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Learning Matters

News tips about education from Indiana University

April 18, 2007

EDITORS: Several mp3 audio soundbites are available for download on the School of Education Web site at To preview these soundbites, go here.

Rural children in poverty and academic success. Preliminary results from a study indicate rural children in poverty may benefit from early intervention to ensure school success. Among the findings so far is that early intervention makes a difference, said Gretchen Butera, associate professor of special education. "When teachers use a curriculum that addresses things that are important for kids to learn to be successful in school, it helps," Butera said. While many studies focus on academic or social issues, Butera said the value of this study is that it considers both. She added that few studies focus on the problems children encounter starting school in rural settings. "When we think of kids in poverty," Butera said, "we think of inner-city. We don't think of kids in rural poverty. And actually, kids in rural poverty can be in many cases more vulnerable to the effects of poverty because, for example, they may not have access to social services."

  • Background: Butera is entering the fifth and final year of a project funded through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) focusing on rural poverty and children who struggle when they start school. Butera, along with researchers from the U.S. Department of Education and other universities, will conclude a study focusing on early interventions, particularly the Head Start program. Five sites, including Indiana, are a part of the study. Butera is in charge of a site in West Virginia.

Butera can be reached at 812-856-8153 or

Free speech and "Bong hits for Jesus." The U.S. Supreme Court could avoid the speech issue altogether in the pending "Bong Hits for Jesus" student speech case, or dramatically reinterpret the limits of student speech. Martha McCarthy, chancellor's professor and chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said the fear of a court reinterpretation of previous rulings has thrown unusual parties together. Both the ACLU and some Christian organizations are arguing on the side of the student in the case of Morse v. Frederick, which presented oral arguments before the court on March 19.

  • Background: The case centers on a 10-day suspension in 2002 of former Juneau, Alaska, high school student Joseph Frederick who unfurled a banner reading "Bong Hits for Jesus" during a public parade off of school grounds. The case will consider student speech rights affirmed in the Tinker v. Des Moines ruling in 1969. In that ruling, the justices stated students "do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate." Under the Tinker standard, the behavior must create a "disruption" in order to curtail the expression. There are other ways the court could go, which would avoid the speech issue altogether. Since the behavior took place off school grounds, the justices might say it doesn't fall under the student speech protection precedents. The court could also find that the speech wasn't protected expression at all, that as the student stated, it was "nonsensical" and didn't deserve first amendment protection. McCarthy said the court could even split the middle on the ruling that the law governing student expression rights is vague. "Reverse the damages because the law was not clearly established and still say, 'but it was Frederick's right to display the banner,'" she said.

"There was no evidence of a disruption," McCarthy said. "That would be very hard for anybody to conclude from the facts of the case." She added that while the attorneys for the school district are claiming the banner statement was effectively representative of the school and therefore clashed with school drug policy, it's unlikely the court will see it that way. The school is relying on the 1986 case Bethel School district v. Fraser for that argument. In that case, the court upheld disciplinary action against a student on the grounds that the student's message (which was sexually suggestive) was inconsistent with the school mission. McCarthy said the court "would have to take a pretty broad reading of Fraser to make that finding. Such a finding would be far reaching, she said. "Anything that conflicts with the school's mission could then be curtailed," McCarthy said.

McCarthy can be reached at 812-856-8384 or

No concensus on school uniforms. Existing literature isn't conclusive on the effects of school uniforms, according to Russ Skiba, professor in the Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology and director of the Equity Project within the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP). As the Indianapolis Public School (IPS) system considers a dress code, Skiba says the reaction of students so far mirrors what research reveals on dress codes. Studies show that while teachers and administrators believe school uniforms make a more professional learning environment, increase the focus on learning, and increase a sense of belonging within the school, high school students tend to disagree. Early reaction to the IPS proposal has been mostly negative among high school students. Skiba noted that one study showed that elementary school students bought into the dress code fairly well and schools saw some positive results. "The adults were able to define the climate well-enough so that there wasn't resistance," Skiba said. "In that case, they were able to see improvements, whereas at the secondary level, the whole issue of student resistance and resentment may raise some questions about costs vs. benefits."

  • Background: One of the important things Skiba said should happen whenever a district implements a dress code -- or any other school safety intervention -- is an evaluation of the benefits to schools from implementing such a policy. "There's some literature out there that says under certain conditions, and at certain levels, school uniforms probably can lead to a school climate that is more effective," Skiba said. "But when we don't really know how a school safety intervention is going to work, it's really important to actually monitor its effects, so that we know it is having a positive impact without unintended consequences."

Skiba can be reached at 812-855-5549 or

The few studies on virtual charter schools indicate there likely won't be a huge jump in new enrollments paid for by tax dollars. Suzanne Eckes, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said that's the experience of other states where virtual charters are in place. Indiana will allow two "cyber charter schools" to begin operating in the fall. Enrollment response is so great, the schools are considering a lottery to determine placements. Some are expressing concern that if enough students who are now homeschooled begin to take virtual charter school classes, this might drain overall public school support because the homeschooled students hadn't been using school tax support. Eckes said while some fear a jump of as much as half of homeschool students into the new virtual charters, studies elsewhere don't indicate that will happen. "Within one of the states," Eckes said, "they said it was in the teens, of those who actually moved from home schooling into the cyber school movement. So percentage wise, I don't know that it would be 50 percent." Eckes co-authored a policy report by the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy (CEEP) on virtual charter schools. It's available online at

Eckes can be reached at 812-856-8376 or

These tips were provided by professors in the IU School of Education. For further assistance, contact Chuck Carney, 812-856-8027 and