Johns Hopkins Magazine -- November 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine


P U B L I C    P O L I C Y &    &    I N T E R N A T I O N A L    A F F A I R S

A school study that starts at the beginning... why NATO expansion is a big mistake... peripatetic bottles that hold surprises inside

Illustration by Kevin O'Malley
Evolution of a first-grader
Sociology professors Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle have found significant evidence of a "summer differential" among elementary-school children. That is, children from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds tend to lose ground academically during the summer, compared to their counterparts from more prosperous families.

Fifteen years ago, Alexander and Entwisle began tracking 790 children who were just entering first grade at 20 public schools in Baltimore city. The Beginning School Study, as they call it, examines the effects of early schooling--the first few grades--on the later performance and welfare of children. The sociologists designed the study to include children from the broadest possible spectrum of ethnic, family, and socioeconomic backgrounds, neighborhoods, and schools. They recently published some of their findings in Children, Schools & Inequality (Westview Press, 1997).

Alexander explains that for the first five years, the children took achievement tests in both the fall and spring of the academic year. Scores from spring testing reflected the influence of both school and home, whereas those from fall testing indicated mostly the effects of the child's summer environment. This allowed Alexander and Entwisle to isolate, somewhat, the effects of family circumstances on learning from the effects of school.

"What you see," says Alexander, "is that during the school year, when kids have equal access to educational experiences and influences, they keep close in terms of their achievement test scores. But over the summer, upper socioeconomic class children continue to improve, while lower socioeconomic class kids' scores go flat, or decline. We see that vividly, at the earliest period of schooling." Alexander says that during the summer, the better-off kids were more likely to travel, visit the library, and go to things like camp, swim lessons, and gymnastics classes.

He adds that schools could help to correct the differential by conducting summer programs. But to be effective, he says, those programs will have to be as structured and rigorous as the regular school year.

Alexander notes that while he and his colleague are not the first to identify this effect, their study is the first to have so much data (five years versus 12-18 months in previous studies) over so diverse a sample, and starting with the first grade.

The Beginning School Study has yielded other fascinating findings. When the sociologists began their interviews, every student was at the same point--just starting first grade. By the sixth year of the research, the students now were spread over five grades. Some had jumped ahead to seventh grade; others had made it only to the third grade. The number who had made it to sixth grade on time was barely a majority. What were the effects of the retention of so many students?

Alexander says, "The picture we were able to sketch was at odds with the conventional wisdom, which was that retention was stigmatizing and would hold children back academically. We didn't see that. We saw strong evidence of recovery of academic progress in the year that the student was retained, based on test scores and report cards, and that this progress was maintained several years down the road."

Alexander and Entwisle are still gathering data from about 80 percent of their original sample. Many students, who now are 20 and 21 years old, have moved around since 1982 (a handful are still finishing high school), but Alexander says that he and his colleague have managed to keep track of many of them.

The National Science Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education recently granted money to continue the study on how the whole group fares after high school. --Dale Keiger

Illustration by Jeff Bohlander
NATO expansion is a step backward
Michael Mandelbaum believes the U.S. Senate will be making a big mistake if it endorses a current plan to expand NATO.

Members of the 48-year-old defense alliance have invited Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to join. Mandelbaum, the Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at Hopkins's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), is an outspoken critic of the expansion treaty, which currently awaits Senate ratification.

Mandelbaum sees three dangers in the expansion plan. The first, he says, is that it has already provoked Russia, which has not been invited to join, and could undercut those Russian political leaders who favor reform and cooperation with the West. Mandelbaum also warns against drawing a new and unnecessary line of division in Europe. NATO, as presently constituted, is accepted by everyone, he says, including the Russians. Why create a new political division reminiscent of the Cold War? Third, he believes that the plan could "create such tension and discord within NATO, especially on the issue of apportioning the costs of expansion, that NATO itself collapses."

