Environments For Education Research Paper

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It is agreed generally that students’ learning will be enhanced when family and school environments are supportive of education and in harmony with each other. In this research paper studies are examined that have investigated relationships between family and school educational environments and measures of students’ school-related outcomes. Studies are organized into four general categories that are labeled as socialarithmetic environmental research, family and school structural characteristics, environmental press of families and schools, and interpretive analyses.

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1. Social-Arithmetic Environmental Research

One of the most significant sociological traditions in studies of education relates to attempts to describe empirically the social and educational conditions of society. Typically, the method that has been labeled as political arithmetic is used to explore associations between social and educational inequalities with the intention of possible educational reform by political means. A recent variant of political arithmetic has been developed in which statistical approaches such as structural equation modeling, logistic regression, and multilevel analyses are used to examine individual, social, and school influences on students’ eventual educational and occupational attainments. Much of the research has lost, however, the political emphasis of earlier investigations. It might be more appropriate to classify the research as reflecting social rather than political arithmetic.

Social-arithmetic studies have often used adaptations of what has become known as the ‘Wisconsin’ model of status attainment. Typically, the research has shown that relationships between family background and young adults’ status attainment are mediated by perceptions of parental and peer influences and by adolescents’ aspirations. In addition, children’s ability is related to successive measures of academic performance, independent of the effects of family social status.

A particularly interesting set of social-arithmetic studies has examined the longitudinal influences of children’s early experiences on the educational outcomes of a group of US children in Baltimore. The investigations have shown that the quality of interactions with parents and teachers in early elementary school years is associated with children’s reading and mathematics achievement 4 to 9 years later. In an attempt to disentangle the impact of family and school educational environments on outcomes, the Baltimore research has examined the differences between winter and summer learning. Winter learning refers to children’s outcomes while school is in session and it reflects the influences of both home and school. In contrast, summer learning that occurs during the long vacation is assumed to be related primarily to family influences. The research shows that for mathematics achievement there are consistent losses for poorer children during the summer vacation. It is suggested that schools are most beneficial for those children who need them most. The longitudinal investigations conclude that while families guide children’s development throughout schooling, the quality of experiences in early school grades have a profound and continuing impact on children’s eventual educational careers (Alexander et al. 1997).

The development of multilevel statistical models that recognize that students are members of classes, classes are nested within schools, and that schools are part of wider social structures such as neighborhoods, states, and countries, has allowed social-arithmetic research to examine the effectiveness of schools. A meta-analysis, using data from many countries, has shown that classroom conditions have a greater association with outcomes than do school organizational characteristics. In addition, the analysis indicates that across countries, students’ family environment has a much stronger impact on academic outcomes than do the malleable features of schooling (Scheerens and Bosker 1997).

School effectiveness research in Britain has tended to show that it is possible to discriminate significantly between schools only when extremely successful and extremely unsuccessful schools are compared. From the British experience it is claimed that because of the limitations associated with present statistical modeling techniques, caution should be expressed when output league tables are used by governments and others to rank schools, and that parents need to be informed of the limitations of the research that generated the league tables (Goldstein and Spiegelhalter 1996). Similarly, an Australian study that combined multilevel analyses and structural equation modeling in a twostage process concluded that because of modeling limitations, claims about educational effectiveness are at best tentative and at most spurious. It is suggested that future school effectiveness research should go into classrooms and examine those factors which optimize the quality of teacher–student interactions (Rowe and Hill 1998).

Although there have been substantial advances in the sophistication of statistical modeling in social-arithmetic research, there are concerns that such developments have not been matched by similar advances in the quality of the data that are being collected and in the elegance of theorizing. A summary of social-arithmetic research concludes that two melancholy propositions have been supported with increasing certainty:

(a) That class inequality is stubbornly resistant to social change when properly conceived in terms of relative rather than absolute improvements and equalization of life chances, and

(b) That educational reform, including reform of secondary schooling… has similarly failed to modify relative class chances though there may have been significant improvements in some countries with respect to the relative chances of women and some ethnic groups (Halsey 1994, p. 443).

2. Family And School Structural Characteristics

Family and school educational environments may be considered to consist of sets of structural constraints that provide opportunities for many children while limiting the choices of other children. In this section some of the structural characteristics that define children’s educational environments are examined.

