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Can the Achievement Gaps be Overcome?

  1. How to Close the Achievement Gaps: Research and Policy

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What Helps Poor African American Students Make the Transition from Elementary to Middle School?

Researchers examine the things that help prevent a drop in poor African American students' grades as they make the transition from elementary to middle school. They find that school and family characteristics interact closely to affect student grades.

Citation:
This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Gutman, L. M., & Midgley, C. (2000). The role of protective factors in supporting the academic achievement of poor African American students during the middle school transition.Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 29,223-248.

To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Research shows that the transition from elementary to middle school is often a difficult time for many students. Students' bodies are changing, they are becoming more socially aware (and perhaps insecure), and their relationships to their parents are changing; this can affect their academic performance.

For poor minority students, this already difficult transition is made even more difficult by many additional factors.

Researchers Leslie Morrison Gutman and Carol Midgley conduct research to determine not only whether poor African American students' grades suffer in the transition between elementary and middle school, but also what kinds of things help protect these students from slipping academically.

Gutman and Midley seek to answer three key questions:

  1. Do African American students' grades drop as they move from elementary to middle school?
  2. What things seem to "protect" African American students from a drop in grades during this transition?
  3. How do different protective factors interact with each other to help these students?

Drawing on a sample of 62 African American families living in poverty, Gutman and Midgley find the following results.

Do Students' Grades Generally Drop When They Move from Elementary to Middle School?

Consistent with other research, Gutman and Midgley find that there is a significant decline in grade point average from elementary to middle school. On a 4 point scale (4.0=A+, 0.0=F), the authors found that students' average grade point dropped from 2.25 to 2.05.

What Factors Are Associated with Higher Grades in the Transition to Middle School?

But, as the authors point out, not all students saw their grades decline. Why did some students' grades decline while others' did not? In other words, what things "protected" some students' academic performance?

Drawing on things that previous research identified as important for maintaining student grades, Gutman and Midgley examined how the following variables were associated with students' 6th grade academic performance:

  • 6th grade academic self-efficacy: a student's confidence in his or her own problem-solving skills, cognitive abilities, and academic competencies.
  • 6th grade parental involvement: both at home (monitoring homework, conversations with children about school) and at school (contact with teachers, volunteering for school activities).
  • 6th grade school belonging: the extent to which a student feels personally accepted, respected, and included at school.
  • 6th grade teacher support: a student's perception of the level of his or her teachers' concern, caring, and attention.
  • 5th grade GPA

In their study, Gutman and Midgley find that only three of the above factors were associated with higher grades in middle school:

  1. Academic self-efficacy. Students who had a sense of self-efficacy tended not to have their grades drop in 6th grade.
  2. School belonging. Students who had a sense of belonging in their new school tended not to have their grades drop.
  3. 5th grade GPA. Student with higher grades in 5th grade tended to have higher grades in 6th grade as well.

Gutman and Midgley say that parental involvement and teacher support were not correlated with GPA in 5th or 6th grades. However, they also point out that teacher support and school belonging were correlated with a student's perceived self-effectiveness.

It Is Not the "Protective Factors" But the Combination of Protections That Makes a Difference

But it seems strange that factors such as parental involvement and teacher support would not be associated with grades.

Gutman and Midgley suggest that the key may be to not simply look at these factors alone, but to look at how they interact with other factors to provide protection against a drop in grades. That is, taken by themselves, parental involvement and teacher support may not appear to make much difference in student grades; however, in combination with other factors, they may make a difference.

This is, in fact, what Gutman and Midgley find. They find a way to measure how the different protective factors interact and then see if this interaction has any effect on grades. They find that two interactions do make a difference:

  1. the interaction between parental involvement and school belonging
  2. the interaction between parental involvement and perceived teacher support

From their analysis, they find that students who had these combinations tended to have higher grades than students who had only one of these factors. Table 1 shows that only students who had both high parental involvement and a high sense of belonging made above a C average.

Table 1: Effect on Student Grades of Interaction between Parental Involvement and Student Sense of Belonging

Low Parental Involvement

High Parental Involvement

at or below C average

above C average

High Belonging

at or below C average

at or below C average

Low Belonging

Table 2 shows that only students who had highly involved parents and felt as if they had high support from teachers made above a C average.

Table 2: Effect on Student Grades of Interaction between Parental Involvement and Perceived Teacher Support

Low Parental Involvement

High Parental Involvement

at or below C average

above C average

High Support

at or below C average

at or below C average

Low Support

Making Sense of the Interactions

How do we make sense of these interaction effects? What do they tell us?

Gutman and Midgley suggest that parental support for students may be most effective only under certain conditions. What conditions are these?

  • Parental involvement and teacher support. The authors suggest that the effectiveness of parental involvement may depend on support from teachers and schools. That is, if teachers and schools see poor parents as "part of the problem" of educating students rather than an important part of the solution, they may knowingly or unknowingly discourage the parents to be involved. On the other hand, teachers and schools that facilitate parental involvement in meaningful ways may actually enhance the ability of the parents to support their children's academic work.
  • Parental involvement and student belonging. The authors also say that if parents feel excluded from the school or their children's educational process, they may feel alienated from the school. They say that these attitudes are likely to be transmitted to their children.

This would explain why parental involvement alone does not have an effect on student grades. For parents to be effective and communicate a sense of belonging to their children, they need to be integrated in meaningful ways into the school process.

Authors Suggest Implications for Middle School Reform

The authors say that the interplay of school and family factors have implications for middle school reform.

Rather than focus only on changing school processes or on family interactions, the authors say that effective middle school reform should focus on the interplay between the two. In order to bring about effective reform, programs and policies should look carefully at both schools and families and how they interact.

Research Design:

Research Questions

Do poor African American students, on average, experience a significant decline in grades as they make the transition from elementary to middle school?

What protective factors are associated with a maintenance of grades in the transition from elementary to middle school?

What kinds of interaction effects do the different protective factors have on student grades in the transition from elementary to middle school?

Data

The sample for this study was drawn from a larger longitudinal study of students in southeastern Michigan. The sample included 22 elementary schools and 10 middle schools in four school districts.

Data were collected using surveys from 901 elementary school children (in their last year of elementary school) and then again in their first year of middle school (the number of children surveyed in middle school was 738).

This study looked only at African American families living below the poverty line. Of the 97 families in the sample that met this criteria, 62 agreed to participate in the study. Families were either called or visited by trained researchers.

Methods

The authors carried out their analysis in several steps.

  • The authors used an analysis of variance (ANOVA) to determine whether there was a significant drop in grades in the transition from elementary to middle school.
  • The authors used a correlational analysis to determine which protective factors were associated with higher grades in the first year of middle school.
  • The authors computed interaction terms between the different protective factors and then used a regression analysis to test the effects of the interaction among protective factors on school performance.
Funding Source

This study was funded by grants from the William T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the University of Michigan.

 



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