Poverty Matters - A Tale of Four Middle Schools - AERA2013


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Slides from our presentation at AERA2013, April 27, 2013. Drs. Antoinette Errante and Tracey Stuckey-Mickell

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  • Recent work at John Hopkins – Grad Nation (2009): focuses largely on middle school indicators related to transition; this work has spurred more recent effortsExistingresearch has identified -transition as challenging ((Akos 2004, 2006; Anderman & Mueller, 2010; Eccles & Midgley, 1989; Smith etal. 2006)-four predicting factors (Balfanz, Herzog & MacIver 2007; Balfanz, MacIver & Byrnes 2006;)-many relevant factors: school-level policies, learning environments, relationships with adults, etc(Andeman & Anderman, 2010; Balfanzetal 2009; Balfanz &Bridgeland, 2007; Balfanz, Byrnes et al. 2009; Legter & Balfanz 2010; Lys 2009; MacIver, Plank & Balfanz 1997; Malaspina & Rimm-Kaufman 2008; Neild, Balfanz & Herzog 2007)
  • At Esra and Thompkins Middle Schools, we selected a subset of twelve students for focus groups early in the year and a photo-ethnography project in mid-year. We utilized school records and purposeful sampling to identify students with low absenteeism and academically strong records in Math and English, as well as students who were struggling in those subjects and/or a pattern of chronic absenteeism. We also tried to include students who had attended more than one school the previous year. At Abraham, we had two research teams, each assigned to a subset of 12 students. *The principal at Driscoll Middle School would not provide year-long access to the school. As a result, a second research team was assigned to Abraham Middle School. Abraham had the lowest percentage of returns on parental consent and attendance was a serious issue (it was not at Driscoll), so worked intensively with the students for whom we had consent
  • Design: Mixed-method, primarily qualitative and emergent approach. Use of questionnaire, interview, field observationDATA COLLECTION: To capture the transition experience and students’ social, academic and developmental experiences, we surveyed 6th grade students at beginning and end of school year (X1: n=134; X2: n= ?? ). The teams conducted informal observations and conversations with students over the course of the year. Photo-ethnography work completed with sub-sample of 48 students—this methodhas been used with great success with this age group (Cameron 2009; Cappello 2005; Clark-Ibanez 2010; Epstein 2006; Harper 2002). We gave students disposable cameras and probed them (“Let me show you my world.”) to take pictures of life at school, in neighborhoods or with families. We then asked students to share their top three pictures with other students in their focus group and then followed up with individual interviews. We were hoping the photo project would be a fun and non-threatening approach to gaining some insight of students’ lives inside and outside of school and in so doing be better able to situate their transition and attendance experience. By doing focus group and well as individual interviews, we were hoping to capture peer dynamics as well as concerns or student thoughts that they perhaps did not wish to share with the group. Finally, we conducted focus groups or individual interviews (their preference) with teachers, administrators and parents.ANALYSIS:Across- and within-case analyses; theme extraction and comparison (via school team and whole team debriefings during active data collection)Survey results used to corroborate and triangulate; also used categorical data analyses to investigate possible trends/relationships within and across schools on variables including, but not limited to: perceived sense of belongingness, perceived sense of support from peers/teachers, perceived sense of physical safety, perceived sense of ability to navigate new school environment, etc.; Survey data are still being analyzed; this report contains primarily findings from qualitative data.
