Gender Differences in Time Perspective, Optimism and School Belonging among High Achieving, Urban African American Adolescents

Detris Honora Adelabu, Ed.D. Associate Professor Psychology and Human Development Wheelock College Boston, Massachusetts dadelabu@Wheelock.edu

Abstract

The relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging and consideration for future consequences among high achieving low-income, urban African American adolescents was examined.  Positive, statistically significant relationships were found between academic achievement, future time perspective (FTP), consideration for future consequences, and optimism and school belonging.  FTP and consideration for future consequences were significantly related to academic achievement for girls, whereas optimism and school belonging significantly related to academic achievement among boys.  FTP and consideration for future consequences explained 37 percent of the variance in academic achievement among girls, while school belonging explained 38 percent of the variance among boys.  

Keywords: African American Students; High Achievers; Time Perspective; Urban Adolescents

 

          The number of studies examining African American school achievement has grown steadily over the past two decades.  However, underrepresented in the literature is the adequate study of high achieving African American students (Carter, 2008; Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007; Allen & Griffin, 2006).  Deficit theoretical perspectives regarding African American student achievement overrun the literature and erode our efforts to better understand factors that support positive school performance among African American adolescents.   Moreover, the widespread focus on comparative research between African Americans and Whites fail to help us better understand patterns of achievement within social demographic groups, such as gender or socioeconomics, in the African American school community.  The goal of this research was to shed light on African American success and to encourage emerging scholars to shift their lens to more closely examine the many factors that contribute to African American student achievement.  Therefore, this study examines the relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging, and consideration for future consequences among high achieving low-income, urban African American adolescents, paying particular attention to factors that influence academic achievement across gender.  A brief description of each is provided before discussing the present study. 

Time Perspective and Academic Achievement

          Time perspective, defined by an individual’s orientation toward the past, present or future, significantly influences motivation (McInerney, 2004; Nurmi, 1991; Nuttin, 1985).  Commonly studied areas of time perspective include present and future.  A present time perspective anchors individuals in the here and now, while a future time perspective motivates individuals to plan for the future and to make connections between present behavior and long-term goals and expectations.  For example, a future time perspective encourages students to actively consider how present academic behaviors impact their ability to reach future goals and expectations, and in turn motivates students to engage in behaviors that will increase the likelihood of reaching their goals.  Concepts related to time perspective and sometimes used interchangeably include, time orientation and future goals/aspirations.

          The study of time perspective, particularly future time perspective and consideration for future consequences, as a motivating factor for African American student achievement is a relatively new area of study (Cunningham, Corprew, &  Becker, 2009; Honora, 2002).  Historically, researchers have relegated African Americans to a present time perspective (Ho, 1987; Jones, 1988; Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck, 1961; Pinderhughes, 1982), suggesting that given past and on-going experiences with racism and oppression, African Americans in general (regardless of socioeconomic status or educational background) tend to focus their thinking on the present.  Pinderhughes (1982) suggested that since the “past is too painful and there is no future” African Americans are driven to a present orientation.

           Recent studies that examine future time perspective among African Americans (Adelabu, 2006, 2007, 2008; Cunningham, Corprew, &  Becker, 2009; Honora, 2002) suggest that African American adolescents who report a greater focus on the future tend to earn higher grades, suggesting that a future time perspective is a motivating factor for school achievement among these youths.  However, gender differences regarding the motivational impact of future time perspective have been found among African American adolescents (Honora, 2002; Adelabu 2006).  African American boys, regardless of achievement level have been found to discuss more obstacles to reaching their future goals and expectations than African American girls, making a future time perspective less motivating among African American boys. A factor that contributes to gender differences in the motivational impact of future time perspective among African American students is a gendered racial culture that places African American girls, relative to boys, at a slightly more elevated status in society (Kunjufu, 2005; Noguera, 2003).  African American boys experience more hostile academic and social environments than girls (Ladson-Billings, 2011; Monroe, 2005). Thus, the idea of thinking about and planning for the future is more positive and, therefore, more motivating for girls than boys.

