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Application of the WHIC in a study of school racial diversity and socio-economic status

Tony Rickards
The University of Western Australia

Eric Bull
Los Arboles School, California

Darrell Fisher
Curtin University of Technology

The first purpose of this study was to validate the What Is Happening In this Class (WIHIC) questionnaire with a large sample of eighth-grade science classes in middle schools in the USA. The second objective was to investigate associations between school socio-economic and racial diversity factors and to students' perceptions of their classroom learning environments. The study involved a sample of 1,720 eighth-grade science students from 65 classes in 11 schools who responded to the 56-items on the WIHIC and an attitude scale. Socio-economic status was determined for each school by examining free and reduced lunch percentages. Racial Diversity for each school was determined through county demographics, which listed ethnicity percentages for all schools within the county's jurisdiction. This is the first large study in the USA using the WIHIC with eighth-grade science classes. While research exists for individual ethnicity and classroom performance, it is not known whether or not research has been done concerning students within schools whose populations are defined as having high, medium, or low diversities of race, and what perceptions those students have of their science classes.

The WIHIC questionnaire was proven to be a valid and reliable instrument for use with eighth-grade science classes in the USA. This research has provided further evidence on the validation of the WIHIC, which assesses seven scales of student perceptions of the classroom environment. All students in the sample regardless of school SES or racial diversity perceived the Task Orientation scale most positively and the Investigation scale least positively. Results showed that students from schools with high socio-economic status are more satisfied with collaborative efforts with other students and the amount of attention they receive from the teacher than are the lower SES levels. Data for school racial diversity revealed that the less diverse a school population is, the more positive students perceive their science classes, especially in the WIHIC scales of Teacher Support, Equity, Involvement, Investigations, and Task Orientation.


Objectives

The first objective of this study was to validate the What Is Happening In this Class (WIHIC) questionnaire with a large sample of eighth-grade science classes in middle schools in the USA. The second objective was to investigate associations between school socio-economic and racial diversity factors and to students' perceptions of their classroom learning environments.

Background and rationale

Over 40 years ago, Mead and Metreaux (1957) asked children to describe their image of a scientist. Many other researchers (Chambers, 1983; Kahle, 1989; Mason et al, 1991) have collected and analysed drawings from around the world to see how teachers and students perceive bias. Studies have looked at teacher-student interactions, culture, gender and student outcomes (Rickards, 1998) and other studies have looked at multiple perspectives of interactions to try to better understand how teachers and students perceive their images of science teachers.

Data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988 (NCES, 1992) showed that schools with large free lunch programs tended to offer science classes where experiments were conducted less than once a month. This means that low SES schools could have students with very little exposure to quality science programs wherein depictions of science and scientist varieties are likely to be limited. Socio-economic status is a powerful factor in determining who succeeds in American schools. It may be the single, most powerful factor (Lynch, et al, 1996).

Barba and Reynolds (1998) contend that the upward mobility rate for the USA has stabilised at about 3% per generation meaning that those born into poverty tend to remain in poverty as adults. Of college graduates earning a Bachelor's degree, 6% of students from low SES backgrounds achieved that status in 1994 compared with 41% of students from high socio-economic status.

Science is largely a result of our culture. One of the reasons students fail to excel in school is not that they come from deprived cultures, but because they come from cultures that are different from the school culture (Presseisen, 1988). An example would be when students are asked to draw a picture of a scientist, the depiction is often of a man working alone. This runs in conflict with many Hispanic children who have been raised in a manner that honours working in socialised groups (Tobias, 1990). Each culture has basic guidelines, which direct beliefs, and values that define how people act, judge, decide and solve problems in their life and in all situations (Anderson, 1988).

Recent literature (Fraser, 1998) has shown that science education researchers have led the world in the field of classroom environment investigations over the last two decades, and that this field has contributed much to understanding and improving science education. This study focussed on the socio-economic status and the representation of racial diversity at the school level. We have chosen to use a classroom learning environment questionnaire, the What Is Happening In this Class (WIHIC) to determine what associations those factors have when it comes to individual students' perceptions of science classroom environments.

