Academic journal article Sociological Focus

School Failure as an Adolescent Turning Point

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

School Failure as an Adolescent Turning Point

Article excerpt

Recently, researchers have devoted significant attention to the influence of turning points such as marriage, employment, and military service on criminal desistance in adulthood. Because offending peaks in adolescence, the relative lack of research on influential adolescent turning points is notable. Given the extensive research linking school failure to deleterious adult development, we propose that school failure (late grade retention and school dropout) is a marked transition in adolescence, with the potential to operate as a turning point in the life course. Using longitudinal data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY79), we first examine structural, relational, and individual predictors of school failure in adolescence. Second, we assess whether school failure amplifies delinquency in late adolescence. We find evidence supporting our contention that school failure operates as an adolescent turning point, and we confirm that school failure is significantly predicted by structural, relational, and individual factors. Although school failure may be thought of as the end result of a longterm process of academic disengagement, our research suggests that it is also a pivotal, negative turning point in the life course.

A great deal of attention within criminology has been paid to social events and their influence on criminal offending. In particular, life-course theories have suggested that adult turning points such as marriage, employment, and military service impact individual desistance and evoke substantial life change (Elder 1985; Laub and Sampson 2003; Sampson and Laub 1993). Although this research has significantly advanced the discipline's understanding of criminal behavior by stressing the etiological importance of factors throughout the life course, research has largely been limited to studying events occurring within adulthood (see Nagin et al. 2003 for a notable exception). Turning points can be negative or positive, hastening offending and/or desistance; given that crime peaks in middle adolescence, the lack of attention to significant social events occurring during adolescence is surprising. Developmental researchers often cite adolescence as a key stage in the life course as youth transition from childhood familial controls to adult independence (Moffitt 1993; Ronka, Oravala, and Pulkkinen 2003). Although youth who do poorly in school are oftentimes already criminal, during this time of transition school failure may exacerbate their criminal offending (Jarjoura 1993; Thornberry, Moore, and Christenson 1985).

Researchers have long understood the deleterious effects of school failure (grade retention and dropout) on adolescent delinquency and adult development. Children who are retained in middle school or beyond, and youth who drop out of school, earn less and have less secure occupational attachments than graduate students or high school graduates do (Jimerson 1999). Additionally, youth who are retained late in school often place themselves on more active delinquent trajectories than youth who are not retained in school (Nagin et al. 2003; Randolph et al. 2004). What is not clear, however, is whether school failure affects later delinquency and crime as a unique event or through a process of cumulative disadvantage. Additionally, research has found that school failure is tied to structural, relational, and individual factors, but we do not know the direct and potentially interactive effects of each type of predictor on this key adolescent event. Since the publication of Sampson and Laub's (1993) work on life-course theory, researchers have been mapping out various delinquent and criminal trajectories (Chung et al. 2002; Nagin, Farrington, and Moffitt 1995; Wiesner and Capaldi 2003), rather than focusing on the examination and prediction of influential adolescent turning points. We do this by examining the relative effects of structural, relational, and individual predictors of school failure and we examine, net of these predictors, whether school failure amplifies criminal behavior. …

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