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Students’ Sense of Belonging in Technical/Vocational Schools Versus Academic Schools: The Mediating Role of Faculty Trust in Students


by Mieke Van Houtte & Dimitri Van Maele - 2012

Background: Since the late 1960s, research has demonstrated repeatedly that students in lower tracks achieve less as they develop an antischool culture to overcome the status deprivation resulting from being in a lower track. In quantitative large-scale research, this antischool culture is usually assessed using poor academic attitudes or study disengagement because antischool norms disengage students from the learning process. The extent to which students in different tracks feel embedded in their school communities—their sense of school belonging—has rarely been examined, although academic engagement and sense of belonging are related to each other and to achievement.

Objective: This article examines students’ sense of belonging in secondary schools that offer different tracks, and the role played by the faculty’s trust in the students.

Participants: The study is based on data from 3,475 students and 754 teachers in 28 technical/vocational schools and 3,376 students and 461 teachers in 22 academic schools in Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium.

Research Design: Use is made of (stepwise) multilevel analyses (HLM6).

Results: The analyses show that students in technical/vocational schools have a significant lower sense of belonging than students in academic schools. This association disappears if we take into account faculty trust in students. The association between school type and perceived teacher support, a subdimension of the sense of belonging, is not mediated by faculty trust, but is due to the lower GPA of students in technical/vocational schools.

Conclusions: The results indicate that teachers play a crucial role in the divergent nature of students’ social integration across different types of schools. In terms of strengthening students’ connectedness to a technical/vocational school environment, our results indicate that strengthening teachers’ level of trust in students could be crucial.

Worldwide there has been a long tradition of grouping students in secondary education according to their ability level—a practice supported by the belief that students have relatively fixed levels of ability and need to be taught accordingly (Araùjo, 2007; Boaler, William, & Brown, 2000). This grouping of ability is organized in myriad ways. For example, tracking, or streaming, refers to a situation in which students are taught an entirely different curriculum depending on their ability group, with the different tracks commonly classified hierarchically (Boaler et al.; Van de Gaer, Pustjes, Van Damme, & De Munter, 2006). From the second half of the 20th century on, and especially in the late 1970s and early 1980s, concerns about the inequality following from selective tracking systems—students from working-class backgrounds were disadvantaged—led to “detracking,” or the creation of comprehensive educational systems (Araùjo; Boaler et al.). Furthermore, numerous analyses rigorously controlling for initial ability and other student characteristics pointed to the negative consequences for academic achievement of being enrolled in a lower track (overviews: Carbonaro, 2005; Schofield, 2006). However, in these survey analyses, little or no attention is paid to the mechanisms responsible for the effects of tracking on achievement.


Since the late 1960s, research has demonstrated repeatedly that students in lower tracks may develop an antischool culture to overcome the status deprivation resulting from being in a lower track (Ball, 1981; Berends, 1995; Catsambis, Mulkey, & Crain, 1999; D. H. Hargreaves, 1967; Lacey, 1970; Rosenbaum, 1976; Van Houtte, 2006a), generally ending in poor educational achievement (e.g., Duru-Bellat & Mingat, 1997; Friedkin & Thomas, 1997; Hallinan & Kubitschek, 1999; Van Houtte, 2004). In quantitative large-scale research, this antischool culture is usually assessed using poor academic attitudes or study disengagement, because antischool norms disengage students from the learning process (Berends; Carbonaro, 2005; Catsambis et al.). In those studies, as in the educational literature in general, engagement has been measured primarily by observable behaviors directly relating to academic effort and achievement, such as trying hard in class, completion of homework, grades, and avoiding school misconduct such as truancy and distracting behavior in class (Jimerson, Campos, & Greif, 2003; Johnson, Crosnoe, & Elder, 2001).


The more affective component of engagement, namely, the extent to which students in different tracks feel embedded in or alienated from their school communities—that is, their sense of school belonging—has been examined rarely, although academic engagement and sense of belonging are related to each other and to achievement (Finn, 1989; Johnson et al., 2001). An exception is Smerdon (2002), who found that students in general and vocational tracks had lower perceptions of school membership than students in academic tracks. Nevertheless, it is not far-fetched to assume that there is a lower sense of belonging in lower tracks, given that it has been demonstrated that the status hierarchies established by systems of tracking influence the nature and quality of students’ interactions with teachers and peers (Abraham, 1989; Ball, 1981; D. H. Hargreaves, 1967; Lacey, 1970). Students and teachers in the lower tracks are shown to have less positive relationships with each other (D. H. Hargreaves, 1967; Ireson & Hallam, 2005; Oakes, 1985; Stevens & Vermeersch, 2010; Van Houtte, 2004, 2006a). As Hallinan (2008) demonstrated recently, the extent to which teachers support students has a strong influence on their attachment to school. Therefore, an association between track position and sense of belonging due to unsupportive teacher–student relationships in lower tracks is likely.


Examining the association between track position and sense of belonging not only adds to our knowledge concerning the consequences of tracking, but is relevant to school belonging as well. Generally, little is known about the determinants of the sense of belonging, because most studies into belongingness seem to focus on the academic and behavioral consequences of students’ feelings about school (Anderman, 2003; Hallinan, 2008; Osterman, 2000). Even less is known about the ways that the school affects students’ belonging (Faircloth & Hamm, 2005; Johnson et al., 2001; Ma, 2003), although undoubtedly a student’s sense of belonging is influenced by several aspects of the school experience, including features such as school size and student composition. Given that in the Flemish educational system, between-school tracking is the norm (Van Houtte & Stevens, 2009a), a distinction can be made between secondary schools offering academic education that prepares students for higher education, and those offering technical and vocational education. As such, it can be examined whether school type is associated with students’ sense of belonging. Furthermore, knowing that, in general, students’ perceptions of teacher support are seen as an important dimension of their sense of belonging to their school (Goodenow, 1993a, 1993b; Jimerson et al., 2003; Libbey, 2004; Osterman), we prefer to consider a measure of the quality of the teacher–student relationship that is not obtained from the students themselves, instead of students’ perceptions of teachers’ support (see Hallinan, 2008). As such, this study is unique in linking data from teachers about their relationship with students to students’ sense of belonging. Given that previous research (Van Houtte, 2006b) demonstrated a lower faculty trust in students in technical/vocational schools as compared with academic schools, this article aims to examine (1) to what extent the students’ sense of school belonging differs according to school type (academic vs. technical/vocational schools) and (2) whether faculty trust in students mediates an association between school type and students’ sense of belonging at school.    


Before answering these questions empirically, we will first go into the relevance, conceptualization, and sources of sense of belonging. We will explain the importance of a favorable teacher–student relationship, and we will report on the teacher–student relationship as it is manifested in different tracks.


BACKGROUND


THE NEED TO BELONG


Over the last decades, a growing body of educational research has taken into account students’ school belongingness and has demonstrated its importance in relation to a number of important outcomes (for an extensive review, see Osterman, 2000). For instance, students’ sense of belonging is shown to be positively associated with school achievement (Goodenow, 1993a, 1993b) and academic efficacy (McMahon, Wernsman, & Rose, 2009), and negatively with delinquency, school dropout  (Finn, 1989), and drug use (Fletcher, Bonell, Sorhaindo, & Strange, 2009; case studies with qualitative data). Students with a greater sense of school belonging are more motivated to attend school and to put in greater effort (Osterman). Students’ belongingness is commonly seen as an indicator that schools develop in (better) “communities”; members have to experience feelings of belonging to speak of a community (Osterman).  


