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Alternative high school graduates' assessments of the quality of their high school experience: Seven years later

Dissertation
Author: Patrice K. De La Ossa
Abstract:
Growing numbers of students in the United States are choosing to attend an alternative high school. However, because most studies of student perceptions of high school experiences have been conducted with graduates of traditional schools, little is known about whether graduates of public non-charter alternative schools perceive their schools as having prepared them for life. Using Deci's self-determination theory with a constructivist framework, a longitudinal study was conducted on a group of seven former alternative high school students who were part of a similar study in 2001. The 2001 study indicated that their high school experience gave them a sense of success, autonomy, and personal worth. The current study used focus groups and interviews to determine how satisfied participants were with their lives today and whether their education had been appropriate for them. Elements of their education participants believed led to their life satisfaction were having stronger personal relationships with teachers, being treated more like adults, and being able to participate in structuring their learning and academic activities. The results of this study (a) affirm that students can evaluate their school experiences objectively and (b) document that these adult graduates' views of their school experiences were similar to those held when they were students. Results indicate providing equitable opportunities for all students to pursue graduation proved essential for students' success and later life and educational satisfaction. The results also affirmed participants believed alternative school models were a valid and worthwhile choice for young people and their parents to consider when the traditional school was not appropriate. Giving youth more options for completing high school should increase the high school graduation rate, an achievement that is fundamental to lasting positive social change in America. This study helps create positive change by providing information to district planners and parents who make school option decisions for students.

i Table of Contents

List of Figures .................................................................................................................... vi Chapter 1: Introduction to the Study ....................................................................................1 Introduction ..........................................................................................................................1 Background ..........................................................................................................................1 Problem Statement ...............................................................................................................6 Purpose .................................................................................................................................7 Nature of the Study ..............................................................................................................7 Research Questions ..............................................................................................................9 The Development of American Alternative Education .....................................................13 Conceptual Framework ......................................................................................................19 Operational Definitions ......................................................................................................22 Assumptions .......................................................................................................................23 Delimitations and Limitations ............................................................................................24 Significance of the Study ...................................................................................................25 Potential for Social Change ...............................................................................................27 Chapter 2: Literature Review .............................................................................................31 Introduction ........................................................................................................................31 History of Public Alternative High Schools ......................................................................31 Defining Alternative Education .........................................................................................36

ii Characteristics of Alternative High Schools ......................................................................41 Evaluations Using Student Opinions .................................................................................45 Current Evaluation Methods of Public Schools .....................................................45 Longitudinal Studies Using Student Voices ..........................................................49 Student Voices From the Alternative School.........................................................49 Appreciative Inquiry as a Tool for Research .....................................................................50 Problem Solving to Appreciating...........................................................................51 Research Tool and Aims of the Group ..................................................................53 Education and Appreciative Inquiry ......................................................................54 Research Design.................................................................................................................56 Focus Groups in Educational Research .............................................................................58 Self-Determination Motivational Theory ..........................................................................61 Self-Determination Theory and Education ........................................................................62 Conclusion .........................................................................................................................65 Chapter 3: Methodology ....................................................................................................66 Introduction ........................................................................................................................66 Fit Between Purpose and Approach ...................................................................................68 The Significance of Students as Evaluators .......................................................................68 Qualitative Design .............................................................................................................70 Qualifications of the Researcher ........................................................................................71 Research Procedures ..........................................................................................................72 School and Participant Selections ..........................................................................72

iii

Protection of Participants’ Rights ..........................................................................74 School Participation ...............................................................................................75 Research Questions ................................................................................................76 Guided Interview Questions ..................................................................................77 Data Collection ......................................................................................................78 Social Impact .........................................................................................................79 Potential for Social Change ...................................................................................80 Conceptual Framework and Data Analysis............................................................81 Evidence of Quality ...............................................................................................82 Summary ............................................................................................................................83 Chapter 4: Results of the Study .........................................................................................84 Introduction ........................................................................................................................84 Data Collection ..................................................................................................................84 Challenges of a Longitudinal Study ...................................................................................85 Interview and Focus Groups ..............................................................................................86 Data Analysis and Emerging Understanding .....................................................................88 Coding ....................................................................................................................89 Transana .................................................................................................................89 Memo Writing ........................................................................................................90 Creating Portraiture ................................................................................................90 Research Findings ..............................................................................................................90 Theme 1- Research Question 1: Learning .............................................................95