 

Optimism and Academic Achievement

            Optimism is academically defined as positive generalized expectations regarding current and future possibilities (Carver & Scheier, 2002; Carver, Scheier, & Segerstrom, 2010; Scheier & Carter, 1985, 1992).  Like the concept of future time perspective, optimism has the potential to serve as a motivating factor for school achievement.  Adolescents must be optimistic they can meet the demands of academia in order to develop the motivation to pursue positive, long-term academic goals and expectations (Chemers, Hu & Garcia, 2001; Mickelson, 1990).  However, adolescents’ optimism for academic success must be grounded in concrete academic skills and abilities, and extend beyond a sense of hope or wishful thinking (Alexander, Entwisle & Bedinger, 1994; Goldsmith, 2004; Mickelson, 1990).  Goldsmith (2004) found that eighth grade Black and Latino students who are optimistic, as defined by high occupational expectations, educational aspirations and concrete pro-school attitudes, earn higher achievement scores in math and reading than those who are reportedly less optimistic.  Similarly, Harris (2008) examined adolescents from grade 7 through post high school and found that even when African American adolescents acknowledge barriers to their future success, they remain optimistic regarding the role and value of school in contributing to their personal future.  Harris suggested that “students do not allow negative perceptions about the opportunity structure to compromise their schooling” (pg. 628).   

      

School Belonging and Academic Achievement

            Feelings of acceptance and belonging in the school community are often precursors to academic achievement (Faircloth & Hamm, 2005; Finn, 1989; Goodenow, 1993; Honora, 2003).  Goodenow (1993) defines school belonging as “feeling accepted, valued, included, and encouraged by others” (pg. 25) in all areas of the school community.  School belonging is further defined by active involvement in extracurricular activities, feelings of respect for ones academic skills and abilities, and engagement in positive peer and teacher relationships.  Students establish a sense of belonging in school either behaviorally through such activities as classroom participation and involvement in extracurricular activities, or emotionally through a sense of feeling valued and accepted (Finn, 1989).  Faircloth and Hamm (2005) found that African American adolescents tend to establish a sense of school belonging through relationships with teachers, participation in school-based activities and through feelings of acceptance toward their ethnic group.  School demographics were also found to influence feelings of school belonging among African American adolescents (Booker, 2007).  African American students report a stronger sense of school belonging in schools where they experience feelings of commonality in cultural background (such as a similar appreciation of icons of popular culture) and feelings of comfort and tolerance regarding their culture. 

The Study

The present study examined the relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging, and consideration for future consequences among high achieving low-income, urban African American adolescents.  Questions that guided the study include:

 

  1. How do high achieving African American adolescents describe their future?  That is, what type of goals/expectations do they tend to set (content)?  How far into the future do they think and plan (extension)?  How optimistic are they about their future and about reaching their goals (affect)?
  2. What is the relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging, and consideration for future consequences?
  3. Are there gender differences in the relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging, and consideration for future consequences?

Method

Participants

          Sixty-two high achieving African American adolescents enrolled in grades 9, 11 and 12 participated in the study.  The sample include 46 girls and 16 boys (mean age=16 years) with an average GPA of 3.44 on a scale of 4.0.   Students were all eligible for participation in the free or reduced school meal plan.  Ninety-four percent of participants had plans to attend college. Data were drawn from a larger study of nearly 700 rural and urban African American adolescents.  All students enrolled in grades 9, 11 and 12 who provided informed consent participated in the study.  Due to other testing obligations, no 10th graders participated in the study.  For this study, high achieving students (3.0 GPA or higher) who participated in the larger study and were enrolled in the same urban high school were chosen to participate in the study.

Data Sources

          Demographic information was collected for each participant (gender, age, grade, participation in advanced placement/honors courses). The following instruments were administered to all participants in small groups.

Academic Achievement was measured by cumulative grade point average in history, mathematics, science and English.  Grades were obtained from students’ records.

Future Events Listing (FEL).  The FEL (Tyler, 1978) asks that students write down things they hope or expect to occur in their personal future (content -examines type of goals), when the individual hopes or expects the events to occur (extension- examines how far into the future individuals tend to think or plan), and whether the events listed will be perceived as positive or negative (affect – examines a sense of optimism about the future). 

Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory Shortened Form (ZTPI).  The shortened form of the ZTPI (Keough, Zimbardo & Boyd, 1999) is a 22-item inventory designed to measure orientation toward the present and future.  Sample items include, “If I don’t get things done on time, I don’t worry about it” and “I believe that a person’s day should be planned ahead each morning.” Participants rated each item on a five-point scale ranging from 1 (very untrue) to 5 (very true).  A composite score for internal consistency as well as internal consistency scores across gender and grade level were calculated.  Internal consistency ranged from .62 to .71. 

