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Seeking Factors For and Promoting Student Academic Success


Defining and Promoting Student Success
A National Symposium
November 21-22, 2008
University of San Francisco
San Francisco, California


Nan Li, Claflin University

George Miller, Claflin University

As schools across the United States struggle to address persistent achievement gaps, recent studies reveal that challenge becomes even greater in schools with high-poverty and high-minority populations (Dillon, 2005; Lee & Slaughter-Defoe, 2004; Li, 2005; McCollough, 2000; Valentine, 2005). The academic success of minority students including African American students is important because the nation cannot successfully compete in a global market when a large portion of its school population is under-educated. Using qualitative methods, this study examined factors for the academic success of African American pre-service teachers. Findings revealed that it is crucial for educators to build supportive learning environments and understand the learning backgrounds of African American students because early learning experience is directly linked to their later academic success.

Importance of Academic Success
Academic success is multi-dimensional and must be measured comprehensively with multiple indicators; cognitive and non-cognitive factors are the categories generally used as the predictors for academic success. Cognitive measures usually pertain to mental ability or intelligence, including high school grades, ACT scores, SAT scores or collegiate cumulative grade-point-average (GPA) (Chemers, 2001; Dyer, 1987; Ridgell & Lounsbury, 2004). For non-cognitive measures, Barrick and Mount’s (1993) seminal work establishes a taxonomy of personality traits known as the Big Five, which include extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, agreeableness, and openness to experience. Although cognitive factors seem to directly result in academic success, this success must be supported by non-cognitive factors. Therefore, it is important for educators to understand how to provide supportive environments at the early stage of children’s learning and nurture successful personal dimensions.

The academic success of African American students is important for many reasons. School demographics are changing nationwide and today’s minority school population will soon become the majority. A nation cannot afford to fail the academic success of its majority school population. About 42 % of public school students were considered to be part of an ethnic minority group in 2003, with 90.9 % of the increasing rate from 22 % in 1972. In comparison, the percentage of Caucasian student enrollment dropped from 78 % in 1972 to 58 % in 2003. Although the ethnic minority increase is largely due to Hispanic population, African American students made up 16 % of total school enrollment and 38 % of the ethnic minority school population in 2004 (NCES, 2005).

The demographic compositions in large city schools are more alarming. In the Baltimore City Public Schools System (BCPSS), 131 of the district’s 185 schools are intensely segregated with over 90 % of the enrollment being students of color (Dillon, 2005). This racial and ethnic stratification is also seen in the nation’s other large school districts; Chicago’s school district consists of 87.8 % of African American and Hispanic students, Washington D.C. has 94 %, and Los Angeles has 84.4 %. School districts serving high-minority, high-poverty populations often have fewer resources. BCPSS, for example, has the oldest school buildings in the state, averaging 46 years old with “humiliating” bathrooms and, in some cases, lacking gyms and cafeterias (Darling-Hammond, 2004). This material disparity also results in larger classes, lower paid and less experienced teachers, inadequate instructional equipment, and limited course offerings (Chiu & Khoo, 2005). Low graduation and high drop-out rates are also common; in 2002 African American students were considerably behind their Caucasian peers in completing high school with graduation rates of 59 % vs. 82 % (NCES, 2005). High school graduation rates are even worse in the southern United States where the majority of the African American population resides with only 47.4 % of African American males and 55.3 % of the entire African American population graduating in 16 southern states (Valentine, 2005).

The United States’ economic health is directly linked to the academic success of its students. Data indicate that Caucasian, African American, and Hispanic young adults who have at least a bachelor’s degree have higher median earnings than their peers with less education, and the earnings differences increased between 1977 and 2003 (NCES, 2005). Even among African American young adults, college graduates earned 60 % more than high school graduates; African American workers who dropped out of high school earned 30 % less than high school graduates. In general, young adults with a bachelor’s degree are less likely to be unemployed than their peers with less education and this pattern holds for all three racial groups (NCES, 2005). Academic success also has a link to other positive social outcomes. Education and health are positively related; the better educated a person is, the more likely that person is to report being in “excellent” or “very good” health regardless of income (NCES, 2005). In addition, high school dropouts are three times as likely to go to prison; a 1% increase in high school graduation rates could save the nation as much as $1.4 billion each year in crime-related costs (Valentine, 2005). Thus, the academic success of minority students must be a priority for all educators.

Research Methods
The purpose of this study was to seek factors that contributed to and prohibited the academic success of pre-service teachers at a HBCU institution (i.e., Historically Black College and University). The study took place in two summer periods in 2006 and 2007 and was funded by the institution’s Summer Research Grant. Accredited by the National Council of Accreditation for Teacher Education, the studied institution’s teacher education programs are intended to provide quality services for all its pre-service teachers. Thus, this study was able to provide first-hand data on the factors that contribute to and prevent students’ academic success in order to aid curriculum decisions and promote the academic success of all the students in the teacher education programs.

Data Collection
This study collected two types of qualitative data. Survey and interview data were collected from two groups of pre-service teachers enrolled in the teacher education programs. These two groups were the pre-service teachers who passed Praxis I in the teacher candidacy status (i.e., teacher candidate participants) and the pre-service teachers who had not passed Praxis I (i.e., non-teacher candidate participants). Two types of narrative survey questionnaires were developed for the two groups of participants. Based on Merriam’s (2001) effective interview strategies, semi-structured interview questions were also developed and used along with the survey instrument. For survey and interview data, the questions focused on three aspects: 1) Life History-Past Learning, to determine factors from the past learning experiences of the pre-service teachers that might affect their current learning; 2) Present-Current Learning, to examine the present learning experiences of these pre-service teachers; 3) Reflection on Meaning, to analyze how students felt about their learning experiences.

