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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Setting the Record Straight on Research in School Classrooms

It's about improving education and protecting kids

Last week's headline on the front page of a New York City tabloid promised an expose of horrific wrongdoing: "Guinea Pigs: School Kids Used in Sci Experiments."

Yet readers might have been left wondering what it was that either Teachers College, which was prominently mentioned in the story, or anyone else had done wrong. One Teachers College researcher "wants to find out how children of different races get along," the story said, while a study conducted by researchers from New York University was looking at "the effectiveness of workshops aimed at reducing anxiety and anger in teens after 9/11." Parents of the students involved in these studies had given their informed consent, the story acknowledged. And no, the writer conceded after dramatically raising the possibility: the researchers conducting these studies in the schools were not dispensing "psychotropic drugs." 

Mayor Bloomberg dismissed the story the next day, saying: "We are determined to give every child in our public school a good education and we're going to work with the parents and work with the students and try to find out what their needs are and then we're going to address those needs. If we aren't willing to look and find out what the problems are, we can't help. We've been doing this for a number of years and we will continue to do it. It's done with the parents' acquiescence; it's done in the correct way-' to find out where each one of our 1.1 million children can be helped."

Still, some damage had been done: in addition to whatever misperceptions lingered among readers, the principal at one school participating in TC research had decided to withdraw from the study.

And that, according to TC President Susan Fuhrman, is everyone's loss.

"Education practice and policy has been improved over many decades directly through research in schools and classrooms that has involved the participation of students," Fuhrman said. "It is through this kind of work that we have learned about everything from the value of smaller class sizes to the success of particular instructional techniques. Such studies also have directly advanced the cause of educational equity. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court based its decision in Brown versus Board of Education in part on the famous doll studies performed by Kenneth and Mamie Clark, in which black children from segregated schools preferred to play with white dolls. TC has a long and proud tradition of such work, and in every aspect of it, we take appropriate precautions to safeguard the wellbeing and privacy of students and their families."

In fact, all research approved at TC must, undergo review by the College's Institutional Review Board (IRB) for Human Subjects protections.  The IRB considers the proposed work from every angle -- will it be disruptive  in the classroom? Will student confidentiality be fully protected? Is the explanation of the work written so that subjects (or their parents) will fully understand it? -- and can send researchers back to the drawing board as many times as it deems necessary before allowing them to seek funding.

"Faculty work for years on their study proposals, and they don't always like what we tell them, but that's our job," says IRB Chair George Bonanno, Associate Professor of Psychology and Education.

More specifically, says Paul Kran, Director of the College's Office of Sponsored Programs. "TC will not approve any research that does not provide both parents and children the option of not participating." TC  only authorizes payment to parents for research that requires parental participation, and the payment can only be for compensation for parents' time, not as an inducement.  The same is true for any kind of gift made to students. Finally, Kran says, the College will not approve research that takes students out of regular classroom activities unless it includes provisions for participants to make up any instruction time lost.

Proposals undergo similar scrutiny before the IRBs of funder organizations and the New York City Department of Education. And finally, even when the city has centrally approved a study, it is up to principals at individual schools to decide whether their institutions will participate. The schools can withdraw at any time. And of course, it is up to parents to give their informed consent.

The two TC studies mentioned in the tabloid story both aim at determining whether children from minority religious and racial backgrounds are being subjected to harmful hostility or discrimination.

"My study is looking at a sub-population of the faith-based community, Muslim high school students, and asking whether school-based environments are nurturing positive feelings in them about who they are as Muslims," says Louis Cristillo, Research Assistant Professor in the Department of International and Transcultural Studies. Cristillo's study -- which is supported by the Ford Foundation -- is the one that lost a participating school because of the newspaper story. "We want to know the extent to which students' religious identity is impacted by their learning environment. We're looking at issues of self-esteem and the association with academic achievement, and how students' attitudes are developing with respect to citizenship."

Cristillo says his work "rests on the shoulders of decades of research with Catholic, Jewish and Evangelical Christian students," and in particular follows the lead of a major study at Chapel Hill that has found that kids involved in faith communities tend to perform better at school, develop pro-social attitudes and behaviors, join community-based organizations, volunteer more and vote more.

"We're very concerned about the conditions Muslim students are facing in schools," Cristillo says. "There's been hostility and discrimination since 9/11, and in some instances, Muslim kids may be closeting their religious identity, even changing their names. So this work is really for the benefit of the students themselves, and for their guidance counselors. And it has implications for members of any religious group."

Cristillo and his team conduct phone interviews with Muslim students and ask them questions about their self esteem, their academic achievement, how strongly they feel religion is part of their daily lives, and what their attitudes are about citizenship. The three year study, which is just getting underway, will eventually include focus groups with key adult stakeholders, such as teachers, assistant principals, guidance counselors, social workers and parents.

"It's completely voluntary," says Cristillo, who says that he spent over a year designing the study and submitting it to repeated review by 15 readers associated with the College's IRB. "We get parental consent, and we don't do any work in the classrooms, so there's no interference with instructional time." 

Eventually, Cristillo hopes to involve 500 Muslim and 300 non-Muslim students in the study from public schools, and another 200 students from private Islamic schools, "so that there's comparison and control built into this." He adds that "confidentiality is totally wired into this. We use no names when we collate the data and nothing is published that would identify a student. The report of the study includes no identification of the region, district or school of students or staff members."

"The work we're doing is all consistent with the NYC public schools' longstanding recognition of a multicultural environment and supporting students racial, ethnic and religious identities in a multicultural environment like NYC. To imply we're targeting students in the poorest of neighborhoods is an outright lie. We've contacted schools in 30-40 neighborhoods, in all five boroughs, that span the full range of socioeconomic status."

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