Strikingly, researchers use a variety of concepts and methods to measure students’ belongingness to school, such as attachment, bonding, connection, and engagement. In fact, usually no distinction is made between (academic) engagement and attachment (Hallinan, 2008; Jimerson et al., 2003; Johnson et al., 2001). In insightful overviews, Jimerson et al. and Libbey (2004) listed several ways of conceptualizing, defining, and measuring school engagement and related terms. Both overviews clearly show that some conceptualizations include a more behavioral dimension associated with academic achievement—behaviors directly related to academic effort and achievement, such as trying hard in class, completion of homework, grades, and avoiding school misconduct such as truancy and distracting behavior in class, whereas others stress a more affective dimension, namely, feelings of attachment or connectedness to school (see also Johnson et al.). Johnson and colleagues therefore suggested that we distinguish between an affective component and a behavioral component of the educational experience. The affective component—called “attachment” by Johnson et al.—refers to the extent to which students “feel” that they are embedded in their school communities. Given that the sense of belonging is usually defined as “the extent to which students feel personally accepted, respected, included and supported by others in the school social environment” (Goodenow, 1993a, p. 80), it clearly represents this affective component. Studies relating ability grouping to “students’ social bonding to school” (Berends, 1995) or to “students’ liking for school” (Ireson & Hallam, 2005) are not dealing with this nonbehavioral, affective component of engagement, but with the behavioral component (Berends, 1995) or a combination of both the behavioral and the affective (Ireson & Hallam, 2005). Berends’s constructs to measure students’ social bonding to school are educational expectations (general, plans for college, and least number of years of education expected), attendance patterns (reports of being absent from school, being late for school, cutting classes), disciplinary problems, and engagement in schooling (interest in school and time spent on homework. Ireson and Hallam (2005) used a set of 11 items designed to tap students’ liking for school. These items measured students’ attitudes toward school and schoolwork (e.g., “Schoolwork is worth doing”), the extent to which they valued the school itself (e.g., “This is a good school”), how close they felt to the school and their teachers (two items: “This term I have got on well with all my teachers, most of my teachers, about half of my teachers, less than half my teachers, none of my teachers,” and “The school and I are like good friends, friends, distant relatives, strangers, enemies”), the importance placed on school by their parents (e.g., “My parents think school is a waste of time”), and how happy they were in school (e.g., “I am very happy when I am in school”).


The most common theme that emerged from the scales reviewed by Libbey (2004) was perceived teacher support, leading Libbey to conclude that “Student relationships with school often were operationalized as their relationship with their teachers” (p. 281). It is clear that teachers play a major role in shaping students’ experiences in school. Hallinan (2008) demonstrated that students are more likely to feel connected to the school when they perceive that teachers care about them, try to be fair, and praise them.


Other individual student characteristics, besides perceived teacher support, that relate to sense of belonging are general health, self-esteem (Ma, 2003), participation in school activities (Ma; McNeely, Nonnemaker, & Blum, 2002), grade point average (GPA; Anderman, 2003), and several sociodemographic characteristics of students, such as sex—in middle schools, girls are more attached to school, and in high schools, girls are less attached to school as compared with boys—(Goodenow, 1993a; Johnson et al., 2001; McNeely et al.), an intact home (Johnson et al.; McNeely et al.), ethnicity (McNeely et al.), and parents’ educational attainment (Johnson et al.). But in general, little is known about the determinants of belongingness to school, and, although it seems reasonable to expect certain school features to be determinants of students’ sense of belonging, very little research identifies specific school features that affect it (Faircloth & Hamm, 2005; Ma; Osterman, 2000).


Moreover, results regarding school effects are mixed, to say the least. Johnson et al. (2001) concluded that students are more strongly attached to school when they attend schools with proportionately more students of their own race or ethnicity, although these effects are small. McNeely et al. (2002) have drawn the same conclusion: School connectedness is relatively high in racially or ethnically segregated schools and lowest in mixed schools. Van Houtte and Stevens (2009b), however, did not find an effect of school ethnic composition for either immigrant or native students. Furthermore, students in smaller schools display, on average, a greater sense of belonging than students in larger schools, according to McNeely and colleagues, but this finding was not confirmed by Johnson and colleagues, nor by Van Houtte and Stevens (2009b). Johnson et al. found that students in private schools have higher levels of attachment than students in public schools, whereas Van Houtte and Stevens (2009b) did not find an effect of school sector. Ma (2003) showed that school features such as school size and socioeconomic context were not important with respect to students’ sense of belonging, but some school climate variables did make a difference, namely, academic press, disciplinary climate, and parental involvement. This finding led him to conclude that “what matters to [students’] sense of belonging is the presence of caring peers and teachers, along with a lot of attention to their schoolwork and academic success” (p. 348).


As far as we know, however, the way teachers deal with their students at school—their judgments of the students or supportive attitudes toward them—has not yet been related to students’ sense of school belonging. Yet recent research has shown that such teacher features tend to be shared at school level, becoming school features that are associated with various structural and compositional school features and individual student outcomes  (Van Houtte, 2004). As such, research has shown, for example, that teachers’ trust in students may be considered not only a feature of an individual teacher, but also a collective feature of teachers instructing at the same school, namely, faculty trust (Hoy & Kupersmith, 1985; Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999, 2003; Van Houtte, 2006a; Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2009). It seems reasonable to assume that school features such as faculty trust influence the extent of students’ sense of belonging to the school.


FACULTY TRUST IN STUDENTS AND STUDENTS’ SENSE OF BELONGING


When teachers perceive the students at their school to be trustworthy, they may be more willing to risk vulnerability to students based on the feeling that the students are benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open (see Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000). These key elements of trust have been demonstrated to form a unitary and coherent concept of trust in schools (Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999, 2003). Faculty trust in students, then, indicates the level of trust in students that teachers from a same school share with each other (see Hoy & Kupersmith, 1985; Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999, 2003; Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2009). Teachers at the same school are embedded in similar roles within the organizational context. Viewing them as a unified group within a similar context, it may be argued that social information processes will lead to collective trust (cf. Bidwell, 2000; Shamir & Lapidot, 2003). As such, faculty trust in students may be conceived as a school characteristic that is associated with various structural and compositional school features (Goddard, Tschannen-Moran, & Hoy, 2001; Smith, Hoy, & Sweetland, 2001; Van Houtte, 2006a; Van Maele & Van Houtte). Given that a shared level of trust among school members constitutes a school’s organizational level of social capital (see Coleman, 1990; D. H. Hargreaves, 2001; Leana & Van Buren, 1999), faculty trust in students is an aspect of the level of social capital present in school. Moreover, because affective bonds between teachers and students are a primary source of in-school intergenerational bonding (Crosnoe, Johnson, & Elder, 2004), and because trust implies an affective component (K. Jones, 1996; McAllister, 1995), faculty trust in students also characterizes the nature of in-school intergenerational bonding.


The importance of teacher–student bonding is revealed through studies that have related students’ perceptions of teachers’ interpersonal behavior to students’ dropping out (Croninger & Lee, 2001), their disciplinary problems and academic achievement (Crosnoe et al., 2004), their attachment to school (Hallinan, 2008), their well-being at school (Van Petegem, Aelterman, Van Keer, & Rosseel, 2008), and their perceptions of teacher racism (Stevens, 2008). From the literature, it is obvious that teacher–student bonding is crucial with respect to students’ socialization in school. After all, strong teacher–student relationships are significant in accounting for the level of social capital available in the students’ social networks through a transmission from teachers to students (Coleman, 1988; Stanton-Salazar, 1997; Stanton-Salazar & Dornbusch, 1995).


In maintaining an effective learning environment, developing trusting relationships between teachers and students is essential. Obviously, students notice whether they are trusted, and students who experience trust from their teachers will be less likely to divert energy into self-protection (Ennis & McCauley, 2000; Tschannen-Moran, 2004) and will more easily engage in supportive relationships with teachers, which in turn expands the level of social capital that students have available in their educational environment (Stanton-Salazar, 1997). As such, teachers’ trust is a form of teacher-based social capital available to students (see Croninger & Lee, 2001; Smyth, 2004) that indicates the presence of a supportive educational student environment. Accordingly, given that students’ belonging to school is related to a supportive student environment (Goodenow, 1993a, 1993b; Osterman, 2000), we propose that this sense of belonging will be strong in schools where faculty members trust the students. Furthermore, the more that social resources such as trust are present in school, the more likely it is that a school has a strong sense of community (see Bryk, Lee, & Holland, 1993; Coleman & Hoffer, 1987). Thus, it seems reasonable to assume that in schools where the level of social capital is high because of strong teacher–student trust relationships, the sense of community in those schools will be strong as well, which should in turn be revealed in a strong sense of belonging among students (Osterman). Yet, there are reasons to assume that students’ social integration in school will differ according to the track in which the teacher–student relationships take place.