Psychological Sense of School Membership (PSSM).  The PSSM (Goodenow, 1993), an 18-item inventory, was used to measure feelings regarding acceptance in school and about school in general.  The PSSM contains three subscales that measure feelings of belonging, rejection and acceptance in the school community.  Sample items include, “People at this school are friendly to me” and “I am included in lots of activities at this school.” Each item is rated on a five-point scale (1=very untrue; 5=very true).  Internal consistency ranged from .82 to .85.

Life Orientation Scale (LOT).  The LOT (Scheier & Carver, 1985), a 12-item instrument, was used to measure dispositional optimism regarding general outcome expectancies. Sample items include, “If something can go wrong for me it will,” and “I don’t get upset too easily.  Responses ranged from 0 (strongly disagree) to 4 (strongly agree).  Internal consistency was .76. 

Consideration of Future Consequences Scale (CFC).  The CFC (Strathman, Gleicher, Boninger, & Baker, 1994) is a 12-item measure designed to assess the extent to which people consider distant and immediate consequences for their behavior. Sample items include, “I consider how things might be in the future, and try to influence those things with my day to day behavior” and “I am willing to sacrifice my immediate happiness or well-being in order to achieve future goals.” Each item was rated on a 5-point scale from (1) very unlike me to (5) very much like me.  Internal consistency ranged from .78 - .80.

 

Results           

          Three questions guided this study of high achieving African American adolescents: 1) How do high achieving African American adolescents describe their future?  That is, what type of goals/expectations do they tend to set (content)?  How far into the future do they think and plan (extension)?  How optimistic are they about their future and about reaching their goals (affect)? 2) What is the relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging, and consideration for future consequences?, and 3) Are there gender differences in the relationship of academic achievement to time perspective, optimism, school belonging, and consideration for future consequences?

          A quantitative content analysis of the Future Events Listing was conducted to identify themes in the goals and expectations articulated by students (content), how far into the future these adolescents tended to think and plan (extension), and the extent to which the goals and expectations identified were positive or negative (affect).  Based on the content analysis, it was found that students listed goals and expectations in five thematic content areas: education (44%), career (23%), marriage/family (12%), material possessions (9%) and sports/leisure (5%).  Students set goals ranging from 2 weeks to 11 years, with an average of 6.4 years.  Extension was not assessed across thematic content areas due to sample size and the varying grade level of participants. Such an analysis would have produced groups too small for comparison.   Ninety-six percent of the goals and expectations articulated by students were positive. 

          Data from the Future Events Listing was examined across gender. It was found that girls tended to list more future goals (average of 6) and expectations than boys (average of 4).  Girls and boys listed a similar percentage of goals and expectations in the area of education (girls = 45%; boys =43%).   However, while boys listed more career goals (29%) than girls (16%), girls listed more goals (18%) than boys (5%) in the area of marriage and family.  Due to the limited number of goals and expectations listed in the remaining two thematic content areas, sports/leisure and material possessions, these areas were excluded from analysis.

          Data from the ZTPI, PSSM, LOT and CFC were analyzed using analysis of variance (ANOVA), correlations and multiple regression.   Using ANOVA, no statistically significant differences were found across gender for any of the primary variables.  Boys and girls scored similarly on all psychosocial measures (see Table 1).  Using correlation analysis, positive statistically significant relationships were found between academic achievement as defined by student GPA, and future time perspective [r(54)=.27, p<.05], consideration for future consequences [r(49)=.29, p<.05], optimism [r(61)=.30, p<.05] and school belonging [r(56)=.34, p<.01] (see Table 2).  Positive statistically significant relationships were also found between future time perspective, and optimism [r(53)=.48, p<.01] and school belonging [r(50)=.33, p<.05]. 

          Correlation analyses were run to examine relationships among the primary psychosocial variables for each gender group.  Although no gender differences were found across any of the psychosocial measures based on ANOVA, varying factors were found to relate to academic achievement across gender based on correlation analysis.  Among girls, a positive statistically significant relationship was found between academic achievement, future time perspective [r(41)=.33, p<.05] and consideration of future consequences [r(36)=.40, p<.05] (see Table 3).  Girls who reported a greater focus on the future tended to earn higher grades and were more likely to consider immediate and future consequences for their behavior.   For boys, optimism [r(14)=.54, p<.05] and school belonging [r(13)=.61, p<.05] were found to positively relate to academic achievement (see Table 4).  Boys who earned a higher grade point average were more likely to report greater feelings of optimism and a stronger sense of school belonging.

