What is it like to be a high school student today? To what extent are comprehensive metropolitan-area high schools contributing to student success and meeting the needs of their diverse body of students? The literature suggests that student success is influenced by a number of factors, including relatedness, autonomy, and competence (Connell & Wellborn, 1991). Students need to feel that they belong to their school community--that they are accepted and respected by peers and teachers. They need to feel competent and in control of their learning, with opportunities to make decisions and work toward personal goals. Clearly, students who feel that they belong behave differently from those who feel they do not. Students who experience a sense of belonging have more positive attitudes toward school, teachers, and peers, participate more in school activities, and interact with peers and adults in prosocial ways. Students who have a sense of belonging also show higher academic engagement and achievement. Conversely, students who feel rejected or alienated display behavioral problems, lower interest, and lower achievement in school, and frequently drop out (Osterman, 2000). The strongest associations emerge between belongingness and student engagement, with support from teachers being particularly important. According to Osterman (2000), "How students feel about school and their coursework is in large measure determined by the quality of the relationship they have with their teachers in specific classes."
The research is mixed concerning the extent to which schools promote belongingness. Some research implies that secondary schools are not structured to promote a sense of belonging and engagement (e.g., Newmann, 1989a, 1989b). Of particular concern is that secondary schools, in general, are less supportive and more impersonal than elementary schools (Jules, 1991). Cothran and Ennis (2000) suggest that the number of disengaged students may exceed two-thirds of the high school population. Other research suggests that, in some schools, the problem of alienation and disengagement affects only a minority of students (Goodenow, 1993). Knowing whether disengagement and alienation are widespread is important if we are to determine whether systemic change is needed or a more localized approach that targets particular students.
Research has documented a variety of instructional variables that influence belonging and engagement, including the presence of authentic work, which Marks (2000) defined as instruction that is "cognitively challenging and connected to the world beyond the classroom." According to Marks, this can include asking students to solve new problems, answer interesting questions, dig deeply into a topic, apply learning to situations outside of school, and engage in discussion. Cooperative learning and participation in decision-making are also influential variables. Liethwood and colleagues (1996) reported that the quality of instruction accounted for 46% of the variation in students' sense of belonging. The study used students' perceptions of different aspects of their classroom experience, including teacher support.
Battistich, Watson, Solomon, Schaps, and Solomon (1991) maintain that classroom discussion, specifically where students have the opportunity to express personal opinions, gives them the opportunity to discover that others care. Gamoran and Nystrand (1992) similarly state that "regardless of the activity in which students participate, discourse is a critical indicator of the extent to which school offers membership" (p. 40). Yet, opportunities for discussion and cooperative learning appear to be minimal in some schools. For example, Gamoran and Nystrand's study of discourse in 54 high school classes found that group discussion incorporating student contributions averaged 15 seconds per 50-minute period. Thirty-three classes had no discussion time at all; only four had more than a minute. …