A new battle cry of American education seems to be college and career readiness. School professionals are being urged to graduate students who can be successful in college and ready for a career. In a speech before Congress in 2009, President Obama raised the bar when he declared that “every American will need to get more than a high school diploma.”
Most of the literature you read that addresses college and career readiness focuses on improving instruction, refining assessments, bolstering graduation requirements or increasing accountability measures. There is little conversation about the relationship between school community and college readiness, specifically the relationship between a student’s sense of belonging in school and her self-understanding with regard to the potential for college admission and success.
A Sense of Belonging
A recent dissertation by Jamie Steiner for St. John Fisher College in Rochester, N.Y., looks at the relationship between students’ sense of belonging in school and their college-going self-efficacy. Steiner administered two surveys to over 200 eighth-grade students in a diverse, suburban district. One survey asked students to reflect on their sense of belonging in school, and the other asked them to share their feelings about whether or not they would attend, and be successful, in college. Steiner found that if students felt as if they belonged to the school community, the more likely they would be confident of succeeding in college.
We know that caring teachers, counselors and administrators influence a child’s sense of belonging. We know that students who feel a sense of psychological connection to their school community are more likely to be engaged in their learning and are more likely to behave in ways that promote self-development and socialization. And now we have evidence that students who feel connected are more likely to see themselves as future college students.
Counselors must play a critical role in helping students connect to their school community and in building their sense of college-going self-efficacy. And this is not an exhortation just for counselors who work with juniors and seniors in high school. Counselors who work with children of all ages must think about how their students experience school, and how that experience will have long-term ramifications on their sense of self and on their academic and professional lives.
Those who hold leadership roles within our schools must come to terms with the fact that standards, curriculum, instruction, assessments and accountability will only get you so far in improving student achievement. If you do not address the underlying issue of the student experience, these efforts might not have a discernible impact. In a worst-case scenario, they may do harm by fostering greater levels of anxiety, frustration and confusion in our schools. It was no surprise to me that Steiner found this positive relationship. It’s human nature—if we feel we belong, we are more likely to view ourselves as having the potential to achieve. It’s troubling that this simple principle seems to have been lost in the debate about educational reform. This research is a powerful reminder, though, that if you want your students thinking about college, you need to care for them and bring them into your school community—now.
Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District. Jamie Steiner, a middle school counselor at Sleepy Hollow Middle School, contributed to this article.