TRACKING AND THE TEACHER–STUDENT RELATIONSHIP


Teachers in different tracks have to teach different material, but it has been demonstrated that even the way that they deal with it is different (Schofield, 2006). For example, in lower tracks, subjects tend to be approached far less theoretically and academically, and facts and basic skills are emphasized, whereas in higher tracks, emphasis is placed on concepts, processes, and more complicated skills. Students in higher tracks are offered more difficult material and, consequently, have more opportunities to learn (Boaler et al., 2000; Caughlan & Kelly, 2004; Gamoran, Nystrand, Berends, & LePore, 1995; D. H. Hargreaves, 1967; Metz, 1978; Murphy & Hallinger, 1989; Oakes, 1985; Persell, 1977; Rosenbaum, 1976). In addition, less is generally required academically from lower track students than from higher track students (Boaler et al.; Delrue, 2003; Evertson, 1982; Goodlad, 1984; D. H. Hargreaves, 1967; Oakes, 1985; Page, 1991; Persell; Schwartz, 1981; Stevens & Vermeersch, 2010). Generally speaking, the attitude of many teachers in higher tracks is more apt to promote learning than it is in lower tracks (Oakes, 1985; Van Houtte, 2004, 2006a).


A sound reason for this discrepancy is the response that teachers get from their students in the respective tracks. Teachers have certain general conceptions about teaching, but when they end up in a track with a specific group of students, they must adjust their conceptions to the real context (Fang, 1996). It has been shown that in technical/vocational schools, student culture is less study oriented than it is in academic schools (Van Houtte, 2006a). As a result of this poor study culture in technical/vocational schools, many teachers are not confident that students will meet their expectations with respect to achievement (Van Houtte, 2006b). Furthermore, teachers usually do not make an independent, individual evaluation of students, but start from the stereotype that lower track students are academically lacking (Ball, 1981; Rosenbaum, 1976). In other words, even before teachers have met their students, they have formed an image of their academic abilities and developed certain expectations to which they adjust their educational goals and their interactions with students (Ball; Finn, 1972; Jussim, 1986; McLaughlin, 1993; Metz, 1993; Midgley, Feldlaufer, & Eccles, 1988; Page, 1991). Moreover, in time, teachers will develop common ideas and views as an answer to the questions implicit in their circumstances and the problems specific to their work (A. Hargreaves, 1992). As such, teachers will share certain beliefs and expectations concerning the nature of the students, education, and school (Metz, 1978).


It can be assumed that teachers’ lower expectations in lower tracks will also affect their trust in students. Organizational studies (Bradach & Eccles, 1989; Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998) and educational ones (Bryk & Schneider, 2002; Goddard et al., 2001; Smith et al., 2001; Tschannen-Moran & Hoy, 2000) defined trust as confidence that expectations will be met. One of the causes of hampered trust is the belief that others are not competent to do what is required (Bryk & Schneider; Govier, 1992). Previous research revealed that teachers in technical/vocational schools are less satisfied with their jobs than those in academic schools because they trust their students less because of the students’ poor study culture (Van Houtte, 2006b). In addition, this diminished trust is shown to be shared by their colleagues, resulting in lower levels of faculty trust in students in technical/vocational schools (Van Houtte, 2006a, 2006b).


This diminished (faculty) trust in students may have detrimental effects in a teaching context because teaching well necessitates faith that people may grow and develop (Hansen, 1998). Furthermore, given the assumed relationship between faculty trust and students’ sense of belonging, a lower sense of belonging in lower tracks can also be expected. This brings us to two research questions: (1) to what extent students’ sense of belonging differs according to school type (academic vs. technical/vocational schools), and (2) whether faculty trust in students mediates an association between school type and students’ sense of belonging.    


CONTEXT


Before outlining the methodology of the study, it is necessary to describe briefly the particulars of Flemish education. First, it should be kept in mind that every school in Flanders is state subsidized, public and private schools alike. With only a few exceptions, private schools are mainly Catholic, and public schools are nonsectarian. Usually children go to nursery school from the age of 2 1/2 years onward. Education becomes compulsory when the child is 6 years old. After six years of primary education, at the age of 12, children transfer to secondary education. There are six years of secondary education divided into three grades lasting two years each. Officially, the first grade (years one and two) is an orientating grade divided into a core curriculum for the A-stream, and a B-stream preparing children for vocational education. In practice, though, the kinds of courses offered in the A-stream depend on the main tracks offered in the school in question, making it possible to distinguish the four tracks by the first grade.


There are four main tracks: academic education preparing for higher education; technical education; vocational education; and artistic education (which is marginal in terms of number of students). Tracks are organized not only within but also, and mainly, between schools. A common differentiation is between schools offering academic education and schools offering technical and vocational education. Within each main track, different tracks are distinguished—such as  economy-modern languages in academic education, electricity-mechanics in technical education, and child care in vocational education—and each is characterized by different subjects and emphases.


At the end of each year, the students receive a certificate indicating whether they can continue their current school career (A-certificate) or not (certificate B or C). In the case of the latter, a certificate B indicates that the student may pass to the next year but needs to join a lower track; a certificate C means that the student cannot pass to the next year and must repeat the year. These certificates are based on the GPA obtained, and there are no standardized tests (for example, in the form of centrally administered and standardized examinations; Stevens, 2007). Each grade, that is, in the third and the fifth year, the students must refine their branch of studies. Secondary education is compulsory until the age of 18.  Students can enroll in part-time vocational education from the age of 16, combining classes with experience on the shop floor. After six years of general, technical, or artistic education, or seven years (six years plus an extra year) of vocational education, the student receives a diploma of secondary education granting unlimited access to each form of higher education. Any student with a diploma of secondary education may start at university.


METHODS


SAMPLE


We use data from 6,851 students and 1,215 teachers in 50 secondary schools in Flanders. These schools were selected from a broader sample of 85, encompassing 11,872 respondents. The data were gathered in the 2004–2005 school year as part of the Flemish Educational Assessment (FlEA). A multistage sampling procedure was conducted. First, we selected proportional-to-size postal codes, with the size for this purpose defined as the number of schools within the postal code, as gathered from the data of the Flemish Educational Department. Because of this strategy, postal codes of large municipalities had a greater chance of selection. This strategy was used to capture the fact that larger municipalities have a greater number of schools and a greater number of migrants; we had to make sure that, in correspondence with their overrepresentation in the Flemish context, schools in larger municipalities had a higher chance to be selected, ensuring at the same time that we selected a critical number of schools with a majority of migrant students. From the 240 postal codes, we selected 48, with a desired slight overrepresentation of larger municipalities.


Next, all regular secondary schools within these selected municipalities were asked to participate, yielding a positive response of 31%. The small proportion of participating schools is due to the fact that Flemish schools are commonly swamped with such requests from researchers, resulting in a “first come, first served” situation. As such, the participating schools did not differ from those that opted out in terms of school sector, size, curriculum, or student composition. The 48 municipalities and 85 schools in this data set are representative of the Flemish situation (see Van Houtte, Stevens, Sels, Soens, & Van Rossem, 2005). Schools agreeing to participate did so with the parents’ consent. Third- and fifth-year students (9th and 11th grades in the American educational system) were invited to participate. This was a convenience sample, because it was not feasible to examine all years in all schools or only some students in each year. The third and fifth years were chosen because we wanted to examine students in the course of their school career, not in the first or final year, enrolled in different grades (see the Context section). This choice is not likely to affect the variables and relationships that are the focus of this study. To be sure, in the analyses, we take into account students’ age (see the Variables and Research Design sections). Students completed the questionnaires in class in the presence of one or two researchers and a teacher. In the end, 11,945 students (out of 13,646) completed a questionnaire, of which 11,872 proved to be valid, resulting in a response rate of 87%. A total of 6,081 students were in the third year, and 5,791 were in the fifth. The questionnaires were not anonymous because we wanted to couple these data to other data, such as academic results provided by the school. All names were removed as the data were assembled, so the final database and all analyses are completely confidential.


Additionally, data were gathered from teachers teaching the third or fifth year, or both, by means of anonymous written questionnaires. Because teachers in Flemish schools usually teach several years in several grades, this strategy yields a representative sample of teachers in the school. A total of 2,104 teachers across 84 schools responded, resulting in a response rate of approximately 60% (see Van Maele & Van Houtte, 2009).


