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date: 13 October 2019

Academic Optimism

Summary and Keywords

Academic optimism was developed in 2006 as a latent concept that provides insight into the improvement of student outcomes especially for those who, because of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and other demographics, have historically been labeled as underperforming. The three main components of academic optimism (academic emphasis, collective emphasis, and faculty trust) underscore the reality that the teachers, parents, and students all play a critical role in the education arena when it comes to ensuring that students fully grow and stretch to the fullest extent possible. High academic optimism in a school suggests that academic achievement is valued and supported; the faculty has the capacity to help students achieve; and students and parents can be trusted as partners of the school for student achievement. Each of these can be controlled by the actions and decisions of school leaders and faculty so that schools can overcome the effects of poverty on student achievement.

Keywords: academic optimism, academic emphasis, collective efficacy, faculty trust, academic press

Introduction

In the Fall 2006 issue of the American Education Research Journal (AERJ), Hoy, Tarter, and Woolfolk Hoy identified the new construct of academic optimism as a general latent concept related to student achievement, even after controlling for socioeconomic status (SES), previous performance, and other demographic variables (Guvercin, 2013; Rutledge, Cohen-Vogel, Osborne-Lampkin, & Roberts, 2015). The structural model of academic optimism supports and builds upon Seligman’s (1998) theory that optimism influences achievement as much as talent and motivation and that optimism can be learned and developed. As such, Hoy and his colleagues outlined three interrelated components: (a) academic emphasis, (b) collective efficacy, and (c) faculty trust; they suggested that, collectively, these components enhance learning, improve student achievement, and shape school norms and behavioral expectations (Hoy, Tarter, & Kottcamp, 1991; Lee & Bryk, 1989). According to Beard, Hoy, and Hoy (2010), the components are considered as a “triadic set of interactions,” one supporting the other (p. 1136).

Although the three components are interrelated, each of these three areas is specifically defined and grounded in theory and research. The importance of academic optimism as a theoretical framework is its inclusion of cognitive, affective, and behavioral domains. Hoy et al. (2006) posit that, “Collective efficacy is a group belief or expectation, it is cognitive. Faculty trust in parents and students is an affective response. Academic emphasis is the push for particular behaviors in the school” (p. 431).

Academic Emphasis

Academic emphasis (also referred to as “academic push” and “environmental press”) is defined as the “extent to which a school is driven by a quest for academic excellence” (Hoy et al., 2006, p. 427). Schools with high levels of academic emphasis are characterized by high but achievable academic goals for all students, a belief that all students are capable of achieving these goals, an orderly and serious school environment, and an overall pursuit for academic success (Goddard, Sweetland, & Hoy, 2000, p. 684). Research has demonstrated that academic emphasis is the first component of the larger theoretical framework of academic optimism that is positively related to student achievement, even after controlling for the SES of students (Goddard et al., 2000; Hoy et al., 2006; Hoy et al., 1991; Lee & Byrk, 1989). Shouse (1995) supported this argument and added that educational equity can (and should) be achieved in low-SES schools by utilizing both “human and social capital in more academically focused ways” (p. 19).

Academic emphasis becomes a way of characterizing the instructional climate and culture of the school. While climate characterizes the school’s impact on students, culture refers more to the manner in which the teachers and other staff members work together. Schools characterized by academic emphasis focus on and insist upon student achievement; they send a clear and consistent message to the school community that the academic success of all students is both possible and critical. Schools with high academic emphasis have equally high demands for all of their students and offer strong, individualized support in ensuring that every student achieves at a high level.

Some researchers have contributed to the field by suggesting policies, practices, and beliefs that correlate high levels of academic emphasis in schools with increased and equitable student achievement. For example, Murphy, Weil, Hallinger, and Mittman (1982) argued that “academic press can be maximized when school-level policies and enforcement practices form the framework for classroom-level activity” (p. 26). The authors also identified five categories of teacher practices that contribute to academic press: (a) establishing an academically demanding climate; (b) conducting an orderly, well managed classroom; (c) ensuring student academic success; (d) implementing instructional practices that promote student achievement; and (e) providing opportunities for student responsibility and leadership (p. 25). It is important to note that the authors emphasized the importance of relationships with regard to the above policies and practices, emphasizing that academic press is futile if teachers do not show a genuine interest in the students’ lives and if teachers themselves do not model behaviors that support and reflect academic emphasis.

