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TE 861C Action Research in Science and Mathematics

 
Action Research Proposal
 
I.  Introduction

 

            Clarkston, Michigan is a small community located within Oakland County in southeastern Michigan.  The Clarkston Community School District, housing students from the city of Clarkston as well as neighboring Independence Township, is comprised of seven elementary schools, one sixth and seventh grade middle school, one eighth and ninth grade junior high school, and one tenth through twelfth grade high school.  The school district is home to approximately 8,000 students and with a graduation rate of 94%, graduates a class of approximately 700 students each year.  The student body is predominately Caucasian (92%).  The student body is also predominately middle to upper class.  While the median family income in the state of Michigan is $50,200, the median family income in Clarkston and Independence Township are much higher at $84,000.  Only six percent of the student population qualify for free or reduced lunch.

            The Clarkston Community Schools take great pride in their rigorous academic programs.  State and national testing, including the Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP), the Michigan Merit Examination (MME), and the ACT national college entrance examination, place the school district in the top percentages for achievement and graduation rates when compared to other public school districts in Michigan.

            More specific to the current action research project is one Clarkston school in particular, Clarkston Junior High School.  Clarkston Junior High School houses all of the district’s eighth and ninth grade students.  The student population is approximately 1,170 students.  Comparable to district wide statistics, the student body of CJHS is predominately Caucasian (96%) and predominately middle to upper class, with only 6% of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.  The school climate is generally positive, with students reporting feeling safe and secure in school and with moderate to high levels of school spirit and participation in after school activities and sports.

            Four years ago, Clarkston Junior High School began a pilot program for the district by implementing single gendered education research and classroom application.  Based on the large, though still rather controversial, body of literature on the strengths and benefits of single gendered education, CJHS offers a single gendered environment option to its eighth and ninth grade students for both science and mathematics courses.  Each school year, there is one section of all girls science, all girls mathematics, all boys science and all boys mathematics for each the eighth and ninth grade students.  In accordance with federal law, these courses are strictly optional and must be requested and selected by the parents and students.  Through their use of Professional Learning Communities, the staff and administration at CJHS research, implement, and examine the multiple effects of the single gendered classroom program with main goal of the program being to study the learning differences in boys and girls and to be able to apply those differences to a mixed-gendered classroom setting so that all students can benefit from gender specific learning strategies.

            As a second year teacher when the pilot program began, I was graciously given the first ever section of all boys eighth grade science at Clarkston Junior High School.  Though I found the research fascinating and the opportunity to experiment with such a concept interesting, I must admit a small part of me feared having 30 boys in my classroom at one time!  As a part of the Professional Learning Community on single gendered education, I researched and learned as much about the all boys classroom as I could.  To sum it up briefly, I learned that boys tend to perform more poorly on tests, prefer active learning, and while the single gendered environment can be arguably beneficial for middle and junior high school students, the all boys setting is often taxing on the teacher!

            Despite my initial concerns, I found my first year with this class absolutely fascinating.  There were definitely major differences between my all boys class and my mixed gendered classes.  The boys were considerably more active, much louder, and required much more redirection and modified teaching strategies to stay on task.  However, once I began to work with these unique qualities instead of against them, I found that my all boys class was more enthusiastic about learning and were quite fun to teach.  Academically, I found that the overall grades and class averages were quite similar between my all boys section and my three sections of mixed gender classes.  Interestingly though, and contrary to the research, I found that my all boys class routinely and significantly outscored my other classes on tests and quizzes.  Why then, you ask, did their overall grades remain similar?  Because my all boys section routinely and significantly underscored my other classes in homework grades.  My all boys class had a much higher rate of homework incompletion and a much lower grade point average on the homework assignments they did complete. 

            I found this to be very interesting.  The research states that all boys classrooms usually test below all girls and mixed gendered classrooms.  If this was true, why were my boys out-testing my mixed gender classes?  Also, why was their rate of homework completion and performance on homework assignments so poor?  If I could figure out the latter question and address it efficiently, would my all boys section end the year with a higher class grade point average than my mixed-gender classes?  How would this fit into the existing body of literature on single gendered classrooms?