Given our research questions, we selected from this sample of 85 schools those that offered exclusively academic education (22 schools) or exclusively technical/vocational education (30 schools). Similar to Goddard et al. (2001), who followed Halpin (1959), we included in the analysis only those schools where data were available from at least 5 faculty respondents. This selection criterion was imposed to obtain a critical mass of respondents within a school, making generalizations about a school’s staff more stable. As such, two technical/vocational schools were removed from the data. Finally, the data consisted of 22 academic schools with 3,376 students and 461 teachers, and 28 technical/vocational schools with 3,475 students and 754 teachers.


VARIABLES


The dependent variable sense of belonging at school was measured using a Dutch translation of the 18-item Psychological Sense of School Membership scale of Carol Goodenow (1993a) (see the appendix). The answer categories ranged from 1 (absolutely disagree) to 5 (completely agree). Responses were imputed for missing values by way of item correlation substitution (ICS): A missing value for one item is replaced by the value of the item correlating most highly with that item (Huisman, 2000). ICS, a simple and relatively easy to implement technique, is used to handle missing responses to some kind of scale. Procedures that use the relationships between items—such as ICS—perform best, although they tend to overestimate the scale quality. But it performs well, especially in scales with few response options and a low percentage of missing values (Huisman, 2000). The scale had a Cronbach’s alpha of .86 (N = 11,548). The scores for each item were summed, yielding a minimum score of 18 and a maximum score of 89. The students in this study had a mean score of 60.83 (SD = 9.42; N = 6,678).


We performed an exploratory factor analysis (principal component analysis [PCA]) to ascertain whether indeed a perceived teacher support dimension can be discerned within the sense of belonging scale as claimed by Goodenow (1993a, 1993b). This analysis revealed four components of which one was clearly covering the four items pertaining to teachers or adults in the school, completed by three items pertaining to support but formulated more generally. These three items had loadings (see the appendix) below 0.40 (with one exception, a loading of 0.46) on the other three components and could, as such, be seen as unique for this component. The factor loadings of these seven items (marked with T in the appendix) varied between .454 (Item 7) and .705 (Item 5). A confirmatory factor analysis (PCA, extracting one component) confirmed the high loadings of these seven items on this one component (ranging from .472 to 0.750). Cronbach’s alpha for this scale of seven items was .75 (N = 11,621). The scores for each item were summed, yielding a minimum score of 7 and a maximum score of 35. The students in this study had a mean score of 23.89 (SD = 4.02; N = 6,718).


The other three components discerned in the exploratory PCA were more miscellaneous and difficult to define. We decided to treat the remaining 11 items as one scale encompassing peer acceptance and rejection items, and items assessing general belonging. A confirmatory PCA (extracting one component) for these 11 items revealed factor loadings ranging from 0.387 (Item 4) to 0.705 (Item 6). There was one outlier with a loading of 0.298 (Item 10), but item analysis did not show a substantial improvement in Cronbach’s alpha when it was deleted. Cronbach’s alpha for this scale of 11 items was .80 (N = 11,543). The scores for each item were summed, yielding a minimum score of 11 and a maximum score of 55. The students in this study had a mean score of 36.94 (SD = 6.39; N = 6,678).


The main independent variable was school type. We distinguished between schools that offer general, academic education (coded 0, N = 22) and schools that offer technical and vocational education (coded 1, N = 28).


The SES context of the school was measured classically by calculating the mean of the SES of the students at school, namely, the mean of the SES of the respondents. The 50 schools considered here had a mean SES context of 4.98 (SD = 1.17, range 2.58–6.72). On average, the academic schools had a significantly higher SES context (M = 6.13, SD = 0.36) than technical/vocational schools did (M = 4.07, SD = 0.70, t = 13.54, p < 0.001; see Table 1). As indicated in the Design section, this variable cannot be included in the analyses because of its high correlation (r = -0.88, p < 0.001) with school type.


We determined school size from the total number of students, as reported by the school administrators. The number of students varied from 84 in the smallest school to 1,124 in the largest school. The 50 schools had a mean 477.56 students (SD= 259.24; see Table 1). On average, the academic and technical/vocational schools did not differ  significantly with respect to number of students (see Table 1).


The variable school sector distinguished between 28 private schools (all Catholic except for one) (score 0) and 22 public schools (municipal and state schools) (score 1). It should be noted that in the Flemish educational system, no distinction is made between public schools and private schools with respect to state support. For historical reasons, the private sector has always been the most developed, in terms of both the number of schools and the number of enrolled students. In our sample, public schools are somewhat overrepresented because the sampling procedure favored larger cities, where most of the municipal schools are located.


The proportion of immigrant students in the third and fifth year of a school, that is, the percentage of immigrant respondents from a school in our database (cf. infra), determined the school’s ethnic composition. The ethnic composition across the 50 schools included in our analysis ranges from no migrant students (5 schools) to 51.90% (1 school). On average, the proportion of students of foreign descent is 13.17% (SD = 16.47; see Table 1). The academic schools have, on average, a significantly lower proportion of migrant students (M = 3.37, SD = 3.91) than technical/vocational schools (M = 20.87, SD = 18.46, t = -4.88, p < 0.001; see Table 1).


To obtain a measure of faculty trust in students, we started from a measurement of individual teachers’ trust in students. Trust in students was measured using 10 items (Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999), such as “You have to supervise the students closely” and “The students cheat if they have the chance” (see the appendix for items and factor loadings). The scores for each item were summed, yielding a minimum score of 10 and a possible maximum score of 50. Cronbach’s alpha for this scale is 0.77.  The aggregation of this indicator of trust at the individual teacher level is a necessary next step because we intend to assess faculty trust as a group feature.


A customary aggregation strategy is the calculation of the mean score of individual members of the group or organization (e.g., Hofstede, Neuijen, Ohavy, & Sanders, 1990). In doing this, one has to be sure this aggregation is permitted. To determine whether it is legitimate to speak of faculty trust (i.e., something “shared” at the school level), we opted for an index of mean rater reliability based on the intraclass correlation coefficient (ICC) from a one-way analysis of variance (with the identification number of the school as the factor, this a variable with 50 categories, of which each category represents one school): ICC(1,k) = (between mean square - within mean square)/between mean square (with k = number of raters in each group or organization). This measure shows whether the variance between schools is sufficiently larger than the variance within schools, indicating more homogeneity within than between schools. The result must be above 0.60 to sustain aggregation to the group or organization level (Glick, 1985; Shrout & Fleiss, 1979).The ICC must be at minimum 0.60 to permit an aggregation at the group or organization level (Glick; Shrout & Fleiss), and we found an ICC of 0.87 (schools N = 80). On average, faculty trust is significantly lower in technical/vocational schools (M = 29.98, SD = 2.33) than in academic schools (M = 34.22, SD = 1.04, t = 8.592, p < 0.001). A bivariate multilevel analysis with faculty trust as the only determinant and perceived teacher support as the dependent variable clearly shows that both concepts cannot be seen as two sides of the same coin. Although they are significantly related, they do measure different things (standardized gamma y* = 0.113, p =0.011; y* for sense of belonging = 0.169, p < 0.001; y* for sense of belonging without perceived teacher support = 0.179, p < 0.001).


With respect to sex, our sample was quite equally divided, with about 47% females (male = 0, female = 1). We should note, though, a slight underrepresentation of girls in technical/vocational schools (42.2%; Table 1), but this corresponds well with the official figures stating that in 2004–2005, 44% of the students in technical/vocational education were female (Department of Education, 2005).  


Our research concentrated on the third- and fifth-year students, so the age of most respondents was 15 (35.6%) or 17 (about 33%) years old in 2005. The oldest respondents were 20 or older (1.4%), and the youngest was 13 (one respondent). The respondents were, on average, 16.43 years old (SD = 1.30), and the students in technical/vocational schools were, on average, significantly older (M = 16.88, SD = 1.33, t = -30.872, p < 0.001) than those in academic schools (M = 15.97, SD = 1.11) because of their higher retention rate (see Table 1).


We measured the SES of origin of the students by means of the occupational prestige of the father and mother (Erikson, Goldthorpe, & Portocarero, 1979), with the highest of both taken as an indicator of the SES of the family. The respondents had a mean SES of 5.23 (SD = 2.11, range 1–8). On average, the students in technical/vocational schools had a significantly lower SES (M = 4.27, SD = 2.08) than those in academic schools (M = 6.14, SD = 1.70; see Table 1).


