Hard-to-Believe! High School Student Researchers? Say What?
Roughly from the late 1970’s to the mid 1980’s Waxahachie High School and the Waxahachie ISD witnessed a most unique and unprecedented (as far as I know) series of student accomplishments. Yet, in the end, it was not publicly perceived as such. There has been no attempt to repeat these events by Waxahachie or any other public or private school — yet what a handful of special students walked away from high school with because of these events is an educational lesson of revolutionary implications. To the world these events are as a well-guarded secret; they are simply unknown. To those of us who made those events possible, we are astonished they have been interpreted as something that should essentially remain unknown. In my opinion, Waxahachie has every reason to be proud of them.
Waxahachie, Texas, like a lot of public school districts, is very conservative; it is more reactive than proactive. In the mid-to-late 1970’s, issues like to use computers for student records or not to use computers was a real concern to Waxahachie, which, nowadays, seems like a medieval problem. If that was only what this post is about, it would hardly be worth writing, but such is not the case. The use of computers in the schools was but the “opened door” that made the unusual events possible.
Courageous, progressive administrators allowed the door to be opened. Supt. Billy Bates, the man responsible for bringing me to Waxahachie, and high school principal Harold Dorsey, my campus principal for over a decade, nourished an educational atmosphere wherein the faculty was allowed to function as professionals, something that cannot be said for far too many school districts. As the only Ph.D. in the district, and, consequently, unencumbered by lots of education courses, it seemed only natural to me to step forward and volunteer my limited experience with applying computers to classrooms as a basis to introduce through actual demonstration what computers could do for schools. Agreeing with this thinking was Jerry Colosimo, a progressive administrative assistant working out of the district offices at first. Though devoid of experience with computers himself, Jerry believed me, “sold” the idea to the district and high school administration (i.e. Supt. Bates and Mr. Dorsey), and we became a team of like-minded visionaries and compatible personalities.
Although Jerry could not program computers, he could go through all the “red tape” needed to place in the high school a computer similar to the one I had worked with as a Regional Science Advisor before I came to Waxahachie; that was a start for our hardware. But right off the bat we knew we needed help, not just because I was the only one who could use the thing, but because both Jerry and I were expected to “sell” computers to the district in addition to all our “non-computer” duties. In retrospect, it was almost as if we had been set up to fail; the only way we could be successful is if we lived at the high school 24/7 and deserted our family lives, unless…
It came to us (I don’t know which of us gets the credit for thinking of it first) that we could utilize the talents of an unlimited supply of creatures eager to “play” with computers like ducks taking to water — the students of Waxahachie High School. Soon Theresa (Peel) was in my room during her off periods looming over the keyboard of what by today’s standards seems a machine from the Dark Ages. Precocious, strong-willed, and ambitious, Theresa seemed bent upon being anything but the typical female high school teenager. She instinctively knew that if she needed to know something, she could find out without the help of any teacher; she was a self-ordained feminist and delightfully unapologetic for it. She began to teach me things about the computer I had not discovered, and together we began to learn the programming language BASIC.
Thanks to Theresa and other bright students who would enter data into the machine under her direction, Jerry and I could begin to plan showing off to the school what computers could do without having to be strangers to our families. She was receiving no course credit for this work, nor was she being compensated; what she was doing was completely new to Waxahachie High School (WHS). Jerry and I began pointing out that not only were marvelous things coming out of the machine, it was coming out due to students, a fact that did not seem to be believed, as few in that day were willing to believe Theresa could do “her thing” independent of my help, which was the truth. The “working relationship” Jerry, Theresa, and I developed was very cautiously received.
Nonetheless, we began doing computer copies of office information (anonymous report cards, etc.), and Theresa planned, spearheaded, and executed a survey of the student body whose results were entered into data files and analyzed by computer software she and I had written. Mr. Dorsey began to see that the machine could potentially do in minutes what it took office workers hours to do, and all without outside help. Despite our attempts to call attention to Theresa’s accomplishments, credit for what she did was given to Jerry and to me.