iv Theme 2- Research Question 1: Autonomy ...........................................................99 Theme 3- Research Question 1: Relationships ...................................................103 Theme 4- Research Question 2: Teachers ...........................................................108 Theme 5- Research Question 2: Options .............................................................110 Theme 6 - Research Question 2: Failure..............................................................112 Theme 7- Research Question 2: Community Perceptions ..................................114 Theme 8- Research Question 2: Student Perceptions ..........................................117 Response to Peer Reviewer ..............................................................................................117 Evidence of Quality .........................................................................................................118 Strategies Used To Collect Evidence of Quality .................................................119 Researcher Bias ....................................................................................................120 Summary ..........................................................................................................................121 Chapter 5: Conclusions, Implications, and Recommendations ......................................122 Introduction ......................................................................................................................122 Data Interpretation Process ..............................................................................................122 Conclusions and Interpretations of Findings ...................................................................123 Learning ...............................................................................................................123 Autonomy ............................................................................................................124 Relationships ........................................................................................................124 Teachers ...............................................................................................................126 Options for Success..............................................................................................127

v Negative Public Perception ..................................................................................128 Portraiture ........................................................................................................................128 Implications for Social Change ........................................................................................130 Recommendations for Action ..........................................................................................130 Recommendations for Further Study ...............................................................................131 Reflection .........................................................................................................................131 Summary ..........................................................................................................................132 References ........................................................................................................................135 Appendix A: Letter of Cooperation .................................................................................152 Appendix B: Letter to Participants and Consent Form ....................................................153 Appendix C: Interview Questions ....................................................................................156 Appendix D: Letter to School Principals ........................................................................158 Appendix E: Codes for Data Analysis .............................................................................159 Appendix F: Audit Trail...................................................................................................161 Appendix G: Sample of Coded Data ...............................................................................163

Curriculum Vitae .............................................................................................................165

vi List of Figures Figure 1. Venn diagram illustrating the three elements of the conceptual framework ......19 Figure 2. The interrelationships of the elements of the research design ............................66 Figure 3. Graphic representation of the process of data management. ..............................88 Figure 4. Graphic representation of the ways participants perceive they were prepared for life. .........................................................................................................................91

1

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Study Introduction In 2001, 78 students from different alternative high schools (AHS) in a Washington State school district came together to discuss their school experiences in focus groups. As leader-facilitator of the group and a teacher at an AHS, I saw in the perceptions and observations they shared a rich portrait of student experiences. As a result, I created a video documentary of the events and titled it Hear My Voice! Alternative High School Students’ Perceptions and Implications for School Change. The documentary revealed students’ beliefs about the value and quality of their secondary education as they were living it. The project reflected Dewey’s (1938) appeal to educators to have a “sympathetic understanding of individuals as individuals [so those educators would have an] idea of what is actually going on in the minds of those who are learning” (p. 39). I made the video available to those who were interested in alternative education. At the time, I did not anticipate that the experience and the project would evolve into a formal research study about the place of the AHS in public education. Background Meeting the needs of students in public schools is an ever-changing challenge as American school districts continue to move to more high stakes testing and demands for accountability. Social and family changes make it imperative to learn whether the public schools are providing the kind of preparation needed for the modern world. While traditional schools have served most students well, not all students thrive in them. The

2 AHS has historically been a vehicle for students who need a different setting, and although they have existed throughout history in the United States, they have been viewed in some quarters as lesser than the mainstream school. This study is different from the typical approach in that it provides longitudinal data to compare students’ perceptions of their needs during high school with how life experiences and challenges may have altered or confirmed those perceptions. Many longitudinal studies use a quantitative approach such as online or mailed surveys. This study used the same qualitative approach and format as the one used to gather information in the 2001 study. The results of both studies present truth as it was perceived originally by the participants and the way they perceived it in the study. Qualitative researchers such as Merriam (1998) view reality as “constructed by individuals in interaction with their social world” (p. 17). The adults participating in the second study have been given authority in occupational settings, as parents, teachers, military personal, and taxpayers, and are stakeholders in the public education system. Their views represent a cross-section of their demographic groups, just as it did when they were high school students. One elusive goal of American society has been high school completion for all students. The fact that too few students who enter

ninth grade graduate from high school surfaces in nearly every conversation about the failures of public education. Yet even with the resources available to assist students to achieve that goal, each year, students drop out of school before graduation.

