Supporting achievement goals

iStock_000020536048XSmallResearchers Valerie E. Lee and Julia B. Smith, University of Michigan, report that school reform efforts should stress setting high standards for academic performance and providing social support for students to meet these academic goals. Using data on 30,000 public school sixth- and eighth-graders from the Consortium for Chicago School Research, these researchers found that social support for students has positive but modest benefits for learning.

However, students attending schools with an organizational thrust toward high academic standards learned significantly more when social support was provided. Lee and Smith caution that these results may not be replicated with different student populations. Their study was based on a large urban school district with a significant proportion of poor families.

Among the ideologies underlying reforms designed to raise student achievement are two quite different approaches. One focuses on the role of schools in providing social support for their students. Social support is defined as the positive personal relationships that students have with teachers, peers, parents and other members of their communities that may help them do well in school.

The goal is to create connections within the school and with the larger community. This can include better school/parent relationships and a more caring, cooperative school environment. Keeping schools, or units within schools, smaller is part of the goal of knowing all students well and fostering personal relationships between students and teachers.

A second approach to school reform stresses “academic press.” Academic press refers to an emphasis on high academic standards. There is research that links academic press with greater student effort, more time on academic tasks, and higher student performance. High expectations by teachers appear to encourage mutual support for academic objectives, creating a norm of high expectations that becomes part of a school’s social context. Academic press creates a more competitive environment.

These two approaches to educational reform are usually seen as competing ideologies. Reform efforts stemming from the Annenberg Challenge, the Carnegie Foundation and the Coalition of Essential Schools all stress creating smaller, more intimate school communities where learning is personalized. However, politicians and policymakers often assert that setting uniformly high standards and accountability will improve learning, and there is some evidence that academic press increases achievement. 

This study by Lee and Smith indicates that, at least in the large urban population they studied, these two approaches appear to create higher achievement when they are used together than when either is implemented alone.

Chicago Study

This study examined how certain characteristics of schools influenced students’ achievement on the math and reading subtests of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, given yearly. As a measure of social support, students were asked whether their teachers gave them individual attention and showed personal concern for them. They were also asked about the support they received from their parents, peers, and neighbors in their community. 

As a measure of academic press, teachers were asked whether their school’s goals and actions were focused on improving learning. Students were asked whether their teachers challenged them to reach high levels of academic performance. Gender, race, economic level and school size were considered when analyzing results. Schools were divided into three groups based on the level of academic press described by teachers and students.

In these Chicago schools, achievement was positively related to the level of academic press. Social support also was positively related to high achievement, although the size of the effect was smaller. No differences by gender and grade level were apparent.

Schools with larger proportions of over-age students and high levels of student mobility had lower academic press. The distribution of students by race/ethnicity was less consistent, but proportions of Asian and White students rose as academic press increased, and fewer predominantly Black schools were in the high-press category.

Integrated schools were most likely to be high-press schools and least likely to be low-press schools. High-press schools were smaller, low-press schools were larger. In addition, relatively economically advantaged students reported more social support for learning, and students with more social support achieved at higher levels.

There was no relationship between social support and gender, grade level or over-age status. While Black students reported relatively high social support, the majority of Black students were in schools with lower academic press.

Achievement Results

The large sample of students from each school in the study created very reliable test results in both math and reading. Not surprisingly, the strongest predictor of achievement was a student’s achievement in the previous year. However, controlling for previous performance allowed these researchers to interpret scores as a measure of learning.

Many factors influenced achievement gains. The effect of poverty was significant in both subjects, but twice as large in reading. Students who changed schools showed a significant decline in learning, particularly in reading. There was evidence that social support was positively and significantly related to achievement gains in both subjects.

The relationship between social support and learning in these subjects varied significantly between schools. Students in large schools learned less and students in schools with greater academic press learned more. As the proportion of low-income students went up in a school, average learning went down, and this effect was twice as large for reading as for math. School racial composition had few effects on learning, once school size, poverty and academic press were taken into account.

Lee and Smith conclude from these findings that students with high levels of social support learn even more in schools with high levels of academic press. The relationship between social support and learning for Chicago’s young adolescents is positive, but the link is not a strong one. The relationship between social support and learning depends on the type of school the child attends. To focus only on improving social support may therefore be misguided.

Strong “academic press” coupled with strong support is good mix

This study’s findings clearly point out that in schools with strong academic pressure, students who experience high levels of support learn quite a lot. In schools where academic press is low, even students with high levels of support do not learn. And for students who do not have much social support to draw on, attending a school with high levels of academic press does not help them learn.

Results show that in the upper grades of Chicago’s elementary schools, schools with high levels of academic pressure do leave some students behind – those who receive little social support from their teachers, parents, and peers. Schools with a strong academic focus and little social support can be inequitable places. These results demonstrate that students learn more in “a learning environment that at once communicates high expectations for achievement and offers consistent support for students to meet these expectations.”

Lee and Smith caution that these students are not a nationally representative sample. However, standardized test scores for Chicago’s students are not dramatically different from national norms. Although these findings are not generalizable to the nation’s public schools as a whole, they may be generalizable to disadvantaged urban students.

These findings suggest the importance of providing both social support and strong academic press to increase achievement among these students. Lee and Smith also suggest that the social support for students in high-achieving schools is more likely to be focused on academic rather than personal issues.


“Social Support and Achievement for Young Adolescents in Chicago: The Role of School Academic Press” American Educational Research Journal Winter 1999, Volume 36, Number 4 Pp. 907-945.

Published in ERN October 2000 Volume 13 Number 7

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