            To begin to explore and answer these questions, and also because I found that I truly loved teaching 30 boys all at once, I have requested to teach the eighth grade section of all boys science for the last three years.  I have tweaked and modified how I teach this group of students, with much success.  For example, my boys and I start every single class period with exercise.  Tapping into their competitive spirit, we organize our classroom like a “team”.  This includes voting on a team name and designing team t-shirts as well as having a fun and non-threatening but competitive atmosphere in the classroom.  Based on researched recommendations, I also make modifications in my teaching such as using a much louder voice, being more direct, and walking around the classroom more to maintain closer physical proximity to my students.  I have been amazed at how these minor changes in how I teach have made major changes in the attention spans and interest level of my students. 

            Also, I have continued to monitor the academic discrepancies that I first noticed four years ago.  Each year, the overall class grade point average of my all boys section and my mixed gender sections are very similar.  And each year, when I break down testing performance versus homework performance, my boys test better but perform more poorly on homework.  I feel that though I have made great progress in adjusting the classroom environment and my teaching style to accommodate the needs of an all boys classroom, I need to do more to figure out how and why the academic discrepancies exist and how I can help my all boys class improve their homework performance and their homework completion rate.

            Based on research examining the learning style of boys, research on homework completion, and research on the classroom management strategies of Love and Logic, as well as my own observations of how and why boys learn better using certain instructional strategies, I have developed the following research proposal to attempt to explore and improve homework completion rates in my all boys classroom.  Using personal input and choice as my independent variable and homework completion rate as my dependent variable, my research statement asks the following question. Will allowing single gendered students (all male) to have input into and some control over their homework assignments increase their interest in the assignments and improve rates of homework completion?  My hypothesis is that if I allow my all boys class to have some input into and control over their homework assignments, then their rate of completion of homework assignments will improve, thus improving their overall understanding of the material as well as improving their overall grade in the course.

 

  II.  Literature Review

              For the proposed study, literature was reviewed in three areas:  Single-gendered education, homework compliance, and the shared control principal of Love and Logic, a discipline program proposed by founder Jim Faye.

            While the large-scale debate over the ethics, politics, and academic and social effectiveness of single-gender education is well beyond the scope of this paper, such topics will be touched upon briefly as the problem addressed in this study is related to differentiated learning and performance styles of boys and because the proposed intervention is based on the fact that boys and girls respond to different teaching and learning styles.

Until the 1970’s, single gender education was a normal learning environment, dominating parochial and elite educational institutions in this country.  While single gendered private and parochial schools still exist, the 1972 Title IX statute banning gender segregation in public education has virtually eliminated single-gender instruction in the public realm (Herr and Arms, 2004; Salomone, 2006; Weil, 2008).  However, beginning in the 1990’s, research on single gender education has boomed as educators and politicians alike struggle to define causes of the achievement gap between males and females.

Historically, girls were underrepresented in high achieving academic endeavors.  However, more recently, boys have been shown to be falling behind in many academic areas and pulling ahead in their over-representation in special education and discipline referrals. Meyer (2008) states, “Boys rather than girls are now on the short end of the gender gap in many secondary school outcomes” (17).   Taylor and Lorimer (2003)  agree. In their article titled “Helping Boys Succeed, Taylor and Lorimer provide an overview of the research on what they term “troubling trends for boys.”  They show that boys are scoring lower in the language and fine arts and also on standardized testing. They also show that fewer boys than girls enroll in advanced placement courses and have higher rates of high school drop out. On the opposite side of the coin, boys comprise two thirds of special education students and are more likely to be diagnosed with learning disabilities and attention defecit-hyperactivity disorder.  Boys also dominate the discipline statistics, with elementary and middle school boys receiving discipline referrals at five to ten times the rates of their female counterparts.