          Multiple regression analysis also indicated that varying factors relate to academic achievement across gender.  Future time perspective and consideration for future consequences accounted for a significant portion (37%) of the variance in academic achievement among girls [r2=.37, F (2, 25) =6.76, p<.05].  School belonging accounted for a significant portion (38%) of the variance in academic achievement among boys [r2=.38, F (1, 14) =7.79, p<.05].

 

Discussion

          This study addressed a relatively ignored area of research, that is, African American students’ school success. In my attempt to shift the lens from underperformance to examine high achievement among African American adolescents, I examined the relationship of academic achievement, as defined by GPA, to time perspective, optimism, school belonging and consideration for future consequences among high achieving, low-income urban African American adolescents.  Adolescents listed future goals and expectations in five major content areas: education, career, marriage/family, material possessions and sports/leisure, respectively.  The primary goals and expectations listed are supported by previous research that has found education, employment, marriage and family, sports and leisure, material possession and death/injury to be among the top areas of concern regarding the future among adolescents (Honora, 2002; Poole and Cooney, 1987).  The majority of goals and expectations articulated by students were positive (96%) and ranged from short-term (2 weeks) to long-term (11 years).  Negative goals and expectations listed by students evolved from the anticipated time frame required to complete their academic goals.  For example, two students listed the goal of completing graduate school as a positive goal, but had negative feelings about the amount of time required to complete their studies. 

          Academic achievement was found to significantly relate to future time perspective, consideration for future consequences, optimism and school belonging.  The most academically successful students, among the high achievers, expressed a greater focus on the future, were more mindful of immediate and long-term consequences to their behavior, held more positive generalized expectations about their future and felt a stronger sense of belonging and acceptance in school.  The presence of a present time perspective did not significantly relate to academic achievement among this high achieving group of African American students, further supporting previous research that suggest FTP is more of a motivating factor for school achievement than a past or present time perspective (Adelabu, 2008; Mello & Worrell, 2006; Peetsma & van der Veen, 2011)

          Boys and girls listed goals in each of the five major content areas found in the study, education, career, marriage/family, material possessions and sports/leisure.  Of particular significance is the finding that although boys and girls reported similar goals in the content area of education, boys reported more career goals than girls while girls reported more goals than boys in the area of marriage/family.  This finding is cause for concern given efforts to promote gender equity in schools and in the workplace.  One would hope that if boys and girls report similar interest in pursuing education, they would articulate compatible career goals.  However, studies show that even when girls and boys report similar levels of school achievement, boys tend to report more career related goals, particularly in areas traditionally defined by higher salaries and higher prestige (Packard & Nguyen, 2003; York, 2008).  For instance, studies show that girls and women are graduating high school and college at a rate similar to their male counterparts and are just as likely to successfully complete science and math related coursework, yet, female students are less likely to exhibit interests in and/or pursue degrees in science and math related fields (AAUW, 2008; Sullivan, 2007).  Of additional concern in the data is the finding that only three boys listed goals and expectations in the area of marriage and family, a finding that is in line with historical data that suggests African American men are less interested in marriage than African American women.  Although, data from the current study does not address why boys in the study expressed limited interest in marriage and family, findings still have broad implications for the African American community and for heterosexual African American women interested in marriage and family.  African American women are less likely than other demographic groups to date or marry outside their ethnic group (Banks, 2011).  Therefore, the limited interests in marriage and family expressed by African American men may hamper the chance that some African American women will ever reach their goals in the area of marriage and family.  Moreover, studies show that healthy African American marriages encourage greater social, financial and psychological well-being among African American men and women (Chambers & Kravitz, 2011; Pinderhughes, 2002). 

          Findings also suggest patterns across gender for the psychosocial factors examined in the study.  Academic achievement was found to positively relate to future time perspective and consideration for future consequences among girls, whereas optimism and school belonging related to academic achievement among boys.  Among girls, academic achievement was associated with a greater focus on the future and a greater likelihood to consider immediate and long-term consequences for their behavior.   Among boys, a generalized expectation for positive outcomes and feelings of school belonging were associated with academic achievement.   While future time perspective and consideration for future consequences helped to explain 37% of the variance in academic achievement among girls, 38% of the variance in academic achievement among boys was explained by feelings of school belonging.  African American boys who have limited feelings of school belonging are less likely to achieve academically (Kunjufu, 2005; Noguera, 2003).