Theresa graduated from WHS in 1978, by which time we had discoverd two freshmen Stephen Weldon and Burl Barr, both sons of friends of mine and Jerry’s. Jerry and I met with their fathers in a “think tank” format after school hours one afternoon a week in a group self-named the “Royal Society,” wherein any and everything could be discussed. Stephen’s father, Fred, and Burl’s father, Clif, had heard of what had happened to Theresa because of her extracurricular work, and the fathers wanted the same thing to happen to their sons. Amazingly, parental wishes were founded in reality, for Stephen and Burl would take Theresa’s legacy to unimagined heights.
Jerry moved his office to the high school, and funds were allocated for new and bigger machines to exactly duplicate what was done in the office by hand or by the faculty — printing out report cards, attendance records, and, most significantly, schedule the student body in the summer before the start of the new school year. I needed to be joined by other programmers in order to succeed in this challenge, and Stephen and Burl were up to the task; they became, in my opinion, better programmers in BASIC than I. The creation and the reading of data files were mastered, thanks to the advanced abilities of a machine dubbed in its day a “mini” computer, taking up only a corner of a small room in the office area, and wired to keyboards at various places in the high school buildings by lines run through the ceilings above the insulation. The demand for creating data files grew such that my wife Sylvia was hired as a computer assistant to enter data, so that Burl, Stephen, and I would be free to write and test software; she began her employment in Waxahachie ISD by working at a computer keyboard situated in the back of my classroom! (She stayed with WISD until her retirement in 2003 with full benefits, working her way up to district supervisor of student records.)
Both Stephen and Burl would probably not be called prodigies, but, if not, they were pretty damn close. Being good friends transcendent of personal competition, by and large, they reminded me academically of Bob Berry and myself working together as managers/trainers of the high school football team back in the 60’s (see Ode to Bob B. Berry). They fed off each other, taught each other, helped each other, and relied upon each other. In high school they excelled in everything they participated in, such as theater arts. But they were incredible in absorbing the lessons from Theresa: “you don’t need a teacher to learn how to do this stuff.” Just as I learned from her how to do BASIC better, so I learned from Stephen and Burl; they soon excelled beyond my proficiency in writing software. Stephen came up with a way using matrices to speed up my first stabs at software to determine conflicts for student scheduling; the speed increased by a factor of thousands! The first program that successfully scheduled the students of Waxahachie High School was written by Stephen, with contributions from Burl. The three of us began programming as co-contributors to the growing list of programs. Software to print out report cards, attendance records, and transcripts began to be created.
Consequently, the school office had to adjust to Mr. Dorsey’s endorsement that Stephen, Burl, and, later the following year, Jim McDonald, could have access to all students’ grades. They were pledged to a code of silence of the numbers and names they saw under penalty of banishment from the group; they never broke that pledge. Without the trust of Mr. Dorsey, the same trust Jerry and I had in this trio, none of these student-created marvels would have emerged. Still, I do not think everyone believed students did things better than I could do.
There was one moment when it was clear Mr. Dorsey “got it,” and he understood what the students were doing as well as Jerry and I. One hot summer afternoon in the middle of the scheduling madness for the upcoming year, Jerry and I were having a meeting with Burl, Stephen, and Jim, just like a research group in graduate school would do. (We had begun to realize that is how we were behaving — only with high school students instead of students with at least a bachelor’s degree!) Mr. Dorsey interrupted the meeting with a question he needed answered quickly about scheduling. He walked in and did not even glance at either Jerry or me; he asked his question, I think, of either Stephen or Burl, who, of course, could give him the answer he needed. Wow! Think of that! I’ve never witnessed such an interaction of a principal with one of his/her students before or since in my entire teaching career. It was priceless.