And then there biological differences between male and females, what some call the “hardwired” differences between girls and boys (Salomone, 2006).   Though this research is abundant and to many, indisputable, experts still call for it to be applied to learning differences before it can legitimately back single-gendered education.  For example, brain based research has shown that young girls have verbal skills, fine motor skills, attention spans, and impulse control that is superior to their male counterparts while boys have more advanced visual-spatial skills than their female counterparts (Salomone, 2006).  This results in improved reading and writing skills, fine arts skills, self-expression skills in girls, as well as in the calmer, more attentive learning style most often exhibited by female students.  Leonard Sax, a phyhsician and proponent for single-gendered education based solely on biological differences, also believes that biology and brain development can account for the achievement gap in the language arts.  Boys have been shown to process emotions in the amygdala, whereas girls process emotion in the cerebral cortex, the area of the brain that also governs reflection and language.  Hence, girls are more reflective and emotive in their reading and writing whereas boys have more difficulty in these areas.  Conversely, males use more visual-spatial parts of the brain (hippocampus) for visual-spatial tasks while females continue to rely on the cerebral cortex, resulting in a generalized strength of visual-spatial learning  (math and science) in males (Weil, 2008).

Sax also highlights other biological differences that may impact learning.  For example, girls are born with a significantly more sensitive sense of hearing than boys.  Sax (2006) states that, “some boys labeled as slow learners may actually just need teachers to speak LOUDER” (191).  In his article titled “Six Degrees of Separation” (2004), Sax also states that boys and girls perform optimally in different temperatures.  Boys perform better in colder temperatures (optimally 71 degrees Fahrenheit) while girls perform better in warmer temperatures (optimally 77 degrees Fahrenheit).  Warmer temperatures tend to cause sleepiness in males, which may result in decreased attention and focus in the classroom.

Herr and Arms (2004) conclude that research on single-gendered classrooms remains “inconclusive and controversial”.  Title IX’s ban on publicly funded single-gendered education means that there has been “no national, comprehensive, controlled study of academic performance by US students in public K-12 single-sex schools” (Herr and Arms, 2004, 530).  However, educators and politicians appear to be following the call for increased and more comprehensive, conclusive research on the topic.  In 2006, Title IX of the federal Education Amendment was formally revised to allow public school districts to allow singled-gendered classrooms as a choice to students and parents.  The amendment states that districts who choose to offer single gendered classrooms must conduct a review every two years that provides a rationale for the single-gendered program and must also prove that equal services are also provided in a coeducational setting (Meyer, 2008).  In other words, schools can offer single-gendered classes, but it is federally mandated that such a classroom must be a choice and that school districts may not segregate their educational offerings based on gender unless the parent and student chose to be segregated.  Clarkston Junior High School, the location of the proposed research study is one such school.  CJHS offers single gendered math and science classes for its eighth and ninth grade students.  In accordance with the law, parents and students must elect to enroll in the single gendered classes.

Another area of literature reviewed was that on homework completion.  Research on homework completion shows that 28% of general education students and 56% of special education students have difficulty completing homework (Bryan & Burstein, 2004; Bryan & Sullivan-Burstein, 1998).  Research shows positive relationships between the use and completion of homework and academic achievement (Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein, 1998), therefore, improving rates of homework completion should have a positive impact of overall academic performance.  Bryan & Nelson (1995) concluded that students, particularly special education students, report the following reasons for poor homework completion rates:  The homework is dull and boring, the homework is too hard, the homework is a waste of time, and they believe they will not do the homework well.

            Bryan and Sullivan-Burstein (1998) conducted multiple studies on teacher-selected strategies for improving homework completion.  One such study examined the effect of using “real-life” homework on completion rates.  This study found that students were much more engaged in real-life assignments and such assignments significantly increased their compliance and completion rates.

            In another study, Bryan and Burstein (2004) examined the effect of student learning style preferences on homework completion.  They concluded that teachers who take student learning style preferences into account when assigning homework had higher rates of engagement in the material and higher rates of homework completion. 

Lastly, a literature review of “choice” was also performed.  Love and Logic is a philosophy of raising and teaching children “that puts parents and teachers back in control, teaches children to be responsible, and prepares young people to live in the real world, with its many choices and consequences.”  Love and Logic, developed by Jim and Charles Faye, is based on four key principals- self concept, shared control, empathy with consequence and shared thinking.  David Funk, a renowned special education teacher, began to apply the Love and Logic principals to teaching general and special education students. 

