Individual and School Structural Effects on African American High School Students' Academic Achievement

Article excerpt

The research examining the correlates of academic achievement is immense. In particular, scores of studies have examined individual- and family-level variables that influence student achievement. Based upon Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological theory of human development, this study extends one step beyond previous studies and incorporates school-level characteristics into an investigation of the factors that influence adolescents' academic achievement. Using regression-based techniques that account for within-school clustering of students, this research examined the extent to which individual-level and school structural variables predict academic achievement among a sample of 10th grade African American students abstracted from the National Educational Longitudinal Study (NELS) database. The results suggest that individual-level predictors, such as student effort, parent-child discussion, and associations with positive peers, play a substantial role in increasing students' achievement. Further, the results also suggest that school climate, in particular the sense of school cohesion felt by students, teachers, and administrators, is important to successful student outcomes. Given these findings, the author suggests that an ecological approach which encompasses individual-, family-, and school-level variables be considered when examining predictors of academic achievement. Also, policy and interventions aimed at improving academic achievement need to take into consideration the impact of individual-level and school structural factors on students and their ability to succeed.

Introduction

Academic achievement and its predictors have been an important topic of study for educational researchers and policymakers for many decades. Researchers have sought to explain why some students achieve at higher levels than others and what factors influence these differences. These researchers have observed that a variety of individual-level and school structural variables are consistently linked to academic achievement, including school commitment (Battistich, Solomon, Kim, Watson, & Schaps, 1995), school involvement (Brown & Evans, 2002; McNeal, 1995), school attachment (Crosnoe, Johnson, & Elder, 2004; Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2001), and school climate (Dupper & Meyer-Adams, 2002; Goldsmith, 2004; Lee & Bryk, 1989). Through analyses of students' individual behaviors and schools' structural characteristics, these studies have identified elements shown to impact academic achievement. Although it seems evident from the research that both individual-level and school structural variables affect academic achievement, the process by which this effect occurs is often described as complex (Feuerstein, 2000).

Accordingly, the theoretical approach utilized must take into consideration these complex relationships. This study draws upon Bronfenbrenner's (1979) ecological theory of human development. His theory provides a model of interrelated social structures (e.g., self, family, peers, home, and school) and processes that influence individual behavior. As Bronfenbrenner (1979) pointed out, children develop in a multitude of social contexts. Social contexts have been found to be important in explaining individual differences in achieving ends such as academic gains, educational attainment, occupational status, etc. (Duncan & Randenbush, 1999). Moreover, the social context in which children operate influences their ability to adjust to the expectations of school and learn how to become successful students (Wentzel, 1999).

In line with the above processes, this study seeks to determine the ecological factors (i.e., characteristics of the person and of the environment) that contribute to the academic achievement of African American adolescents. Due to the interconnected nature of the structures and processes in Bronfenbrenner's model, academic outcomes, such as academic achievement, are seen as a result of the joint function of characteristics representing the individual person (e. …