Transitions in Schooling (page 2)
School transitions play a critical role in children’s development as learners (Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Pianta, 1999; Pianta & Cox, 1999; Wigfield, Eccles, Schiefele, Roeser, & Davis-Kean, 2006). With regards to motivation, most studies have focused on kindergarten and middle school transitions, with a smaller set of studies examining the effects of the high school transition (Eccles, 2004). Many of the school structures and classroom processes discussed above play an important role in children’s adjustment to new school environments. During critical school transitions, aspects of the child’s self-definitions are redefined by parents, teachers, peers, and the children themselves (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). In this section, we briefly review research focused on motivation changes related to transitions in schooling.
Transition into Elementary School
The entry into elementary school is accompanied by several significant changes in children’s lives (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988; Pianta & Cox, 1999). Compared with the home or preschool environment, elementary classes are organized by age, making it possible for children to compare their skills and abilities to other children. In many schools, children are also grouped by ability for reading and mathematics instruction. Children’s abilities are assessed for the first time with standardized achievement tests. Whereas preschool children learn through play and exploration, kindergarten and first-grade teachers increasingly are adopting didactic, basic skill teaching approaches (Stipek, Feiler, Daniels, & Milburn, 1995). Moreover, the quality of children’s relations with teachers and peers can have a significant impact on school adjustment and achievement in the early grades. Lastly, children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are expected to adapt to a school environment that favors the mainstream culture (Meece & Kurtz-Costes, 2001).
Children’s early school experiences are shaped by gender and ethnicity, as well as by the resources they bring to school—skill levels, parental expectations, and family income (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). Evidence also suggests that children’s temperament, peer relations, and self-regulatory processes play an important role in children’s successful transition to school (Bronson, 2000; Entwisle, Alexander, Pallas, & Cadigan, 1987; Howse, Calkins, Anastopoulous, Keane, & Shelton, 2003; Ladd & Kochenderfer, 1996; Miles & Stipek, 2006), and may even mediate the influence of family background characteristics on early school achievement (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988).
In a longitudinal study of children’s transition to elementary school, Alexander and Entwisle (1988) found that first-grade students whom teachers perceived as attentive, interested, and cooperative, earned higher initial marks in reading and mathematics, even after controlling for differences in prior test scores. Additionally, these initial evaluations of children’s abilities are used, more than standardized test scores, to assign students to ability groups for reading and mathematics. Furthermore, low teacher perceptions of personal maturity and a low mark in first-quarter reading were important predictors of first-grade retention, reducing the effects of ethnicity, gender, and family income level (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). Due to differential instruction and achievement expectations formed by parents and teachers, within-class ability grouping and early grade retention have a powerful influence on children’s subsequent achievement and motivation (Pallas, Entwisle, Alexander, & Stluka, 1994). By the end of second grade, children’s early performance in school was the most important predictor of subsequent achievement, overshadowing the effects of personal- and home-related variables as they move into third grade (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988).
Research also suggests that, along with child characteristics, the qualities of classroom instruction and teacher-student relations also influence children’s achievement and motivation in the early elementary grades. For example, Stipek and her colleagues (Stipek, Feiler, Byler, Ryan, Milburn, & Salmon, 1998; Stipek et al., 1995) contrasted the effects of didactic versus child-centered instruction. A didactic approach is defined by those teachers who provide high levels of direct instruction and who play a central role in selecting activities, providing instruction, and defining rules. The focus of instruction is on basic skill and factual knowledge acquisition. On the other hand, teachers using a child-centered approach serve as partners in children’s learning, providing direction and guidance to help children develop their knowledge while providing opportunities for children to take responsibility for their own learning. Teacher-student relations are characterized by warmth, nurturance, and support.
Research contrasting these approaches has not found consistent effects on children’s motivation and learning in the early grades (Hamre & Pianta, 2005; Rutter & Maughan, 2002; Stipek et al., 1995, 1998). Stipek et al. (1995, 1998) reported that children taught by didactic methods made significant gains in reading skills, whereas children in the child-centered classes outperformed their counterparts on problem solving, oral language, and conceptual grouping tasks. Marginal differences were found for mathematics achievement. With regards to motivation, differences were found related to achievement expectancies, negative affect, compliance, and discipline. For these measures, the differences favored children taught by child-centered methods. Thus, a didactic instructional approach in the early years of elementary school has motivation costs that need to be considered in relation to children’s academic gains.