As mentioned already, we were functioning like the research groups I was involved with as a doctoral candidate in graduate school at Texas A&M from 1968 to 1972. I spent lots of time explaining this to the rest of the group, and I think they began to appreciate the uniqueness of what was happening. Jerry and I decided to declare this “brain child” of ours to the educational world and have the students give presentations of their computer work to professional conferences of teachers. Though very apprehensive at first, the trio took to this challenge like fish to water (remember, they were all good at whatever they tried, including public speaking), and they were a hit wherever they spoke, so unique were they to teachers everywhere. We never heard, despite the enthusiasm we received from teachers who wanted to duplicate our results, if anyone tried what we were doing at other schools. I suspect we never heard because schools did not have principals like Mr. Dorsey, nor superintendents like Billy Bates, nor administrative “pipe lines” like Jerry Colosimo. Maybe, just maybe, they also did not have the students we were lucky to have.
Students like Jim McDonald… He may not have walked into the research group with the “natural” gifts of Burl and Stephen, but he was like a sponge soaking up what was going on and what needed to be done. If he made a mistake, he never made that mistake again. Whatever programming assignment was delegated to him, he was always up for the challenge; he proved himself worthy of joining the high-stakes world of high school intelligence Stephen and Burl had created, and the older two, graciously and maturely, accepted Jim as one of “their own.”
Meanwhile, I had discovered that despite philosophical differences Jerry and I had (He was much too behavioristic for my taste.) and despite the fact his lack of programming experience made it mandatory to make sure he did not promise the school more than we could deliver, Jerry did seem to agree with my position there was really no science of education; no one seemed to be studying the classroom and student learning objectively. Our research group had at its disposal a data base to begin a mathematical study of grade patterns in all kinds of high school classes, as well as the technology to “crunch” the mountains of data such a study would entail. An opportunity to do unprecedented “in-house” research was presenting itself. It was intellectually incredibly exciting.
Moreover, as exciting as the looming research possibilities were, what made the situation even “cooler” was the fact the students (Stephen, Burl, and Jim) could appreciate, see, and contribute to discussion of these possibilities. Let me repeat that: high school students could function as researchers, contributing ideas toward formulating and solving problems, just like holders of bachelors’ and masters’ degrees! They participated as “brain-stormers” in the best tradition of graduate school! And they were not being given school credit for this and precious little compensation as they volunteered and worked away their summers at the high school; they were de facto high school student researchers!
The tack the new research chose to take was to look at the final course grade as a function of the initial report period grade (i.e. a “data point” was an ordered pair consisting of a student’s first six weeks report card grade and the student’s final course grade in that course); the graphed data printed out by the computer showed such a function to be overwhelmingly linear. So, linear regression analysis could be applied to the data numbers, and an “average” linear function or representative linear function for that class could be printed by the computer amidst the actual data points. This average line graph with a certain slope and y-intercept emerged for each class (including all my classes). What did these slopes and intercepts mean, if anything? That was one of a legion of questions begged by the print-outs of the computer-generated graphs. Could we, we dared to ask, be taking the first tiny “baby steps” toward an actual scientific modeling of actual classrooms?
Stephen and Burl graduated in 1981. In the school year 1981-1982, it was “Jim’s show” as a senior. By then the software portfolio we (Stephen, Burl, Jim, and I) had written was doing all that Jerry and I had promised back in the late 70’s. The school was completely computerized, and as Sylvia began taking over more and more responsibility of electronically stored student records (Students who served as data entry personnel, compensated modestly as were the student reseachers, increasingly worked under Sylvia’s supervision instead of Jerry’s and mine.), she found she could voice a need for a certain print-out, and chances were we programmers (the student researchers and I) could write a piece of customized software that would give her what she needed.