We distinguish between native and immigrant students. As in other studies (Timmerman, Hermans, & Hoornaert, 2002), the principal criterion was the birthplace of the students’ maternal grandmothers. If these data were missing (only 1% missing of the total sample, N = 11,872), we considered their mothers’ and fathers’ nationalities because most immigrant students are second or third generation and have Belgian nationality. Non-West European birthplaces and nationalities, such as Turkish, Moroccan, Italian, and Greek, were considered foreign descent. Thus, we created a dichotomous variable (0 = native, 1 = immigrant). In the data at hand, 10.7% of the students were identified as being of foreign origin. As expected, we found more immigrant students in the technical/vocational schools than in the academic schools (see Table 1).


Parental support was measured using a seven-item scale with five answer categories, ranging from 1 (absolutely disagree 1) to 5 (completely agree) (Brutsaert, 2001). Example items are “My parents accept me as I am,” “My parents make me feel that I do not meet their expectations” (scored in reverse), and “My parents only pay attention to my mistakes” (scored in reverse). This scale yielded a Cronbach’s alpha of .83 (N = 11,727). We summed the scores on each item (range 7–35). On average, students in academic schools reported significantly more parental support (M = 28.50, SD = 5.24) than students in technical/vocational schools (M = 28.10, SD = 5.90; see Table 1).


As a measure of prior academic achievement, we used the GPA at the end of the year preceding the inquiry. There are no standardized tests (for example, in the form of centrally administered and standardized examinations) in the Flemish educational system, which makes educational achievement very hard to compare across schools and across students (Stevens, 2007). We need to rely on a self-reported GPA, yielding questions with respect to validity because of memory problems and cover-up strategies. Recent research indicated, however, that self-reported grades are generally highly correlated with grades taken from students’ transcripts and that GPA has some desirable features relative to standardized test scores (Kelly, 2008). The mean GPA in this data set was 69.47 (SD = 9.21, range 41–100). On average, students in academic schools reported a significantly higher GPA (M = 71.54, SD = 8.38) than students in technical/vocational schools (M = 67.32, SD = 9.55, t = 18.438, p < 0.001; Table 1).



Table 1. Descriptive Statistics for Dependent and Independent Variables: Frequencies (%), Means and Standard Deviations (SD) and Results of T Tests Comparing General and Technical/Vocational Schools.

 

Total

Academic Schools

Technical/Vocational Schools

 

Variables

Mean or %

SD

Mean or %

SD

Mean or %

SD

Mean

difference

Student Level

Sense of      Belonging

(range 18-89)

60.83

(n=6678)

9.42

62.37

(n=3343)

9.00

59.29

(n=3335)

9.57

3.086***

t=13.569

Perceived Teacher Support

(range 7-35)

23.89

(n=6718)

4.02

24.26

(n=3352)

3.78

23.52

(n=3366)

4.23

.736***

t=7.529

SoB Without PTS

(range 11-55)

36.94

(n=6678)

6.39

38.11

(n=3343)

6.13

35.76

(n=3335)

6.43

2.36***

t=15.335

Sex

Female (=1)


46.9%

(n=6834)

 


52.0%

(n=3372)

 


42.2%

(n=3462)

  

Age

(range 13-20)

16.43

(n=6815)

1.30

15.97

(n=3365)

1.11

16.88

(n=3450)

1.33

-.912***

t=-30.872

SES

(range 1-8)

5.23

(n=6443)

2.11

6.14

(n=3295)

1.70

4.27

(n=3148)

2.08

1.862***

t=39.216

Migrant Status

Immigrant (=1)


10.7%

(n=6851)

 


3.9%

(n=3376)

 


17.4%

(n=3475)

  

Parental

 Support

(range 7-35)

28.30

(n=6753)

5.59

28.50

(n=3354)

5.24

28.10

(n=3399)

5.90

.396**

t=2.915

Prior GPA

(range 41-100)

69.47

(n=6180)

9.21

71.54

(n=3149)

8.38

67.32

(n=3031)

9.55

4.219***

t=18.438

 

School Level

SES

 Context

(range 2.58-6.72)

4.98

(n=50)

1.17

6.13

(n=22)

0.36

4.07

(n=28)

0.70

2.053***

t=13.543

School Size

(range 84-1,124)

477.56

(n=50)

259.24

540.14

(n=22)

291.88

428.39

(n=28)

223.63

111.744

t=1.534

School Sector

Public (=1)


44.0%

(n=50)

 


27.3%

(n=22)

 


57.1%

(n=28)

  

Ethnic

 Composition

(range 0-51.90)

13.17

(n=50)

16.47

3.37

(n=22)

3.91

20.87

(n=28)

18.46

-17.495***

t=-4.878

Faculty Trust

(range 23-37.50)

31.85

(n=50)

2.82

34.22

(n=22)

1.04

29.98

(n=28)

2.33

4.235***

t= 8.592

Note: PTS = perceived teacher support; SES = socioeconomic status; SoB = sense of belonging.

* p < 0.05. ** p ≤ 0.01. *** p < 0.001.





RESEARCH DESIGN


To determine the relationship between school type (academic vs. technical/vocational) and individual students’ sense of belonging, we started with a t test comparing the mean sense of belonging in the two types of schools. But given that we are dealing with a clustered sample of students nested within schools, and with data at different levels—namely, school type as the main determinant at school level and the dependent at student level—use of hierarchical linear modeling (HLM6; see Bryk & Raudenbush, 1992) was most appropriate.


First, we estimated an unconditional model to determine the amount of variance that occurs between schools, as is common in multilevel analyses. Next, we examined the effect of school type (Model 1) to get a clear view of the bivariate relation between school type and sense of belonging and, as such, to confirm the t test. Then, we proceeded stepwise by adding variables at school level (Model 2) and at the individual student level (Model 3) that have been demonstrated to relate to sense of belonging, to rule out spurious relations and selection effects. We started with the school variables because we are mainly interested in the effect of school variables in the first place. Our way of working corresponds to common sense: Actors involved in schooling will notice differences between schools with certain characteristics. It is, for example, even without a thorough analysis, very clear that in Flanders, students in different school types have different attitudes. By starting with school-level variables, we can tell whether these different attitudes are differences pertaining to school features, or whether these are differences explainable by the characteristics of students attending those schools—so-called selection effects. If we start from a model with individual variables (the conventional way of working), we may have to report that there is no effect of school type on our dependent variables. Everyone involved in technical/vocational schools would doubt this finding. The way we work, we can say that we find a difference but that this difference is due to particular school and student features.


At the school level, we took into account school size (McNeely et al., 2002), school sector (Johnson et al., 2001), and the ethnic composition of the school (Johnson et al.; McNeely et al.). It would be appropriate to control for the socioeconomic context of the school as well (see Ma, 2003), but in Flanders, a side effect of the differentiation in tracks is a differentiation according to SES (Groenez, 2010; Pelleriaux, 2001; Tan, 1998). In our data, we found a Pearson correlation of -0.88 (p < 0.001) between school type and the SES context, precluding an analysis containing both variables because multicollinearity cannot be avoided. Given that the rigid system of between-school tracking is the cause of this segregation of students along socioeconomic lines (Groenez, 2010; Pelleriaux, 2001; Tan, 1998), it makes sense to examine the effect of school type on students’ sense of belonging and faculty trust rather than the effect of the SES context of the school. Moreover, at the student level, we took into account SES next to sex, age, migrant origin, parental support, and a measure of prior school achievement (see Anderman, 2003; Goodenow, 1993a; Johnson et al.; McNeely et al.). Finally, the mediating variable of faculty trust was introduced in the last model (Model 4).


Knowing that the student’s perceived teacher support is an important dimension of our measure of sense of belonging (see Variables section and Goodenow, 1993a, 1993b), it appeared useful to isolate this dimension from the sense of belonging measurement to ascertain whether faculty trust remained associated with the student’s sense of belonging, putting aside the perceived teacher support dimension. After all, it is not surprising to find an association between faculty trust and students’ sense of belonging, considering that sense of belonging encompasses the student’s perceived teacher support, which is known to be related to faculty trust (see Variables) and which, similar to faculty trust, pertains to the student–teacher relationship. An interesting and important question, then, was whether the same relations between school type, faculty trust, and sense of belonging could be found when we omitted teacher support from the sense of belonging measure. Thus, the stepwise multilevel analyses described earlier were repeated first with the remaining dimensions of sense of belonging after omitting teacher support as the dependent variable, and then with teacher support as the dependent variable.  