            David Funk (2002) applies the principal of shared control to the teacher/student relationship.  Funk summarizes that “People don’t like to be made to do things even if what is being required is in their own best interest.  When people have legitimate options they are much less likely to resist.” (p. 75).  Jones and Jones (2007), authors on the topic of classroom management, also advocate for giving students choices in order to improve behavior and compliance with rules and expectations in the classroom. 

            Taylor and Lorimer (2004), researchers on single gender education, also support giving male students choices.  “Giving students choices in assignments and reading materials that related to their interests led to greater motivation in achievement,” specifically for all male classrooms.  Based on their research, Taylor and Lorimer suggest that providing choices, including choices for increased use of computers and technology and freedom of movement, may an effective strategy when teaching in an all male classroom.

Though much research has been done on homework completion (Bryan & Burstein, 2004; .  Bryan & Nelson, 1995; Bryan & Sullivan-Burstein, 1998), there appears to be little examination or documentation on gender differences in homework completion.  Likewise, though much research has been done on applying shared control in the classroom, specifically on the concept of shared control in the educational setting, little research has been done on applying the concept of shared control to improving homework completion.  The present study will attempt to tie these pieces of literature together and provide some empirical insight on their connection.

 

 

III.  Methods

              To allow my students to have some choice and some control over their homework assignments, I will implement the following three strategies.  First, I will give my students the choice between two to three different, yet similar assignments.  For example, they may be offered the choice between the practice problems in the book and between one or two worksheets with similar practice problems.  This allows me to control for the lesson being taught and practiced, as all of the choices have the students review and practice the same material.  However, it does allow the students to choose and have some control over how they would like to practice the material and complete the lesson.  This approach will take some extra time and effort on my part as I must plan ahead and have two to three assignments ready instead of just one assignment.  Luckily, I have gathered a plethora of worksheets and homework sheets, so this shouldn’t be too difficult for me to implement.

            Another strategy I will use is allowing my students to help me design the practice questions.  For example, I use a lot of story problems to teach physics concepts and to help my students practice physics equations.  Instead of me creating the story problems, I will allow my students to create the problems.  I will give an example of a story problem and allow my students to change the names, the scenarios, and the “story” part of the problem so that it is their own creation and is more interesting to them.  I will allow my students to elect themselves to be the character of a problem or to choose real life situations to incorporate into the problem.  If a group of students is interested in basketball, we can make basketball examples.  If another group is interested in skateboarding, or outer space, or computers, we can incorporate those topics into the practice problems.  As for implementation, I will have to take care to allow each student an equal chance to contribute to the creation of practice problems.  I will also have to take care in allowing students to elect others to be the main character, so that no student is put into the spotlight if this is uncomfortable for them.  Some days I may let each student write their own story problem.  Other days I might allow groups with similar interests to work together.  Other days I may take suggestions from the class and then the class can vote on the best suggestion so that I can create one problem for everyone to complete.

            On larger homework assignments that span more than one topic and will take more than one evening to complete, I plan to assign an objective with a proposed assignment that will meet that objective.  In these situations, I will hand out the proposed assignment and give my students one day to “counter-propose” a similar assignment that will meet the same learning objective.  If they can come up with something more interesting, they can come back the next day and propose their ideas.  I would have to critique their ideas and make sure they are appropriate and addressing the lesson objective.   Pending my approval, the class can then vote on the original idea or any of the new proposals.  When feasible, I would like to allow students to choose the assignment they like best.  This would mean that not all of my students would be doing the exact same assignment, requiring some extra time and effort on my part to make sure each assignment is accomplishing the same goal and is worth the same number of points.

            As for data collection, I will use quantitative as well as qualitative data to measure the outcome of this action research project.  Quantitatively, I will first calculate homework completion rates from my previous three years of all-boys science.  I will calculate homework completion rates for each student for each card marking (20 week period) as well as overall homework completion rates for the class in semester.    I will gather and calculate this data during the first trimester of the upcoming school year, as I will not yet be implementing my proposed change in teaching methods (giving choices).  The data from previous years will allow me to do a more generalized comparison between my teaching methods this year (giving choices) versus my regular teaching methods (no choices).  Also, I will have three years of old data which will give me more numbers to work with, thus making my results somewhat more generalizable.