Recently, studies on the elementary school transition have examined the effects of different instructional approaches on children at risk for early school failure. Recall that child characteristics, such as family income, parental education, and personal maturity, tend to place children on different achievement trajectories by the second grade. Children low on these indicators of early school success are at greater risk for remediation, retention, and early school failure (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). For this group of children, high-quality direct instruction and evaluative feedback can offset the negative effects of low parental education or early academic difficulties (Hamre & Pianta, 2005; Morrison & Connor, 2002). However, for those children at the highest risk for school failure, showing a combination of behavioral, social, and academic problems at the entry to elementary school, emotionally supportive classrooms characterized by positive teacher and peer relations are most predictive of achievement gains (Hamre & Pianta, 2005). This finding is consistent with research on older elementary and middle school students indicating that supportive teacher and peer relations in the classroom can increase students’ motivation to pursue academic goals.
Schools have implemented a number of strategies to assist children and families with the kindergarten or first-grade transition (Smolkin, 1999). These strategies include the expansion of public pre-kindergarten classes, reducing kindergarten class size, creating brief summer programs before entry to school, encouraging home visits, creating home-school partnerships, and using curriculum assessments and interventions to address social and academic behaviors necessary for early school success. For many schools, reducing class size in the first two years of schooling has yielded particularly positive benefits. A statewide class reduction experiment in Tennessee, involving over 11,000 students, indicated that small class size from kindergarten to third grade significantly increased reading and mathematics achievement (Nye, Hedges, & Konstantopoulos, 2000). The most dramatic impact was found for those children who started in small classes at the entry to school. Additionally, small classes can reduce the risk of grade retention, disciplinary actions, and high school dropout for low-income students (Nye et al., 2000). For these benefits to occur, the ideal size of a kindergarten classroom is 13 to 17 students.
Transition into Middle School
Research generally indicates negative changes in children’s motivation related to the middle school transition. For example, Harter (1981b) reported a systematic shift from a predominantly intrinsic orientation in third grade to a more extrinsic orientation by the ninth grade. These shifts are more dramatic for some subjects than for others, but most children show significant declines in intrinsic motivation for reading, mathematics, science, and social studies by seventh grade (Gottfried, 1985). Developmental changes in students’ intrinsic motivation are generally accompanied by declining confidence and by increasing anxiety (Harter & Connell, 1984).
Numerous studies have discussed how differences in the context of elementary and middle schools can explain negative changes in motivation (Eccles, 2004; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Meece, Anderman, & Anderman, 2006; National Research Council, 2004; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002). For example, Eccles and Midgley (1989) identified a number of ways elementary and middle school environments differ. First, middle schools tend to be larger than elementary schools, which can disrupt peer relations and give way to feelings of anonymity and alienation. Whereas students are generally with the same teacher and peer group for most of the day in elementary school, middle school students have multiple teachers. As a result, middle school students are less likely to benefit from the types of teacher-student relations that promote learning and motivation (Wentzel, 2002). In addition, middle school classrooms are generally characterized by more whole-class instruction, more public recitation, less individualized instruction, and fewer opportunities for student choice and decision making (Eccles & Midgley, 1989). Under these conditions, students are less likely to take an active role in learning and to receive the support they need when experiencing behavioral or academic problems. Research also suggests that middle school teachers are less likely than elementary school teachers to use teaching practices emphasizing mastery goals, such as teaching for understanding, recognizing students for trying hard, and accepting mistakes as part of the learning process (Midgley, Anderman, & Hicks, 1995).
Finally, grading practices also change as students move from elementary to middle school. Elementary school teachers are more likely to grade students on the basis of individual progress, whereas middle school teachers tend to base students’ grades on comparative and normative standards. Students also begin to experience a more formal system of academic tracking in the middle school. The restricted range of abilities in middle school classrooms increases competition for high grades. Consequently, students perceive their classroom environments as less focused on mastery goals and more focused on performance goals as they make the transition into middle school (Anderman & Midgley, 1997). As school or classroom goals change, students adopt performance goals for their own academic work (Anderman & Anderman, 1999; Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996).
Motivation changes at the transition to middle school are not inevitable. These changes tend to be rooted in the policies and practices of middle schools (Anderman, Maehr, & Midgley, 1999; Maehr & Midgley, 1996). A number of strategies have been used to facilitate transitions for middle school students. Many school districts have implemented block scheduling, advisory teams, mentoring programs, looping programs, interdisciplinary teaching, and schools-within-school structures (Jackson & Davis, 2000; Lipsitz, Mizell, Jackson, & Austin, 1997). However, observers of middle school reform point out that these efforts have not gone far enough (Lipsitz et al., 1997). Current research indicates that middle school students’ need classroom environments that are both academically challenging and supportive of students academic development (Anderman, Patrick, Hruda, & Linnenbrink, 2002; Turner et al., 2002). Consistent with this view, Meece et al. (2003) found that middle school students reported greater engagement and stronger mastery goal orientations when they perceived their teachers as using learner-centered teaching practices that involved higher-order thinking, positive relations, student autonomy, and instruction adapted to individual needs. summarizes key components of learner-centered classrooms.