  • ADDITIONAL DETAIL ON SCHOOLS – COMMUNITY CONTEXTSDriscoll ’ Middle School. While Driscoll had the greatest concentration of children from high-income homes, it also attracted students transferring from failing schools and also had a large ELL population. Thompkins Middle School. Located in a neighborhood that had a thriving artistic community and also some of the greatest concentrations of poverty and crime in the city. Neighborhood residents were involved in an ongoing struggle with city leaders and developers whose plans for further gentrification was going to force many residents out of the neighborhood. Due to the crime in the neighborhood the school was frequently on lockdown (even during our visits to the school). Abraham Middle School. Community surrounding Abraham is also home to recent immigrants aspiring to the American dream and who, once established, leave for other city areas. Esra Middle School. Neighborhood has strong identity and sense of community pride that seemed to be a response to the marginalization of the community in the city as a whole; it is referred to by epithets that characterize the neighborhood as poor, white and Appalachian. Although “on paper” Abraham and Esra  share similar demographics in terms of racial composition (predominantly White) and economic indicators (percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunch), the relative degree of poverty and inequality was markedly different in these two communities. Abraham serves a largely working, employed working class (cite). This is reported in neighborhood census data as well as reflected in student and teacher interviews. Abraham also serves adjacent gentrified neighborhoods that are solidly middle class. Esra, on the other hand, based upon census data cite as well as data collected from our observations and interviews with teachers and students, is largely comprised of working poor and unemployed poor families experiencing a higher degree of precarity with respect to food, housing and income security. We would characterize conditions experienced by Esra families as consistent with structural violence (Gilligan, 1999), in that higher rates of health issues and mortality were a direct result of unequal access to nutrition, housing, and health care, particularly in light of the prevalence of stress-related diseases associated with poverty. Families more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. Students at Esra more likely to have attended 2-3 schools in the fifth grade and most entered the 6th grade reading at first or second grade reading levels. Mortality rates some of the highest in the city; life span was one of the lowest. Teachers reported students were often absent to attend funerals or care for sick adults in their household. Esra students were the only students in all four schools who expressed their absences were due to boredom, resentment of a lack of autonomy and that many of the teachers yelled too much. These were conditions confirmed by teachers and our observations in the building. 
  • Orientation and OngoingCommunication with Parents - Orientation activities set the tone for the expectations and culture of the school; in this sense the elements of a good orientation mirror the elements of a successful middle school   The following key features were observed:Teacher/admin participationSchool day visits w/ interactionTeacher/class introduction; teacher enthusiasmStudent practice with class transitions, lockers; scaffold student autonomyDiscussions around student concerns/social anxietiesParent engagement; ongoing education on middle school experience and student needs
  • Academic and Socio-Emotional Levels Entering the Sixth Grade and Time for Transition: Time for transition refers to the time it took for students to feel comfortable in a middle school setting. In three of the four schools we observed, and students and teachers largely reported, a sense of well-being and self-efficacy in their new school by early November. Assisting students in finding their own organizational system, helping students make transitions from one class to another, helping students practice using their locker, “scaffolding” students’ transition-related needs in an individualized manner and creating an environment where students felt they were supported emotionally and challenged academically greatly contributed to students transitioning to the sixth grade in a positive way. While sixth grade orientations play a role in time for transition, students who began the sixth grade with significant social, academic and economic challenges took significantly longer to adjust to the sixth grade. At Esra Middle School, many students entered the sixth grade reading at first or second grade reading level. While we only have school records for students with parental consent, the majority of students who returned consent forms (exact percentage needs to be verified) were reading at a first or second grade reading level. Reading achievement appears to have been correlated with a high degree of school mobility. We observed ESRA students still struggling with transitions from class to class as late as February. Teachers confirmed they continued to struggle with students. Moreover, despite students’ desire for more autonomy, we observed them struggling with self-regulation and concentration in their classrooms. It generally took students 20 minutes to settle in their seats at the beginning of new classes. With class periods 50 minutes in length, a great deal of instructional time was lost.Working Beyond Stress Absorption Capacity: The greater the numbers of stressors and the more chronic and protracted they are, the greater the likelihood the children and adults will reach their “stress absorption capacity;” this is the point at which stressors overwhelm one’s capacity to cope. The challenges and difficulties faced by students in Esra were thus similar to what we found in other schools but greatly exacerbated. Esra students entered the sixth grade at a first or second grade