Significance of research

This was the first large study in the USA using the WIHIC with eighth-grade science classes. While research exists for individual ethnicity and classroom performance, it is not known whether or not research has been done concerning students within schools whose populations are defined as having high, medium, or low diversities of race, and what perceptions those students have of their science classes. Likewise, since Fraser (1998) has established that students' perceptions of their classroom environment can affect student achievement and attitude to class, it is important to determine if the WIHIC can be used to discriminate between those factors and associations that may influence perception. Also, examining students in low, medium, or high SES school environments is a unique approach different from looking at individual status.

Methodology

The purpose of this study was to use the WIHIC to examine associations between school socio-economic status with students' perceptions and to examine associations between school racial diversity with students' pe rceptions.

The study involved a sample of 1,720 eighth-grade science students from 65 classes in 11 schools who responded to the 56-items on the WIHIC and an attitude scale. Socio-economic status was determined for each school by examining free and reduced lunch percentages. Racial Diversity for each school was determined through county demographics, which listed ethnicity percentages for all schools within the county's jurisdiction.

Results

The WIHIC questionnaire was proven to be a valid and reliable instrument for use with eighth-grade science classes in the USA. The Cronbach alpha reliability figures for the seven WIHIC scales ranged from 0.77 to 0.89 indicating good internal consistency reliability. Discriminant validity ranged from 0.36 to 0.42.

An additional advantageous feature of any instrument like the WIHIC is that it is capable of differentiating between the perceptions of students in different classrooms. That is, students within the same class should perceive it relatively similarly, while mean within-class perceptions should vary from class to class. This characteristic was investigated for each scale of the WIHIC using a one-way ANOVA, with class membership as the main effect. It was found that each WIHIC scale differentiated significantly (p<0.01), between classes and that the eta2 statistic, which is the ratio of 'between' to 'total' sums of squares and represents the proportion of variance in scale scores accounted for by class membership, ranged from 0.06 to 0.20. These data indicate that each scale of the WIHIC is capable of differentiating between the perceptions of students in different classes.

Table 1: Internal consistency (alpha reliability), discriminant validity (mean correlation of a scale with other scales) and ability to differentiate between classrooms (eta2) of the WIHIC
ScaleAlpha reliabilityDisc validityANOVA (eta2)
Student cohesiveness.77.37.06***
Teacher support.89.40.20***
Involvement.85.42.08***
Investigation.88.36.09***
Task orientation.84.37.06**
Cooperation.86.41.11***
Equity.89.36.15***
*** p<0.001  **p<0.01  n = 1,720

All students in the sample regardless of school SES or racial diversity perceived the Task Orientation scale most positively and the Investigation scale least positively. Results showed that students from schools with high socio-economic status are more satisfied with collaborative efforts with other students and the amount of attention they receive from the teacher than are the lower SES levels.

Data for school racial diversity revealed that the less diverse a school population is, the more positive students perceive their science classroom learning environments, especially in the WIHIC scales of Teacher Support, Equity, Involvement, Investigations, and Task Orientation.

A further analysis of the instrument involved a principal components factor analysis with varimax rotation for the sample of 1,720. The results of this factor analysis confirmed that the a priori seven-factor structure was replicated, with all items having a factor loading greater than 0.34. Thus, the seven-scale nature of the WIHIC was confirmed.

Discussion

This research has provided further evidence on the validation of the WIHIC, which assesses seven scales of student perceptions of the classroom environment. The WIHIC for use with this sample was shown to be valid, reliable and a useful instrument for ascertaining associations with factors relevant to the student.

This study provides the first study of associations between gender, attitude, racial diversity, ethnic origin and socio-economic status in US eighth-grade classes in California. As a result, it has provided the first validation data for the WIHIC in USA science classes in California. The study also provided an enlightening combination of qualitative and quantitative data.

