Senior Research Proposal
Students who desire to do a senior research project submit a proposal in the spring semester of their junior year. Here is a sample of a senior research proposal, by permision of the author:
Senior Research Proposal
1. Topic Area & Research Question
Educational Inequality within Public Schools:
What is Being Communicated to Students?
Based on my personal experience and the inequalities that I have observed between urban and suburban schools, I formed my initial question regarding what is being communicated to students within the public school system. After reviewing some of the relevant literature, the general agreement is that inequalities do exist, whether based on class, race, gender, or a combination these factors. The inadequate learning environment within urban schools both marginalizes and limits minority and lower class students to predetermined social and occupational roles. In contrast, the learning environments of suburban schools most often allow students the opportunity for success and social advancement.
Considering that inequality in education is a serious topic of serious detrimental significance, there are a number of questions that remain to be answered. First, do students in urban and suburban settings perceive an educational gap in comparison to other schools? If so, how do they interpret and experience that social position relative to others? Also, how is social class communicated to students through the environment and teaching strategies? I hypothesize that students in both suburban and urban schools will recognize the more overt disparities (such as computer availability and differences in school appearance), as I did, but they will be less aware of how they are either limited or privileged based on the inconsistencies within specific environments. Another possibility could be the lack of exposure or knowledge some suburban and urban students have about learning environments other than their own. Also, I assume that contrasting perceptions will exist between students enrolled in suburban and urban schools, and these perceptions will reveal significant differences that may help explain individual student experience within distinct learning environments.
2-3. Justification and Theoretical Linkages
In order to fully understand why I am not only interested, but also passionate about this topic, it is important for me to disclose some information about my social location and experience as a public school student. I grew up in a predominately black neighborhood and attended public schools with a concentration of minorities. As a white female in these conditions, the social hierarchy, which typically includes the white as the majority, was suddenly reversed and I became the minority. It was not until high school that I began to notice the disparities across school districts within the same county. I attended an urban high school, with most of the students from low to middle income families, and a high concentration of African American and other minority students. In fact, I was only one of four white students in my graduating class of over 200 other seniors. After participating in several student exchange programs as a part of the Student Government, I became increasingly aware that I was not receiving an education that was comparable to that of my white counterparts attending suburban schools. They had interactive classrooms, with computers and other multimedia equipment, their classes were not overcrowded, and the curriculum seemed to be significantly more advanced. Each time I walked into my own school, I began to think about what we didn't have. There was an extreme lack of computers, with only one computer lab, limited to thirty or so computers, to serve a school of over 1,000 students. Also, overcrowding was an obvious issue since the schools capacity was only 900. The most disconcerting realization was that I wasn't being challenged in any of my classes, even though I was on the "College Track," and taking so-called challenge courses. In addition to the lack of technology available and the undemanding curriculum, my high school was (and still is) literally falling apart. The carpet throughout the school is dirty and has not been replaced since the school opened in 1976, the stalls in the bathrooms do not have doors, and all of the pipes in the ceiling are exposed and leaking. In contrast, another public high school in the same county, less than ten minutes from my own, displays brightly lit hallways with brand new tile, several bathrooms with over twenty stalls in each (and every one has a door), and an updated library that is actually conducive to study and research. Why do two schools within such close proximity have such drastic extremes? Differences in race and class seem to be the root of these inconsistencies within the public school system.
Each school in the state of Ohio is issued an annual "report card," in which each school district is rated based on the number of standards met. The reports are published by the Ohio Department of Education in an attempt to inform the public how each school is performing. There are 27 performance standards with minimum goals for schools within the district, including a percentage of students to pass all five parts of the 4th, 6th, 9th, and 12th grade proficiency tests (areas in citizenship, mathematics, reading, writing, and science), and a minimum student attendance and graduation rate. The ratings range from "Effective," meeting 26 or more standards, to "Continuous Improvement," 14 to 25 standards met, to "Academic Watch," 9 to 13 standards met, and finally to "Academic Emergency," in which the district meets eight or fewer standards (http://www.ode.state.oh.us). I plan on drawing on this information to help choose which schools to include in my study, make hypotheses, and compare results after collecting data.
In an article entitled, "Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work," author Jean Anyon (1996) examines how different educational strategies are implemented based on the socioeconomic class of the student. In her ethnographical study of five different elementary schools with distinct social class differences, Anyon attempts to collect data to support the argument made by Bowles and Gintis (1976), stating, "students from different social class backgrounds are rewarded for classroom behaviors that correspond to personality traits allegedly rewarded in the different occupational strata - the working classes for docility and obedience, the managerial classes for initiative and personal assertiveness" (cited in Anyon, 179). The article and Anyon's findings show, while children in each of these schools may have access to the same materials, the teachers are sending indirect messages through their instruction style that reveals the students' place in society and prepares them to fulfill their future role (as a working class laborer or an upper class executive, for example). In her conclusion, Anyon points out that there may be other characteristics of the environment that contribute to her findings, such as more funding for schools with a privileged social class, higher expectations for those upper-class students, etc (Anyon, 199-200).