reading level; thus, there was a high degree of mismatch between the autonomy students craved developmentally and the academic skills and ability to work independently that they possessed. We observed students who struggled to concentrate and had a low tolerance for transitions and unpredictability, consistent with the psych-socio-emotional consequences found in children living in difficult circumstances (Cook-Cottone 2004). Esra teachers were very committed to the children and their families; most teachers had over 10 years of experience in the school and expressed love and commitment to their students and their families. Some teachers did manage to channel this affection into constantly searching for new and innovative ways to bring children’s academics up to a sixth grade level in a fun and engaging way. They did this despite the fact that both the principal and the school district indicated their desire to get rid of the teachers in the building and “start afresh.” But teachers’ efforts came at a cost. These same teachers reported a high degree of stress and either taking anti-depressant medications or receiving counseling. Indeed, teachers noted that at least half the teachers in the building were taking anti-depressants or were in therapy. For other teachers, then, this level of demoralization led to burnout and compromised interpersonal relationships with students that negatively impacted classroom practices. Developmentally Appropriate Context-Specific Instructional and Psychosocial Environments: Stage-environment fit theory argues that middle schools should be organized in ways that take students’ developmental needs and tasks into consideration, Given the differences we observed in the four schools related to the impact of poverty and chronically stressed communities, we would add that any such efforts to address and improve transition experiences must take into account these large differences in the socioeconomic contexts of specific schools. We address specific recommendations for how to create these more fitting environments..Factors Affecting AbsenteeismSchool-related factors did not seem to be strongly linked to absenteeism in this sample; students from Esra were only students reporting missing due to boredom and so forthParents dropped children off at school when it was convenient for them; this often meant children would systematically miss the same subject areas every morning.Children had little or no adult supervision in the mornings and were responsible for waking up on time and getting to a bus stop on their own. Some children might also be responsible for the care of younger siblings. Result of parents’ work schedule??Social &economic factors influencing attendance at Esra appeared much more complicated as children would often leave school for weeks at a time to travel with their families, who had gone to look after relatives out of the city limits.Past school-based interventions where students were identified early and meetings were held with parents in order to create a plan for improving attendance had been only marginally successful, according to teachers and administrators, particularly at Esra Middle School.Our experiences at Esra—the school with the worst attendance record of the four schools--- suggest that school districts may be limited in their ability to impact chronic absenteeism without the infusion of a great deal of resources, We fear this may encourage the school district to adopt punitive policies for parents whose children are chronically absent, particularly given that attendance impacts schools’ Statewide Report Cards. Punitive measures may backfire and only further disengage parents already feeling marginalized by school districts. We repeatedly heard at Esra that parents believe “the school wants to educate [their] children so that they can leave the neighborhood.” Moreover, students and families at Esra communicated strong bonds and affiliation with their families and little faith that society or the state would assist them in times of need. In communities and families where feelings of mutual obligation help mitigate risk in the face of hardship, it is unlikely that the school district will be able to deter families from pulling their children out of school when distant family members need assistance. The best solution in these instances may be to find ways by which students can continue their studies while they are away and then return to school. In a broader sense, the case of Esra reminds us of the importance of understanding the specific social and economic contexts that result in absenteeism and create interventions that are informed by such understandings.
  • Nature of 6th Grade OrientationParticipation of administrators and teachers in the orientation. Opportunities for students in the fifth grade to visit during the school day and interact with teachers and each other.Highly enthusiastic teachers who have an opportunity to meet with their classroom of students AND an introduction to all the adults in the building as a “united front”(see “Developmentally Appropriate Instructional Environments.”) Opportunity to practice their transitions from classroom to classroom and, thus, become familiar with their new schedules; and practice locker combination. Requires an understanding of students’ social, emotional, and academic challenges and assets coming into the sixth grade. Developmentally, middle-schoolers cherish autonomy, but autonomy must be scaffolded based on student readiness.Address studentanxieties about making friends among their new peer group.Parent Engagement & EducationEfforts to engage parents early in the summer to stress the importance of their participation in the orientation. Sessions with parents to explain the developmental changes their children will be facing and that model for parents how they can address some of these changes. Context-specific information to parents regarding the new scheduling and how it differs from elementary; new org skills needed and how they can help students.
