A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n

Education Reforms and Students at Risk: A Review of the Current State of the Art - January 1994

Chapter 3: School Environment

According to Bronfenbrenner (1989), young people need to have adults who are "crazy" about them. Unfortunately, in our most troubled schools teachers aren't crazy about students, and students aren't crazy about teachers -- instead, they are driving each other crazy. In these schools, support networks are weak or nonexistent for both children and teachers. Teachers may resent what they perceive as inadequate encouragement, assistance, and resources to do their job. Students may feel that nobody at school knows or cares about them.

What can be done to change these schools into caring, productive places that children and teachers enjoy coming to every day? The school effects literature describes numerous factors that may enhance the school environment, including effective principal leadership, a safe and orderly setting, engaging extracurricular activities, reductions in the size and impersonality of schools, and educational programs designed to fit the unique needs of specific students and school contexts (Teddlie and Stringfield, 1993; Bryk and Thum, 1989; Comer, 1988; Eberts and Stone, 1988; Gottfredson and Gottfredson, 1985; Landers and Landers, 1978). Section II of this monograph provides a comprehensive analysis of policies and programs targeted at low-income children, so we do not detail these strategies here.

Instead, in this chapter we explore the ways in which the interactions of students and teachers -- and the relevance and rigor of curriculum -- may influence school climate. Also, we examine the resources available to schools. School climate and resources may significantly impact schools' "readiness to teach" the rich diversity of children in our schools.

School Climate

School climate is often as palpable as the weather. Some schools have a warm, friendly ambience, while others have a cold, foreboding environment that permeates classrooms and offices. It seems probable that school and classroom climate would influence student performance, and the research to date supports this conclusion (e.g., Hill, Foster, and Gendler, 1990; Fraser and Fisher, 1982; Moos, 1979).

To provide a warm school climate, school administration and support services in poor areas must be especially sensitive to the needs of students with responsibilities or problems outside school (e.g., working students, teen mothers). Unfortunately, school climates are often inhospitable to these students. Teen mothers, for example, may be refused excused absences for prenatal/postnatal care, tracked into specific courses, and discouraged from full participation in extracurricular activities (Snider, 1989). Students with emotional problems may never have their difficulties treated because many schools have inadequate psychological services (Tuma, 1989). Even when counseling services are available, children of color may not have access to counselors who are sensitive to multicultural concerns (Gibbs, Huang et al., 1990).

Guidance counseling also may be inadequate. Suarez-Orozco (1989) reports that many Central American refugee children may be inappropriately tracked into vocational classes because counselors assume they are not "college material." Although many Central American refugee children have successfully completed advanced math courses in their home countries, counselors may uniformly assign all these children to entry-level courses. Inappropriate class assignments may be exacerbated in overcrowded inner-city schools because counselors may have little time to determine individual students' strengths and weaknesses. Also, counselors may have had little training related to the needs of ethnolinguistically diverse children (Christensen, 1992).

Highly mobile students may particularly suffer from inadequate administrative and support practices. Migrant children, for example, may lose academic credits or experience delays in enrollment due to lack of communication and coordination between schools. School staff may be unaware of migrant students' needs and may fail to provide adequate guidance. Consequently, migrant children's academic progress may suffer, discouraging student persistence (Morse, 1988; Phillips, 1985).

Homeless children may suffer similar difficulties in school. These children face an array of problems that may interfere with learning and attendance: poor nutrition, lack of a quiet place to study, inadequate clothes and school supplies, dangerous surroundings, peer ridicule, and the stress of constant moves. Schools are often not prepared to address these problems. Homeless children may have difficulties enrolling in school because they lack prerequisite records or a permanent address, and once in school they may not receive adequate encouragement and assistance (Molnar, Rath, and Klein, 1990; Nichols-Pierce, 1992).

Instructional practices and materials. If instruction fails to engage and challenge students, classroom climate and intellectual development may suffer. Teachers may spend most of their time demanding attentiveness or trying to maintain order. The entire class, including the teacher, may watch the clock, longing to be put out of their misery. Teacher burnout and student disciplinary/attendance problems are likely outcomes.