Hoy, Tarter, and Kottkamp (1991) developed the Organizational Health Inventory (OHI) to measure a school’s level of academic emphasis. Goddard, Sweetland, and Hoy’s study (2000) using the OHI for elementary schools concluded that academic emphasis was a significant predictor of student achievement in reading and in math for poor and minority students. The researchers were able to conclude from their study that schools with a higher academic emphasis had higher levels of student achievement. To support this statement, they reported that, “although students receiving a free or reduced-price lunch scored on average 2.41 points below their schools’ mean reading scores, the school means averaged 11.39 points higher where there was a strong academic emphasis” (p. 698). Their analysis clearly emphasized that a school climate and culture characterized by high levels of academic emphasis results in higher, more equitable levels of student achievement regardless of the students’ race, gender, ethnicity, or SES. It is therefore important to note that academic emphasis must be an integral element of the school’s climate and culture. The norms of a school with high levels of academic emphasis should support, reflect, and foster a collective effort to focus on student achievement.

Finally, Shouse (1995) argued that “all schools, particularly low-SES schools, can increase student achievement by placing their academic mission at center stage and allowing their social mission to play a supporting role” (p. 18). In a study of 398 schools, he offered a framework of three components for academic emphasis that highlights the separate and collective effects of academic emphasis and school community: (a) academic climate, (b) disciplinary climate, and (c) teachers’ instructional practices and emphasis. Academic climate is the school’s emphasis on rigorous curriculum for all students without lowering standards. In a school with a strong academic climate, outstanding student achievement and performance are recognized, honored, and celebrated as a norm for the school. The culture of the school sets normative expectations of behavior and a serious learning environment both at the classroom level and school-wide. There is a climate of high expectations and the adults believe that all students can meet the standards. These expectations and beliefs are not just internalized but rather externalized verbally and through behaviors of the adults and the policies of the school. Academic climate is defined by both school-level and classroom/teacher-level policies. School-level policies include the communication of high expectations; clear and measurable goals; a belief that all students can achieve at grade level and master skills; protection of instructional time; safe and orderly environment; and monitoring student performance. Shouse (1996) argued that schools focused on the academic climate do not disperse or track students across subjects and ability levels but rather provide clear pathways to higher level courses.

The disciplinary climate in schools is characterized by strong attendance and fewer, if any, distractions in shared spaces and classrooms. Schools work to establish effective attendance policies and appropriate disciplinary measures with clear expectations and are results-oriented. Likewise, classroom- or teacher-level policies are characterized by an academically demanding climate but with individualized supports; orderly classroom environment; and instructional practices that promote achievement. Teachers need to “establish objective and challenging standards for student performance” (Shouse, 1996, p. 4)—that is, to assign work that is authentic and relevant and provide frequent, purposeful, ongoing feedback for students and parents. Moreover, teacher instructional practices promote student understanding rather than punitive grading schemes that focus more on grades than learning. Teachers emphasize learning through meaningful assignments and provide instructive feedback to students and parents about learning. The foundation of the academic climate is built upon genuine relationships and interest in student success. Shouse’s study suggests that the most successful schools are those in which “a sense of community emerges as a positive result of a strong sense of academic purpose” (p. 19).