By the time Jim graduated in 1982 to matriculate to Cornell, in order to join Stephen and Burl there, the student researchers were headed by Jeff Centilli, son of assistant superintendent J.D. Centilli, who had started as a data enterer. He was put in a tough position — to follow the likes of the three off to Cornell. But Jeff was bright and clever beyond his peers, reminding me of the personalities of the M-4 (see The M-4…and the ‘M’ Stands For…, as well as Ode to William L. (Bill) Adling, Ode to Bob B. Berry, and Ode to Robert W. Cole). He and I together advanced the capabilities of the software portfolio and he understood the ramifications of our research ideas. However, Jeff was in some ways too clever, not careful enough to check and re-check his programming and not inclined to talk to audiences of adults about our work; he was, in short, too quiet and too covert to carry on the legacy of Stephen, Burl, and Jim.
But what Jeff did personnel-wise was one of his greatest contributions. Before his graduation in 1983, one year after Jim, he greatly assisted in the assimilation of two new student researchers into the group — Randy Sargent and Jon Reese.
Randy was (and is) a true prodigy. He had been sent up to the high school to interact with me when he was still in elementary school to keep him from being burned out from boredom. He was a computer “nerd” in every sense of the word — way before he came to high school; no one gave a single thought to the possibility he would not “move right up” to the position of researcher, as opposed to keyboarding in data, as soon as he set foot in the high school as a registered student. And so he became a prominent member of our group at an early age. His good friend was Jon, who shared Randy’s interests, but we made the mistake of thinking Jon would wind up, perhaps as a “data man” and not a researcher. Were we ever wrong about Jon! Jon rose meteorically from being mentored by Randy to Randy’s co-researcher. By the time Jeff had matriculated out of high school, we had two new researchers to “carry on,” and the two we had rapidly became so good at what they did, the legacy of Stephen and Burl hardly skipped a beat.
I remember walking into the computer room one day to find Randy alone. He had the Data General mini-computer wired to his Apple II computer; they were “talking” to each other! I suggested to Randy that this was probably something new, and that I would help him publish what he was doing for the benefit of the computer world; he nicely declined, citing he had “too many irons in the fire” to take time to do such. That was Randy.
Noteworthy to me over the years was the development of personal computer programming styles. When the lines of a program were listed for our software catalogue, one, with experience, could tell who had written the program — Theresa, Burl, Stephen, Jim, Jeff, Randy, Jon, or I, even before one spotted the credit line citing the author.
Moreover, Randy and Jon contributed to the development of the research into the analysis of classroom grade trends. When the research group shared the possibilities that classroom teaching could be evaluated based upon the graphs of grades we were producing and sorting, we were met with apprehension; we discovered a built-in resistance by both faculty and administration to any non-traditional approach to professional evaluation, even though everyone seemed to agree it was the most objective approach they had ever seen. We found from our graphs and began to report at conferences results no one had ever seen before. For instance, we found that the first report period grade was an accurate predictor of the final course grade within three or four points on the average, regardless of classroom subject, student grade level, teacher, or level of course (basic, advanced, honors, etc.). And, it was obvious the variations we were seeing in the slopes and y-intercepts of our linear regressions among teachers whose grades we graphed were telling us something about the teaching going on in those classrooms; we were just not sure yet what that “something” was telling us. The few teachers who understood what we were doing (e.g. the math teachers) felt uncomfortable and suspicious, as if, despite our exhortations to the contrary (Remember, the grades of my own classes were in the mix.), administration would use the graph results against the teachers. It was frustrating, as if the teaching professionals’ lack of experience of research in their own graduate studies toward becoming a teacher and their lack of reasons to trust administrators at all levels prevented them from seeing anything beneficial to them coming from our work.
Nonetheless, with Randy and Jon at her service, Sylvia, whose responsibilities over the student data were going campus-wide and beyond, really began to appreciate the “custom” programmers at her disposal. She would express how nice it would be to have a program that gave her a print-out of such-and-such; Randy or Jon (I was usually too busy working on other software.) would write the unprecedented program that gave her such-and-such. When she attended conferences where data coordinators at other school districts (By now most schools had begun to realize they had to use computers or “fall behind.”) — school districts, where, of course, they had to use “canned” software, not the customized, “tailor-made” software Sylvia enjoyed, she and her fellow non-Waxahachie colleagues realized how fortunate and advantageous her position had become, all because of the “student research” program at Waxahachie High School.
