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

An Alternative Model of Student Performance

A student's personal, home, community, and school characteristics should not be studied in isolation -- all these variables contribute to student performance, and they are strongly interactive. Recognizing these interactive dynamics, we integrate various theoretical perspectives to explain the variety of reasons that some students fail and others succeed. In particular, we build upon Rossi and Gilmartin's (1980) conceptual framework for the study of educational performance.

As shown in Figure 1, we argue that academic progress is primarily an ongoing function of (1) the quality of student resources (e.g., abilities, family support, educational opportunities) and (2) the incentives and pressures perceived by students to invest these resources in academic achievement. Past "returns" on educational investments have a cumulative impact on a student's ability and desire to achieve academic success and persist in school.

Figure 1 omitted

This model combines elements of various engagement models (e.g., Bean and Metzner, 1988; Tinto, 1975). Two distinctive elements of this model are that (1) we note the perception of the effects of engagement may change over time and influence subsequent engagement and (2) we distinguish between academic engagement and intellectual development. In order to provide a quality education, schools must foster intellectual development and encourage student interest and involvement in the classroom. Intellectual development includes, but is not limited to, learning language or math skills: Ideally, intellectual development enhances understanding of the self and the environment and adds to a young person's academic proficiencies.

In this conceptualization, "risk factors" are variables that decrease the probability that a student will possess the ability, willingness, or opportunities for academic engagement and intellectual development. Being an African-American child, for example, is not a risk factor, while experiencing adverse treatment in or outside the classroom because of one's race or ethnicity is a risk factor.

"Resources" (e.g., good health, high quality instruction) are variables that increase the probability that a student will possess the ability, willingness, or opportunities for engagement and intellectual growth. The absence of basic resources (e.g., adequate nutrition) may place a child at risk, while the presence of special resources (e.g., private tutoring in advanced subjects) may give a child an advantage in relation to his or her peers (Reed, 1975). If an improvement in resources eliminates the risk factors that threaten academic progress, a student should no longer be considered or labeled "at risk."

Societal, school, and environmental contexts. As Bronfenbrenner (1979) points out, the multiple social systems that young people participate in have an "ecological" relation to each other. The levels of parental and community resources may influence neonatal health and abilities at birth; developments at home may lead to changes in student behavior; and changes in community demographics and resources may directly or indirectly lead to changes in the school environment. High academic achievement is most likely when schools, homes, and communities contribute to students' ability, willingness, and opportunities to invest in education. Academic failure is most likely when a student has few or no sources of encouragement, practical support, and educational opportunities.

The model presented here, however, does not suggest that schools, homes, and communities must all function optimally in order to prevent educational failure. Resources in one social system may mediate risk factors in another social system. For example, an intellectually stimulating home may compensate for inadequate schooling, and a supportive, orderly school may mitigate the effects of a dangerous, chaotic neighborhood.

Perception of incentives and pressures. Most theories of engagement focus on the incentives for student involvement. The attraction of interesting and relevant assignments, the satisfaction of personal accomplishment, the pleasure of group participation, the desire to acquire skills necessary for a lucrative career, and other rewards may encourage student achievement and persistence. Incentives to do well academically must be greater than the incentives to engage in competing activities.

In addition to incentives, research suggests that pressure is also a powerful inducement for student engagement. "Pressure" has negative connotations, so people often talk of "challenging" students rather than pressuring them. However, while "challenge" describes the "pull" of encouragement or stimulating curriculum, it fails to convey the "push" of punishment or loss of rewards. Successful students often have parents, teachers, and peers who "push" them to do their best academically. These students know that if they fail to show effort, they may experience undesirable outcomes such as reproaches from teachers, loss of privileges at home, or criticism from their friends. However, pressure to achieve seemingly unattainable goals may result in disengagement and dropout.

As shown in figure 1, abilities at birth may influence students' perceptions of the incentives and pressures to engage in school activities. If students have strong talents in certain areas, engaging in those activities may be especially appealing and rewarding to them. A student with a high aptitude for math, for example, may find math assignments inherently rewarding, and she may also enjoy the praise she receives from her teachers and parents. Conversely, students born with conditions that make learning or class participation difficult may see little incentive to engage in activities that appear hard and unrewarded.