Collective Efficacy

Collective efficacy is grounded in social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986, 1997) and self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief about his or her capacity to execute the actions required to produce a given level of attainment (Bandura, 1997). Self-efficacy beliefs influence how people think, feel, and act through four different processes: (a) cognitive, (b) motivational, (c) affective, and (d) selection processes (Bandura, 1993). It suggests that one’s belief about one’s capacity to act in ways that make a difference affects the choices one makes and his/her sense of agency and motivation (Bandura, 1997; Hoy et al., 2006; Paunonen & Hong, 2010). The stronger the perception of self-efficacy, the higher the goals people set for themselves. Individuals are motivated by whether they believe in their abilities to succeed or fail. Numerous studies have shown that teacher self-efficacy is linked to teacher resilience and persistence in challenging contexts whereby teachers demonstrate a personal commitment to teaching and behaviors that promote student achievement (Bevel & Mitchell, 2012). These findings led scholars to investigate teacher efficacy at an organizational level rather than as just an individual trait.

Building on self-efficacy, collective efficacy is “the judgment of teachers that the faculty as a whole can organize and execute the actions required to have positive effects on students” (Hoy et al., 2006, p. 4). Research has shown that collective efficacy is a key variable in explaining student achievement—even more so than socioeconomic status (Goddard, Hoy, & Woolfolk Hoy, 2004; Hoy, Sweetland, & Smith, 2002). Collective efficacy is important because, as Bandura (1993) states:

With staffs who firmly believe that, by their determined efforts, students are motivatable and teachable whatever their background, schools heavily populated with minority students of low socioeconomic status achieve at the highest percentile ranks based on national norms of language and mathematical competencies. (p. 143)

Goddard and Goddard (2001) linked self- and collective efficacy empirically when they found that teacher efficacy was higher in schools where collective efficacy was higher. If the majority of the teachers (and, specifically, teacher-leaders) are efficacious about their ability to positively impact student achievement, then collective efficacy can counteract the beliefs of others who do not think their actions can positively impact student achievement (Shaalvik & Shaalvik, 2007; Yilmaz, 2009). When administrators and teacher-leaders actively build upon existing collective efficacy by talking about it and trying to persuade others that their actions impact student achievement, schools can be collectively efficacious. Bandura (1986, 1997) conceptualized four sources of collective efficacy: (a) mastery experience; (b) vicarious experience; (c) social persuasion; and (d) affective state.

Mastery experience asserts that collective efficacy beliefs tend to rise when a group perceives that their performance of a task has been successful (Goddard et al., 2004). Goddard and Goddard (2001) found that past school achievement was a stronger predictor of perceived collective efficacy than race and socioeconomic status. Britner and Pajares (2006) also found a statistically significant correlation (.49) between mastery experiences and self-efficacy in fifth through eighth grade science students. This finding has important pedagogical implications for teachers regarding their impact on student self-efficacy. Additionally, Mulholland and Wallace (2001) found that achieving mastery experiences while teaching is a powerful influence on and perception of teachers’ own confidence.

Vicarious experience refers to skill modeling by another person. According to Brand and Wilkins (2007), vicarious experiences exist when “individuals are inspired by the success of individuals with whom they personally identify” (p. 304). Although there is limited research documenting the impact that vicarious experiences have on self-efficacy and teacher effectiveness, Brand and Wilkins suggest that vicarious experiences (as well as social persuasion and affective status) impact mastery experiences, which significantly impacts self-efficacy.

To help explain the notion of social persuasion, Goddard et al. (2004a) cite examples such as encouragement or specific performance feedback, discussions in a teachers’ lounge, and community discussions. Hoy and Spero (2005) found that efficacy rises during teacher preparation and student teaching but tends to fall during a teacher’s first year of actual experience due to a perceived lack of such support. Although social persuasion is important for all staff members, Goddard et al. (2004a) note that it is essential when assimilating new teachers. Even if a school has a strong sense of collective efficacy, a positive climate, and a culture focused on student achievement regardless of background, new teachers are likely to encounter teachers who might socially persuade them in a negative way. With positive social persuasion, new teachers can learn that extra effort and a focus on high achievement for all students is the norm.