Data Analysis
After data collection, the data were triangulated with a special coding system for within-case and cross-case examination, i.e., to constantly compare the responses between the two groups. Patterns emerged. The first category of questions asked about the participants’ past learning. Significant differences were found in the responses of the two groups. For instance, Question One, “What was your school like?” produced positive words in many of the candidates’ responses, including “optimistic, energetic teachers,” “good teacher-student relation,” “school has a very good reputation for academics & sports,” “I was one of the few…in the honors classes,” “The standard of education was very high and they prided themselves with a high overall student grade average,” and “This was the time when I enjoyed going to school the most.” The responses from non-candidate participants were not as positive. Many negative descriptions were found in their responses including, “This school was full of violence and drugs. You had to take it upon yourself to do the right thing and study,” “this was not a very good educational environment because of slack enforcement of rules,” “it was a small, boring, predominately white school,” “I enjoyed my years at the school although I felt their [sic] too many restrictions.” The peers of non-candidate participants also reviewed their learning less positively. In addition, more grammatical and spelling errors were found in the responses of non-candidate participants. The data also indicated that non-candidate participants had received less honors and recognitions in school than candidate participants.

The second category of questions asked about the participants’ current learning. The responses were also significantly different between the two groups. Candidate participants were more organized in daily activities at university and home with busier schedules than non-candidate participants. Non-candidate participants demonstrated less organized daily activities and a weaker work ethic in their academic endeavors. Differences in the educational backgrounds of the two groups’ parents were also found; the parents of candidates held higher educational credentials than non-candidates’ parents. In addition, when given the question, “describe either a most difficult or successful current learning experience,” many candidate participants saw their academic learning as a challenge and worked hard to overcome difficulty for success, e.g., a higher GPA or formal recognition, while non-candidate participants focused on completing simple work (e.g., a course assignment) as a sign of success.

The third category of questions analyzed how students felt about their learning experiences through self-reflection. Questions One and Two, for instance, asked the participants “what factors contribute to your success as a future teacher educator” and “what is your greatest asset for success.” The responses of the two groups again revealed differences. Candidate participants believed that determination, a strong work ethic, a solid support system, self-motivation, and eagerness to learn were important contributors to their success. Responses from non-candidate participants were more diverse, including “I’m creative when it comes to teaching my students new things,” “The greatest asset to be successful is to be yourself and also have a positive attitude,” “Having relationship with God.” Another question in this category asked the participants to name weaknesses that might prevent their success. Candidates were able to use reasoning to identify their weaknesses and also explain how they intended to overcome them. Non-candidate participants, however, seemed to focus on a lower level of thinking and some even considered disciplinary issues a weakness.

Findings and Discussion
After analyzing the responses the findings were organized in three categories: past learning, current learning, and interpreting meanings. From the responses to the first category of questions, two general patterns emerged. The first pattern was a difference in the learning environments of the candidate and non-candidate groups. The second one was that most candidate participants had successful learning experiences at the early stage of their schooling. From the responses to the second category of questions, three patterns emerged. The first pattern was that most candidate participants possessed a personal attribute to manage their daily activities in an organized fashion at university and home. The second was that there were significant differences in the family backgrounds of the two groups, with the candidates’ backgrounds better supporting their early learning. The third pattern was that candidate participants had higher expectations of themselves, viewing their academic success as a challenge and attempting to achieve it by hard work.

Suggestions for Teaching to Success
Teaching matters and teachers can make a difference. Educators who work with African American students must be reflective on their teaching, positively engage their students, encourage their participation, and provide more academically-engaged time through well-designed, relational, and relevant instruction. Four building strategies are provided here.

  • Building a social context for learning. Studies confirm that African American student achievement can be increased by creating positive student-teacher relationships and interactions (Campbell, 2004; Irvine & Armento, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Zeichner, 1996). Positive social context for learning is exemplified by teachers’ fairness, respect, caring, trusting, non-favoritism in classrooms. Teachers must establish caring and respectful social classroom context to support effective learning.
  • Building confidence and self-esteem in students. Hierarchy needs theory (Maslow, 1970) helps us understand human relations in classrooms. All human beings have basic needs arranged from a lower level of biological needs to a higher level of self-worth and fulfillment. Building self-esteem and giving students a sense of belonging and acceptance are the fundamentals for academic success.
  • Building a supportive learning environment. Academic success can be achieved through effective classroom management by creating respect among students and reducing frictions. Creating productive classroom norms, using persuasion, and giving students responsibility in constructing classroom rules are examples of useful strategies. Teachers must demonstrate good role modeling and not use negative comments at any time.
  • Building academically-engaged time. Academically-engaged time is positively related to academic improvement (Rupley, Wise, & Logan, 1986). Effective teachers use 30 minutes more each day than average teachers to engage students in academically-related tasks. Teachers working with African American students must provide more academically-engaged opportunities and tasks.

A Final Word
Education is a vehicle to the realization of the American dream and thus must foster the intellectual, personal, and social development of all students to their highest potential (Bennet, 2003; Campbell, 2004). A democratic society must bring people of diverse backgrounds together to permit all citizens to pursue the goal of freedom, justice, human rights, and economic prosperity without prejudice. Therefore, the academic success of all students, including African American students, must be of primary importance to educators. This study examined factors for the academic success of African American pre-service teachers. The findings revealed that it is crucial for educators to build supportive learning environments for their students. To achieve academic success, educators can make a difference when they are willing to commit their time, love, and hope to their African American students.

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