3 Weston (2007), a writer and advocate for school change, proposed a shift in the evaluation of education that included four radical ideas. One idea involved feedback about school performance. Evaluation has historically been used as a way to measure student achievement to determine whether a student knows course material well enough to go to the next level. Teacher performance and effectiveness are also measured by evaluations that determine who is retained as an employee, who gets a merit raise or award, and who is not recommended for continued employment at the school or in the district. Typically, the person in power evaluates the subordinate. Weston asked what the effect and results would be if students evaluated teachers, teachers evaluated administration, and parents evaluated teachers and the school. He even suggested that the schools evaluate how well parents carry out their part of raising young people. Student evaluation of instructors, which is common in colleges, is an approach that allows students to be major players in the school, but such evaluation is rarely part of public schools. This is partly because students in public schools are younger and have neither chosen their school nor, for that matter, chosen to even attend school. College students are in the classroom by choice, have paid tuition for their courses, and are thought to have better judgment if only because they are part of a more select population. Students in alternative schools fit some of those criteria: They are self selected, arguably more independent minded, and part of a much smaller population. Their perspectives are different from those of students who attend the schools they have been assigned to, and many of them have been tempered by greater experience than those in the regular high

4 school. This argument gives some credence to the assertion that the perspectives of AHS students may reveal greater wisdom than the typical student. For state departments of education, local educational agencies, school administrations, school boards, and parents to heed the suggestions of the young people who are most affected by public schooling, they must be convinced that student observations have validity. One way to validate such observations is to measure whether they are still deemed accurate by the students themselves once those students are out of high school. In this approach, student perceptions of their high school experience should include commentary on what was worthwhile, how they might have been better prepared, and how the school can be improved. This concept has not yet been embraced by schools; instead, most schools employ a top-down approach to control and management, with students being acted upon rather than being participants in the process. However, a significant social change may result if students are given a greater voice in the operation of schools. A public school is a microcosm of the greater society, and while allowing youth to actually manage the way a school operates would be contrary to reason, the perceptions of young people should be considered. Those who attend school probably understand how its rules and restrictions affect them better than any authority or outsider. By the time people reach the age of 16 and have been in school for 10 or more years, most have developed a good sense of what is not working in their school life. Most students chose or were encouraged to attend an AHS to complete their education because of some manifestation of the traditional setting’s being inappropriate for them. It may be

5 that sitting in a classroom for traditional instruction is difficult because of their emotional or physiological makeup. It may be that psychosocial dynamics are threatening or uncomfortable to them. They may be gifted in one area and unable to comprehend the content of another. They might be unable to express themselves orally in a group or deal with a paper-and-pencil test. These many variables describe students who generally do not function well in the typical public school setting. They recognize the problems they encounter and can often describe what it is that inhibits their social and intellectual progress, but they typically have a single choice: Stay in the traditional school and fail or drop out of school. That seems to be their only option for escaping a situation they find difficult—if not intolerable. There have always been alternatives to the traditional model of public high school with its Carnegie units, beginning and ending of standard class periods signaled by a bell, and ability grouping. Olive (2003) said that alternative programs were founded to serve a population of children and youth whose education and treatment required innovative and comprehensive techniques and methodologies that were largely, and continue to be, missing from most regular educational settings. Usually, the only time students receive treatment tailored to their unique needs is if they have been labeled “exceptional,” and that label often carries with it some stigma, because adolescents value being like their peers. Offerings for exceptional students may exist as separate provisions within a single school or may be the focus of a school specifically for the exceptional student. These are not the students this study assessed.

