School Transitions

In most American communities, youth experience at least one major school transition—the transition into high school—and often two major school transitions—an additional transition into either middle or junior high school—during the years from 10 to 18. Several scholars and policy makers have suggested a link between these school transitions and the declines in academic success experienced by many early adolescents. For example, Simmons and Blyth (1987) compared the developmental outcomes for youth in two different school configurations: a traditional K-6, 7–9, 10–12 grade configuration versus a K-8, 9–12 school configuration. They found a greater decline in school grades for those adolescents who moved from an elementary school into a junior high school at the end of 6th grade than for those who remained in a K-8 school. Furthermore, because this decline in grades was predictive of subsequent school failure and dropping out, the youth who experienced the junior high school transition were at greater risk of subsequent school failure and dropping out than those who remained in the K-8 schools. Roderick (1993) provided similar evidence of an association between the drop in grades over the junior high school transition and high school dropout. Simmons and Blyth (1987) also documented a greater decline in females’ self-esteem and a greater increase in males’ sense of being victimized for young people who experienced the junior high school transition than for those in the K-8, 9–12 grade configuration. Both Eccles and her colleagues (Eccles et al., 1993) and the Carnegie task force on middle grades education concluded that the junior high school transition also contributes to declines in interest in school, intrinsic motivation, self-concepts and self-perceptions, and confidence in one’s intellectual abilities, especially following failure (see Carnegie, 1995; Eccles et al., 1993, for evidence that these declines are especially marked for youth living in poor communities and for youth who are already having academic or other difficulties before the school transition).

Drawing on person-environment fit theory, Eccles and Midgley (1989) proposed that the negative motivational and behavioral changes associated with these school transitions result from the fact that many junior and senior high schools do not provide appropriate educational environments for youth in early and middle adolescence. According to this theory, behavior, motivation, and mental health are influenced by the fit between the characteristics that individuals bring to their social environments and the characteristics of the environments themselves.

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