RESULTS


On average, students in technical/vocational schools experienced a significantly lower sense of belonging (M = 59.29, SD = 9.57) than students in academic ones (M = 62.37, SD = 9.00, t = 13.569, p < 0.001; see Table 1). The unconditional multilevel analysis indicated that 8.52% (τ0 / (τ0 + σ²), with σ² = 81.67, τ = 7.61, p < 0.001) of the variance in sense of belonging was among schools. School type showed a significant (p < 0.001), moderate association with sense of belonging (see Table 2, Model 1; standardized coefficient y* = -0.158) confirming that students in technical/vocational schools had a significantly lower sense of belonging than students in academic schools. Of the variance in sense of belonging between schools, 29.6% could be ascribed to school type. This association with school type held when taking into account the school features size, sector, and ethnic composition (Table 2, Model 2). None of these school features appeared related to students’ sense of belonging. Controlling for the individual student characteristics decreased the association between school type and sense of belonging, but it remained significant (Table 2, Model 3). At the individual level, students’ sense of belonging was positively associated with SES, parental support, and prior achievement (GPA), although the associations with SES and GPA were very weak. An additional analysis (not shown in tables) showed that native students’ sense of belonging was significantly more affected by school type than migrant students’ sense of belonging (school type*migrant status: p = 0.011) and that migrant students in technical/vocational schools even had a slightly higher sense of belonging than they did in academic schools.


Introducing the variable of faculty trust into the model (Table 2, Model 4) changed the picture profoundly. The association between school type and students’ sense of belonging decreased dramatically and became nonsignificant. Faculty trust was positively (y* = 0.166) and significantly (p = 0.03) related to students’ sense of belonging and appeared responsible for the stated association between school type and students’ sense of belonging. Worth mentioning is an additional analysis (not shown in these tables), which indicated that native students’ sense of belonging was significantly more affected by faculty trust than migrant students’ sense of belonging (faculty trust*migrant status, p = 0.011).


Finally, faculty trust at school level and parental support at student level presented as the main determinants of student’s sense of belonging.


Table 2. Association Between School Type and Sense of Belonging. Mediating Role of Faculty Trust in Students. Results Multilevel Analysis (HLM6) - Standardized  (y*) Gamma Coefficients With Standard Errors in Parentheses

 

Model 1

Model 2

Model 3

Model 4

     

School level

School type

(tech/voc = 1)

 

-0.158***

(0.696)

-0.175***

(0.815)

-0.102**

(0.669)

-0.022

(0.718)

School size

  

-0.028

(0.001)

-0.006

(0.001)

-0.014

(0.001)

School sector

(public = 1)

  

-0.036

(0.712)

-0.045

(0.640)

-0.038

(0.578)

Ethnic composition

  

  0.038

(0.022)

  0.012

(0.020)

  0.063

(0.027)

Faculty trust

    

  0.166*

(0.249)


Student level

Sex (female = 1)

   

  0.009

(0.249)

  0.005

(0.251)

Age

   

-0.029

(0.113)

-0.029

(0.114)

SES

   

  0.043**

(0.061)

0.042**

(0.061)

Migrant status

 (migrant = 1)

   

  0.010

(0.435)

  0.011

(0.436)

Parental support

   

  0.341***

(0.029)

  0.341***

(0.029)

Prior GPA

   

  0.098***

(0.019)

  0.097***

(0.019)


Variance components

Intercept U0

5.359***

5.544***

4.375***

3.735***

Gender U1

  

0.389

0.356

Age U2

  

0.232

0.261

SES U3

  

0.037

0.034

Migrant status U4

  

2.239

2.506

Parental support U5

  

0.020***

0.020***

Prior GPA U6

  

0.009*

0.010*

     

Between-school variance explained

29.6%

27.2%

42.5%

50.9%

Note:  GPA = grade point average; SES = socioeconomic status.

*p < .05. **p < 0.01. ***p ≤ 0.001.


Repeating the analyses on sense of belonging but excluding the subdimension perceived teacher support yielded a remarkably similar picture. The unconditional multilevel analysis indicated that 8.19% (σ² = 37.67, τ = 3.36, p < 0.001) of the variance in this sense of belonging measure was among schools. School type showed a significant, moderate association with belonging (y* = -0.179,  p < 0.001, not shown in table). This association held when we took into account several school features and individual student characteristics (see Table 3, Models 1 and 2). At the individual level, students’ sense of belonging was positively associated with parental support and positively but very weakly with SES and prior achievement (GPA). There also appeared a significant negative, but very weak, association with age. Faculty trust showed to be positively related to sense of belonging, omitting perceived teacher support (y* = 0.166, p = 0.012), and appeared responsible for the stated relation between school type and sense of belonging, because this association vanished when we took faculty trust into account (Table 3, Model 3).


Table 3. Association Between School Type and Two Subdimensions of Sense of Belonging. Results Multilevel Analysis (HLM6) - Standardized  (y*) Gamma Coefficients With Standard Errors in Parentheses

 

Sense of belonging without perceived teacher support

Perceived teacher support

 

Model 1

Model 2

Model 3

Model 1

Model 2

Model 3

       

School level

School type

(tech/voc = 1)

 

-0.187***

(0.503)

-0.131***

(0.420)

-0.050

(0.445)

-0.114**

(0.338)

-0.039

(0.278)

  0.043

(0.302)

School  size

 

-0.041

(0.001)

-0.008

(0.0007)

-0.016

(0.0007)

-0.019

(0.0006)

  0.001

(0.0004)

-0.003

(0.0004)

School sector

(public = 1)

 

-0.038

(0.443)

-0.035

(0.379)

-0.031

(0.344)

-0.026

(0.289)

-0.040

(0.258)

-0.039

(0.222)

Ethnic composition

 

  0.023

(0.013)

-0.026

(0.013)

  0.018

(0.016)

  0.057

(0.009)

  0.057

(0.008)

  0.115*

(0.011)

Faculty  trust

   

  0.166*

(0.143)

 

 

  0.158*

(0.103)


Student level

Sex

(female = 1)

  

-0.005

(0.141)

-0.009

(0.142)

 

  0.025

(0.131)

  0.021

(0.133)

Age

  

-0.044**

(0.079)

-0.043*

(0.079)

 

-0.002

(0.054)

-0.003

(0.054)

SES

  

  0.043**

(0.041)

  0.041**

(0.042)

 

  0.029

(0.029)

  0.030

(0.029)

Migrant status

 (migrant = 1)

  

  0.017

(0.341)

  0.016

(0.342)

 

-0.011

(0.220)

-0.011

(0.220)

Parental support

  

  0.319***

(0.020)

  0.319***

(0.020)

 

  0.292***

(0.011)

  0.292***

(0.011)

Prior GPA

  

  0.066***

(0.013)

  0.065***

(0.013)

 

  0.121***

(0.008)

  0.121***

(0.008)


Variance components

Intercept U0

2.088***

1.406***

1.401***

0.912***

0.944***

0.748***

Gender U1

 

0.178

0.160

 

0.199*

0.221*

Age U2

 

0.089

0.106

 

0.059*

0.062*

SES U3

 

0.008

0.010

 

0.008

0.008

Migrant status U4

 

1.730

1.854

 

0.629

0.649

Parental support U5

 

0.008***

0.009***

 

0.003**

0.003**

Prior GPA U6

 

0.004**

0.004**

 

0.001

0.001

       

Between-school variance explained

37.9%

58.2%

58.3%

9.7%

6.5%

25.9%

Note: GPA = grade point average; SES = socioeconomic status.

*p < .05. **p < 0.01. *** p ≤ 0.001.


