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Research on the factors for school success

mother and daughter at planetarium


Sandra L. Christenson, Ph.D, Professor — College of Education and Human Development; and Cathryn Peterson, Teacher — Armstrong High School, Robbinsdale, MN

Revised June 2013 by Kathleen A. Olson, Program Director — Partnering for school success.

Opportunity to Learn

Opportunity to learn refers to the variety of learning options available to youth in the home, at school and within the community. Student success in school is facilitated when youth are provided with various tools for learning such as: reading materials, access to clubs and organizations, varied teaching strategies and time to practice/master new skills. Also, it is enhanced when the key adults in the youth's life communicate with each other.

What Do We Know?

Selected Research Findings:

Clark (1990) has demonstrated that students' involvement in constructive learning activities outside of school is strongly associated with higher academic achievement. Students in grades K-12 who were low income and high achievers in a large urban school district were involved, 25-30 hours per week in learning activities that involved thinking while doing the task and supportive input and guidance from an adult or peer.

Verbal interaction with siblings and parents affects academic achievement. Home environments with high levels of verbal guidance, exposure to vocabulary, complex language use, frequent dialogue between parents and children, and informed parent-child conversations about everyday events are associated with academic achievement and highly developed verbal skills (Bradley & Caldwell, 1976; Hart & Risley, 1995). The amount and type of language used in the home are critical variables; high achievers tend to come from homes where there is a press for linguistic competence (Kellaghan, Sloane, Alvarez & Bloom, 1993). Parents of children with high verbal ability make deliberate efforts to provide language opportunities for the enlargement of vocabulary and sentence patterns and correct their children's use of language (Jones, 1972; Kellaghan et al., 1993).

Clark (1993) found no significant differences in amount of “parent talk” about homework or reading to their children or making sure their children complete homework assignments for high and low achievers in third grade. Parents of high achievers, however, were more involved in home learning activities, reported their children spent more time on homework, and were more likely to have a dictionary. Parents of low achievers more often assisted directly with homework assignments. Two clusters of variables — parent’s press for the child’s academic success and family resources for achievement — were significantly related to higher achievement for this sample of 460 third graders.

Based on nine data samples of students in grades 1-12, college seniors, and young adults, Clark (2002; cited in Henderson & Mapp, 2002) concluded that the achievement gap for African-American students is due to the time-use habits of students and parents, teachers and adult mentor involvement in student activities. Variance in student achievement was accounted for by the combined effect of the students’ quality and quantity of out-of-school learning activities and adults’ standards for youth. Academic success as measured by test scores is more likely to happen when: a) students spend at least 15 hours per week doing high-quality learning activities with teachers, b) students spend 8-15 hours weekly in quality out-of-school learning activities, c) out-of-school activities are guided by adults with high standards for achievement, d) students are focused and engaged when participating in out-of-school activities, and e) students know how to study, plan and complete projects and have access to educational resources ( libraries and reference materials).

Home support for learning can extend the school day and amount of practice for students. Project EASE (Early Access to Success in Education) was designed to help parents develop children’s literacy skills (Jordan, Snow, & Porche, 2000). Kindergarten students (N = 248) and their families from 4 schools participated in the research study; 177 students in 8 schools were in the treatment group and 71 in 3 classes were in the control group. Project EASE parents received structured activities designed to engage students in discussion about a book from teachers to implement at home. Children whose families engaged in both at-home and at school activities made significantly greater gains in language areas (story comprehension, vocabulary, story sequencing) than the control group. Also, the more activities completed by the family, the higher students gains.

The intensity with which parents are involved makes a difference. Students in grades 2-8 whose parents were highly involved (e.g., teacher-parent communication, parenting, involvement at school and at home, program decision making) were more likely to show reading and math gains than children of less involved parents (Shaver & Walls, 1998). Also, the income level of a family did not influence their level of involvement; there were no differences in workshop attendance between low- and higher-income families.

Stimulation to explore and discuss ideas and events in homes is a positive correlate of student achievement. In these homes, parents show much interest in children's academic and personal growth. There is a high degree of family interest in hobbies/games and other activities of educational value. There is much use and discussion of books, magazines, newspapers, and TV programs. There is frequent use of libraries and museums and engagement in other cultural activities (Kellaghan et al., 1993).

In terms of early literacy, children's reading skill is positively correlated with the frequency of parents reading to their children (Teale, 1986). According to Powell (1992), this variable is a composite of verbal and nonverbal parent-child interaction, involving many behaviors in addition to language comprehension. Children's early literacy experiences have been found to be embedded in the routine social interactions of a family (e.g., shopping), where the focus of the activity is not literacy itself (Teale, 1986).