          Gender differences found in this study support previous research that suggests varying factors influence school achievement among African American girls and boys (Adelabu, 2006; Honora, 2002, Mickelson & Greene, 2006).  Therefore, academic motivational strategies designed to enhance academic achievement among African American adolescents must consider the role of gender and include motivational components that support individual, gender specific learning needs of girls and boys.  For example, while it may be important for high achieving African American girls to connect what they are doing in the present to their personal future, it appears more significant to boys that they have a belief that things will work out and that they matter, they belong.  While each factor examined in the study (time perspective, consideration for future consequences, optimism and school belong) is important to consider when attempting to enhance academic achievement for African American adolescents, findings suggest they shape achievement differently based on gender.  This suggests there is no one size fits all model for nurturing academic success among African American adolescents. 

           Although gender difference found in the study are interesting and support previous research, due to the limited representation of males in the study, results should be viewed with caution.  Still, this study makes a significant contribution to the positive study of African American student achievement.  Future studies would benefit from a larger sample size and should consider factors contributing to academic achievement among middle-income African American adolescents, another group virtually ignored in the literature.  Continuing to research African Americans as a monolithic group, independent of an understanding of how factors such as gender, socioeconomic status or style of living (urban, rural, suburban) shape development, limits our ability to fully understand within group factors that shape achievement.  There are successful African Americans within every gender, socioeconomic and style of living group.  The task is to encourage more researchers to direct their efforts toward better understanding the myriad factors that contribute to African American student success within and across such social demographic groups. As this study shows, what fosters academic achievement for one social demographic group within the African American community may not foster academic achievement for another. 

 

A special thanks to the African American students who generously gave of their time and to Wheelock College and the African American Success Foundation for making this study possible.

 

References

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______________________________________________________

Table 1

Descriptive Statistics across Gender for Primary Variables

Gender

N

M

SD

Sign.

GPA

 

 

 

.845

     Girls

46

3.44

.367

 

     Boys

16

3.42

.402

 

Future Time Perspective

 

 

 

.065

     Girls

41

44.7

6.16

 

     Boys

13

43.7

4.36

 

Present Time Perspective

 

 

 

.182

     Girls

38

22.9

3.62

 

     Boys

14

21.3

4.32

 

Consideration Future Consequences

 

 

 

.211

     Girls

36

42.5

5.59

 

     Boys

13

40.1

6.50

 

Optimism

 

 

 

.579

     Girls

45

21.2

5.51

 

     Boys

16

20.3

4.26

 

School Belong

 

 

 

.193

     Girls

41

71.9

10.88

 

     Boys

15

67.4

10.77

 

 

 

___________________________________________________________________

Table 2

Correlations among Primary Variables

 

    1

     2

    3

4

5

6

      1.GPA

-

.274*

-.164

.294*

 .298*

.342**

  1. Future

 

 

-.373**

  .067

.480**

 .328*

  1. Present

 

 

 

  .033

-.277*

-.210

  1. Consider FC

 

 

 

 

 .327*

 .482**

  1. Optimism

 

 

 

 

 

 .389**

  1. School Belonging

 

 

 

 

 

-

 

*   Correlation is significant at .05 level.

** Correlation is significant at .01 level.

 

 

 

 

____________________________________________________________________

Table 3

Correlations among Primary Variables – GIRLS

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

      1.GPA

-

.331*

-.102

.404*

 .231

  .237

  1. Future

 

 

 .441**

  .042

.510**

.325*

  1. Present

 

 

 

  .057

-.293

 -.186

  1. Consider FC

 

 

 

 

 .201

 .450**

  1. Optimism

 

 

 

 

 

  .286

  1. School Belonging

 

 

 

 

 

-

 

*   Correlation is significant at .05 level.

** Correlation is significant at .01 level.

 

 

 

 

_________________________________________________________

Table 4

Correlations among Primary Variables - BOYS

 

1

2

3

4

5

6

     1.GPA

-

.069

-.314

.109

.543*

.612*

  1. Future

 

 

-.208

.155

  .354

  .302

  1. Present

 

 

 

-.123

 -.329

 -.375

  1. Consider FC

 

 

 

 

  .620*

  .546

  1. Optimism

 

 

 

 

 

 .742**

  1. School Belonging

 

 

 

 

 

-

 

*   Correlation is significant at .05 level.

** Correlation is significant at .01 level.