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Changes in Attitude

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Popular wisdom has it that students become temporarily ineducable when they hit early adolescence. They become more self- conscious and self-centered. They latch onto their friends with a new intensity, and their raging hormones give them no peace. In the face of all of that, how can we expect them to concentrate on schoolwork?

But Newaye Daniel, a 7th grader at Francis J. Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Va., doesn't buy that way of thinking. He says he comes home every night and does two to three hours of homework. "It makes me feel good if the teacher says, 'Take out your homework' and it's there," he says. "You have to be more responsible in middle school than you were in elementary school."

Students like Newaye could simply be an exception to the rule. But, to a number of researchers who focus on early adolescence, he could also be something more: He could be living proof that the loss of academic motivation attributed to this difficult age group is not inevitable.

"I remember reading articles in the 60's and the authors just assumed this was a function of puberty," says Carol Midgly, a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Leadership in Learning Laboratory. "We now know this isn't true."

More important, she adds, schools can help make the difference.

Difficult Age

In the late 1980's, the late Roberta Simmons, a professor of psychiatry and sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, conducted one of the seminal studies on the declining academic motivation of adolescents. Simmons and her colleagues followed a group of children as it moved from 6th to 7th grade. Some of the children stayed at their K-8 school, while others moved to a traditional junior high school.

Simmons found that girls, especially those who had matured early and had started dating, experienced a decline in self-esteem when they moved to their new school. Girls who stayed in the K-8 schools, however, did not. That--along with her other studies on the subject--led her to conclude that the move to junior high school, which comes as children are undergoing major pubertal changes, may be ill-timed.

Since then, a number of researchers have taken those findings several steps further. They found that boys, as well as girls, developed negative attitudes toward school in adolescence. What's more, they surmised, the problem was not limited to the move to junior high school. It has more to do with the nature of the transition that students make as they move to secondary school.

For example, looking at data from 25,000 students who participated in the National Education Longitudinal Study, Midgly and fellow University of Michigan researcher Jacquelynne S. Eccles found that the organizational and instructional practices in schools targeted to early adolescents were similar regardless of whether the students attended junior high schools, which typically span grades 7 to 9, or middle schools for 6th to 8th graders. This occurred even though middle schools were originally designed to represent something different from a traditional junior high school.

Regardless of their labels, the majority of both types of schools were larger, less personal, and more formal than the elementary schools from which their students came.

Also, writes Eccles in a 1993 article in The Elementary School Journal, "Middle-grade teachers are often subject-matter specialists and typically instruct a much larger number of students than do elementary teachers in self-contained classrooms, making it less likely they will come to know students well and to grant them autonomy."

In mid-level schools with all kinds of grade configurations, teachers report that they feel less effective in their work than their elementary school colleagues say they do. They also place more emphasis on discipline and control in their classrooms.

Once students reach those mid-level schools, they are increasingly grouped by academic ability. What's more, their work tends to be evaluated in more public ways. Some evidence even suggests that the work students do in mid-level schools is at a lower cognitive level than the work done in their final years of elementary school.

All of this, Eccles and Midgly say, makes for a mismatch between adolescents' school environments and their unique developmental needs. At a time when they yearn for independence from the adults in their lives, adolescents find themselves in classrooms where teachers begin to exert even stricter controls than they're used to. As they become capable of more sophisticated thinking, their teachers give them low-level cognitive work. And, during a period when they are painfully self-conscious, they're forced to make critical comparisons with their classmates.

Given all of that, the researchers theorize, it's not surprising that students seem to lose their motivation in their middle years of schooling.

And their later studies began to bear out some of those hypotheses.

Moreover, other psychologists also began to find that as children reach adolescence, their view of academic ability changes. Rather than see it as a product of hard work, as they did in elementary school, they view academic ability as a stable, inborn trait. Thus, to try and fail now means that you're "dumb." Effort takes on greater risk.

Changing Schools

Among the ways to head off those motivational declines in the middle years, researchers say, would be to change middle schools, to make them smaller and less bureaucratic, to put less emphasis on singling out students according to their academic ability, and to offer challenging schoolwork.