Transition into High School
The transition to high school is a relatively new area of motivation research. Relative to elementary and middle schools, high schools are larger, more bureaucratic, more impersonal, and more academically challenging. Most high schools also use tracking systems to group students by ability and vocational aspirations. Unfortunately a disproportionate number of low-income, African and Hispanic American students are assigned to curriculum tracks that limit future educational and economic opportunities (Oakes, 1985). Tracking systems in high school reinforce social stratification in society rather than provide optimal education for all students regardless of ethnic, gender, or socioeconomic background (Lee & Bryk, 1989; Oakes, 1985). Even students performing at grade level with strong family support and positive attitudes toward school, can experience difficulty navigating the transition to high school. For those students struggling with family, personal, or academic problems, the first year of high school can place students on the pathway toward high school dropout (Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbani, 2001).
Motivation research on how students respond to the high school is limited (Eccles, 2004). Rogers and Freiberg (1994) asked adolescents what motivated them to learn in school. Students consistently reported that they wanted to be trusted and respected, wanted teachers to care and help them succeed, and wanted choices. As with middle school students, the use of learner-centered teaching practices in high school can positively influence students’ engagement and mastery goal orientation. Additionally, students’ performance goals tend to be slightly lower in classrooms perceived as more learner-centered (Meece et al., 2003). However, other research suggests that a sense of community for both teachers and students is undermined by the size, structure, and culture of most high schools (Bryk & Thum, 1989; Lee & Burkam, 2003). Research also indicates that high school environments are even more competitive in orientation than middle and elementary schools (Roeser, Marachi, & Gelbach, 2002).
The frequency of high school dropout is another source of information about the impact of high schools on adolescents. Recent data place the current national high school dropout rate at 12% (National Center of Educational Statistics, 2001b). This figure can range as high as 29% for Hispanic students, and Black students are twice as likely as White students to drop out. Approximately two-thirds of high school dropouts leave school before the tenth grade. Consequently, the ninth grade is a particularly critical transition. Students who experience severe academic and behavioral difficulties in the first year of high school are at elevated risk for high school dropout, and, if retained in ninth grade, the probability of dropout is even greater (Letgers & Kerr, 2001).
For many adolescents, the pathway to high school dropout begins in elementary or middle school when they experience difficulty keeping up with their peers, behaving properly, or adjusting to the school environment (Alexander & Entwisle, 1988). Thus, dropout is better viewed as a process rather than an event (Alexander et al., 2001). Older, non-White minority, male, and low-income students are at greater risk for early high school dropout than other students (Wehlage & Rutter, 1986). Grade retention, low academic performance, frequent school absences, antisocial peers, and deviant behavior also play a role (Rumberger, 2001).
While family and student characteristics may predispose certain groups toward dropping out of school, there is general agreement among scholars that the high school environment plays a critical role as well. For example, using data from the High School and Beyond project from the early 1980s, Wehlage and Rutter (1986) reported that students who dropped out of high school viewed teachers as uninterested in students, and school discipline as ineffective and unfair. Studies of ethnic minority youth also document how unsupportive teacher relations, discriminatory practices, noninclusive curriculum materials, and inappropriate instructional methods undermine the academic achievement and school engagement of ethnic minority students (Meece & Kurtz-Costes, 2001). In contrast, Lee and Burkam (2003) found that students are less likely to drop out of schools that enroll less than 1,500 students, offer more challenging and fewer remedial courses, and encourage positive relations between teachers and students. Similarly, using a motivation model of high school completion, Hardre and Reeve (2003) reported how rural students are less likely to formulate plans to drop out when school environments engendered feelings of support, belonging, competence, and self-determination. Taken together, these findings are consistent with the view that some high schools create conditions that tend to push students out (Fine, 1991).
High school reform is currently in the national spotlight, and many efforts are targeting the ninth-grade transition. Letgers and Kerr (2001) compiled a set of practices to promote ninth-grade success. The strategies included smaller learning communities (e.g., Career or Freshmen Academies), extra instruction or academic coaching in core subjects as needed, special seminars to help students learn social or academic skills needed to be successful in high school, homeroom advisory groups, student-centered teaching approaches (e.g., cooperative or project-based learning), and elimination of tracking systems. Many of these strategies characterize high school environments that also foster high levels of student engagement and motivation (National Research Council, 2004). When these reform practices are used on a widespread and sustained basis, ninth-grade students show improvement in promotion, achievement, and high school completion (Letgers & Kerr, 2001).
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