2.1 Sibling Structure Variables

Sibling variables such as sib-ship size (the number of children in families) and the birth order of children within families have often been used as indicators of children’s family educational environments. Typically, these family structural characteristics are shown to have modest inverse associations with children’s cognitive performance, especially verbal measures of achievement. A number of conceptual orientations have been presented to explain these relationships including the resource dilution hypothesis and the confluence model.

The resource dilution hypothesis indicates that sibling variables are related inversely to the cultural and material resources that parents are able to provide for their children. It is then proposed that such variations in the amount of family educational resources provided for different siblings are related to differences in children’s educational outcomes. The confluence model proposes that children’s cognitive development is related to the intellectual quality of family environments where quality is determined by influences such as sib-ship size, the age spacing among siblings, and whether individuals are only or last-born children (Zajone 1976). In the model, family intellectual environment is related to the average intellectual ability of all family members, including the child who is being studied. A family’s intellectual environment is never stable, with changes being produced by alterations in family structure. The confluence model has generated vigorous controversy. It has been suggested, for example, that it may be a theory which is attempting to explain a social phenomenon that does not really exist (Retherford and Sewell 1991).

Much recent sibling structure research has examined whether the associations between sibling variables and educational outcomes are causal or attributable to other correlated factors such as socioeconomic status (Downey et al. 1999). In an analysis using change models, for example, it has been shown that sibship size effects on cognitive performance disappear when family educational environments are taken into account (Guo and Van Wey 1999).

2.2 Single-Parent Families

A number of theoretical orientations have been proposed to explain why the educational outcomes of children in single-parent households appear to be less favorable than the outcomes of children in two-parent families. The no-impact hypothesis suggests that the association between changing family structures and school outcomes can be attributed to a combination of other social contexts such as socioeconomic status, family ethnicity race, and changing family economic circumstances. In the family socialization orientation it is suggested that the absence of a parent decreases the total amount of parental involvement in children’s education that is related to poorer school outcomes. An instability, change, and stress perspective indicates that if children have to cope with the stress and instability that may accompany divorce, separation, or the death of a parent, then their school performance is likely to be affected negatively.

Although the findings from investigations that have examined the educational outcomes of children from single-parent families remain equivocal, the research is beginning to address a number of limitations of earlier studies. Investigations, for example, are beginning to (a) discriminate among different types of single-parent families such as divorced, separated, widowed, or never married, (b) include various social status measures as moderating variables, (c) examine the influence of changing family income as a background and a mediating variable, (d) separate the socioeconomic and ethnicity race of families, and (e) differentiate between the effects on children’s outcomes of families that are headed by fathers or mothers.

2.3 Ability Grouping In Schools

Perhaps the school structural characteristic that has been examined most widely has been ability grouping and whether tracking or streaming is related to students’ academic outcomes. Some investigations have supported the divergence hypothesis of grouping which states that relative to what would have occurred if students had not been placed in ability groups, those students in high-ability groups gain in performance while those in low-ability groups lose in performance. However, findings from the research on ability grouping remain inconclusive. It is suggested that one reason for the inconsistent results might relate to how instructional resources are distributed within schools. If decisions about the allocation of teaching resources are associated with student placement, then the impact of ability grouping on outcomes might be primarily a function of the distribution of the quality of instruction. In addition, research has indicated that better educated parents can influence the tracks into which their children are placed, often independent of children’s actual performance. The equivocal nature of the research suggests the need for further investigations of how ability groups are formed and how instructional resources are assigned to those groups; how families influence the assignment of children to ability groups; what the effects of ability grouping are on educational productivity and inequality; and what the effects of the alternatives to ability grouping are on learning outcomes.

3. Environmental Press Of Families And Schools

In the development of a theory of personality, Murray (1938) suggests that to understand individuals’ behavior it is necessary to define environments by the kinds of benefits and harms that they provide. The directional tendency implied in Murray’s framework is designated as the press of the environment. An alpha press is defined as the benefit or harm that actually exists, as far as research can assess it, while a beta press is an individual’s perception of the environment. In the following section the press of family and school educational environments are considered.

