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.
The large size of most middle and secondary schools is another factor that detracts from personal, mentoring relationships between students and available adults. Ravitch (1983) writes that the trade-off for bigger, more “efficient” schools means “impersonality, bureaucratization, diminished contact between faculty and students, formalization of relationships among colleagues, a weakening of the bonds of community” (p. 327). Although large school size, per se, has not been correlated with reductions in standardized test scores (Rutter, Maughan, Mortimore, Ouston, & Smith, 1979), smaller schools have been shown to promote prosocial behavior among teenagers (Barker & Gump, 1964) and more community activism among their adult graduates (Lindsay, 1984). Calls for smaller counselor-to-student ratios in secondary schools reflect the fact that critical goals such as curriculum choice and career planning are dependent upon personal knowledge of the student and a trusting relationship (Herr, 1989). Elkind (1984) asserts that the adolescent’s identity formation is enhanced by being surrounded by a relatively small group of adults who know the student well and who, over time, are able to support the movement toward responsible autonomy.
The timing and types of transitions involved in the passage from primary to middle to secondary school are also important. These transitions represent turning points that involve a redefinition of social status (e.g., from middle school “top dog” to senior high “bottom dog,” Entwisle, 1990) and the experience of several simultaneous stressors. Simmons and Blyth (1987) present evidence for “cumulative stress” theory in a study of the effects of different transition patterns on academic achievement and self-esteem. Investigating the school-related outcomes of students who followed a K–8, 9–12 transition model and those who followed a K–6, 7–9, 10–12 model, the researchers found more negative outcomes related to the latter plan. They interpreted these findings as resulting from an interaction between the stresses of puberty and the cumulative stresses inherent in multiple school changes. For students who might be already at risk, the cost of these educational practices could be extremely high. Feldlaufer et al. (1988) found low levels of perceived teacher support were particularly harmful for low-achieving students who enter a less supportive classroom after a school transition.
But providing an emotionally supportive academic climate for young adolescents is not all that is needed to ensure their educational progress. Evidence from a study of 23 middle schools demonstrated that the combination of demanding teachers and rigorous curricula was strongly related to increased student achievement in mathematics, whereas warm teacher–student relations and communal classroom organization were not (Phillips, 1997). Perhaps we need to remember that both elements, responsiveness and demandingness, make important contributions to success in schools as well as in homes. In another study of middle school students, Wentzel (2002) found that teachers’ high expectations for their students was most predictive of students’ achievement and motivation to learn. But in addition, negative feedback or criticism from teachers, even in combination with high expectations, was found to be most clearly associated with diminished motivation and poor achievement. This finding applied to all students in her sample, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. She points out that “by creating a context free of harsh criticism and [italics added] one in which students are expected to do their best, teachers might be better able to convey information clearly and efficiently, encourage student engagement, and focus students’ attention on academic tasks” (p. 298).
Finally, the level of involvement by parents in the schooling of adolescents also influences achievement outcomes. Despite scientific and government support of parental involvement as a critical ingredient in school success (e.g., U.S. Department of Education, 1990) particularly for poor and minority children (Comer, 1988), the idea of parents becoming involved in the academic life of the adolescent has been met with serious resistance. Consistent with the “hands-off” philosophy described earlier, many adults tend to leave the business of education to teachers or to the adolescents themselves. Involvement declines sharply at the middle and high school levels (Steinberg, 1996; Stevenson & Stigler, 1992). Steinberg has indicated that approximately one third of the students in his study said their parents were uninformed about their school performance, and another one sixth said that their parents did not care. More than 40% of participants said their parents did not attend any school function or activity. This parental unresponsiveness seems closely tied to the child’s age and possibly to parental beliefs about an adolescent’s right to autonomy. Broderick and Mastrilli (1997) found that parents and teachers viewed various dimensions of involvement (for example, monitoring homework and use of time, helping at school, attending meetings and conferences, plus serving as a partner with the school in decision making) as appropriately decreasing once the child has made the transition out of the elementary grades.
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