However, the degree to which students perceive goals as attainable and the extent to which they are aware of academic rewards are not necessarily accurate reflections of reality. As Alva and Padilla (1989) point out, the presence or absence of support from family members, school personnel, and others may shape students' attitudes about their abilities and influence their performance. In addition, differences in personality, culture, or learning styles -- and changes in employment opportunities or social status -- may lead to differences or changes in the types of learning contexts perceived as "rewarding." It is not enough for schools to provide learning opportunities that are viewed by school staff as excellent: Schools must understand and communicate the relevance of these opportunities to students' lives, and schools must bolster students' confidence in their abilities to take advantage of these opportunities.

Readiness to learn. As indicated in figure 1, students' readiness to learn is an interaction between the environment, the school, and students' perceptions of the incentives and pressures to engage in school activities. Each of these factors structures a student's readiness to learn. The degree of "fit" between a child's abilities and the demands of school life, the extent to which there is consonance between home and school expectations, and the extent to which school activities appear rewarding influences a child's readiness to meet school requirements.

Environmental and school factors contribute varying levels of assets that may affect students' readiness to engage in school activities. The most important of these resources are those that meet children's health and developmental needs. Although children's characteristics may differ, they all have the same basic needs for food, clothes, and shelter; safety and stability; adequate health care; guidance and loving support. If these basic needs are unmet, a student is at risk of being inattentive, unresponsive, and uncooperative in school. Exceptionally skillful parenting, richly supportive communities, and other resources may increase children's ability and willingness to learn, giving them an advantage in school.

Level and quality of academic investment. Student investment is essential to academic success and student persistence. If students invest time and effort in school activities, the likelihood that they will achieve academic success increases. Students' readiness to learn is key to academic investment. If students lack the skills or desire to engage in classroom assignments, their investment in these activities is likely to be low.

In addition, as shown in the diagram, a student's home and school may influence the level and quality of student investment. Given similar levels of student effort, the academic investments of a student with excellent educational opportunities are likely to be more productive than those of a student with poor educational opportunities. Lack of exposure to challenging subject areas or inadequate instruction in these areas may limit skill acquisition. Home exposure to challenging educational opportunities may compensate for or complement school exposure, and vice versa.

Limitations of the model. It is important to note that this model, like many other models of student engagement, is an attempt to explain and predict academic progress for individual students at risk -- it does not deal with all the factors that affect educational equity or social mobility. Although it may be used as a conceptual tool for understanding the performance of students and schools, it does not fully suggest how to change patterns of educational inequities and mediocrity.

To fully understand and address the factors that perpetuate social disparities and place students at risk, we need a conceptual framework that, at the very least, compares the quality of educational opportunities across schools and social groups. As we note in this and previous chapters, educational disparities are not simply the result of risk factors that cause emotional or physical harm, or that alienate students from school -- many students at risk of developing low skill levels are emotionally and physically healthy, and they enjoy a relative amount of academic "success" in warm, caring (yet substandard) schools. For many of these students, cumulative disadvantages in educational opportunities may place them in danger of being unable to compete with more advantaged, better educated students in college or the job market. Reforms that raise the educational performance of all socioeconomic groups will not necessarily reduce school inequities -- school reforms may cause identical rates of academic progress for all groups, leaving the same degree of educational disparities between groups. And improvements in standardized test scores or attendance should be applauded, but they should not be our sole gauge of progress toward educational excellence and relevance -- the range and level of skills acquired may be inadequate for the demands of adult life. Specifying the range and level of skills that diverse students need to acquire -- and developing a detailed strategy for providing the school inputs and external resources necessary to cultivate these skills -- is beyond the scope of this monograph and is a subject of ongoing debate among those involved in school reform.

Yet there is a growing consensus on effective school practices for all students, including those at high risk -- a consensus that hopefully will serve as a foundation for conceptualizing and addressing patterns of inequity across schools. The research on effective school strategies is examined in the following section.

[Student Engagement] [Table of Contents] [SECTION II: Rising to the Challenge: Emerging Strategies for Educating Students At Risk]