Considering perceived teacher support, the unconditional multilevel analysis indicated that 6.19% (σ² = 15.28, τ = 1.01, p < 0.001) of the variance was among schools. School type showed a significant association (y* = 0.-089, p = 0.016, not shown in table) with perceived teacher support, which held when we took several school features into account (see Table 3, Model 1). However, adding individual student characteristics to the model (Table 3, Model 2) exposed this association as a selection effect, because students in technical/vocational schools, on average, had lower academic achievement (see Table 1). When we introduced GPA into the model, the association between school type and student’s perceived teacher support decreased strongly and became nonsignificant. GPA was moderately associated with perceived teacher support (y* = 0.121, p < 0.001): The higher a student’s achievement, the more he or she perceived teachers as supportive. As expected, faculty trust was positively connected with this perceived teacher support (Table 3, Model 3, y* = 0.158, p = 0.035). When we took faculty trust into account, schools’ ethnic composition was also associated with perceived teacher support: The higher the proportion of migrant students, the more students perceived their teachers as supportive (Table 3, Model 3, y* = 0.115, p = 0.012). The negative correlation between ethnic composition and faculty trust (r = -0.616, p < 0.001; see the appendix) suppressed the positive relation between the ethnic composition of the school and perceived teacher support. Additional analyses (not shown in tables) indicated that this positive relation was significantly stronger in native students than in migrant students (ethnic composition*migrant status: p = 0.050): Native students in particular seemed to perceive more teacher support in schools with a higher proportion of migrant students once the lack of faculty trust was taken into account. Native and migrant students’ perceived teacher support was affected in the same way by faculty trust (faculty trust*migrant status: p = 0.871).   


Finally, the main determinants of the subdimension of perceived teacher support were ethnic composition and faculty trust at school level, and parental support and prior achievement at student level.


DISCUSSION


Although a rich tradition of research focuses on the nature and effects of tracking students (e.g., Berends, 1995; Carbonaro, 2005; Catsambis et al., 1999;  Duru-Bellat & Mingat, 1997; Friedkin & Thomas, 1997; Hallinan & Kubitschek, 1999; Van Houtte, 2004, 2006a), little or no research investigates the extent to which students in different tracks feel embedded in or alienated from their school communities (exception: Smerdon, 2002). However, there are reasons to assume that students’ social integration in school will differ according to track position because students in the lower tracks are shown to have less positive relationships with their teachers (e.g., Ireson & Hallam, 2005; Oakes, 1985; Stevens & Vermeersch, 2010; Van Houtte, 2004, 2006a). Given the important positive consequences of belongingness both on the individual student level and at the level of the school (see Osterman, 2000), two research questions drove the present study: (1) To what extent does students’ sense of belonging differ according to school type (academic vs. technical/vocational schools)? (2) Does faculty trust in students mediate an association between school type and students’ sense of belonging?    


Using multilevel analyses with a unique Flemish data set of students and teachers in schools offering different tracks (system of between-school tracking), this article demonstrates that students enrolled in technical/vocational education display a significant lower sense of belonging than students enrolled in academic schools. Furthermore, it is shown that faculty trust in students is significantly higher in academic schools than in technical/vocational schools and that this difference in faculty trust is responsible for the stated association between school and students’ sense of belonging. Students in technical/vocational schools feel less embedded in school than their peers in academic schools because teachers in these schools display less trust in their students than their counterparts in academic schools do. This pattern holds when refining the measure of sense of belonging by omitting items pertaining to perceived teacher support.


It would be wrong, however, to conclude on the basis of these findings that the tracking system should be abolished. First, this study compares technical/vocational tracks with academic tracks (in this case, schools), and as such, it does not tell us anything about the consequences of tracking compared with nontracking. Furthermore, the variety of tracks corresponds with students’ different capacities and interests. The existence of different tracks allows students to receive training consonant with their talents and interests. What is more, tracks are socially useful because they prepare students for different futures: Societies are as much in need of manual workers as brain-workers. It is very important that these different futures are equally esteemed. There is a profound need for a social (re)appreciation of technical and vocational tracks and occupations. Currently, Flanders confronts a shortage of skilled manual workers such as nurses, gardeners, welders, butchers, carpenters, bricklayers, and so on. At the same time, there is a large group of unskilled unemployed people who dropped out of technical and vocational tracks partly because of their lack of a motivating culture. To resolve this discrepancy, the negative image of technical/vocational tracks needs to be addressed.


Additionally, our results clearly show that tracking outcomes of students cannot be considered separately from how teachers associate with students in different tracks. Crosnoe et al. (2004) pointed out that, from the students’ perspective, the nature of teacher–student bonding differs according to the context in which the teacher–student relationships take place. We show that this is the case as well when considering the teachers’ perspective. By demonstrating the mediating role of teachers’ relationships with students—considered as a school feature—in the association between tracking and students’ sense of belonging, this article makes a relevant contribution to revealing the mechanisms through which tracking might affect student outcomes, such as alienation, disengagement and antischool attitudes. Future research should continue along this line. Combining quantitative and qualitative research is desirable. Qualitative research techniques are best suited to exploring the teacher and student relationships in different types of school or in different tracks, whereas quantitative techniques allow us to generalize these findings and to relate them to individual students’ or teachers’ outcomes, such as achievement, belonging, trust, job satisfaction, and self-efficacy.


This study also contributes to knowledge of school belongingness. First, interest in the causes of the sense of belonging has been a recent development, as has interest more specifically in the school features that affect students’ sense of belonging. Confirming Ma’s findings (2003), this study shows that school features such as size, ethnic composition, and sector do not determine students’ sense of belonging. Ma suggested, however, that what probably matters for students’ sense of belonging is the presence of caring teachers. We reveal that the sense of belonging is indeed associated with faculty trust in students. Furthermore, the presence of faculty trust in students explains why students attending academic schools display higher levels of sense of belonging in school than those enrolled in technical/vocational schools. In terms of strengthening students’ connectedness to a technical/vocational school environment, our results indicate that strengthening teachers’ level of trust in students could be crucial. More research is definitely needed into which school features are associated with students’ belongingness.


At school level, the subdimension perceived teacher support is positively related not only with faculty trust, but also with  the schools’ ethnic composition, when holding constant faculty trust. It is interesting in this respect to note the additional finding that native students in particular seem to perceive more teacher support in schools with a higher proportion of migrant students, once the lack of faculty trust is taken into account. We also found that native students’ sense of belonging is significantly more affected by faculty trust than migrant students’ sense of belonging is, whereas native and migrant students’ perceptions of teacher support are affected in the same way by faculty trust. It may be important that even in schools with a high proportion of migrant students, the great majority of teachers are of native descent; in our total sample, not even 2% of the teachers had a migrant background. This issue cannot be covered in this article, which deals with effects of tracking and not with those of ethnic segregation, but it is clear that more research—quantitative as well as qualitative—is needed to explore what exactly is happening in schools with higher proportions of migrant students. Interesting additional questions that certainly need to be dealt with are, for example, whether the ethnic composition of academic and nonacademic schools has the same effect on the sense of belonging, or whether faculty trust is as effective in enhancing this sense in highly segregated schools as in less segregated ones.   


As important, recent research into belongingness has pointed to the importance of teacher support in explaining students’ sense of belonging in school (Hallinan, 2008). Instead of trying to grasp how teachers support their students, Hallinan’s research considers students’ perceptions of teachers’ support. However, knowing that the student’s perception of teachers’ support is usually considered as a dimension of his or her sense of belonging (Goodenow, 1993a, 1993b; Jimerson et al., 2003), this way of working seems rather tautological. Therefore, in the present study, a measure of the teacher–student relationship not obtained from the students is associated with students’ sense of belonging, namely, teachers’ trust in students as reported by the teachers themselves. To relate this measure to students’ outcomes, we consider teachers’ trust in students as a feature of the school, that is, faculty trust in students. Our analysis confirms the importance of the teachers’ relationships with their students as a determinant of those students’ sense of belonging.


Moreover, our analysis shows that the two concepts—faculty trust and students’ perceptions of teacher support—cannot be seen as two sides of the same coin; although related, they clearly measure something different and are not interchangeable. Researchers often disregard the problems associated with perceptual measurement. Individual perceptions are not necessarily accurate, for one, and individuals experiencing the same situation are not necessarily likely to give a similar description of the situation (A. Jones & James, 1979). In itself, this should not be a problem, because these perceptions can be expected to affect their perceiver, whether they are accurate or not, as stated in the classic theorem, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas & Thomas, 1928, p. 572). But researchers do need to be aware that perceptions only reflect a specific reality and that it might be interesting and revealing to consider and relate the perceptions of different actors.