3.1 The Press Of Family Environments

It was not until Bloom (1964) and a number of his students examined the environmental correlates of children’s affective and cognitive outcomes that a ‘school’ of research emerged to assess the alpha press of families. Bloom defined environments as the conditions, forces, and external stimuli that surround, engulf, and impinge on individuals. These environmental characteristics may be physical and social as well as intellectual. It is proposed that such press variables form subenvironments with each subenvironment being related to the development of a particular human characteristic. A number of alterable alpha press variables have been identified as being consistently associated with school outcomes. These variables include family work habits, parents’ academic guidance and support, language environment in the home, family stimulation to explore and discuss ideas and events, and parents’ aspirations for their children (Marjoribanks 1994).

While alpha press studies have typically examined between-family environmental factors, there is a need to explore with greater sensitivity possible within family influences. These latter family factors are often not shared by siblings such as the differential aspirations that parents have for their children or the experiences a child has with a chronic illness. The critical question becomes, why are children in the same family often so different from one another? To answer this question perhaps interpretive analyses of families need to be undertaken in conjunction with alpha press investigations.

3.2 The Press Of School Environments

There is now a large body of research that has defined classroom environments as the shared perceptions of students and sometimes of teachers. The schedules that have been constructed to assess the beta press of classroom and school environments are often referred to as high-inference measures. In contrast, low-inference techniques measure specific explicit phenomena such as the number of questions asked by students in a certain section of a lesson. Typically, perceptual measures are related to moderate amounts of variance in learning outcomes, often beyond the variance that can be attributed to student characteristics such as pretest performance or general ability. The practical implication of the research is that student outcomes might be improved by establishing classrooms that match those educational environments which have been shown to be associated with students’ learning.

A limitation of most classroom learning environment instruments is that they measure an individual student’s perceptions of a whole class, as distinct from students’ perceptions of their own roles in the classroom. There is a distinction between the private beta press or idiosyncratic perception that each person has of an environment and the consensual beta press that the members of a group share about that environment (Fraser 1998). It is likely that future classroom and school environment research will be enhanced if personal as well as group forms of beta press schedules are adopted.

Many educators would argue that school learning environments need to be examined with a greater sensitivity than can be generated from perception measures. Researchers using such perceptual scales generally suggest themselves that the measures provide one portrayal of educational environments that is likely to be enriched by adopting other measurement measures. In the following section interpretive approaches to the investigation of educational environments are examined.

4. Interpretive Analyses

Increasingly in research related to family and school educational environments, concepts, and methodologies are being adopted from a number of theoretical orientations such as social phenomenology, ethnomethodology, symbolic interactionism, and critical discourse analysis. In educational environments, research of these interpretive perspectives has emphasized the need to examine the processes used by members of families and schools to define and manage their everyday lives. Investigations typically use variations of ethnographic methods to obtain accounts of why parents, teachers, and children perform certain acts and what social meanings they give to the actions of themselves and of others.

In an intensive study of parents’ involvement with their third grade children, for example, Lareau and Horvat (1999) examined how inequality is perpetuated in school settings. They were concerned that previous research has not investigated adequately how family, cultural, and social resources are converted into educational advantages. From indepth interviews with the parents of 24 children, with staff in the children’s school, and with members of the wider community, the study concluded that while a child’s racial and social class are associated with social reproduction they do not determine it. In addition, the study indicates that those parents who have the capacity to activate intellectual capital are likely to have a substantial impact on their children’s eventual status attainment. In an even more intensive ethnographic study, Goldenberg (1989) investigated the relationships among parental involvement, ability group placement, and the reading achievement of three firstgraders. The findings indicated that teachers’ perceptions of children’s behaviors were related to the placement of children into academic groups. As a result, parents were able to affect group placement by influencing their child’s classroom behavior.

Such interpretive analyses provide valuable insights into the relationships among family and school educational environments and children’s school outcomes.

5. Future Research Directions

The complexity of the relationships among family and school educational environments and students’ school outcomes indicates the difficult task that confronts parents and teachers when they attempt to design and implement programs to improve educational outcomes. Parents and teachers may create what they consider to be supportive and harmonious educational environments but children’s perceptions and the meanings they impute to those environments may be influenced greatly by the social, cultural, and economic constraints that surround them. Investigations are required that integrate the most recent advances in the research orientations that have been considered in this research paper to examine how the cultural, economic, and social capital of families and schools are associated with the educational outcomes of boys and girls from different social status and ethnic race groups. Unless such inclusive studies are undertaken it is unlikely that there will be significant advances in understanding how families and schools interact to influence students’ learning.


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