The Role of School in the Social World of Adolescence
The adolescent experience is strongly influenced by parents and peers. In addition, school plays a major part in the psychosocial, intellectual, and vocational development of adolescents. Teachers, curricula, school activities, and school culture all provide raw material that contributes to the adolescent’s growing sense of self and increasing base of knowledge and skill.
Much has been written about the problems with American schools (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2002; National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), and it is beyond the scope and purpose of this chapter to articulate all the aspects of the debate about American educational reform. It is important to note, however, that educational institutions have been increasingly challenged to make changes that support the developmental needs of adolescents (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1996). This movement derives both from the recognition that many contemporary adolescents face a host of social and academic problems that threaten their well-being (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1998) and from the increasing body of evidence that demonstrates a stage-environment mismatch between adolescents and their schools (Eccles et al., 1993).
Many researchers and theorists have noted a decline in academic orientation and motivation starting in the early adolescent years that for some individuals continues throughout high school or culminates in “dropping out” (Harter, 1981; Parsons & Ruble, 1977; Simmons & Blyth, 1987). Instructional practices such as whole-group lectures (Feldlaufer, Midgley, & Eccles, 1988), ability grouping (Oakes, Quartz, Gong, Guiton, & Lipton, 1993), and competitive rather than cooperative activities and assessment (Ward et al., 1982) all occur more frequently in middle and junior high schools than in the elementary grades. These practices have been linked to low levels of student motivation and heightened social comparison. For example, just as adolescents become exquisitely sensitive to their place in the peer scene, school-based evaluative policies such as “tracked” academic classes may make differences in ability more noticeable to the adolescent’s peers and teachers, leading to decreased status for some (Eccles, Midgley, & Adler, 1984). Compared with elementary schools, middle or junior high schools place a heavier emphasis on discipline and teacher control and provide relatively fewer opportunities for student decision making (Brophy & Evertson, 1976; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1988). In contrast to this traditional model, longitudinal research by Wentzel (1997) documents the benefits associated with a more personal system of middle and secondary schooling. She found that students who perceived their teachers as caring and supportive were more likely than were students of less nurturant teachers to show greater academic effort and to express more prosocial goals. Interestingly, when students described teachers “who cared,” they named characteristics that were quite similar to those of authoritative parents.
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