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May 2004 | Volume 61 | Number 8
Schools as Learning Communities
John H. Holloway
Many studies have shown that family characteristics can significantly affect children's development and school achievement. Beyond the immediate family, however, how much does the larger community influence a young person's school success? This question has implications for education policy: If community characteristics are strongly associated with student achievement, then efforts to improve student performance must focus on the community as a whole, not just on the school.
A number of recent studies suggest that high levels of poverty within the community can adversely affect children's development regardless of the quality of the individual family environment. For example, Brody and colleagues (2001) studied the influence of neighborhood characteristics on 10- and 11-year-old African American children in Iowa and Georgia. Their data suggest that children who lived in disadvantaged communities, whether urban or rural, were more likely to affiliate with antisocial peers than were children living in more affluent communities. Affiliating with antisocial peers had a negative effect on children's academic progress, even when those children came from nurturing, supportive families.
Swanson (2004) examined how community poverty affected high school completion for different ethnic groups. He found that high school graduation rates for African American students were more adversely affected by high-poverty environments than were graduation rates of white or Asian American students. The graduation rate for African Americans in very high-poverty school districts averaged approximately 50 percent, the lowest graduation level observed among the racial and ethnic groups studied.
Shumow, Vandell, and Posner (1999) focused on how various community demographic characteristics affected the academic performance of students in the 3rd and 5th grades. Fifth grade students who lived in neighborhoods with lower average household incomes, lower adult education levels, more female-headed households, and more violent crime performed worse in school than did students who lived in neighborhoods with more socioeconomic resources and less crime. The 5th graders' academic performance correlated negatively with neighborhood risk even after controlling for demographic indicators of family risk, such as family income and employment status. This negative impact did not extend to the study's 3rd grade subjects, however. The researchers speculated that before students reached 5th grade, they spent more time in the home and had less opportunity to be influenced by the larger community.
Baker, McGee, Mitchell, and Stiff (2000) studied how a variety of community characteristics—including average family poverty level, average education level of adults, family median income, and students' socioeconomic status—affected the standardized test scores of 8th graders across Virginia. Community education level and students' socioeconomic status were the strongest predictors of success on standardized tests. The researchers concluded, however, that all of the factors studied were interrelated and that programs to optimize education opportunities for economically disadvantaged youth must address more than these two factors. They recommended implementing a holistic approach to adequately address the complex variables at work in communities.
Results of a study by Bickel, Smith, and Eagle (2002) suggest that high-poverty neighborhoods can vary in the kinds of support they give their residents and that supportive neighborhoods can mitigate the harmful effects of economic disadvantage on student achievement. These researchers examined the achievement test scores of 292 kindergarten students attending 12 elementary schools in two poor rural counties in western West Virginia. Some communities fit a conceptual model in which social accessibility and common outlook provided a supportive social order. In these communities, residents expected their relationships with their neighbors to be friendly, informal, socially useful, and based on similar worldviews. Controlling for family background and social class, the researchers found that as neighborhoods more closely approximated this model, students' early school achievement was enhanced. As neighborhoods departed from this model, achievement was diminished.
These results suggest that policymakers should not assume that disadvantaged communities have a “culture of poverty” that adversely affects student achievement. Supportive neighborhoods exist even in poor areas and can provide students with a foundation for high academic achievement.
Current research paints a persuasive picture of the community's impact on child development and student learning. This research suggests that improvements in student achievement will be limited if reform efforts focus solely on students in the classroom. Instead, policymakers must also look at the broader picture. They must consider how to increase the community's capacity to support its children and youth so that students' experiences outside school will enhance the teaching and learning that goes on inside school.
Baker, S., McGee, Z., Mitchell, W., & Stiff, H. (2000). Structural effects of academic achievement on adolescents. ERIC Reproduction Service (ED No. 448 890).
Bickel, R., Smith, C., & Eagle, T. (2002). Poor, rural neighborhoods and early school achievement. Journal of Poverty, 6, 89–108.
Brody, G., Ge, X., Conger, R., Gibbons, F., Murry, V., Gerrard, M., & Simons, R. (2001). The influence of neighborhood disadvantage, collective socialization, and parenting on African American children's affiliation with deviant peers. Child Development, 72(4), 1231–1246.
Shumow, L., Vandell, D., & Posner, J. (1999). Risk and resilience in the urban neighborhood: Predictors of academic performance among low-income elementary school children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 45(2), 309–331.
Swanson, C. (2004). Who graduates? Who doesn't? A statistical portrait of public high school graduation, class of 2001. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute. Available: www.urban.org/UploadedPDF/410934_WhoGraduates.pdf
John H. Holloway is Project Director, Educational Testing Service, Rosedale Rd., Princeton, NJ 08541;
Copyright © 2004 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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