The final source of collective efficacy, affective state, refers to the level of excitement or anxiety that adds to the organization’s sense of collective efficacy (Goddard et al., 2004). An example of this stress might include the pressure from high-stakes accountability testing. Schools with high collective efficacy are able to channel this anxiety and focus on the academic achievement of students. Brand and Wilkins (2007), in a study of pre-service teachers, found approximately one third of the participants indicated that sources of stress reduction impacted their ability to effectively teach math and science.

In this context, it seems clear that the significance of collective efficacy on school improvement cannot be understated. Gibson and Dembo (1984) found that teachers who have a high sense of instructional efficacy devote more classroom time to academic learning, help students who are struggling, and praise them for their accomplishments. Likewise, in a study of 97 diverse high schools in Ohio, Hoy, Sweetland, and Smith (2002) found a positive correlation between the collective efficacy of the school and school achievement in mathematics. They noted that collective efficacy was more important than socioeconomic factors in explaining school achievement.

There has been a call (Goddard, LoGerfo, & Hoy, 2004) for more research regarding collective efficacy and the extent to which teachers believe their work can achieve goals for social justice. The authors went so far as to say that efforts to expand the base of knowledge of collective efficacy “might be quite useful to understanding how schools meet challenging goals for educational equity” (p. 420). Mitchell, Mendiola, Schumacker, and Lowery (2016) added that schools with a high sense of collective efficacy are characterized by collaboration among teachers to improve classroom instruction, joint decision-making, and a commitment to teaching even when faced with challenges. Conversely, schools with low sense of collective efficacy might be characterized by a sense of hopelessness in being able to overcome perceived obstacles. In summary, collective teacher efficacy drives teacher behaviors which then impacts student achievement (Kirby & DiPaola, 2011).

Faculty Trust

The final component of academic optimism is faculty trust in parents and students. It, too, has been found to be positively related to student achievement and is defined by Hoy et al. (2006) as “a willingness to be vulnerable to another party based on the confidence that that party is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open” (p. 429). Each facet works collaboratively with the others to generate behaviors that strengthen trust (see Table 1).

Table 1. Five Facets of Faculty Trust

Facet (or Element)

Behaviors/Dispositions

Benevolence

Focused on others’ best interest; protective, empathetic

Reliability

Dependable and consistent

Competence

Able to perform as needed

Honesty

Trustworthy, fair, and truthful

Openness

Transparent and a willing to share

Faculty trust is a collective property cultivated through meaningful relationships and a common commitment involving: (a) benevolence, the confidence that one’s wellbeing will be protected by the trusted party; (b) reliability, the extent to which one can count on another person or group; (c) competency, the extent to which the trusted party has knowledge and skill; (d) honesty, the character, integrity, and authenticity of the trusted party; and (e) openness, the extent to which there is no withholding of information from others (Hoy et al., 2006).

Collective trust “fosters a learning environment in which students and teachers accept responsibility for learning, are motivated to exert strong effort, persist in difficult tasks, and are resilient in the face of problems and failures” (Hoy, 2012, p. 88), which enhances student motivation. Faculty trust is an essential ingredient to create the culture necessary to initiate, implement, and institutionalize long-lasting change to promote excellence and equity throughout a school, for it is within trusting relationships that collaboration and problem-solving can yield creative solutions (Brown, Benkovitz, Muttillo, & Urban, 2010; Carless, 2009; Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2009). When faculty trust is present, teachers can insist on higher academic standards with confidence that they will not be undermined by parents; and high academic standards, in turn, reinforce faculty trust (Hoy et al., 2006). Such trust can turn the most toxic of school cultures into that of academic optimism, radiating a belief that all students can learn and that teachers and parents can make a difference.

Perhaps the largest and best-known current study of trust in schools is Bryk’s and Schneider’s (2002) analysis of the relationships between trust and student achievement. Based on a 10-year case study of more than 400 Chicago elementary schools, Bryk and Schneider’s data provided the first evidence directly linking the development of relational trust in a school community and long-term improvements in academic learning. The authors summarized their results as follows: “By linking evidence on the schools’ changing academic productivity with survey results on school trust over a long period of time, we were able to document the powerful influence that such trust plays as a resource for reform” (p. 42). They further concluded, “Trust fosters a set of organizational conditions, some structural and others social-psychological, that make it more conducive for individuals to initiate and sustain the kinds of activities necessary to affect productivity improvements” (p. 116).