  • Developmentally Appropriate Context-Specific Instructional and Psychosocial Environments (Frey 2008)Begin the school day at 9:00 a.m., rather than 7:30. Middle schoolers need more sleep.Utilize block scheduling. Block scheduling has been shown to be beneficial with middle school children in general but it may be particularly beneficial in schools with long times for transitions such as Esra.”Scaffold autonomy” based upon students’ social, emotional and intellectual abilities entering the sixth grade.Accelerate learning for students who begin the sixth grade significantly behind academically. Strategies such as those proposed by the Center for Accelerated Learning (http://www.alcenter.com/) might provide helpful guidelines for students and teachers. Create space and time for peer socialization. Middle schoolers’ schedules left very little time to engage in something that is of utmost importance to them: maintaining social bonds with their peers. Only Driscoll, however, maintained lunch and recess as a socialization time. Driscoll’s sixth grade teachers also very purposefully organized “houses” and randomly assigned students to these houses. On Fridays, the houses would meet during their Readings in the Content Area classes. The other three schools did not create much time or spaces for students to interact constructively. At Thompkins, students were required to read to themselves during lunchtime in order to fulfill their goal to read one million words. Esra students were on “silent lunch” throughout the year, and Abraham Middle School’s Principal did away with recess altogether. This lack of socialization space created tenuous social bonds which need to be constantly tested and challenged; research suggests these are factors that tend to increase bullying, which was reported by students in all three schools (Angulo etal 2001; Ashford etal. 2008; Bandyopadhayetal 2009; Bergunoetal 2004, Oslund 2009).Create a “united adult front” in the building. Transitioning middle school students are not only doing so in the academic sense, but in the developmental sense as well. While they crave increasing autonomy, this does not mean they wish to be left to their own devices. Research suggests students’ sense that they are on their own also tends to breed a school climate prone to bullying and relational aggression. (Anderman & Kaplan 2008).
  • District has adopted many of the evidence–based policies proposed in the scholarly literature to address transition and attendance issuesFeeder patternsUpgraded its data management capacities so that schools can identify, track and intervene earlier in cases where students are chronically absentRecommendationsThe “moving target” of standards (first OAA, now Common Core requires changing gears)—perhaps consider reducing rapid changes in district-level goals and aims to allow continuity of effortRe-invest in positive programs (such as Where Everyone Belongs-WEB) that target chronic absenceEmbrace bottom-up decision process for buy-in; involve schools in discussion and allow them to give input based on their needs/challengesImplement context-specific, developmentally appropriate professional development; allow for some customization of professional development programming to take into consideration the context-specific challenges of each individual school community; address demoralized teacher populationsAvoidance of punitive measures to reduce absenteeism; consistency in policy implementation across the district
  • Poverty Matters - A Tale of Four Middle Schools - AERA2013

    1. 1. Poverty Matters in Middle SchoolTransition: A Tale of Four SchoolsAntoinette Errante & Tracey A. Stuckey-MickellThe Ohio State UniversityAERA – April 27, 2013
    2. 2. Impetus for the StudyFieldston Public School District OSU EHE Research Team
    3. 3. Primary Research Questions• How do administrators,’ teachers’, parents’ and students’ perceive middle schooltransition? What social, academic, and developmental factors influence the 6th gradeexperience?• How do 6th graders perceive their middle school transition and the factorspredictive of dropout?• To what degree do students, teachers and parents identify school-related factors (e.g.school safety, sense of academic self-efficacy, supportive learning environments,relationships with peers and teachers) as contributing to chronic absenteeism?• What can FPS do to create a more supportive transition experience, particularly forstudents at greatest dropout risk?
