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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University April 10, 2006 | Vol. 35 No. 29
JHU Course Catalog: Hot Topics in Education

Sociologist Karl Alexander introduces freshmen to the timely, often controversial issues of education policy and practice.

By Amy Lunday
The Gazette

Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series in which reporters drop in on interesting classes throughout the university's eight academic divisions. Suggestions are welcome at

The course: Hot Topics in Education. Offered to freshmen by the Department of Sociology in the Krieger School. 3 credits.

Meeting time: Tuesdays, 3 to 5 p.m.; Thursdays, 1 to 2 p.m. Spring 2006.

The instructor: Sociologist Karl Alexander, who says the focus of his research is figuring out "why some children, and some kinds of children, are more successful in school than others and how this affects them later in life." Alexander has spent the past 24 years tracking the personal and academic development of 790 Baltimore City Public School students, following their lives since they were first-graders, with his Beginning School Study. A few years ago, a new survey of the group, whose members are now in their late 20s, found that 42 percent had dropped out before earning a high school diploma, a statistic that drives Alexander in his research to pick up on the early warning signs that a first-grader might one day leave school without graduating.

Syllabus: In Hot Topics, Alexander and his students turn a sociological lens on the timely, often controversial issues of education policy and practice. The focus is on public schools, which are often subjected to the whims of what Alexander calls "planful change." There are many forces—both internal and external—at work to shape and reform public schools, he says, from parents, teachers unions and administrators to politicians aiming to "fix" schools in their districts. "It is very much contested terrain, and as sociologists, one of the things we try to do is understand that contestation," Alexander says. "And that's what we try to do in this course. We take on three or four policy or reform topics, starting with the federal government's No Child Left Behind Act, [and] try to understand the background and context of each, the contesting interests and even perhaps future prospects."

Course work: Using a seminar format, class meetings begin with instruction from Alexander, but the bulk of each session is student led, with the idea that everyone is responsible for the conduct of the course. For each "hot topic," the class breaks into three four-person working groups: one to prepare background materials, one to make the case in favor of the initiative at hand and one to make the case against the initiative. The working groups are reconstituted for each topic. After No Child Left Behind, the class moved on to the "varieties of schooling," comparing public, private and home schooling. The groups, which determine their own internal division of labor, prepare a class presentation and a written executive summary. There also is a term paper, focused on one of the "hot topics" in students' home communities, centering on either a specific school, school district or the entire state.

Students say: "I really love this course and Professor Alexander. I chose to take this course because I personally think that because education develops the future and development of this country that it should be a priority. Prior to this class, I was not very informed in the subject of education, and I felt that I should be because it is such a controversial topic right now. I am thoroughly enjoying this class because of the style of it. It is a freshman seminar, so I am with students my age who also are not too familiar with the subject. There are only 12 students in the class, and we sit around a small table and discuss. The professor brings up a topic, and we all go from there and express our opinions, debate, bring up new information from research that we had done for homework, etc. The class is very informal and is structured yet flexible, which sets a great environment for such broad topics as we are learning. Professor Alexander is great because he simply introduces discussion topics and lets us figure it out ourselves while making sure that we do not stray or introduce incorrect information, clarifying points, and answering questions that none of us are able to. Although there is a good amount of reading assignments, they are not a burden to do because the hot topics are so interesting." —Paula Osborn, freshman, psychology major, Albuquerque, N.M.


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