FEd April 1995 Newsletter - Comments from the Chair

April 1995



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Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy 1993-94 Calculus-Based Physics/Mechanics Study

Click for other Sections: Major findings, or Major interpretations

Located in Aurora, Illinois, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) is the state's public residential high school for talented mathematics and science students, and an educational laboratory for designing and testing innovative programs and strategies to share with other schools, teachers and students in Illinois and beyond.

In February 1994, the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy (IMSA) was featured in USA Weekend and on NBC-TV's Dateline in reports on gender equity in education. The reports centered on the work of David and Myra Sadker, professors of education at American University. The Sadkers' new book, Failing at Fairness: How America's Schools Cheat Girls, was published in February.

The February 4-6 USA Weekend, the nationwide weekend newspaper insert, cited IMSA in a cover story by the Sadkers. Three IMSA students were pictured on the cover. The Dateline report by anchorwoman Jane Pauley aired February 8.

Both reports featured IMSA's calculus-based physics/mechanics course, one section of which was all girls for the fall semester of the 1993-94 school year. The all-girls section was part of the first phase of a year-long study designed to learn more about how student-teacher, student-student, and student-content interaction influence learning. Three coed sections of the same course also were offered. Girls had the option of enrolling in the single-gender section or coed section. Thirteen girls enrolled in the single-gender section first semester, and a total of 11 enrolled in the coed sections. Course content, expectations and exams were the same for all sections. However, by design the learning environment in the all-girls section was different.

For second semester (phase two of the study), all sections of the course are coed.

The research design employed is a qualitative, interpretive study. Structured hypotheses have not been delineated. Rather, data are collected across a variety of variables, and we anticipate that an analysis of these data will inform a more experimental research design. Student questionnaires/surveys, process observations by an educational researcher, test/exam performance, and reflective journals completed by teachers are among the data that will be analyzed.

The single-gender dimension of the study represents a transition from the idea of equal educational opportunity to one grounded in a belief in equal educational outcomes. This shift allows for differential treatment of a group to enable its members to attain outcomes similar to the dominant culture. It addresses the "Catch 22" of the equal treatment argument and represents a movement beyond equality toward equity.

Even at IMSA, where all students--girls and boys--have demonstrated exceptional talent in mathematics and science as part of the Academy's competitive admissions process, some of the national trends are still apparent. For example, IMSA girls have enrolled in and completed certain high-level mathematics and science electives less frequently than their male classmates.

The decision to initiate the calculus-based physics/mechanics study was based on several factors, including: (1) evidence that some of the national trends were apparent at IMSA; (2) faculty and staff members' desire to learn more about how the teaching and learning environment at IMSA both supports and inhibits girls; (3) a belief that the Academy's mission to transform teaching and learning in mathematics and science cannot be met without tackling gender issues head-on; (4) extensive review of the well-documented research on masculine bias in science education and discourse; and (5) comments and recommendation from IMSA students.

At this time, the Academy does not view single-gender classes as the most appropriate long term 'solution,' and there are no plans to offer single-gender classes next year (1994-95). Decisions beyond that will be based on a number of factors, including the results of this year's study.

Opinions on this study among IMSA faculty, staff students and parents vary considerably. Some who oppose the idea of single-gender classes nevertheless support the study for what our community may be able to learn from it. The Academy believes the study will inform our efforts to provide the most appropriate learning environment for all students--both girls and boys--in the future. We acknowledge the controversial nature of the study, but we believe it is in keeping with the spirit of inquiry and research characteristic of an educational laboratory.

Further information is available over the web.

Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy 1993-94 Calculus-based Physics Exploratory Study

Summary of Major Findings

Click for other sections: Background and Interpretations

  1. More females enrolled in and successfully completed Calculus-based Physics: Mechanics (first semester course) than ever before. More females enrolled in and successfully completed Calculus-based Physics: Electricity/Magnetism (second semester course) than ever before.
  2. Females in the single-gender section of Calculus-based Physics: Mechanics demonstrated significantly higher gains in self-confidence than did females in the coed sections.
  3. Prior mathematical power as measured by the PSAT-M exam accounted for differences in achievement levels for females on the Calculus-based Physics: Mechanics final exam. However, this prior mathematical power was not a significant factor on achievement levels among females in Calculus-based Physics: Electricity/Magnetism. While the PSAT-M was a strong predictor of first semester final exam performance, this predictive power vanished for second semester final exam performance.
  4. There was a strikingly different quality to the atmosphere, character and climate of the all-female class. The learning community which emerged was characterized by: a profound sense of responsibility for learning--for one's own learning and for each others' learning, for seeking and giving help; a special rapport between and among the teacher and the students which enabled frequent free and open discussions about physics, past and current experiences, feelings, frustrations, etc.; a spirit of co-learning, with both the teacher and the students feeling free to ask questions, admit mistakes, take risks, express confusion, etc. strong student influence on classroom dynamics which enabled the teacher to be more in tune with, drawn in by and responsive to student behaviors and needs.

    The teacher, who has taught science for 20 years at the high school and college levels, reported that these characteristics were more pervasive in the all-female class than in any other class he has taught.
  5. Students in the all-female class displayed greater performance-level growth on quizzes, homework and class exams than did females in the coed section taught by the same teacher. Initially the females in the two classes performed about the same on in-class assignments. As the semester continued, females in the single- gender section performed better. Their growth was most evident in the areas of problem analysis and problem-solving.
  6. In the all-female class, the teacher increasingly re-examined and modified his repertoire of teaching strategies, enabling students to acquire real-world physics- related experiences which are fundamental to a deeper understanding of advanced physics.

Summary of Major Interpretations

Click for other sections: Background and Findings

  1. The classroom ethos (distinguishing character/climate) of the all-female class and changes in teacher behavior (both planned and emergent changes) seemed to have the most dramatic effect on student learning. Enabled by the teacher at the outset, the classroom ethos was mutually constructed over time by the learners and the teacher. Data indicate that some females and some in the coed sections prefer and likely would be better served by a classroom ethos similar to the one that was constructed in the all-female section.
  2. While the all-female section was beneficial for most, the classroom ethos of the all-female section and/or the single-gender dimension itself did not serve all learners equally well. A few students in the all-female class did not like one or both of these factors and did not consider their experiences to be successful. Similarly, some females in the coed sections liked the coed environment and/or the classroom ethos of their particular sections, and considered their experiences to be successful.

For more information, contact:

Catherine C. Veal
Director of Communications
Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy
1500 West Sullivan Road
Aurora, IL 60506-1000
Phone: (708) 907-5034
FAX: (708) 907-5062
Internet: cveal@imsa.edu
Web: http://www.imsa.edu/