    4. 4. Theory and Related Literature• Recent work at John Hopkins – Grad Nation (2009)• Existing research has found:• Transition to middle school as challenging and impactful• Four predictive factors for HS dropout: Attendance, math performance, English performance,incidence of out-of-school suspension• Many relevant factors related to motivation, engagement, retention & parent-educator communication• Stage-environment fit theory (Eccles & Midgley, 2006)• Intersection between child’s developmental stage and appropriateness instructional & psychosocialcontexts (Frey, 2008)
    5. 5. Study Framework• Situated within existing literature by examining similar influences and factors• Also, sensitive to policy context and community context (particularly highpoverty) as possible influences (Apple 2006a, 2006b; author reference;Knapp and Associates 1995; Lareau 2003; Oakes & Lipton 1997; Oakes &Well 2003; Nandy 2002).
    6. 6. Method• Settings and Participants• Large Midwestern, urban district; demographically diverse• Four very different middle schools Esra, Thompkins, Abraham, Driscoll;• 6th grade students ( n= 134; all surveyed)• Sub-sample purposively selected (n = 48; 4 groups of 12) for in-depth study
    7. 7. MethodQuestionnaires, attendancerecords, Math/ELAperformance and disciplinerecords (n=Purposive selection of subsetsof students from three schools*for photo-ethnography (n=48)Individual & focus groupinterviews, observations & fieldnotes; teachers, admins, parentsDesign, Data Collection, Analysis
    8. 8. Findings and DiscussionDriscoll Middle SchoolWealthy, north sideneighborhood; attractstransfers from failing schools(ex: 6th grade from 40 differentschools); met attendance reqs;SRCR: ExcellentThompkins Middle SchoolChoice school-no feeder; SESdiverse, predominately Black;reputation as high-achievingwith many legacy students; metattendance;SRCR: Continuous ImprovementAbraham Middle SchoolSouth side neighborhood;predominately White, Appalachian,low SES; most families w/ longresidential history & strongidentification; some from well-to-do,gentrified area; recent immigrantpopln w/ residential transience;struggles with absenteeismSRCR: Academic WatchEsra Middle SchoolWest side neighborhood;predominately white, Appalachian, lowSES; strong identity & communitypride; families w/ long residentialhistory, but precarious housing & highmobility; higher concentration ofpoverty than Abraham, one of worstattendance ratings in the city;SRCR: Academic Emergency
    9. 9. Findings and Discussion• 6th Grade Orientation Experience and Communication with Parents• Teacher/admin participation• School day visits w/ interaction• Teacher/class introduction; teacher enthusiasm• Student practice with class transitions, lockers; scaffold student autonomy• Discussions around student concerns/social anxieties• Parent engagement; ongoing education on middle school experience and student needsInfluencing Factors
    10. 10. Findings and Discussion• Academic and Socio-Emotional Levels and Time for Transition• Working Beyond Stress Absorption Capacity• Developmentally Appropriate Context-Specific Instructional andPsychosocial Environments• Factors Affecting AbsenteeismInfluencing Factors
    11. 11. Implications and Recommendations• Nature of 6th grade orientation• Include features that support strong community-building, united adult front; addressstudent concerns/anxieties and scaffold autonomy• Parent engagement and education• Recruit involvement during orientation, transition, and throughout the year
    12. 12. Implications and Recommendations• Developmentally appropriate, context-specific instructional & psychosocialenvironments• Take poverty-related challenges into account—context matters!!!
    13. 13. Findings and Recommendations• District has adopted evidence–based policies to address transition &attendance: Feeder patterns; upgraded data management capacities• Recommendations• Reduce moving targets (i.e., abrupt and rapid changes in standards/goals, etc)• Re-invest in success programming to reduce absenteeism• Embrace bottom-up decision process for school-level buy-in and context specificity• Implement context-specific, professional development; consider teacher affect• Avoid punitive measures and implement consistentlyAn Analysis of District Level Policies & Practices
    15. 15. Contact UsAntoinette Erranteerrante.1@osu.eduTracey A. Stuckey-Mickellstuckey-mickell.1@osu.edu