Availability of learning resources (e.g., print materials, paper and pencil, play materials) has been found to be associated with literacy (Hess, Holloway, Price, & Dickson, 1982; Morrow, 1983).

Eight indicators of the extent to which the home is an educative environment were used to predict the mean achievement of students in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Three factors over which parents exercise authority — student absenteeism, variety of reading materials, and television watching — explained nearly 90% of the difference in performance between high and low achieving states (Barton & Coley, 1992).

The amount of leisure reading and the encouragement and discussion of leisure reading in homes are positive correlates of reading achievement (Leler, 1983; Walberg, 1984). Researchers have documented the positive effects of home-based supplemental instruction (parent tutoring) and practice on reading achievement for elementary students (Graue, Weinstein, & Walberg, 1983). Also, studies generally indicate that children whose parents read to them on a regular basis (at least four times per week) for as little as 10 minutes are higher achievers in reading than are children whose parents do not read to them (Romotowski & Trepanier, 1977). Some studies show that parents who initiate discussion with their children about the books they read together had children with higher reading achievement, particularly better reading comprehension, than children whose parents did not engage in these talks (Snow, 1983; Teale, 1978). Positive effects for home learning activities can be found with children of all abilities and from all social classes (Searls, Lewis, & Morrow, 1982; Epstein, 1995).

Cultural and parent involvement activities show a strong relationship to student achievement (Benson, Buckley, & Medrich, 1980). These activities included visits to cultural centers, enjoying hobbies together, participation in organized activities, and time spent together on weekends. Benson (1997) also found that time spent with parents and siblings reconnecting, resting, relaxing, doing homework, and doing chores and errands — that is, time being a family — is critical for healthy youth development.

Peng and Lee (1992) identified providing learning materials and learning opportunities outside of school as two family process variables that showed a strong and significant relationship to student achievement. Based on an extensive review of family influences on school achievement, Milne (1989) concluded that what matters the most was the degree to which parents are able to provide pro-educational resources — whether financial, material, or experiential — in homes for their children.

Parent involvement at home is related to positive attitudes toward school and learning for middle school students. The more parents created a positive home learning environment, the more students felt it was important to perform well in school (Shumow & Miller, 2001).

Fishel and Ramirez (2005) conducted a critical review of 24 parent involvement studies; the review evaluated the research design, methodological quality, and effectiveness of these studies. The authors concluded that one component of parent involvement, parent home tutoring, yielded promising evidence for improving academic performance of school-age children. These studies examined tutoring primarily in reading and math.

The amount of time allocated to instruction and the amount of time students are academically engaged in completing academically relevant tasks (e.g., linked to a specific instructional goal) are positive correlates of academic achievement for all students whether labeled as at-risk, regular education, or special education students (Greenwood, 1991; Marliave & Filby, 1985; Sindelar, Smith, Harriman, Hale, & Wilson, 1986).

Hoover-Dempsey et al. (2001) discuss parent instructional interactions with their children, or collaborative learning, which includes activities such as breaking down the tasks, explaining material, and relating to similar contexts; such activities aid in the child’s development of personal responsibility for learning

The degree to which there is an appropriate instructional match for students is a strong correlate of academic performance (Bennett, Desforges, Cockburn, & Wilkinson, 1984). Good and Brophy (1984) identified three aspects of a good match between student and instruction: (a) success rate, (b) materials reflecting student interests, and (c) student engagement rates. Low engagement during independent work activities, high rates of error, and frequent failure to complete assignments are considered primary signs of a poor match. Peterson, Swing, Braverman, & Buss (1982) have demonstrated that student reports of their understanding of the lesson are related positively to achievement, persistence on tasks, and student attention.

Opportunity to respond in classrooms (e.g., much teacher questioning, substantive teacher-student or peer interaction) has been shown to be significantly and positively associated with reading and math achievement for at-risk and non-risk students (Greenwood, Delquadri, & Hall, 1984).

Gettinger and Lyon (1983) demonstrated that selecting tasks based on both a student's learning rate and prior knowledge are critically important for improving the academic performance of low achieving students. Providing students with the time needed to learn contributed significantly to learning outcomes for these students. For 36 elementary students attending a camp for students with learning and behavior problems, about 91% of the explained variance in learning, on average, was accounted for by time needed to learn, compared to approximately 7%, on average, for time spent learning.

