Size of School, Racial Makeup of Faculty Related to Success of High-Risk Students, Study Shows

Release Date: February 15, 1994 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Students at high risk of academic failure are more likely to be behaviorally and psychologically engaged in the academic process if their school has a small enrollment, a study by education researchers at the University at Buffalo has found.

The racial mix of the faculty, as it reflects that of the student body, also was identified as a factor affecting student "identification," an aspect of engagement that is a leading predictor of academic success.

Neither strict discipline nor severe punishment were shown to encourage or discourage student engagement.

Jeremy D. Finn, professor of education at UB, and doctoral candidate Kristen E. Voelkl reported results of the study, involving 6,488 eighth-graders in inner-city schools, in a recent issue of the Journal of Negro Education.

The eighth-graders were minorities, from low-income families and/or were from families where the primary language spoken at home was not English. Such students are considered to be at high risk for academic failure.

The UB study found that aspects of the school environment were related to student engagement. In smaller schools, students were absent less, participated more in classroom activities and were more likely to say that their school was warm and supportive.

Students also reported that their schools were more warm and supportive of them when there were more minority students in their class.

The students who felt least welcomed and supported in school were African-American students in schools with few minorities and few black faculty members, and white students in schools with many minority students and a high proportion of black faculty.

Finn said that student engagement in the academic process has long been held by education experts to be a predictor of academic outcome, regardless of the race, sex or socioeconomic status of the group studied. High levels of engagement are linked with academic success; low levels with truancy, high dropout rates and other problems.

Low levels of engagement are commonly found among students living in poverty and among those facing racial and language barriers. Earlier research by Finn and others has established that disengagement among adolescents has long-term, adverse consequences, including disruptive class behavior, absenteeism, truancy, juvenile delinquency and dropping out of school.

Within these socially, economically and hence, academically disadvantaged, groups, however, the researchers point to many youngsters who are somewhat successful and others who are highly successful in terms of academic outcome. Finn and Voelkl found that their success was linked to their degree of engagement in the academic process.

The Finn-Voelkl study cites two components of academic engagement: participation in and identification with school.

Participation involves attending class, paying attention to the teacher and taking part in curricular activities by responding to directions, questions and assignments. Participatory behaviors also may include involvement in subject-related clubs or community activities and in the social, extracurricular and athletic sectors of school life.

If a youngster participates in classroom and school activities and receives rewards for performance, he or she begins to "identify" with school, say Finn and Voelkl. This happens when they internalize the feeling that they "belong" in school -- that they are a conspicuous part of the school environment and that the school is an important aspect of their own experience. Although much has been written about the importance of keeping youngsters engaged, Finn and Voelkl say few educators have attempted to study it as an outcome of school processes. They maintain, however, that their research suggests that school environments can be manipulated in ways that increase student participation in, and identification with, their schools.

Their study found that of all the school environmental variables studied, small enrollments and faculties that mirrored the racial composition of the student body were most likely to produce high levels of engagement among high-risk students.

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