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Research on School Success

teacher in front of elementary class

Research on the Factors for School Success

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.

The purpose of this document is to provide a summary of the empirical support for the six factors that emerged from a comprehensive literature review of the effect of family, school, and community influences on children's learning.

Original Literature Review

For the original literature review, which was completed in 1998, the following strategy was used.

Additionally, individuals who are conducting research relevant to this review were contacted.

Updated Literature Review

The literature review for the effect of family on children's learning was updated in July 2006. To accomplish this task, recent major research syntheses in family-school partnerships and family/parent involvement were used to identify studies; almost without exception the original study was obtained and read. Also, a hand search of journals within the past six years in education and educationally-related fields was conducted. To the extent that these resources focused on teachers and community, information was added to these areas. Illustrative examples are teacher outreach to parents/families and key practices schools use to engage families from diverse backgrounds. In general, the updated literature review identified three new foci:

Goal: Identify Environmental Influences

The goal of the literature review was to identify environmental influences that are associated with more successful school learning for children and youth in grades K–12. In particular, we were interested in family, school, and community influences on student achievement, which was measured in various ways in the studies reviewed (e.g., standardized tests, grades, teacher ratings). Also, other dependent measures included these indicators of better school adjustment: improved attendance, fewer suspensions, increased classroom participation, better social skills, fewer behavioral referrals, and improved self-esteem. At the secondary level, important indicators of school adjustment included: enrollment in more challenging academic programs, more classes passed and credits earned, higher graduation rates, going on to post secondary education, and avoiding high-risk behavior.

Focus: Adjustable Factors

The focus of this review was on alterable variables or factors within the control of educators, families, or community members. Walberg (1984) determined that while both process and status variables were related to student achievement, process variables accounted for more variation in student achievement. He found that what families do to support children's learning, referred to as process variables, accounted for, on average, 60% of achievement variation, whereas status variables — or who families are — accounted for only 25% of achievement variation. Families bolster children's achievement when they provide a positive educational experience through strong, consistent values about the importance of education; demonstrate a willingness to help children and intervene at school; and become involved.

There is a moderate to strong correlation between income level and student achievement when data are aggregated; however, this correlation is reduced substantially when family processes are also considered (Milne, 1989; White, 1982). White (1982) analyzed 101 studies and concluded that the following aspects of the home environment had a greater impact than socioeconomic status (SES) on students' school performance: parents' attitudes, guidance, and expectations for their children's education; quality of verbal interaction; participation in cultural and learning-related activities; and overall stability in the home. Background or contextual factors may be useful in identifying target students, those who are most likely to be at risk for not succeeding in school. Under no condition, however, should it be inferred that those social background characteristics are the reason why students do not succeed in school. Rather, the process-status distinction helps explain that there are high performing low-income students in our schools, and it illustrates how increasing home support for learning is an alterable variable through responsive interventions.

Risk vs. Low Risk Circumstances

Many statistics associated with achievement outcomes represent demographics over which educators have little or no control (e.g., ethnicity, SES, number of adults in the home, marital status). Pianta and Walsh (1996) have redefined risk for school failure by extending the discussion beyond demographic variables to include the quality of the family-school relationship as a primary contributing factor to level of child risk. They argued that statistics describe what is, given existing circumstances, but say little about what can be, given different circumstances. Children are educated in low-risk circumstances if the child/family and schooling systems are functional, and home and school communicate, providing children with congruent messages about their learning. High-risk circumstances occur when children derive meanings from home or school that result in conflicting emotions, motivations or goals for students. The family-school relationship is an alterable variable that helps educate students in low-risk circumstances irrespective of specific family characteristics.

Out-of-School Time

How students spend their time in and out of school receives considerable attention in discussions about children's school performance. We know that 91% of children's time from birth to age 18 is spent outside of school (Usdan, 1991; cited in Ooms & Hara, 1991). Once students start school, 70% of their waking hours are spent outside of school (Clark, 1990). Furthermore, the task force from the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development (Task Force on Youth Development and Community Programs, 1992) noted that America's youth have a great deal of discretionary time. They judged that of the adolescent's waking hours, 60% was committed to such essentials as school, homework, eating, chores, and employment; 40% of their time was considered to be discretionary.

