detailed questions about how they think others perceive them, how they perceive themselves and other questions about their opinions and experiences. These students were again polled in seventh grade, and researchers are preparing to poll them as eighth-graders this year. Approximately, 800 students have participated in this phase of the research.

In the second phase, researchers interview parents and children who participated in the initial survey and indicated they would like to participate further for two to three hours. This in-depth interview process allows researchers to ask clarifying and follow-up questions that questionnaires on paper don’t allow for. At this point, there are approximately 200 participants in this subset population.

According to the researchers, children participate only if a parental consent form is signed. Following approval to administer the study from the Department of Education and principals of participating schools, N.Y.U. graduate students employed and supervised by the research team explain the research process to students. They assure the students their participation is voluntary and ask that they take home a packet with information about the study and an informed consent form for their parents. Researchers are instructed only to administer the surveys to students at times approved by the principal. In their survey, the research team indicates that they hope to conduct the research during “non-core periods (e.g. advisory periods or homeroom).”

The fact that students were approached before their parents, however, raised red flags with members of District 2’s Community Education Council and Community Board 2. Earlier this year, as a result, C.E.C. 2 created the Educational Research on Human Subjects in Public Schools Committee, calling for more communication and transparency between researchers, D.O.E. and parents.

The researchers explain that approaching parents directly is difficult and poses a series of confidentiality problems, since parent contact information cannot be distributed to researchers for privacy reasons. Dr. Way added that this technique of approaching students in schools (with necessary approvals) is used all over the country and is the accepted standard practice.

Granville Leo Stevens, a parent at M.S. 104 — the Simon Baruch School on E. 21st St. in Gramercy — was deeply upset by questions found in the R.A.P. study, so much so that he refused to let his daughter participate. Stevens charges that research institutions like N.Y.U. and the Department of Education do not have children’s best interests in mind.

“The Department of Education markets these kids to universities like they are a piece of steak in an Omaha meat catalogue!” he said, adding that researchers look at New York City’s varied population as optimal for research first and then think of regulations as afterthoughts.

Petitioning C.E.C. 2 and the local community boards, Stevens called for greater transparency, public engagement and freedom of information in regard to research on students.

“My feeling is that in order to advance the credibility of the research, in order to establish a meaningful partnership, they have to keep in mind that these are kids that we give temporary ownership on a daily basis to the schools,” he said. “If you’re doing research, you should have a diverse group approving the research.”

In April, Community Board 2 passed resolutions calling for the Department of Education and the Health and Hospitals Corporation to develop means to monitor research conducted in public schools. They also called on the Department of Investigation, Conflicts of Interest Board and the city and/or state comptroller to investigate financial relationships between parties involved in the research and their sponsors.

Michael Propper, president of C.E.C. 2, said that their research committee offered a number of suggestions regarding research review to Region 9 Superintendent Peter Heaney’s office. These new proposed regulations would offer an additional, required level of discussion on prospective research studies that the principal is prepared to support. This discussion would take place between the school leadership team followed by a formal presentation to the school’s P.T.A. No final decisions on these recommendations have been made yet, but Region 9 is in the process of reviewing them.

When told about the new study-review committee and C.B. 2 and C.E.C. 2 resolutions, Dr. Way was enthusiastic. The researchers said members from their research team have already met with P.T.A.’s and individual parents concerned about their study.

“We’ve always been open to that,” said Dr. Way.

Currently, before children take part in any research study from N.Y.U., the study undergoes deep scrutiny from independent institutional review boards on many levels. Specifically with the R.A.P. project, the study was reviewed by several I.R.B.’s including ones from N.Y.U., D.O.E. and the National Science Foundation. These boards are charged with ensuring that the study is ethically and morally sound and that the rights and needs of research participants are protected.

Stevens also had a problem with some of the sensitive questions being asked of students, feeling that the questions serve as negative triggers and target minority students.

Stevens referred to questions where students were asked to indicate their races and the races of their parents. The survey then asked participants about how they felt they were perceived or what was expected of them based on their racial backgrounds.

Dr. Way acknowledged that some questions on the study might be difficult for students to answer, but that students were told by the research team that they could skip any question they felt uncomfortable answering. In addition, upon recommendation by the I.R.B., referral to a psychologist will be available if a child is upset by any of the questions on the survey. She added that the questions about race were asked to find out if students identified with specific ethnic groups and if those groups served as a means of support. Dr. Way continued that issues of peer discrimination among students are widely underexplored, and that these issues also need to be looked at to understand what helps or hinders academic achievement.

Stevens countered that students held in a “captive” environment while taking the survey, such as in a classroom surrounded by their peers, and made uncomfortable by the survey, would not likely approach an official administering the study for help.

Dr. Perry Halkitis, N.Y.U. associate dean for research and doctoral studies, said while no participants had reported emotional distress due to the R.A.P. study, he was aware of participants in other similarly structured studies who did take advantage of counseling referrals.

Dr. Halkitis maintained that the procedures in the R.A.P. study were based on standardized procedures approved by I.R.B.’s across the country.

“From my perspective, the fact that institutional review boards that consist of scholars who are in this area with the mentality to protect participants have approved the study is a big assurance to me,” he said, adding his vote of confidence in Drs. Hughes and Way’s judgment.

“They are seasoned researchers,” he said. “They know what is appropriate.”

The researchers added that out of the 800 children who have participated in the study, not one has sought counseling or reported signs of emotional distress. It is difficult to say what will trigger a child’s emotions due to each child’s unique set of experiences and associations, Dr. Way said. She maintained that while they are asking questions that might be sensitive to some students, they aren’t asking questions about sexuality or drug use, which could be deemed as even more invasive.

Dr. Way acknowledged that the questions deal with some sensitive topics. But she said part of the goal of the research is to find answers to these questions in order to better understand what helps or hinders middle schoolers’ academic achievement.

“You’ll never get real answers and learn real perspectives without asking sensitive questions,” she said.

Dr. Hughes agreed with this assessment, adding that there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction from students and parents to the study. She said many students in the survey wrote notes to the researchers in the comments section, thanking them for taking the time to listen to their opinions. She added that some children even asked whey they weren’t asking even more sensitive questions about subjects like physical abuse.

Drs. Way and Hughes said they’re still collecting data and that it will take some time to process all the information. At the end of each year, however, they supply participating parents with a newsletter with updates of their work. Early looks at their findings indicate relationships between nutrition and academic achievement as well as parental involvement and academic achievement, the researchers said.

After the data is processed, they hope to share this data with community members and school leaders to help middle school administrators target factors that impact students’ ability to succeed in the classroom.

“I think it’s important that the R.A.P. project takes place,” said Dr. Halkitis, adding that not a lot of research on middle school children has been done and that there is even less on New York City middle school children.

“National studies of middle school children don’t pay attention to nuances relevant to New York City kids,” he said.