6 With the imposition of stringent standards of learning and ever-higher achievement test scores, schools out of the mainstream must find ways to provide learning opportunities equal to the larger, traditional institutions. These opportunities must be provided, however, in an atmosphere in which young people who are discouraged by the traditional approach are comfortable. What may not be accepted by many traditionalists is that different does not mean lesser, and alternative does not mean for the misfit. Alternative education or alternative schools provide a different learning environment, one away from the competition for social status and athletic accomplishments or the kind of academic achievement associated with the comprehensive school. While high school completion continues to be the ultimate goal of public education, raising the rate of graduation cannot be the sole responsibility of the adults who run the schools. Teachers, parents, community organizations, and school administration are often invited to add to the discussion, but students are rarely consulted. That student perceptions have validity is borne out by the observation, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas, 1928, p. 572). “Men” in this context can certainly be construed as “human.” That being accepted, the way students perceive their educational experience is as real as the perceptions of outsiders who attempt to speak for them. A belief in the value of student opinion was the impetus for my 2001 documentary, which asked students to share their perceptions. Problem Statement

Public schools do not educate all students equitably. Although research has addressed some variables in public alternative education programs, there is inadequate

7 information about how the small, noncharter public AHS, in particular, is providing a viable option for completing high school. There is a need to know more about how structural elements of school organization affect student experience. This study addressed Corbett and Wilson’s (1995) concern that despite repeated calls for reform aimed at students, young people have not been included in studies of educational reform. Purpose The purpose of this research was to gain an in-depth understanding of public AHS students’ perceptions of their educational experience 7 years after graduation. Because the high school dropout rate in traditional schools is not abating, and the number of students enrolling in the AHS is increasing, there is a need to learn whether the alternative school option is equivalent to the traditional school in terms of preparing students for life. In particular, decision makers need to know whether an AHS enables its graduates to fulfill career and educational plans. In this study, former AHS students expressed their perceptions of their individual high school experiences. The results yielded information that may be used in planning alternative education that provides the skills and knowledge students need for postgraduate education and employment. Nature of the Study This study built upon a video documentary I created in 2001 that included 78 students from eight Puget Sound area public alternative high schools. These students participated in focus groups using an appreciative inquiry approach that resulted in an examination of their perceptions and experiences. Examining a group that may be viewed as lesser or not successful by traditional school cultures and pedagogical practices may

8 provide the knowledge needed to create school settings that fit the atypical student. This study examined the constructs of reality by individuals who comprise groups that have typically or historically been discriminated against or have not lived a privileged life. Their responses provide a different perspective. In this study, I invited the same students who participated in the 2001 study to participate in video taped focus groups and interviews examining a new evaluation and creating a new portrait of the experiences they have had since graduation, particularly as they might have achieved levels of personal and professional satisfaction following their high school experiences. This study, which focused on student perceptions about learning and knowing, provides a resource for school change that has not yet been fully investigated. In this study, I sought to determine if the ways participants viewed their experiences as public alternative high school students had changed since graduation, what had stayed with them, what new experiences they have had, and what can be learned from those experiences. Focus groups are a tradition in marketing. Goebert (2001) asserted that focus groups fall under social science research approaches as well. Similar to the portraiture Lightfoot (1983) created of her subjects, Goebert stated, “Listening in focus groups is like painting. Each panelist and each group adds color and texture. In the end, a cohesive picture should and usually does emerge” (p. 6). When approaching consumers to inquire which brand they prefer, it is best to use a survey or quantitative approach. Using a focus group is a qualitative research technique that lets a researcher probe beyond the measurements (p. 3). Focus groups are the ideal place to begin to understand how

9 participants feel and get into their psyches rather than the autopilot syndrome of responding to a quantitative survey. During a focus group, a researcher interacts with participants, although the interaction is to assist the group to interact with each other and comment on each other’s reactions and thoughts. The role of the researcher, then, is to guide participants to explore their feelings and examine the questions posed to the group. The focus group format enables participants to openly discuss their thoughts and perceptions about the questions that are designed to guide them to examine the specific qualities of the AHS that helped them to graduate. The focus group format also presses them to consider their earlier perceptions of whether their schools gave them what they needed and compare them with the way they now perceive those needs were or were not met. Research Questions The primary focus of this study was to find answers to the overarching question, “How are public alternative high schools serving the needs of students?” Participants were asked questions to elicit responses that would lead to an understanding of the following: 1. How do graduates of alternative high schools perceive they were prepared for their life goals? 2. How do graduates of alternative high schools perceive their school experiences helped or hindered them?