Information gathered from this study indicate that schools in the USA have a long way to go in enticing and encouraging students to continue on in their science education. Students have made known their environment preferences for the science classroom, as they have done in various ways many times before. According to Hurd (1994), as cited in Lorsbach and Basolo (1998, p. 115), "In the case of science learning environments, in the last decade in the United States alone, more than 400 national reports have called for the reform of science education". The problem now becomes one of disseminating this valuable data out to the teachers who can make the change occur.

Researchers need to learn the language of the classroom. Too many important revelations are never trickled down to the teacher because they are difficult to comprehend, having been written in a language discernible only by those possessing or in pursuit of higher academic degrees. Changes not only need to occur in the secondary science classrooms, but also in the realms of academia where ideas and formulae are espoused, yet not often enough explained to the teachers and directors who can assure that ideas may be implemented to the benefit of students.

Perhaps, as suggested by Fisher and Fraser (1992), teacher training programs should consider incorporating and modelling learning environment research methodologies as a means of ensuring that teachers know of the alternatives exist in evaluating and adjusting the classroom environment for the betterment of students.

References

Anderson, J. A. (1988). Cognitive styles and multicultural populations. Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1), 2-9.

Barba, R. H., & Reynolds, K. E. (1998). Towards an equitable learning environment in science for Hispanic students. International Handbook of Science Education, B. J. T. Fraser, K. G. London, Kluwer Academic Publishers: 925-939.

Chambers, D. W. (1983). Stereotypic images of the scientist: The draw-a-scientist test. Science Education, 67(2), 255-265.

Fisher, D. L., & Fraser, B. J. (1992). Validity and use of school environment instruments. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 26(2) 13-18.

Fraser, B. J. (1998). Science learning environments: Assessments effects and determinants. International Handbook of Science Education. B. J. Fraser, & Tobin, K. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Kluwer Academic Publishers. 1: 527-564.

Hurd, P. D. (1994). New minds for a new age: Prologue to modernizing the science curriculum. Science Education, 78, 103-116.

Kahle, J. B. (1989). Images of scientists: Gender issues in science classrooms. Perth, Western Australia, Key Centre for Science and Mathematics Education, Curtin University of Technology.

Lorsbach, A. W., & Basolo Jr., F. (1998). Collaborating in the evolution of a middle school science learning environment. Learning Environments Research, 1, 115-127.

Lynch, S., Atwater, M., Cawley, J., Eccles, J., Lee, O., Marrett, C., Rojas-Medlin, D., Secada, W., Stefanivh, G. & Willetto, A. (1996). An equity blueprint for project 2061 (draft version). Washington, D.C., American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Mason, C. L., Kahle, J. B., & Gardner, A. L. (1991). Draw-a-scientist test: Future implications. School Science and Mathematics, 91(5), 193-198.

Mead, M., & Metreaux, R. (1957). The image of the scientist among high school children. Science, 126, 384-389.

NCES (1992). National education longitudinal study of 1988: A profile of American eighth-grade mathematics and science instruction. Washington, DC, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement.

Presseisen, B. Z. (1988). Focus on the at risk learner: An introduction. At Risk Students and Thinking: Perspectives from Research. B. Presseisen. Washington, DC, National Education Association/Research for Better Schools: 11-18.

Rickards, A. W. J. (1998). The relationship of teacher-student interpersonal behaviour with student sex, cultural background and student outcomes. Science and Mathematics Education Centre. Perth, Curtin University of Western Australia: 207.

Rickards, T., & Fisher, D. (2000). Three perspectives on perceptions of teacher-student interaction: A seed for change in science teaching. The annual meeting of the National Association for Research in Science Teaching, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Tobias, S. (1990). They're not dumb, they're different: Stalking the second tier. Tucson, AZ, Research Corporation - A Foundation for the Advancement of Science.

Please cite as: Rickards, T., Bull, E. and Fisher, D. (2001). Application of the WHIC in a study of school racial diversity and socio-economic status. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 2000. http://www.waier.org.au/forums/2001/rickards2.html


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