A number of correlational studies reported by Rosenshine (1986) have shown that students make greater academic gains when teachers provide increased guided practice, particularly by asking many questions and calling on all students. During successful guided practice, teachers ask for a specific answer (product question) and for an explanation of how an answer was found (process question). In these studies, frequency of practice, percentage of answers students gave correctly, and students' active participation were identified as critical factors in promoting achievement. McKee & Witt (1990) also identified the correlation between active student responding and student learning. In addition, they identified the relationship between active teaching during instruction and the correlation to higher overall engagement and higher engagement in seatwork. Active teaching resulted in successful practice time and higher achievement for students.

Regularly assigned, checked, and graded homework that is related to daily lessons has been shown to enhance student achievement (Walberg, Paschal, & Weinstein, 1985).

In the Instructional Dimensions Study, Cooley and Leinhardt (1980) viewed student performance as a function of prior knowledge and four specific classroom processes: opportunity, motivators, structure, and instructional events. Opportunity was the most important predictor of reading and math achievement for elementary students. Time spent in learning was a very important part of opportunity; however, curriculum content also made a major difference. Students performed better on tests if they had been exposed to the content covered by the test and the form of the test items. Time itself was not the issue; it is what one is doing with the time — or the degree to which students have an opportunity to learn that which is tested.

Communities that value youth involvement and provide opportunities for youth to contribute and be involved in productive after-school activities enhance students' achievement levels (Blyth & Leffert, 1995; Conrad & Hedin, 1991; Dubas & Snider, 1993). McLaughlin and Irby (1994) found active involvement of youth in some kind of neighborhood youth organization to be very critical for the positive development of inner-city youth.

Benson (1997) found that an asset building community works to protect time for families together.

School drop out and underachievement is often a result of social isolation. A religious functional community, such as a Catholic school, may offer opportunities for social enrichment and involvement in a community. Another benefit to this type of community is the additional resources that may be provided to the school to help educate and support the students (Coleman & Hoffer, 1987).

Blyth & Leffert (1995) examined differences in strengths of family, school, and community involvement, as a function of community types (healthiest, average, least healthy), for 9-12th grade students from small, Midwestern communities. Results showed a definite distinction between the less healthy and the healthy communities. Healthy communities have strength factors such as: motivated and committed students, attendance at religious services, participation in structured activities, and avoidance of negative behaviors. Seventy percent of youth in the healthiest communities were involved in religious activities, as compared to only 50% in the least healthy communities. However, regardless of the overall health of the community, vulnerable youth experienced more risk behaviors, and youth in the healthiest communities experienced fewer risk behaviors than youth in the least healthy communities.

The Search Institute studies identified that youth-serving organizations are helpful to youth by collaborating, rather than competing for youth participation. These organizations increase the number and diversity of youth involved when they collaborate, rather than compete, and when they highlight the positive activities and contributions of the youth. Religious organizations in the community can also provide opportunity for youth by increasing youth involvement in community service, sponsoring diverse social and religious activities, working in collaboration with other community organizations, and avoiding competing with these organizations for youth participation. In addition, businesses help support communities, families and youth by providing parents and other employees with time off to attend youth functions, and help build community strength by participating in activities such as mentoring, school-business partnerships, sponsoring youth sports teams, investing in youth organizations, and providing developmental opportunities (Blyth, 1992).

According to the Task Force on Youth Development and Community Programs (1992) community organizations can participate and be involved in the lives of youth in many ways. They contribute to the lives of youth by: (a) providing time to socialize and interact with peers and adults, (b) developing useful life skills, (c) offering opportunities to participate in community service projects, (d) encouraging belonging and identification in a valued group, and (e) creating opportunities to enhance feelings of competence.

Focus Group Comments

How Do We Do This?

At Home

Verbal Interactions


Reinforcement and Maintenance of Skills

Extracurricular and Recreational Activities

In School

Within Community


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Benson, C. S., Buckley, S., & Medrich, E. A. (1980). Families as educators: Time use contributions to school achievement. In J. Guthrie (Ed.), In School Finance Policy in the 1980's: A Decade of Conflict. Cambridge: Ballinger.

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Gettinger, M., & Lyon, M. A. (1983). Predictors of the discrepancy between time needed and time spent in learning among boys exhibiting behavior problems. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75, 491-499.

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Related resources

Using Guidance Tools — Explore these strategies to help manage conflict and to teach responsibility to your children.

Relationships — Review what the research says about how adults in the home, in the school, and in the community help youth to be learners. Part of the Research on the factors for school success series.

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