We reached a point where, thanks to gifted high school students, we found an “in-house, bootstrap” method to benefit and boost both schools and their faculties (not to mention a very special portion of their student bodies) way beyond whatever our expectations were back when we started in the late 70’s.
But, it all came apart and was gone by the late 1980’s, replaced by a massive, eventually district-wide computer department (with no help from gifted students), whose student record section was managed by Sylvia until her retirement. Our computer hardware was expanded to an energy management system wherein the heating and air conditioning of the high school campus was controlled by one of the consoles of our computer system. What happened?
Theresa, Stephen, Burl, Jim, Jeff, Randy, and Jon have their own ideas and views on the matter, I’m sure, not to mention Jerry, Harold Dorsey, and Billy Bates. I can only give my perception of the matter, mitigated by many years of “water under the bridge.”
Jerry was ushered out of the picture by the mid-80’s; he could only have stayed on as a classroom teacher, something he did not want to do; he wanted to continue and expand what we were doing. Instead, he went on to become an elementary school principal elsewhere. Mr. Dorsey also left (retirement), replaced by a principal sympathetic to our accomplishments, Don Williams, but he could not defend our continuation on the basis of experience as a campus principal, especially in the absence of Jerry. Not only did Randy and Jon graduate in 1985, Billy Bates retired the same year. Therefore, I felt like John the Baptist, a lone voice crying in the wilderness, for, amidst the sweeping changes inside the district, there were few, if any, ears to hear of the educational benefits for students a student-staffed research program clearly offered. Left in the working populace of Waxahachie were too few parents and tax-payers like Fred Weldon and Jim Sargent (Randy’s dad), and too few parents, tax-payers, and school personnel like Clif Barr. The prevailing view was that Jerry and I had been successful — the district had been won over to computers, just like districts everywhere else by now. In other words, our project was not needed anymore. The prevailing view was oblivious, despite anything I said or did, to our stumbling upon a “win-win” technique of student-based research replete with benefits for a few students over and beyond the “normal” high school education and with benefits for improving professional classroom teachers at the same time. It was as if the project had been about modernizing the handling of school data, and nothing else.
I think this myopia I encountered after Jerry left originated in the fact so few in the school district and in the community at large knew what doing research entails, much less knowing research by experience. Had Waxahachie been a town housing a large research-oriented university, like Austin or College Station, I believe I would have been heard. It is hard to pinpoint, but there seemed to be an underlying feeling that our research group was elitist, a feeling beginning to pervade all educational circles beginning to embrace ideas like “no child left behind.” To this day all we educators struggle to point out to the public that public education promises equal opportunity, not equal results. Every parent wants their child to be at the top of the class, but not every child can, just like every athlete cannot be a varsity starter or every band member cannot be first chair for their instrument. Covert jealously and resentment must have been at work regarding the student researchers we employed in our research group; the demise of the group only served as evidence such jealousy and resentment had been justified; such is the dark side of human nature.
Not every student our group incorporated became a researcher, as witnessed by the number of data entry students employed over the years. Names like Ron Watkins and Dana (Cox) come to mind. This is not an indictment of their intellectual abilities; anyone who worked with us had to be bright, at or near the top of their class. Nonetheless, it points out that our small group of high school researchers had special, unusual qualities, such as: 1) a certain amount of innate teacher independence, the realization that learning does not have to come through a teacher, 2) a love of learning independent from school — i.e. learning for learning’s sake, 3) a comfort working with adults whom they could trust to “be themselves” around, free to “wing it” and throw out ideas without fear that they very well might be shot down as ideas that wouldn’t work, and 4) fearlessness in trying new things within a rigid mathematical context, knowing that acceptance came in the success of the output, not in the approval of a supervisor. These are but four. I submit most high school students do not possess these qualities, but also submit these are the same qualities possessed by students in research-oriented masters degree programs and research-oriented Ph.D. programs. The thrust of this post is to assert these qualities can be possessed by high-school aged students, before they graduate from high school, and that they were in fact possessed by Theresa, Stephen, Burl, Jim, Jeff, Randy, and Jon.
