Converting peer pressure.
1 Social Policy; Winter96, Vol. 27 Issue 2, p47-49, 3p,
A new hopelessness has arisen about our society's ability to educate young people today. Race and class discrimination is no longer considered the purported cause of poor school performance. The problem, we're told, is the students themselves. Peer pressure is blamed for everything from poor grades to drug abuse.
Supporting this argument is new research by Steinberg, et al. (Beyond the Classroom). In a survey of 20,000 teenagers, the authors found that, while parents have little influence on youngsters' attitudes toward school, peers are very influential in producing negative attitudes.
But there are, in fact, a large number of programs in school that utilize peers to provide a very different and positive message. Student-to-student programs such as peer drug education, peer tutoring, peer mediation, peer mentoring, youth helplines, and peer counseling are found in thousands of schools around the country. Research indicates that they are effective and, equally important, cost-effective. For example, a meta-analysis of 143 adolescent
drug-prevention programs showed that peer approaches are more persuasive than any other program in reducing drug use among young people. Another study determined that cross-age tutoring among students was most cost-effective in comparison with three other well-known reform strategies--reduced class size, computer-assisted instruction, and a longer school day.
In peer programs, students become role models, and imbue the programs with their own idiom and style. To varying degrees, students feel good about themselves for being able to help someone else, a key element in all peer programs. These programs appeal to a wide variety of young people. In fact, those students who are not the "best" students often make exemplary tutors. And, in assuming this role, they have the most room for personal change. For example, if a tutor is a below average student a much greater growth potential exists.
In all of these programs and others like them, students receive training and supervision by adults to carry out their peer activities. In a junior high school anti-drug program implemented by the Peer Research Laboratory, peer helpers met as a group twice a week with a teacher for training in listening and communication skills and how to handle one-to-one interactions, and they learned about
substance abuse prevention. The training focused on the problems facing today's youth and how to cope with everyday school and family situations. These peer helpers staffed a rap room in their school, where students dropped in to talk about their concerns with other students, receive information and get support from others who shared the same experiences.
Students who use a rap room or receive tutoring assistance often are put in the unique position not only of receiving help, but offering help to their peers as well. The helping process works both ways. These students understand, in a very personal way, how it feels to need help and to receive it, preparing them, in turn, to give help to someone else.
We tested the premise of whether the opportunity of being converted from helpee to helper would improve student learning. As part of a drop-out prevention effort, a tutoring program was started in three New York City high schools, and tutees were involved with tutors in training activities and in refining elements of the program. They were also given the opportunity to become tutors the following semester if they successfully passed the course in which they were being tutored. Compared with similar students who were
being tutored as part of a traditional tutoring program at three other high schools, the first group of tutees had higher rates of completion in tutored courses and received significantly higher grades in tutored subjects.
In all school-based peer activities, there is a tacit alliance between the students and the adults in the schools. It is an association that builds on the students' strengths, style and similarity--they understand each other's language--combined with the teaching and training skills of the school staff. Each of the partners is allied in sending critical messages: "It's good to achieve." "Drugs ruin people's lives." "There is a lot to look forward to."
The scope and positive impact of peer programs could be widely expanded by giving all students the opportunity of playing the helping role. It is through the act of helping others that really powerful learning takes place for the helper. We need educational visionaries to lead schools in this process of unlocking this learning and helping power. Students, indeed, are the most overlooked resource in most schools.
The crucial importance of youth participation in meaningful roles such as youth-helping-youth programs can go a long way in spreading pro-learning messages, as well as preventing substance
abuse, teen pregnancy, AIDS, and delinquency. The challenge is to have as many students as possible--a critical mass--involved in these activities, so that positive peer pressure becomes "the thing to do." The ultimate goal is the creation of student-centered, peer-focused schools.
By Audrey Gartner
Audrey Gartner is co-director of the Peer Research Laboratory, Graduate School and University Center, City University of New York.