The power of out-of-school time for student performance in school cannot be ignored. For example, low income, high achieving students in grades K–12 in urban districts were involved, on average, 25 hours per week in constructive learning activities, activities that involved thinking and supportive guidance from an adult or peer (Clark, 1990). In a large longitudinal study of students in the Baltimore Schools, Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson (2001) have shown that low-income children made comparable grade equivalent gains in reading and math during the school year as did middle-income children. Differences in overall student achievement were explained as a seasonal effect, where the summer experiential learning and home resources afforded to middle-income children contributed substantially. Very sobering was their finding that the gap in achievement between the low- and middle-income students widened across school years, due to significant differences in out-of-school learning time.

Home Support and Teacher Effectiveness

The home's influence on academic learning is significant; however, the quality and quantity of classroom instruction and the child's own characteristics are of equal or perhaps greater significance (Redding, 2000). The notion is that we do not want to emphasize the family's contribution to the learning equation and forgive weaknesses in the instructional program at school. And yet, ignoring gains that can be made by the family's contribution limits the overall potential effectiveness of the school. Teachers are integral to the success of school-family partnerships. The more parents perceived teachers as valuing their contributions, keeping them informed of their child's strengths and weaknesses, and providing them with suggestions, the higher parental engagement in children's learning in urban settings (Patrikakou & Weissberg, 2000). Home support for learning creates positive habits of learning for students that enhance teachers' effectiveness and can be implemented with parents across income levels.

Consistency Between Home and School

Continuity across home and school about children's learning is an important protective factor. Consensus and consistency in the partnership between home and school strengthens a positive, pro-education message. The relationship between home and school can function as either a protective factor or a risk factor for students' learning (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). As a protective factor, families are active partners, supportive, and involved. As a protective factor, educators invite families, inform families, and include families in decisions; they support families when they need information about how schools function or how to assist their children's learning progress.

For a significant number of students, however, discontinuity between home and school is a risk factor, particularly with respect to expectations, value placed on learning, and communication patterns (Pianta & Walsh, 1996). Consistency across environments significantly impacts educational outcomes, yet is often minimized in interventions. If students receive competing messages from home and school, the effectiveness of either is compromised (Hansen, 1986; Hess & Holloway, 1984). This becomes particularly risky when considering other influences such as negative peer pressure or mass media images.

Congruence across settings affects student achievement; therefore a focus on creating consistent messages and conditions that promote student success offers much promise. According to Chall (2000), "The processes and characteristics that enhance academic achievement are essentially the same — whether found in the home or in the school" (p. 159). Although this may seem initially to be an intriguing statement, the home predictors of school learning: work habits of the home, academic guidance and support, stimulation to explore and discuss ideas and events, language environment, and academic aspirations and expectations (Kellaghan, Sloane, Alvarez, & Bloom, 1993) are similar to school factors that enhance achievement. Also, benefits of school-family partnerships for learning outcomes that are vital to effective assessment and intervention efforts, albeit less described in the literature, have been described (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001). The benefits focus on conditions that facilitate the partnership and include:

Types of Existing Research

In general, we found that the family and school databases consist of primarily correlational studies. While reported correlations were significant and fell within the low (.10) to strong (.80) range, generally they were in the low-moderate to moderate range. The size of the correlation is not as important as the fact that findings are consistent and point in a similar direction, suggesting convergence in the family and school factors critical for students' school success (Brophy & Good, 1986; Christenson, Rounds, Gorney, 1992). A major strength of the literature relates to the replication of findings. It is important to note that the identification of correlates of students' school performance allows one to speak only in terms of probabilities. That is, a correlation suggests a relationship or association not a causal link, and allows one to think about creating conditions that increase the likelihood that the student will be more successful in school or reduce the likelihood of school failure. Correlates can be viewed as ways to enhance student performance; they do not determine student performance. With respect to effect sizes, studies on the impact of parent and community involvement on student achievement, while statistically significant, are small to moderate (Henderson & Mapp, 2002).

