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Sean Kelly Examines Teaching Strategies in Segregated Schools

Author: Lisa Walenceus

Sean Kelly, associate professor of sociology, studies student engagement in schools

Do teachers in urban, racially segregated schools experience more behavioral challenges in their classrooms than teachers in integrated schools do? According to research by Sean Kelly, assistant professor in Notre Dame’s Department of Sociology, the answer is yes. Do these teachers as a result modify their teaching strategies to cope with these challenges in ways that limit students’ engagement?

That is the question addressed by Kelly in his recently published article, “A Crisis of Authority in Predominantly Black Schools?” in Teachers College Record.

Kelly finds that teachers in urban, segregated schools report much higher rates of disruptive, inattentive, and disrespectful behavior from students than do teachers in integrated schools. For example, teachers in segregated schools are nearly three times more likely than teachers in integrated schools to report that the level of misbehavior at their school interferes with their teaching and twice as likely to say that disrespect for teachers is a daily occurrence.

“Importantly, black students are no less engaged or more disruptive than other students of similar achievement levels and socioeconomic status,” Kelly explains. “But, because of high levels of school segregation, along both race and socio-economic dimensions, teachers in inner-city schools often face multiple risk factors for problem behavior in their classrooms.”

A difficult behavioral climate can cause teachers to focus more on maintaining order than on cultivating student interest and allowing the class to have input into what will be learned. When this happens, Kelly says, it can negatively affect student achievement because “research shows that instruction that is more ‘student-centered’ fosters intellectual initiative and increases student engagement.”

“An orderly classroom is good,” he says. “But not if it comes at the expense of engagement.”

To see an interview with Kelly and hear more about the outcome of his study, go to Teachers College Record.

Kelly is a faculty researcher at the Center for Research on Educational Opportunity (CREO) and a fellow of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at Notre Dame. His research on teaching practices that foster student engagement across achievement levels received an Exemplary Dissertation Award from the Spencer Foundation in 2008. The purpose of the foundation’s award program is to highlight outstanding dissertations as exemplars for the educational research community.

Kelly’s recent publications include “The Black-White Gap in Mathematics Course Taking” (Sociology of Education, 2009) and “Race, Social Class, and Student Engagement in Middle School English Classrooms” (Social Science Research, 2008).