The Clinton administration has promoted expansion on several points, claiming it will strengthen fledgling democracies, prevent more ethnic conflicts like the war in Bosnia, and be a good way to contain a potentially resurgent Russia.

Mandelbaum, who recently published his views in a booklet titled NATO Expansion: A Bridge to the Nineteenth Century, published by the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, does not buy any of these arguments. He notes that the three invited nations already have comparatively strong democratic governments. Meanwhile, those countries that do have shaky democratic movements, such as Russia and Ukraine, have not been invited. He also points out that the three countries under consideration are ethnically homogeneous and unlikely to suffer anything like the conflict in the Balkans. He adds that NATO membership has not prevented or resolved Turkey's long and bloody conflict with its Kurdish minority.

"A lot of the energy behind NATO expansion is anti-Russian," Mandelbaum says. It comes from people who fear Russia and wish to contain it. Worrying about Russia is natural, and no one can say that Russia will never again be a threat to its neighbors. I just don't think this is a good way to go about dealing with it."

Already, he says, talk of NATO expansion has hurt U.S./Russia relations. Before, he says, "the Russians were willing to cooperate on virtually any issue, because they saw themselves as part of the same framework as we. President Clinton was able to pick up the phone, call his friend Boris Yeltsin, ask him to remove the remaining troops from the Baltic countries, and Yeltsin did so."

No more, Mandelbaum says. "You can already see the Russians being hesitant and balky about cooperation in Bosnia. They can withhold cooperation on a whole range of issues such as rogue states in the Middle East, where their cooperation is valuable to us, and where we are losing it in exchange for no benefits whatsoever."

Mandelbaum foresees a looming confrontation with Russia over the Baltic republics of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia. All three want to join NATO and all match the qualifications of those countries that have received invitations: they are democracies, have market economies, and have made good-faith efforts, Mandelbaum says, to deal with their ethnic minorities. They also have legitimate reasons to be wary of the Russians, whom they border and who occupied their territory for decades under the old Soviet Union. If the Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs can join, say the Baltics, why not us?

"By expanding to Central Europe, we put on the table the issue of the Baltic countries, thereby saddling ourselves, unnecessarily, with a problem for which we have no solution," Mandelbaum says. "If we did [admit them] it would be extremely costly, because we'd have to place military forces, in all likelihood, in those countries, and the Russians have said that this is absolutely unacceptable."

The administration has estimated the cost of the first expansion at $27 to $35 billion over 13 years. Mandelbaum calls such figures "ludicrously low" and says, "It's absolutely clear that our major European allies will not pay for this." He notes that the Congressional Budget Office has prepared its own estimate: $125 billion.

"I think we've got a perfectly good security system in place with NATO, arms agreements, Partnership for Peace, and democracy in Russia," he says. "We ought to stick with it." NATO expansion, he argues, has the potential to restore precisely the kind of power politics in Europe that the end of the Cold War gives us a chance to leave behind. It's a step backwards, not forwards." -- DK

You don't say...
"They tell Christians like me to return to our stained glass ghettos. They tell us that we should not be a part of the decision-making process. They call us anti this, and anti that, simply because they are losing the fight against us."

--Ralph Reed, former executive director of the Christian Coalition, who spoke at Homewood in September as part of the 1997 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium, "In God We Trust? America's Response to the Rise of Religion."

Surprises from the sea
"This bottle is part of a study of ocean currents. Please return this note for a small reward." That's the message inside the nearly 200 bottles that John Tochko has dropped overboard during the course of his 20-year career as an oceanographer at the Johns Hopkins
Applied Physics Laboratory. Tochko's bottles have bobbed their way thousands of miles, over many months, to beaches all over the world: in the Philippines, the Bahamas, Ireland. To date, he's heard from 16 surprised bottle "finders." The most recent recovery took place last August in Bermuda, when a New Jersey vacationer happened upon a bottle that Tochko had launched in the Gulf of Mexico nearly two years earlier. Says Tochko, "I'm always hoping for a surprise in the mail, hoping to hear from who knows where."