Promoting students’ belief in their academic abilities is key to curbing African-American high school dropout rates

Instead of solely fostering high schoolers’ self-esteem to curb African-American dropout rates, school social workers and educators should focus on the students’ academic self-beliefs, says a school social work expert.

“There is little evidence showing a link between feeling good about oneself and academic achievement, particularly with African-American youths,” says Melissa Jonson-Reid, Ph.D., associate professor at the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis.

“School social workers need to focus on programs that promote a student’s belief in their academic abilities and the importance of education, such as study skills training and mentoring.”

Jonson-Reid is the lead author of the article “Academic Self-Efficacy Among African-American Youths: Implications for School Social Work Practices,” in the January 2005 issue of the journal Children and Schools.

In the article, Jonson-Reid and colleagues examine recent research showing that instead of self-esteem, academic self-efficacy, or a belief in one’s abilities, is the key to academic success among African-American students. She also offers suggestions on how to make academic self-efficacy a part of school social work practice.

“Research shows that students with higher academic self-efficacy, regardless of earlier achievement or ability, work harder and persist longer; have better learning strategies, such as personal goal setting or time monitoring; and are less likely to engage in risky behaviors that negatively affect school success while controlling self-esteem,” she says.

“Academic self-efficacy also is associated with improved GPAs and improved mathematics problem-solving.”

Jonson-Reid notes that “this study does not suggest that racial identity and self-esteem among African-American youths are unimportant, only that they appear less critical to academic functioning than academic self-efficacy.”

Jonson-Reid and the article’s co-authors, Larry Davis, Ph.D., dean of the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh; Jeanne Saunders, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at the University of Iowa; Trina Williams, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan; and James Herbert Williams, Ph.D., associate dean at the School of Social Work at Washington University, used data from a study completed by Davis and answers to questionnaires completed by students from an urban high school to understand what factors were associated with academic self-efficacy.

“Students who believe that completing school is an important part of who they are and will help them do something positive with their life have increased confidence in their academic abilities,” Jonson-Reid says.

“Another important factor in improving academic self-efficacy is an availability of role models who completed high school.”

Research indicates that students’ intention to complete school is influenced by their beliefs that they can control or overcome barriers like perceived weaknesses in academic skills; distracting life situations that cause students to be too tired to go to school or simply to forget to do so; and conflicts with other students, teachers or staff.

“It is important that school social workers stay informed about the evidence related to school achievement as they seek to help schools close the black/white school achievement gap,” Jonson-Reid says.

“It is also important that school social workers disseminate this information to educators. Teachers can play a pivotal role by reinforcing the importance of completing school, being a positive role model and helping students gain a sense of mastery early in their academic careers.

“Research indicates that students need to experience actual success. Teachers must provide opportunities for students to feel good about their ability to succeed academically.”