Trust and cooperation among students, teachers, and parents influence regular student attendance, persistent learning, and faculty experimentation with new practices. These findings bolster the notion that trust is a critical factor in establishing a two-way positive culture wherein teachers who trust in their students and parents express a belief in student potential, set high expectations for them and believe the students can meet those high expectations. The reciprocal trust creates an environment wherein dialogue can take place about students’ authentic needs. For example, Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, and Hoy (2001) collected data from 47 urban elementary schools which included surveys results from 452 teachers and analyses of the reading and mathematics performance and the socioeconomic status of 2,536 students. Despite variables (e.g., demographics, historical performance, and socioeconomic status), they found that positive outcomes were the result of teacher effectiveness, which was positively impacted by trust.

In 2003, Hoy and Tschannen-Moran developed a Trust Scale to measure the level of trust in schools and examined the interrelationships of faculty trust in students, teachers, principals, and parents. The Trust Scale was used in three large-scale studies in elementary, middle, and high schools in Ohio and Virginia. Findings suggested that a greater perceived level of trust in a school also indicated a greater sense of teacher efficacy. Hoy and Tschannen-Moran’s studies also suggested that faculty trust in parents predicts a strong degree of parent-teacher collaboration. Distrust, on the other hand, causes people to feel uncomfortable and ill at ease, provoking them to expend energy on assessing the actions and potential actions of others (Fuller, 1996).

Numerous child development, social work, psychology, and educational studies have provided empirical evidence that supports the notion that parent-school partnerships are a determining factor in a student’s cognitive and psychosocial development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979; Epstein, 1994). Effective collaboration between parent, teacher, and student cannot exist without trust and respect. As Friend and Cook (1990) wrote, “Collaboration is a style of interaction between at least two co-equal parties voluntarily engaged in shared decision-making as they work toward a common goal” (p. 72). Research also reveals that it is essential for the teacher to work toward developing this type of relationship because “teachers are really the glue that hold the home/school partnerships together” (Patrikakou & Weissberg, 1999, p. 36).

Collaboration within a social system is not feasible without two unifying processes of decision-making: involvement and influence (Tschannen-Moran, 2001). “Mutually responsive relationships seem more likely to flourish if such efforts focus more on the interconnectedness of parents and teachers through their mutual commitment to children and on exploring ways to enhance and celebrate this connectedness” (Sumsion, 1999, p. 11). Regularly engaging in a dialogue that focuses on their shared wants for the student allows both parties to recognize the dedication and obligation associated with both roles. They must also recognize and respect differences in the other party’s culture and values (background, race, ethnic group, socioeconomic class and educational level and communication style) when attempting to build such a relationship (Keyes, 2002).

Trust among parents, students, and teachers has also been specifically linked to increasing the achievement of at-risk students. Because the term “at risk” is complex and there are several definitions, perspectives, and identified risk factors, Davis (2004) has argued that contemporary research is now focused on the student in context, meaning “conditions both in the child and in the nature of the environments in which the child lives” (p. 6). Educational research has also documented that teachers’ collaborative relations with parents and work in a family context do not come about naturally or easily (Powell, 1998, p. 66): Some teachers struggle with ethical concerns; others just lack knowledge, skills, and strategies (Keyes, 2002; Powell, 1998). As such, a systematic approach to professional development, to involvement of the home environment, and to nurturing faculty trust is essential to raising student achievement and success. Likewise, researchers found that there are some specific things that leaders can do within the school setting to increase faculty trust. As reported by Sheldon, Angell, Stoner, & Roseland (2010):