The point about the small number of students who could do research in high school was reinforced during the years at Waxahachie High School with which this post deals. Between Theresa’s graduation in 1978 and Stephen’s and Burl’s in 1981, there were two outstanding classes, both academically strong. One in fact (1978) reminded me of my own graduating class back in Cisco High School in 1964 — one of strong, supportive friendships glued together by academic excellence. But both these classes tended toward more traditional non-academic activities outside the classroom; they would participate in extracurricular activities instead of additional curricular activities in their extracurricular time; our seven researchers did at least as much academic activity outside as inside the classrooms. Depending upon the particular researcher, many from our “super 7″ were also very active in extracurricular activity, though it probably would be safe to say that a researching high school student could not be a varsity sports player or a band member simultaneously.
The colleges of the seven included Cornell, Nebraska, and MIT. They include today three Ph.D’s, as well as bachelor’s and master’s degrees whose total number I do not know. I like to think they “had a leg up” on graduate studies when that time came for them at university.
Just before Jerry left, we thought we had begun to make strides in interpreting the grade data from the classrooms. Patterns of teacher performance began to correlate with the slopes of the lines we were graphing. It was an hypothesis that needed further study. But to the educational professionals with whom we shared these insights, it apparently was too much. More concerns were voiced over the fact we made the teachers names on the graphs anonymous and used the numbers in our presentations without getting permission from the teachers than were voiced reactions to the implications of our findings. The fact I freely pointed out my own classes’ plots as the only teacher name revealed seemed to make no difference. Educators seemed to prefer subjective evaluations instead of tentative steps toward objective indicators; finding lawyers to check into what we had done seemed more pertinent to them than finding in schools students who could help make objective teacher analysis possible for the first time ever. The Waxahachie ISD administration following the retirement of Billy Bates seemed to agree with the suspicious educators. Jerry and I went from educational innovators to educational pariahs.
In an attempt to arouse continuing interest, I wrote an unpublished novelette entitled Brave New School, 97 pages, double-spaced. I tried to show in the book how a large percentage of the student body could be utilized like our research group was utilized, so that more students each year could be involved as the seven had been over several years. It was actually written before the contributions of Randy and Jon, but even then it seemed Jerry’s role in the research was in jeopardy. Outside the research group, the number of people who read it probably could have been counted on one hand; interest in Waxahachie High School student researchers died exponentially. The novelette soon became outdated anyway, as technology continued to alter the way things were done in school, only without student input and help.
Not to be forgotten are the personal lessons my unique path into public education taught me through the experience of high school student researchers. The graduate school analogy that excited Jerry and me was just too much for public and private high schools with their professional education network of teacher training and curriculum development. I was the only Ph.D. on the faculty, administration, and staff at Waxahachie — the only one, I suppose, who knew how to teach before I took a single education course. I taught at Waxahachie High School for 32 years and at no time was a young teacher-to-be assigned to me as a student teacher. Any Ph.D. applying to join our faculty was never hired; it was as if they did not want another “me.”
It takes a lot of innovation to move the inertia of educational institutions. To benefit schools, teacher evaluation, and gifted students so differently, so rapidly, and so uniquely as we did in our high school research group is, apparently, too much to bear for most, if not all, schools.
The dedication in Brave New School could well be an epitaph:
To Jerome Colosimo, a rare, innovative, research-oriented educator and good friend, and
to the first real student researchers, Theresa Peel, Burlin Barr, Stephen Weldon, and Jim
McDonald (and Jeff Centilli, Randy Sargent, and Jon Reese), who made these ideas work
in Waxahachie High School, Waxahachie, Texas.
I am an eternal, incurable optimist — may it not be an epitaph, but an awakening reminder for present and future students, teachers, and school administrators.