“Transitions are interesting periods because they offer amazing opportunities, but they also pose unique risks. Many people struggle with these, and at times we see different pathways emerge.”
- Claudia Haase
The Seasons of Life
Some of life’s most dramatic transitions—think puberty—happen whether we’re ready or not. Others, such as marriage, childbirth, adoption, or the loss of a partner, are individual and fluid.
But these developmental periods aren’t the only important catalysts for change. As students move from preschool through high school and beyond into the workforce, their lives also are altered by the education system’s structure, an active area of research for many faculty members at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.
When longtime Dean Penelope Peterson embarks on her own personal transition into retirement this fall, she’ll hand over the reins of a multidisciplinary school that is a national leader in examining major changes across the life span.
Led by the Human Development and Social Policy doctoral program, researchers are looking at key developmental changes from adolescence through the senior years to better understand education. While some focus on the biological changes associated with transitions, others study the unwitting gaps created by decentralized preschools, high schools, community colleges, and other social institutions.
What unifies these different lines of work is that they look at how people deal with challenges and opportunities, said Claudia Haase, assistant professor of human development and social policy and director of the Life-Span Development Lab.
“Transitions are interesting periods because they offer amazing opportunities, but they also pose unique risks,” Haase said. “Many people struggle with these, and at times we see different pathways emerge.”
But to understand education, said Haase, whose research focuses on the role of emotion and motivation, “we need to understand the very basic development processes and the fact that people are constantly changing or undergoing transitions. We need to meet them where they are.”
That includes looking at institutional obstacles. A major problem for students stems from the way the school system is structured and decentralized in the U.S., said sociologist James Rosenbaum, a professor in the Human Development and Social Policy program, whose research has led to reforms at the community college level.
“In many states, elementary school is not well connected with high school, high school is not well connected with college, and college is not well connected with work,” Rosenbaum said. “We try changes and are stuck with institutional obstacles. But our research suggests there are alternatives.”
Indeed, the work of Northwestern faculty has influenced reforms in at least three key periods of schooling that are ripe for intervention.
Preschool to elementary school
The first day of kindergarten is an emotional day for parents and children alike, in part because it’s all new: Preschool and kindergarten, the start of elementary school, historically have been housed in separate buildings and on different campuses. Even when students are under the same roof, policies, teachers, and curriculum are frequently disconnected.
But increasingly, efforts are underway to create stronger and more seamless connections between the two levels to sustain the gains made in preschool, an initiative known as the “preschool-3” movement, or preschool-third grade.
Northwestern Professor Cynthia Coburn has recently received a series of grants to analyze data from two California school districts that have spearheaded changes to aid preschoolers.
For example, in one district, the principal is in charge of both the pre-k and elementary grades in the building. Another district provides early childhood development training for elementary principals to better meet the needs of the pre-kindergarten students in their buildings.
Coburn and her team will focus on math because that’s where the disconnect between prekindergarten and elementary school may be especially acute, she said.
“Pre-kindergarten and elementary teachers are typically more comfortable, familiar with and spend more time teaching literacy than math,” said Coburn, an organizational sociologist who studies policy implementation.
With more information about how the initiatives are working, Coburn hopes to identify ways that funders, policymakers, and educational leaders can take preschool-3 initiatives to the next level.
High school to work
Another big leap in life comes with high school graduation. Teenagers often struggle when they dive straight into the work force. In addition to finding a job, they may be adjusting to a new relationship with their parents, moving out of the house, or experiencing other major life changes, said Northwestern Professor Bart Hirsch, a psychologist in the Human Development and Social Policy program and the author of Job Skills and Minority Youth: New Program Directions.
Hirsch’s research suggests that two initiatives could help the schoolto- work transition: a large-scale after-school program that provides apprenticeship-type experiences, and a mock-job-interview training program for high school students, developed with input from human resources professionals.
“Programs need to teach young people both hard and soft skills,” Hirsch said. “They need to use those skills to accomplish something in the job training program.” In addition, teenagers need to learn how to communicate about work issues, and even more fundamentally, how to be at ease talking about job issues with adults, Hirsch said.
Hirsch developed a job-interview training program for high school students after a three-year evaluation of the After School Matters apprenticeship program for Chicago high school students, which identified factors that would improve hiring. For example, “a lot of these kids had experiences and skills that employers would value, but the kids don’t know that and don’t know how to communicate that,” Hirsch said.
His program, based on mock interviews, doubled the hiring rate among students in six vocational class periods. The finding is based on a com- parison of mock interviewers’ hiring decisions pre- and post-training.
“The interview experience was critical for kids,” Hirsch said. “They have no idea what they’re like, particularly if they’re applying for a better kind of job, with benefits and promotion opportunities.”
On the flip side, “if businesses make more of an effort to interview kids, they’ll find many of them are really quite capable,” Hirsch said.
High school to four-year college
Transitioning from high school to a four-year college can be a difficult passage for first-generation college students. Research suggests first- generation students earn lower grades, are at greater risk of dropping out and feel a greater sense of “not belonging” when they transition to college because they’re surrounded by peers who don’t understand their situation. Programs designed to help often leave out discussions of students’ social class backgrounds.
However, efforts to erase discussions of social class can hurt a first- generation student’s chance of success, said Northwestern Professor Mesmin Destin who led a novel experiment that closed by 63 percent the persistent academic achievement gap between first-generation college students and continuing-generation students.
The “difference-education” intervention, which took place at the beginning of the academic year, deliberately but subtly included dis- cussions of the ways that students’ different social class backgrounds impacted their college experience. Researchers compared it to the “standard intervention,” which avoids reference to social class.
The effort didn’t just close the social-class academic achievement gap; it also improved first-generation students’ psychological adjustment to college.
Destin’s work also indicates that when students from low socio- economic-status backgrounds perceive their universities to be “chilly” toward students from their backgrounds, their academic confidence and sense of selves as high-achievers suffer.
“Whether or not people realize it, your economic background shapes how you see yourself as a person and where you feel comfortable in the world,” Destin said. “In the United States, we tend to see ourselves as a classless society—everybody is middle class and has the same opportunities—and when we are confronted with evidence that is not the case, we don’t really have the language to talk about it.”