Increasing at-risk students’ achievement

Children’s views on success and failure have a big impact on their motivation and achievement. Previous research has revealed differences between high and low achievers’ beliefs about the causes of success and failure. Students who attribute success or failure to ability and effort tend to do better in school than those who believe luck or external factors are responsible.

Research also indicates that children who view ability as changeable are more likely to work hard at challenging tasks and respond to failure by increasing their efforts. Little is known, however, about the differences between those who succeed and those who fail within the minority and poor populations who are at considerable risk of school failure. Janine Bempechat, Harvard Graduate School of Education, spent four years studying 1,000 fifth- and sixth-grade mostly minority students in 10 public and Catholic schools in poor neighborhoods around Boston. She wanted to find out how high- and low-achieving minority students differ in their beliefs about school success and failure, and in parental attempts to foster academic achievement. The students in Bempechat’s study were African-American, Latino, Indochinese and Caucasian. Each student completed two questionnaires. One asked the children for their perceptions of the reasons for success and failure in mathematics; the second asked how often their parents provided academic help and spoke about the value of schooling. Each child took a computational math test to assess his achievement.

High achievers share similar beliefs about success

Although there were differences in average math scores across the groups, the higher achievers in all ethnic groups had similar beliefs about the causes of success and failure that differed from the beliefs of low achievers. All the students believed that ability was a factor in success, yet high and low achievers differed significantly in their beliefs about failure.

Low achievers tended to believe that factors outside of their control were responsible for success or failure. Luck or lack of it, difficult tests, or a teachers’ favoritism were seen as influencing performance. Low achievers did not have confidence that they had the necessary ability to achieve. In contrast, high achievers in all groups were less likely to explain success or failure by factors outside of their control. They were more likely to feel responsible for their performance.

Catholic School Advantage

One of the most striking findings was that ethnic minorities attending Catholic schools had a distinct achievement advantage over their public school peers. Bempechat reports significant differences between poor, minority students in public versus parochial schools. While only the high achievers in public schools tended to hold beliefs about success and failure that were conducive to learning, almost all poor and minority students in parochial schools held these beliefs.

Students in parochial schools believed that failure is not due to lack of ability or to factors beyond their control. They believed they had the ability to succeed, which motivated them to try harder.

This advantage of parochial education for the poorest children suggests that the school environment and teaching practices can make a significant contribution to the development of positive attitudes about academic ability and learning. Adults in Catholic schools tend to hold high expectations and standards for both academic and social performance and a belief that all children can excel if they put in the necessary effort. Bempechat’s study also revealed that poor parents, contrary to the popular stereotype, were very involved in their children’s learning. All the children in the study believed that their parents were concerned about their education. These parents showed their concern by helping with homework and by stressing the importance of education for future economic survival. In all ethnic groups, parental involvement was higher when a child’s math achievement was low. From these results, Bempechat concludes that adults’ beliefs about children’s mathematical ability have a profound influence on the children’s evaluations of their own ability, their beliefs about the causes of success and failure in math, and their attitudes toward math. Previous studies indicate that parental statements that stress the value of effort or education may be more important than parents actually helping with homework. Parents of successful students do many things: supervise their study habits, limit outside activities, refrain from assigning too many chores and talk about the relationship between effort, schooling and success, but rarely provide specific help with homework.

Researchers have found that children may interpret unsolicited help from an adult as an indication of low ability while a teacher’s disappointment over a student’s failure assures the student that he is capable of better work. All low achievers, regardless of ethnicity, are in danger of believing that they lack any ability to achieve or that success in school is due to things beyond their control. Such beliefs make students feel that trying hard will not help them achieve.

Students must believe that they have at least some ability so they are motivated to invest effort in learning. Parochial school results indicate that school and classroom environments can be structured to support attitudes conducive to academic achievement.

“Learning from Poor and Minority Students Who Succeed in School” Harvard Education Letter, Volume 15, Number 3, June 1999, pp. 1-6.

Published in ERN September 1999 Volume 12 Number 6

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