Study Finds High-School’s Effect on Passage to Adulthood Overstated

By Cindy Currence — February 15, 1984 4 min read

The influence of high school on students’ transition to adulthood has been overemphasized in past studies, a new report has found. The study concludes that how a student fits into a variety of community groups--including family, school, and social institutions--is far more developmentally significant than is the impact of any single institution.

“We’ve been totally unaware of what kids do outside of school,” says Francis A.J. Ianni, professor of education at Columbia University’s Teachers College and author of the study, “Home, School, and Community in Adolescent Education.”

The researcher bases his conclusions on the results of a five-year study of more than 1,200 students in urban, suburban, and rural high schools around the country. The $485,000 study was supported by a grant from the Spencer Foundation and initially financed by the National Institute of Education and the Ford Foundation.

Since 1979, a team of sociologists, anthropologists, and psychoanalysts under Mr. Ianni’s direction has interviewed and observed students, teachers, parents, police officers, and other adults involved with young people. The Columbia scholar, whose field is psychoanalysis, also conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than 200 students.

Mr. Ianni suggests that his findings diverge from those of previous reports on adolescence in that the team looked at both school and nonschool environments.

He points to several reports writ-ten in the 1960’s, particularly “Adolescents in the Schools” by A.S. Coleman, which characterized adolescents as a distinct society, alienated from adults and greatly dependent on peer support.

Mr. Coleman asked students in high schools to select the most popular students in school and to explain why they should be considered popular. The characteristics of popularity they cited were not good grades, intellectual orientation, industriousness, or any of the other school- and adult-valued features that Mr. Coleman had anticipated. Instead the students tended to cite good personalities, good looks, being well dressed, being an athlete, and having material possessions such as a car as the qualities of popular peers.

“It was this orientation to present concerns which led Mr. Coleman to describe a distinct ‘adolescent society’ as a social system in which adolescents were oriented solely to their peers,” Mr. Ianni writes.

But based on his research and that of other scholars, Mr. Ianni concluded that the theory of a “distinct adolescent society” was unfounded. He contends that the “conforming and present-oriented behavior” that students exhibited in the Coleman study may relate only to the unique structure of the school society.

Looking at teen-agers within a variety of social institutions creates a different picture, according to Mr. Ianni.

His report challenges the stereotype of “rebellious” teen-agers who rely exclusively on their peer group for guidance.

“Not only is there research evidence that families continue to have a major role in youth decisions, most evidence indicates that adolescents’ attitudes and values are quite similar to their parents’ value orientations,” he writes.

“Further, the selection or designation of parents or peers as the pertinent reference group is not uni-dimensional, but rather situational; adolescents tend to turn to peers for advice on situations which have implications for present status and peer relations, while they opt for their parents’ advice on topics with implications for future status and entry into adult society,” he continues.

Rather than the influence of the peer group, the most important factor in the transition from adolescence to adulthood seems to be the amount of conflict between social insitutions in teaching teen-agers what it means to be an “adult,” Mr. Ianni concludes in his report.

School and Community At Odds

Students who grow up in urban areas, for example, face a far more difficult transition to adulthood because there is so much “antagonism” between social institutions, according to the researcher. In urban areas, the school and community are frequently at odds and the labor market is critical of both, he suggests. “Youth are left to chart their own course, or, much worse, to pick a route from among the often confusing signals put out by the family, the peer group, the school, and the workplace.”

Without a set of rules enforced consistently by the family, the school, and other community institutions, urban students often develop their own codes of behavior, he points out. One manifestation of this code-making is youth gangs, which he describes as “highly structured” organizations that meet the adolescent’s need for order.

In suburban areas, however, school and community tend to be mutually supportive, geared toward producing young people who can compete for a place in college and eventually for success in careers. “Each of the other social institutional sectors shares this common goal,” Mr. Ianni explains.

The disadvantage of the goal-oriented structure of suburban communities is that it creates an extremely competitive atmosphere “that some kids can’t cope with,” he says. In a suburban community with such clearly-defined goals and rules for adolescents, Mr. Ianni suggests that “alternative” paths to adulthood be developed to accommodate students who are not naturally competitive.

To make the transition to adulthood easier for adolescents, Mr. Ianni suggests “re-connecting” the social institutions that teen-agers are caught between. “The first step is a reconciliation between schools and the other social institutions,” he argues.

A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 1984 edition of Education Week as Study Finds High-School’s Effect on Passage to Adulthood Overstated