10 Most alternative education programs are based on a humanistic philosophy. Roberts (1974) explained that the humanistic approach to educational psychology emphasizes possibilities for growth, seeking to develop the abilities that humans have, and helping them to develop them more fully. This philosophy allows a wide range of approaches, particularly those that encourage social and interpersonal skills. The humanistic emphasis is on enriching and enjoying oneself, one’s life, and society, an approach that ideally produces people who work well in a democratic culture. This approach has been formulated and incorporated into a new theory, one that posits that positive teacher-student relationships are associated with optimal, holistic learning (Cornelius-White, 2007). It includes classical, humanistic education and today’s constructivist learner-centered model. Meir (2006) asserted that the whole point of public education is to prepare young people for participation in society and for assuming the responsibilities that brings. Along with a belief that positive student-teacher interaction is necessary and important, student perceptions regarding these relationships are needed to gain a better understanding of whether these interactions have value beyond personal needs. This may be one reason students leave the larger conventional high schools. Students have described a variety of factors leading to their decisions that were associated with their lack of success in traditional programs. Castleberry and Enger (1998) reported the following reasons students gave: Pace: “We moved on to other work before we could understand what we had just done. . . . I felt I was always pushed and never had time to finish my work.”

11 Teachers: “Teachers didn’t have time to go back and explain things if you didn’t understand. . . . Teachers didn’t have time to help me so I guessed at my work and didn’t get help when I needed it.” Size: “There were too many students in the class and too many distractions. . . . I could sleep in class and never be noticed.” Class work: “Teachers lectured, and I can’t learn that way. . . . I didn’t learn anything except for a test.” (p. 106) Many students who leave the conventional high school drop out of school altogether. According to the National Center for education Statistics, In October 2001, some 3.8 million 16- through 24-year-olds were not enrolled in a high school program and had not completed high school (status dropouts). These individuals accounted for 10.7 percent of the 35.2 million 16- through 24- year-olds in the United States in 2001, the last year for which data are available. (Dropout Rates, 2004) Although they are not closely tracked because of the differences in definitions of alternative schools, many may have chosen an AHS. Raywid (1994) captured the broad definitions of alternative schools used in the 1990s and described them as three basic types: 1. Type I alternative: Schools of choice, sometimes resembling magnet schools and based on themes with an emphasis on innovative programs or strategies to attract students.

12 2. Type II alternative: “Last chance” schools where students are sent as a last step before expulsion. These are not schools of choice, and their emphasis is typically on behavior modification or remediation. 3. Type III alternative: Designed with a remedial focus on academic and/or social and emotional issues. (p. 27) Many alternative programs fall into one of these types or a combination or types. Lange and Sletten (2002) proposed adding a fourth type that combines school choice, remediation, and innovation to create a “second chance” program. Along with the debate over how to clearly define and classify alternative programs within public education, there is still debate over essential elements or best practices of alternative schools. Lange and Sletten (2002) stated that practice for most existing alternatives is not yet thoroughly documented. They do, however, give some of the many descriptors of effective alternative schools: 1. Like traditional schools, they have clear regulations about student evaluation and reenrollment. 2. Their approach to curriculum is structured and consistent. 3. A student-centered atmosphere gives students a sense of autonomy. 4. Areas such as assessment, curriculum, teacher competencies, and special education services are grounded in research. 5. Teachers who work with this population are prepared and supported. 6. The school is linked to multiple agencies, including those who serve students with special needs.

13 The Development of American Alternative Education Alternatives in American education are as old as the country itself. The most popular option in colonial America was instruction at home (Young, 1990). Part of the reason for this was the isolation of families on the frontier, but sometimes it was also a choice. Instruction at home was a feasible option chosen by some parents, and during the 17th and 18th centuries, private schools greatly outnumbered public ones. A variety of options existed for students who could afford to pay fees for their education, but the same opportunities did not exist for those who could not. Not only did many alternatives to public schooling start during colonial times in America, so did the issue of equity and the problems of class divisions. With the belief that not all parents and teachers were preparing children to read and understand the principles of religion and the capital laws of the country—the basis for requiring literacy during this period—colonists established schools similar to those in Europe (Good, 1973). Schools in some colonies were open all year; others were divided into terms, with boys attending in the winter and girls attending in the summer. The length of the school year also differed by locale. Some New England towns had “moving schools” to reach as many children as possible, a practice said to have led to the system still used by high schools and colleges, in which the school year is divided into academic quarters (Feldman, 2001). The academic quarter or semester system persisted into the 20 th century, and there were few changes except those required for convenience—such as school being closed in the summer to free children for helping in the fields and the longer Christmas holiday