Sense of belonging has seldom been dealt with sociologically, at least not in educational research. However, a strong sense of belonging in students, and by extension, in organization members in general, can be seen as an indicator of a strong sense of community and a high level of social capital (Osterman, 2000), making it a sociological topic par excellence. This study shows that an individual’s sense of belonging cannot be studied apart from the context in which he or she is acting and from the relationships he or she develops in that context. To enhance students’ sense of belonging in school, and thus to enhance schools’ social cohesion, more research is needed into the determinants, and more specifically, into the contextual determinants, of the sense of belonging.


CONCLUSION


Educational systems worldwide apply some form of tracking that stratifies students according to their ability. Our study shows that teachers’ trust in students differs according to the track in which the teacher–student relationship takes place. Furthermore, this mechanism is responsible for students’ lower sense of belonging in technical/vocational schools compared with academic schools. In terms of strengthening students’ connectedness to a technical/vocational school environment, our results indicate that strengthening teachers’ level of trust in students could be crucial. Faculty trust turns out to be the only school feature—of those included in this study—that affects students’ sense of belonging. Regarding individual characteristics, students’ SES and prior GPA exert a very small effect, whereas parental support appears to be the most important determinant. The  main conclusion of this study is, then, that being surrounded by caring adults is a crucial factor in students’ sense of belonging in school and that this does means not only having trusting teachers around, but also having supportive parents.   


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APPENDIX


The Psychological Sense of School Membership (PSSM) Scale (Goodenow, 1993a, p. 84)


Factor loadings PSSM. Exploratory PCA (varimax rotation).


   

1

2

3

4

1.

I feel like a real part of this school.

 

.195

.254

.669

.174

2.

People here notice when I’m good at something.

T

.026

.486

.461

.163

3.

It is hard for people like me to be accepted here. (r)

 

.705

.214

.047

.162

4.

Other students in this school take my opinions seriously.

 

-.064

.116

.152

.668

5.

Most teachers at this school are interested in me.

T

.025

.705

.210

.138

6.

Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong here. (r)

 

.703

.101

.271

.146

7.

There’s at least one adult in this school I can talk to if I have a problem.

T

-.070

.454

.285

.043

8.

People at this school are friendly to me.

 

.270

.195

.028

.575

9.

Teachers here are not interested in people like me. (r)

T

.534

.602

.029

-.064

10.

I am included in lots of activities at this school.

 

-.071

.147

.498

.085

11.

I am treated with as much respect as other students.

T

.373

.504

.020

.349

12.

I feel very different from most other students here. (r)

 

.683

-.031

.052

.186

13.

I can really be myself at this school.

 

.383

.078

.397

.470

14.

The teachers here respect me.

T

.276

.702

.147

.075

15.

People here know I can do good work.

T

.014

.457

.221

.347

16.

I wish I were in a different school. (r)

 

.515

.050

.604

.032

17.

I feel proud of belonging to this school.

 

.305

.214

.678

.060

18.

Other students here like me the way I am.

 

.326

.039

.074

.714

Note: T = items capturing students’ perceptions of teacher support.

(r) item reversed before items were summed.



Factor loadings PSSM. Confirmatory PCA—extracting one factor—of scale and subscales


  

 SoB

PTS

SoB omitting PTS

1.

I feel like a real part of this school.

.641

 

.634

2.

People here notice when I’m good at something.

.566

.643

 

3.

It is hard for people like me to be accepted here. (r)

.595

 

.631

4.

Other students in this school take my opinions seriously.

.376

 

.387

5.

Most teachers at this school are interested in me.

.549

.702

 

6.

Sometimes I feel as if I don’t belong here. (r)

.637

 

.705

7.

There’s at least one adult in this school I can talk to if I have a problem.

.360

.472

 

8.

People at this school are friendly to me.

.504

 

.529

9.

Teachers here are not interested in people like me. (r)

.605

.667

 

10.

I am included in lots of activities at this school.

.317

 

.298

11.

I am treated with as much respect as other students.

.629

.653

 

12.

I feel very different from most other students here. (r)

.465

 

.555

13.

I can really be myself at this school.

.642

 

.699

14.

The teachers here respect me.

.630

.750

 

15.

People here know I can do good work.

.502

.586

 

16.

I wish I were in a different school. (r)

.621

 

.681

17.

I feel proud of belonging to this school.

.639

 

.644

18.

Other students here like me the way I am.

.532

 

.598

Note: PTS = perceived teacher support; SES = socioeconomic status; SoB = sense of belonging.

T = items capturing students’ perceptions of teacher support.

(r) item reversed before items were summed.


Teacher trust in students (TTS) (Hoy & Tschannen-Moran, 1999)


Factor loadings TTS. Confirmatory PCA–extracting one factor.


1.

The students are reliable.

.810

2.

The students are caring toward one another.

.678

3.

The students can be counted on to do their work.

.689

4.

You can believe what the students say.

.746

5.

You can trust the students.

.843

6.

The students have to be closely supervised.

.618

7.

The students are competent learners.

.532

8.

The students cheat if they have the chance.

.433

9.

The students are secretive.

.110*

10.

The students talk freely about their lives outside of school.

.022*

 *Despite these very low factor loadings, deleting these items does not improve Cronbach’s alpha of the total scale substantially.


Correlation matrix school features (N = 50)


  

1

2

3

4

5

6

1

School type

-

     

2

School size

-.216

-

    

3

SES-context

-.876***

 .306*

-

   

4

School sector

 .299*

-.215

-.367**

-

  

5

Ethnic composition

 .533***

-.151

-.754***

 .304*

-

 

6

Faculty trust

-.753***

 .300*

 .789***

-.304*

-.616***

-

Note: SES = socioeconomic status.

*p < 0.05. **p < 0.01. ***p <0.001.


Correlation matrix student features  (N in brackets)


  

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

1

SoB

-

        

2

PTS

.846***

(6678)

-

       

3

SoB no  PTS

 .942***

(6678)

.618***

(6678)

-

      

4

Sex

 .066***

(6667)

 .086***

(6707)

 .042***

(6667)

-

     

5

Age

-.117***

(6650)

-.063***

(6690)

-.134***

(6650)

-.040***

(6806)

-

    

6

SES

 .086***

(6296)

 .055***

(6330)

 .094***

(6296)

-.016

(6431)

-.148***

(6415)

-

   

7

Migrant status

 -.035**

(6678)

-.034**

(6718)

-.032**

(6678)

 .016

(6834)

 .184***

(6815)

-.359***

(6443)

-

  

8

Parental support

 .361***

(6626)

 .312***

(6659)

 .337***

(6626)

 .011

(6742)

-.036**

(6724)

-0.001

(6371)

 .018

(6753)

-

 

9

Prior GPA

 .182***

(6087)

 .164***

(6116)

 .165***

(6087)

 .109***

(6172)

-.277***

(6157)

 .108***

(5861)

-.074***

(6180)

 .146***

(6131)

-

Note: GPA = grade point average; PTS = perceived teacher support; SES = socioeconomic status; SoB = sense of belonging.


References


Goodenow, C. (1993a). The psychological sense of school membership among adolescents: Scale development and educational correlates. Psychology in the Schools, 30(1), 79–90.


Hoy, W. K., & Tschannen-Moran , M. (1999). Five faces of trust: An empirical confirmation in urban elementary schools. Journal of School Leadership, 9, 184–208.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 114 Number 7, 2012, p. 1-36
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16467, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 2:31:45 PM

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About the Author
  • Mieke Van Houtte
    Ghent University
    E-mail Author
    MIEKE VAN HOUTTE, Ph.D. sociology, is currently working as lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Research Group CuDOS, at Ghent University (Belgium). Her research interests cover diverse topics within the sociology of education, particularly the effects of structural and compositional school features on several outcomes for students and teachers. Her work has been published in journals such as Journal of Curriculum Studies, Journal of Educational Research, School Effectiveness and School Improvement, Sociology of Education, and American Educational Research Journal.
  • Dimitri Van Maele
    Ghent University
    DIMITRI VAN MAELE is a researcher in the Department of Sociology, Research Group CuDOS, at Ghent University (Belgium). Dealing with the topic of teacher trust within Flemish secondary schools, he is completing a doctoral project funded by the Research Foundation–Flanders (project G001308N). His research interests are situated within the fields of the sociology of education, organization, and work. His previous work has been published in the journals Educational Administration Quarterly and Social Indicators Research.
 
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