These functions applied to trust, include a) developing a vision of a trustworthy school, b) serving as a role model for trustworthiness through language and action, c) facilitating teacher competence through effective coaching, d) improving school discipline among students and teachers through effective management, and e) mediating conflict and repairing a constructive and honest manner. Administrator trustworthiness, then is demonstrated by nurturing and balancing relationships among facets of trust, constituencies of schools, and functions of leadership. (p. 160)

Research on Academic Optimism

For over 40 years, Hoy (2012) and his colleagues searched for organizational properties as powerful as SES in predicting student achievement. Then, in 2006, with a sample of 3,400 teachers from 146 elementary schools, Hoy et al. (2006) used a 12question Likert scale survey, student test data, and confirmatory factor analysis to verify that the idea they coined “academic optimism” had a direct and positive effect on student achievement in math and science after controlling for multiple factors, including SES. These same authors (Hoy et al., 2006) continued their research by surveying faculties at 96 high schools and confirmed 1) that academic emphasis, collective efficacy, and faculty trust did indeed form the construct of academic optimism, and 2) that academic optimism was related to student achievement even after controlling for SES.

Since then, several follow-up studies have clarified and expanded both the overall theory of academic optimism, as well as the individual school properties of academic emphasis, collective efficacy, and faculty trust, as significant predictors of student success. For example, McGuigan and Hoy (2006) sampled 40 elementary schools and found that an enabling bureaucratic structure (i.e., policies and procedures that enable the teaching and learning mission of the school) results in a culture of academic optimism. In 2007, Smith and Hoy further examined the construct by sampling 99 urban elementary schools in Texas and substantiated academic optimism as a second order explanatory factor related to achievement in math, regardless of urbanicity and/or SES.

In 2008, Woolfolk Hoy, Hoy and Kurz conducted an exploratory study with a diverse population of American teachers to 1) determine whether academic optimism could be defined and measured as an individual teacher characteristic as it has been at the collective school level, and 2) identify sets of teacher beliefs and practices that were good predictors of academic optimism. According to their findings, a second-order principal components analysis supported the hypothesis that academic optimism was a general construct composed of efficacy, trust, and academic emphasis. In addition, dispositional optimism, humanistic classroom management, student-centered beliefs and practices, and organizational citizenship behavior were individually and collectively related to the explanation of a teacher’s sense of academic optimism, controlling for SES. Beard, Hoy and Woolfolk Hoy (2010) continued this work and developed a measure (using exploratory factor analysis) to test the prediction of academic optimism as a latent individual variable validated via a sample of 72 elementary school teachers in Alabama, Ohio, and Texas. They then tested the scale on 260 elementary school teachers from 14 schools in Ohio. Their research confirmed that academic optimism has an impact on student achievement “directly through at least two mechanisms: motivation with high, challenging goals and cooperation among parents and teachers to improve student learning” (p. 1142).

Several additional dissertations and studies across the United States have explored academic optimism as a collective and individual construct, as well as a potent, reliable predictor of student success. For instance, in 2009, Kirby tested hypotheses regarding academic optimism and community engagement in elementary schools in Virginia and found that academic optimism was responsible for 52% of the variance on student achievement. In 2010, Brown et al. studied 24 elementary schools in North Carolina and highlighted effective strategies principals use to lead schools of equity and excellence. Results in that study indicated that achievement gaps were influenced and narrowed by academic optimism. And, Wagner and DiPaola’s 2011 work correlated academic optimism to organizational citizenship behaviors (OCBs) in a sample of 36 public high schools in Virginia, while Sims (2011) investigated the relationship between mindfulness and academic optimism. In Sims’ study, a total of 67 elementary schools were surveyed and 1,353 teachers participated using the School Academic Optimism Scale (SAOS) and the Mindfulness Scale (M-Scale). Results indicated that a significant reciprocal relationship existed between mindfulness and academic optimism. Unhypothesized findings showed that SES coupled with mindfulness is a strong predictor of academic optimism. Likewise, numerous additional studies have built upon the emergent research base for academic optimism by testing the construct and its relationship to student achievement and SES.

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