Interest is a significant determinant of how people attend to and persist in processing information (for a review of research, see Hidi, 1990). Children are more likely to learn material that stimulates their interest. The lack of active learning experiences may help explain why students' interest in challenging subjects tends to decline. A survey of black seventh graders' science interests finds that although most students express curiosity about various science topics, and show strong interest in science discussions, field trips, and experiments, they report that they never or seldom have input into selecting class topics or projects (Anderson, Pruitt, and Courtney, 1989). Reyes and Laliberty (1992) hypothesize that the limited literacy skills of many Hispanic children may result from their assignment to classes that emphasize basic skills and passive learning rather than cultivating higher order proficiencies. According to these researchers, the "basic skills" approach to teaching literacy "dooms" students to a curriculum that lacks interest and relevance (p. 264). Consequently, students have little motivation to learn.

Other studies suggest that active learning in combination with "scaffolding" (building upon the cultural knowledge that children bring to the classroom) may enhance the learning of young people of color (Guitierrez, 1992; Lee, 1992; Peterson, 1991). Analyzing the effects of scaffolding on black students, Lee (1992) compares the pre- and post-test results of students who received traditional reading instruction and students who participated in an innovative reading program that drew upon African-American culture. Lee reports that the students in the innovative program achieved statistically significant reading skills gains three times as great as the control students.

To stimulate student interest and build upon the "cultural capital" that students bring into the classroom, Barrera (1992) argues that classroom texts must authentically reflect the culture(s) of the students:

Based on recent statistics...it can be estimated that minority writers (African American, Hispanic, and Asian American) accounted for only about 2% of the authors of the 5,000 children's trade books published in the United States in 1988....How authentic is the literature about diverse peoples when their own voices and perspectives are not included...? (p. 237)

Wynter (1992) argues that the lack of authentic, positive representations of people of color in textbooks "demotivates" children of color and leads to poor student performance. She asserts that even in recent history textbooks, which are "vastly improved" compared to the history textbooks of the past, children of color are taught to disidentify with their own racial groups and to identify with the perspectives of those who oppressed their ancestors (pp. 66-68). Price (1992) suggests that divergent historical perspectives be posed to children as an exercise in inquiry-based learning:

Why is it even necessary to present all history as settled truth?....Instead of asking children to absorb history, challenge them to "do"history. Teach them how to ferret out primary sources, weigh evidence, critique arguments, and formulate their own views. This learning process would be a prelude to the kinds of judgments they will be called on to make as adults (p. 210).

How can teachers facilitate cultural and individual expressiveness while discouraging divisiveness? Cooperative learning has been proposed as a way of enhancing academic engagement and fostering positive relations between students of diverse backgrounds (Slavin, 1990; Cohen, 1984; Skon, Johnson, and Johnson, 1981). In cooperative settings, group efforts are rewarded, thus students have an incentive to resolve differences and work together.

At any rate, complete harmony among students and teachers is not a likely outcome of student engagement -- indeed, one of the definitions of "engagement" is to enter into conflict. The expression of intellectual differences between students and teachers can stimulate curiosity, improve reasoning skills, and enhance creativity (Johnson and Johnson, 1979). Conflict in the classroom can be constructive if it occurs within a structured learning environment in which problemsolving, rather than personal attack, is the goal (pp. 61-62).

Academic standards. In an ethnographic study that hired high school students at risk of dropping out to work as collaborators, Farrell et al. (1988) report that "pressure and boredom" are most often mentioned by students as negative aspects of the school environment. As explained by an interviewee, the pressure to meet academic standards that seem unattainable may lead to disengagement and dropout:

Like sometimes the teacher might get on the back of a student so much that the student doesn't want to do the work....when he sees his grade, he's "you mean I'm doing all this effort for nothin'? I'd rather not come to school." (p. 497)

With no incentive to exert effort in the classroom, school becomes increasingly irrelevant and boring, while peer pressure becomes increasingly important. Peer loyalty has a payoff -- mutual assistance and emotional support -- while attempting to conform to school pressure does not appear to be rewarded. McDill, Natriello, and Pallas (1986) warn that the reform movement's push toward raising academic standards may place more students at risk. If students are not given opportunities to experience academic success, they may become disengaged and dropout.