14 break to allow for travel to be with families. Little effort was made to require school attendance, and in rural areas, it was not unusual for children to drop out of school in the elementary grades to go to work. With the advent of compulsory education laws, however, it was clear to many that the factory model was not working well enough, and the public began to call for educational reform. Even in the early years of the 20 th century, there were alternative types of schools for married or pregnant girls and for both boys and girls who were in the juvenile justice system. Rather than these school options being an attractive choice, however, they were mandatory because of the student’s having violated school policy or the law. Then in the 1920s and 1930s, some parts of the United States began to consider the concept of “progressive” education, a movement sparked by John Dewey’s (1897) declaration: I believe that the only true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s powers by the demands of the social situations in which he finds himself. Through these demands, he is stimulated to act as a member of a unity, to emerge from his original narrowness of action and feeling, and to conceive of himself from the standpoint of the welfare of the group to which he belongs. (p. 77) This revolutionary notion led to the belief that the schools’ ultimate task was to prepare people for life and for change. And as the century moved on, the idea of children being grouped in an assigned school—usually based on geography—in a single class of those of similar ages changed. Educators began to understand that human growth and development, which was identified as occurring in stages, differed from child to child.

15 Older children were now called “teenagers,” a group that was granted more autonomy than those who were younger. Although lacking the authority of adulthood, this group could make more decisions than they had been able to before this distinction emerged. These philosophical beliefs were accepted by educators in varying degrees, and with that acceptance came disagreement on how they would affect schooling. How the progressives’ ideas were applied varied over time and among different educators. It was agreed that a progressive school followed a child-centered rather than a subject-centered curriculum and was a school that mobilized children’s natural desire to learn (Spring, 1994). They also agreed that progressive described a school concerned with promoting children’s emotional and physical needs as well as their intellectual development. This agreement, however, masked a great deal of controversy about the ideal balance between intellectual concerns and other needs within the school program and how much emphasis on subject matter should remain. Progressive also implies that a school would extend to young people some decisions in determining the content of their education. Here, too, educators disagree on how much real responsibility the schools could give to students. There was less agreement, even superficially, on a final point. Some believed that a progressive school should have a program that would help children to develop in ways that would lead them to become reformers and to improve the world outside the classroom. So the progressive movement was not without an agenda of its own. This time, however, the agenda was not religious or political—it was social fulfillment.

Full document contains 178 pages
Abstract: Growing numbers of students in the United States are choosing to attend an alternative high school. However, because most studies of student perceptions of high school experiences have been conducted with graduates of traditional schools, little is known about whether graduates of public non-charter alternative schools perceive their schools as having prepared them for life. Using Deci's self-determination theory with a constructivist framework, a longitudinal study was conducted on a group of seven former alternative high school students who were part of a similar study in 2001. The 2001 study indicated that their high school experience gave them a sense of success, autonomy, and personal worth. The current study used focus groups and interviews to determine how satisfied participants were with their lives today and whether their education had been appropriate for them. Elements of their education participants believed led to their life satisfaction were having stronger personal relationships with teachers, being treated more like adults, and being able to participate in structuring their learning and academic activities. The results of this study (a) affirm that students can evaluate their school experiences objectively and (b) document that these adult graduates' views of their school experiences were similar to those held when they were students. Results indicate providing equitable opportunities for all students to pursue graduation proved essential for students' success and later life and educational satisfaction. The results also affirmed participants believed alternative school models were a valid and worthwhile choice for young people and their parents to consider when the traditional school was not appropriate. Giving youth more options for completing high school should increase the high school graduation rate, an achievement that is fundamental to lasting positive social change in America. This study helps create positive change by providing information to district planners and parents who make school option decisions for students.