It is my assertion that this "hidden curriculum" does exist, and it works in a way to perpetuate social stratification based on class and race. Also, there are several mechanisms or environmental factors that cause and reproduce this stratification, confining minorities and lower class students to the bottom of the social hierarchy, while allowing the privileged, upper class students to continue to climb the social ladder. Through the effects of the "hidden curriculum" and the associated environmental disparities, students within urban schools are further marginalized, widening the gap between disadvantaged whites/minority students and upper class white students. What is being communicated to students about their abilities? The harmful implications of the disparities between suburban and urban schools, privileged white as opposed to minority students, is that students will not make an effort to close the gap, or worse, they will not be able to due to inadequate preparation by the public school system.
I would like to observe and interview students from two different high schools, one of which will be from the Columbus Public School District, and the other from a neighboring, and more affluent district. I may also expand my study to include more high schools, or possibly two socially distinct schools from the elementary, middle, and high school levels. At the lower levels of education, I understand that interviews with students may not be as practical, but I believe this can be decided and modified later. After choosing which schools to include, I plan to use qualitative research, specifically qualitative interviews, in order to elicit more in-depth responses from each student. I will be using a qualitative field research paradigm called "institutional ethnography" in which I will focus and draw upon personal experiences of students, who are the experts in this situation, to attempt to reveal what institutional factors and power structures influence the experiences of the selected students. Their responses will help uncover first, if students perceive any of the disparities presented by previous research (or introduce others), and what, if any, differences there are in the students' perceptions based on their enrollment in either a suburban or urban school. In addition, I will be making my own observations, including noting the physical environment as well as classroom interaction. I plan on referring to Anyon's study as a model for my own.
From the information I have gathered to this point, it seems that quantitative research is most often used to pursue questions about the effects of education. Quantitative research is driven by the goal of discovering causal relationships and usually uses statistical information to demonstrate these relationships. While I am trying to explore possible causes regarding student performance in two distinct learning environments, for my analysis, I would like use a qualitative approach in order to gather more detailed information about student perceptions as well as what I see happening in each school. Even though I plan on using a very small sample, I will be able to thoroughly study individual students. I understand that my observations and findings cannot be generalized to the larger population. In other words, while qualitative research generally has more validity, it lacks reliability. In addition it will allow me to gather more in depth information about students' attitudes and behaviors.
In using qualitative research, I am aware that the researcher comes from a specific social location; one that can influence the way they view the world. In other words, I recognize that I am not a neutral observer in this research, and that my interpretations of student responses will undoubtedly be shaped based on my view of the world. Despite some of the weaknesses of qualitative field research, I believe it is the best approach, as opposed to a survey or experimental design. As I've stated earlier, qualitative research allows a depth of understanding, and the design and implementation are flexible, allowing the researcher to make modifications at any time. By using qualitative interviews and observing students in the classroom setting, I believe that I will get more realistic responses. Also, this qualitative design could be customized to include teachers, parents, and administrators in addition to students. The variety of these perceptions may be helpful in finding ways to improve learning environments for all students, and even finding other possible solutions that could improve students' experience within public education system.
5. Course Preparation
I initially wrote a research proposal on this topic for my Research in Communication (200) course with Dr. Laurel Kennedy. At that time, I was also taking the 100 level introductory course, Communication as Social Interaction, with Dr. Lisbeth Lipari. Both of these courses increased my interest in investigating the effects of the public education system in Ohio, which I have always felt is unequal in many respects. In addition, while in an FYS class taught by Dr. Toni King, I was introduced to concepts of marginalization, patriarchy, systematic oppression, etc. Many of the other courses I have taken since my freshman year have also touched upon these ideas.
As a double major, I would also like to bring in some aspect of Economics, possibly by examining the data from an economic standpoint. While an economic analysis will not be the focus of my research, I would like to include it, perhaps briefly in my results, so I am able to draw from all of the knowledge and experience I have gained here at Denison.
6. Faculty I have spoken to Dr. Lipari and asked her to consult with me during both semesters of my senior research, which I plan on converting into an honors project.
Anyon, J. (1996). Social class and the hidden curriculum of work. In E. Hollins (Ed.), Transforming curriculum for a culturally diverse society. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates. pp. 179-203.
Augenblick, J., Myers, J., Anderson, A. (1997). Equity and adequacy in school funding. The future of children: Financing Schools 7, 3, pp. 63-78.
Bankston, C., Caldas, S. (1996). Majority African American schools and social injustice: The influence of de facto segregation on academic achievement. Social Forces, 75, 2, pp. 535-555 http://www.ode.state.oh.us. Retrieved March 12, 2002 from the Ohio Department of Education.
McCarthy, C., Apple, M. (1988). Race, class and gender in American educational research: Toward a nonsyncronous parallelist position. In L. Weis (Ed.), Class, race and gender in American Education. Albany, NY: University of New York Press, 1998. pp. 9-39.
McClafferty, K., Torres, C., Mitchell, T., Apple, M. (Eds.) (2000). Challenges of urban education: Sociological perspectives for the next century. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.
Robinson, P. (1998). Equity and access to computer technology for grades K-12. in B. Ebo (Ed.), Cyberghetto or cybertopia? Race, class and gender on the Internet. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. pp. 137-151.
Waxman, H., Huang, S. (1998). Classroom learning environments in urban elementary, middle, and high schools. Learning Environments Research, 1, 1, pp. 95-113. Yeakey, C. (2000). Education. In A. Jarrett (Ed.), The impact of macro social systems on ethnic minorities in the United States). Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. pp. 55-70.