            Also during the first trimester of the upcoming school year, I will collect quantitative data on my current group of all boys science students.  During the first trimester, I will continue to assign homework to this group of students in the same manner that I have for the past three years (no choices).  This will provide me with some brief baseline data on this particular group of students.  The data I will gather will simply be homework completion rates for each student and for the group as a whole.

            In addition to collecting quantitative data during the first trimester, I will also collect some baseline qualitative data.  At the beginning of the school year, my students and their parents will complete baseline surveys on their thoughts and feelings about homework completion.  My students will also begin to keep weekly journals about their homework completion.  Since I begin every class period with a daily warm-up activity that the students do for the first three to five minutes of class, I will make our Friday daily warm-ups a journal entry about their thoughts, feelings, efforts, and completion rates of the week’s homework assignments.

            After gathering this preliminary data, I will make the proposed change in my homework delivery methods during the second and third trimesters.  I will use the three aforementioned strategies to allow my students to have some choice and control over their homework assignments to test whether or not this will have an impact on their homework completion rates.  I will continue to gather the same quantitative data:  homework completion rates.  I will also have the students continue to write in their “homework journals” so that I can use this information to monitor any changes in interest or motivation in homework and also to get feedback on what choices my students prefer and why these choices make an impact on their homework completion rates.  At the end of the year, I will have my students and their parents complete another survey to gather “post-test” information on the project.  

 

            At the end of the school year, I will have two sets of data to look at.  First, I can compare my students’ homework completion rates during the pre-test period (first trimester) to their homework completion rates during the test period (second and third trimesters).  I can also take the data from the test period and compare it to the “pre-test” completion rates of my previous three years of students.  These statistical comparisons should confirm or disconfirm my hypothesis.

In addition to the statistical data, the surveys and journal entries will help me understand if the students and parents noticed a difference, what difference that made for them, and why.  This qualitative data will help me measure student interest in and motivation for homework completion.  It could also help me gather data on what choices they liked to have, what influenced what choices they chose, and to help me decide how to tweak my delivery method for the following group of students.

            Once I’ve completed my research action study, I plan to present the data and a summary of my experience to my Professional Learning Community that focuses on single gendered education.  If they find the data interesting, we would likely present it to our entire staff and possibly to other teachers and administrators in the district.  Because one of our focuses is on examining gender specific teaching strategies than can then be implemented in a mixed gendered classroom so that all of our students can benefit, if my hypothesis is confirmed, we would likely explore how to implement choice and control over homework into the mixed gendered classroom.

 

 

IV.  References

 

Bryan, T. and Burstein, K.  (2004).  Improving homework completion and academic performance: Lessons from special education.  Theory into Practice: 43:3, 213-219.

 

Bryan, T. and Sullivan-Burstein, K.  (1998).  Teacher-selected strategies for improving homework completion.  Remedial and Special Education, 19:5, 263-275.

 

Funk, David.  (2002).  Love and Logic Solutions for Kids with Special Needs.  Love and Logic Press Inc, Golden, Colorado.

 

Herr, K. and Arms, E.  (2004).  Accountability and single-sex schooling: A collision of reform agendas.  American Educational Research Journal, 41:3, 527-555.

 

Meyer, P.  (2008).  Learning separately: The case for single-sex schools.  Education Next, 8:1, 11-21.

 

Salomone, R.C. (2006).  Single-sex programs: Resolving the research conundrum.  Teachers College Record, 108:4, 778-802.

 

Sax, L.  (2006).  Six degrees of separation: What teachers need to know about the emerging science of sex differences.  Educational Horizons, 84:3, 190-200.

 

Spielhagan, F.R. (2006).  How tweens view single-sex classes.  Educational Leadership, 63:7, 68-72.

 

Taylor, D. and Lorimer, M.  (2003).  Helping boys succeed.  Educational Leadership, 60:4, 68-70.

 

Weil, E.  (2008).  Teaching to the testosterone.  The New York Times, March 2, 2008, 38.

 
 
 
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