However, if schools are too accommodating to low performance, they may limit the usefulness of school attendance. Continuation schools, for example, may be more responsive to students' needs (e.g., offering daycare to young mothers) and thus often may be more attractive to students than comprehensive schools; however, they may offer limited opportunities for academic challenge (Kelly, 1989). Studying a school that has a lower dropout rate than would have been predicted by its demographics, Miller, Leinhardt, and Zigmond (1988) find that the school's warm, accommodating environment enhances engagement and thus increases the school's holding power -- but it does not encourage achievement. Minimal effort is rewarded; students are rarely challenged academically. Students can receive passing grades just for turning in assignments -- the quality of the work is not emphasized. One student comments, "[in] English...he just marks down how many [assignments] we got done for the whole year...he'll never know if we got them wrong...I like that a lot because I don't care (p. 746)."

Intergroup relations. When school climates fail to foster positive interethnic relations, hostilities among teachers and students may lead to disengagement and racial polarization. In an ethnographic study of high school students, young black students comment on the racism they perceive in their school:

[White students] always getting what they want 'cause the teacher's white....If you black you have a better chance with a black teacher....some black kids [here] don't like their teachers. Lot of racism (Semons, 1989, p. 15).

Various studies suggest that stereotypical perceptions of students' race, gender, dialect, and other characteristics may affect teachers' evaluations of young people (e.g., DeMeis and Turner, 1978; Rist, 1970; Williams and Muehl, 1978).

Fine (1983) suggests that the "at-risk student behaviors" of some youth may be a protest against the racial, gender, and class biases in schools. In a study that followed African-American and Latino students over the course of a year, those who dropped out by the end of the year were no more likely to have the stereotypical dropout characteristics -- depression, poor reading ability, learned helplessness -- than their peers who remained in school (Fine, 1983). The distinguishing characteristic between dropouts and student persisters in this study was that dropouts were more likely to have challenged teachers about perceived injustices in the classroom.

Ability grouping and tracking. Regardless of racial, gender, and class backgrounds, lower track students may feel unwelcome and undervalued in school. Examining the effects of tracking in a predominantly white school in a well-to-do neighborhood, Page (1989) reports that students in the lower tracks are discouraged from active classroom participation. Similar to Fine's (1983) findings in a racially mixed school, Page notes that when the lower track, mostly white students in her study attempt to discuss class topics, teachers tend to discount their comments or silence them by talking over their heads (p. 213). Discouraged by their marginality, these middle-class, lower track students are, according to Page, about as likely to become disengaged and drop out as students from "disadvantaged" backgrounds (p. 202). Page argues that tracking is a complex phenomenon shaped by school's ambivalence toward lower achieving students that cannot be explained simply as a manifestation of social injustices.

Other studies suggest that tracking may exacerbate negative peer influences and racial tensions because students tend to choose their friends from among those in their assigned ability group (Hallinan and Sorensen, 1985). Ianni (1989) notes that this friendship selection pattern may reinforce poor study habits and antisocial behavior among lower track students (p. 133-135). Koslin et al. (1972) find that tracking may exacerbate racial polarization: Students are more likely to stereotype members of other racial groups in homogeneous classrooms than in heterogenous classrooms.

Meta-analyses of the effects of ability grouping/tracking on academic performance have resulted in mixed findings (e.g., Slavin, 1990; Braddock, 1990; Kulik and Kulik, 1982; also, see Chapter 7). Some studies conclude that stratification depresses performance for lower track students; other studies find that it has no effect.
-###-


[Strategies to Reduce Environmental Risks] [Table of Contents] [School Resources]