Consider Newaye Daniel. Although his middle school was much larger than the elementary school he attended, it was organized into smaller teams within each grade, and Newaye goes to classes with other students from his team. Students are also grouped heterogeneously for most classes. The result: Newaye says he finds his classwork more challenging than he did in elementary school. And he revels in such newfound responsibilities as having his own locker.

But other theorists say that reforming middle schools is not simply a matter of reorganizing them. Middle school teachers and administrators also need to pay attention to the motivational messages they send students.

ERIC Anderman, an assistant professor of education and counseling psychology at the University of Kentucky, maintains that students are motivated in two ways. One is to stress mastery of the task at hand. The other is to encourage students to demonstrate their own ability or to outperform others. The latter tends to encourage students to look for shortcuts, such as memorizing lists and formulas. The former, he says, results in a better quality learning experience and rewards learning for its own sake.

"We're arguing that middle schools are a lot more ability-focused than elementary schools," Anderman says. "School-reform efforts need to pay a lot more attention to motivation."

What cognitive theories on motivation do not address, however, is the influence that adolescents' friends may--or may not--have on their motivation to succeed in school.

In early adolescence, friendships become more intimate and cliques become more noticeable. "You hear parents say, 'My adolescent would probably be more motivated if he or she had different friends,"' says Thomas Berndt, a professor of psychological science at Purdue University. But parents' fears, he suggests, are exaggerated.

To test this idea, Berndt paired each of 118 8th graders with a close friend. The friends were then separately asked to respond to hypothetical scenarios, which required them to decide between two actions that reflected different levels of achievement motivation. Students were asked, for example, what they would do if they bought tickets for a big rock concert only to find out that it was the night before a difficult exam.

The pairs were then brought together to discuss their decisions. While student responses predictably became more like each other when friends were present, Berndt says, they did not shift to opposite extremes. Moreover, friends tended to influence each other in more positive--not more negative--directions.

Motivation Matters

To some degree, however, parents also effectively give up some of their influence when their children reach the middle school years. Studies show that parent participation in school falls off significantly in middle school and stays low thereafter.

"Middle school is a critical point," argues Joyce Epstein, the co-director of the Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Children's Learning at Johns Hopkins University. "If schools don't have strong programs that carry families along, they lose that involvement in a number of ways." Still, Epstein says, only about 40 percent of middle schools have such programs in place.

"When families are better informed, involved, and engaged, the schools report better attendance," Epstein says. "Even in inner cities, there are strong correlations tying family involvement to good attitudes about schools." Moreover, she says, "These come before we would see a direct achievement change. They are prerequisites."

In a national survey conducted in 1990, Epstein also pinpointed several other practices that she attributes to middle school success. Schools that had some form of weekly advisory groups, for example, to increase student contact with caring adults tended to have 1 percent fewer students who dropped out before finishing high school. Extra subject periods set aside for remedial instruction tended to result in 1.5 percent fewer students eventually dropping out of school. And schools that graded students on their progress, as well as on their performance, reported 1.7 percent fewer dropouts.

"If you tell a youngster, ~'You're getting a D relative to other students but an A for effort,' that's not a good message," Epstein says. "Progress grades tell you, 'You have a D relative to other students, but the teacher and the school are paying attention to you in a way that lets us know and you know that you are making progress.'"

These and other studies have provided some of the underpinnings for the most recent surge of the middle school reform movement--an effort that became highly visible when the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development released a 1989 report on the subject. Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century spawned nationwide efforts to reform mid-level schooling. At least three foundations--the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Eli Lilly Endowment, and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation--have since funded large-scale, multiyear efforts to bring about those changes.

But apart from the schools and states involved in such programs, it is difficult to say how widespread or firmly rooted the middle school reform movement has become. Indeed, Epstein's 1990 survey suggests that schools have a long way to go.

In the meantime, students like Newaye Daniel continue to defy the stereotypes. And he says many of his friends do, too.

Zachary Livingston, a fellow 7th grader, agrees. "Don't think you're talking to a couple of nerds," he says. "It's funner here. But if we went through the same level of easiness as we did in elementary school, we'd never be prepared."

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