A recent review of over 100 parent and family intervention studies in six domains (parent education, parent involvement, parent consultation, family-school partnership, family systems therapy and parent training, and early childhood family-focused interventions) has been conducted using detailed coding criteria to determine intervention effectiveness (Carlson & Christenson, 2005). The most effective program components were home-school collaborative interventions that emphasized dialogue about educational programming and two-way communication/monitoring of children's school performance, parent education programs that targeted specific behaviors to be learned, parent involvement strategies that underscored the role of parents as tutors and focus on a single academic area, and parent consultation about child-specific concerns. It is noteworthy that the effective components are illustrative of a systemic orientation, viewing parents/families and educators as both essential and in a dynamic relationship for impacting child outcomes in school. The authors concluded that the components — especially dialogue and two-way communication with monitoring — identified partnership variables worthy of attention for future intervention efforts. Most researchers conclude that there are not enough experimental or quasi-experimental studies on the impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement (Carlson & Christenson, 2005; Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Mattingly, Prislin, McKenzie, Rodriquez, & Kayzar, 2002).

Community Work

Unlike the family and school literature, in the original literature review we found fewer research studies for community factors associated with students' academic performance. The role of the community in supporting youth and characteristics of healthy communities, however, was discussed extensively in the literature. The majority of the community work drew on the assets model developed by the Search Institute (Benson, 1997). Most recently, community organizing to improve low performing schools has been an area of study. These studies have found that community organizing, which focuses on building the power and political skills of low income families to hold schools accountable, contributed to changes in schools (Henderson & Mapp, 2002). Some of these changes are: upgraded school facilities, improved school leadership and staffing, implementation of higher-quality learning programs for students, new resources to improve teaching and the curriculum, and funding for after-school programs and family supports.

Six Factors for School Success

As we read literature from the three areas simultaneously in the original review, we found remarkable similarity in the kinds of environmental influences that enhance student learning. Because of this similarity, we created six factors:

We believe the six factors are one way to describe the degree to which home and school environments are learning environments. Applied to the home, the factors collectively are broader than helping with homework. Rather, they constitute a vehicle for socializing students as learners (i.e., helping youth develop an identity as a learner). They illustrate that both parents and teachers are educators; however, not all learning is a result of schooling. Families play a meaningful role in their children's educational success, and the interface of family and school is an element that must be accounted for when examining children's school performance. According to Bronfenbrenner (1991), "the informal education that takes place in the family is not merely a pleasant prelude, but rather a powerful prerequisite for success in formal education from the primary grades onward."

Rather than thinking of only parent involvement at school, we must extend our thinking to also include parent involvement at home as well as the continuity between home and school with respect to the goals of education. The updated literature review corroborated the use of the six factors and added a major emphasis on school-family relationships to enhance learning outcomes for students. The updated literature review also underscored the importance of the parental role in fostering positive habits of learning (Redding, 2000) and involvement in academic enrichment activities at home.

How to Work Together

Investigators have not identified one element of the home, school, or community that is more powerful than others. We believe there is sufficient evidence for the importance of these factors for student learning across settings (e.g., home, school, and community). The question, at this point, is not: What are the factors that help increase the probability of student success in school? Rather, the critical question is: How can families, schools, and communities work together to enhance student learning? Henderson and Mapp (2002) provide guidance for answering this question. Based on a comprehensive synthesis of the literature, they concluded that schools that are successful in engaging families from diverse backgrounds share three key practices. "They focus on building trusting collaborative relationships among teachers, families, and community members; recognize, respect, and address families needs, as well as class and cultural differences; and embrace a philosophy of partnership where power and responsibility are shared" (p. 7). Others strongly agree that programs and initiatives that focus on building respectful and trusting relationships among key stakeholders are most effective in creating and sustaining connections that support student learning; in fact, these connections have been deemed essential (Christenson & Sheridan, 2001; Esler, Godber, & Christenson, 2002).


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Related Resources

Research Spotlight on Parental Involvement in Education — National Education Association — Review the research on the role of parental involvement in education.

More About the Project — Learn about the focus groups research with different cultural groups, and the development of the Partnering for School Success project.

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