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The First Year OutUnderstanding American Teens after High School$

Tim Clydesdale

Print publication date: 2007

Print ISBN-13: 9780226110653

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: February 2013

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226110677.001.0001

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(p.213) Methodological Appendix

(p.213) Methodological Appendix

The First Year Out
University of Chicago Press

This project is based on two primary data sources and two supplemental data sources. The primary data sources are 125 in-depth interviews with seventy-five different teens and a year of field research at a public high school (NJ High) in Suburban Township, New Jersey. The supplemental data sources are a focus group with twelve college teens about interpersonal relationships and substance use, and an open-ended group survey of twenty-four college teen volunteers that explored teens' recollection of the violent rampage at Columbine and its impact on their schools and their own lives. Though no project possesses perfect data, these data provided me with a diverse, nuanced, and in-depth portrait of American teens who graduated from high school between 1995 and 2003, of the paths they trayeled during the year that followed their graduation, and of the moral culture they inhabit. In this appendix, I will describe my research methods in greater detail, but I will also narrate the microhistory of this research project so that readers can see why I structured my research project the way I did and how to avoid some of the setbacks I experienced.

I can remember watching, as a kid, a 1970s ABC television sitcom called “Operation Petticoat,” based on the 1959 Blake Edwards film of the same name, starring Tony Curtis and Cary Grant. The show explored the comic adventures of an all-male WWII submarine crew that had to unexpectedly (p.214) transport a dozen Army nurses. The submarine crew ran into a variety of mishaps, of course, but the nurses always proved their value, particularly the nurse whose donated girdle held damaged but critical engine gears in place, and thus saved the entire submarine and crew. I sometimes thought of that girdle holding those gears in place when I was collecting data for this project, as I had no major research grant or graduate research assistants, but instead kept puttering forward with a changing crew of eager undergraduate assistants, a half-dozen tiny (but precious!) grants for transcription and other miscellaneous expenses, and even an assortment of donated gift certificates from chain restaurants to use as initial interviewee honorariums. It is amazing what one can accomplish on a shoestring budget with diligent undergraduates and sheer determination!

Because I am not the first person to study American teens and will not be the last, I hope future researchers will benefit from this description of my project's methods and data. This all began in the summer of 1995 with a seven-page list of interview questions, a few (false) hunches, and eight in-depth interviews. I learned a lot that summer, and I am particularly indebted to the cohort of 1995 for bearing with me. Following is a list of some things I learned in the course of my project.

  1. 1. In-depth interviews are far superior to survey methods for understanding teen lives in teens' own terms and following teens' own logic.

  2. 2. Teens were quick to trust an interviewer whom they had some knowledge of, but suspicious of cold contacts.

  3. 3. By listening actively and by asking for examples, I could draw out amazing stories from teen interviewees.

  4. 4. Interpersonal relationships, sex, and substance use were more important to teens than I had expected, and I needed to probe these areas more than I initially planned.

  5. 5. Trained undergraduate interviewers can do a good job conducting interviews, and they had an immediate rapport advantage over me with high school seniors.

  6. 6. Although my rapport was less immediate, I could also help interviewees feel relaxed, I probed responses better than my undergraduate interviewers did, and my presence lent an air of importance to the interview (and increased sample retention).

  7. 7. I learned to schedule appointments with teens a week in advance, follow-up with an official letter, and call to remind students the day before the interview as teens can be less reliable than adults.

  8. (p.215) 8. It was better to shift my first interviews to the weeks preceding high school graduation—to both ask students about their high school experience while it was still current and take advantage of the greater predictability of teens' schedules during the school term.

  9. 9. Few studies of American teens had focused on the first year out, and none had used the two-wave panel interview method I intended to follow.

In short, I learned firsthand the advantages of field research methods, of making creative use of the resources that I had available, and of letting the evidence give birth to hypotheses (and not vice versa).

By the end of the project, my assistants and I completed 125 in-depth interviews with seventy-five different teens who graduated from high school between 1995 and 2003. Of these in-depth interviewees, 45 percent were male and 55 percent were female, 23 percent were black, 3 percent were Latino, 3 percent were mixed race, and 71 percent were white. Almost a third (31 percent) were from working-class families, almost a fourth (23 percent) were from upper-middle-class families, and the rest (47 percent) were middle class. Seventeen percent identified as black Protestant, 20 percent as conservative Protestant, 16 percent as mainline Protestant, 15 percent as Roman Catholic, 9 percent as adherents of other religions, 5 percent as adherents of two religions, and 16 percent did not identify with any religion. Teen interviewees came from high schools in New Jersey (both in and beyond NJ High), Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, and Oregon, and they spent their first year out in colleges, vocational programs, and workplaces across the nation (though most stayed within a few hours' drive of their homes). I conducted one-time interviews with seven of my seventy-five interviewees; three were residents of Oregon and four were residents of an orthodox Jewish enclave. All seven were interviewed because I took advantage of a one-time opportunity to explore possible regional and cultural/religious differences (I did not find any that undermined my interpretations).

This left sixty-eight first-wave interviewees, of which we retained fifty for the second wave (giving a sample retention rate of 74 percent). These fifty teens are my primary focus in this book. Of the eighteen who were not retained, four indicated that they did not wish to participate in a second interview; another three scheduled follow-up interviews, but various factors and delays prevented those interviews from occurring; three could not be found; and eight never answered our inquiries. Chief commonalities among panel dropouts were that they belonged to early cohorts, that they (p.216) were not given cash honorariums, and that they were first interviewed by one particular assistant. Later cohorts received cash honorariums ($10 to $20), and among the final two cohorts we obtained a sample retention rate of 88 percent. Future researchers are advised to use cash honorariums, to increase the honorarium for second-wave interviews, and to monitor the work of their assistants closely no matter how dedicated they appear.

The in-depth interviews lasted 90 to 120 minutes on average, though a couple concluded after just 70 minutes (shy high school boys), and one went more than 18o minutes. The interviews covered many topics. During the first interview, teens evaluated their senior year of high school, their secondary and primary schooling as a whole, their academic likes and dislikes, their school involvements, and their post-high school plans. They described family backgrounds and relationships, neighborhoods and communities, friendships and romantic partners, religious origins and involvements, work experiences, leisure pursuits, volunteering activities, and monetary practices. They shared their future aspirations, including educational goals, careers, marriage, and children. They explained their views on love, sex, gender roles, religion, politics, work, leisure, justice, equality, and even life's meaning. Follow-up interviews repeated most of the interview questions, but started with general questions about teens' first year out, so teens could describe their experience using their own words.

I had initially hoped to interview some high school graduates who planned to attend four-year colleges, some who planned to attend community colleges, some who planned to enter vocational programs, some who planned to enlist in the military, and some who planned to enter the workforce directly. This would have allowed me to compare teens across institutional contexts and separate institutional factors from more general maturational effects. Several things altered those plans. First, to make the project manageable, I needed to limit my focus to teens from the Amenican cultural mainstream—that is, high school graduates from working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class households—and not teens from poor or elite households. The life circumstances of poor or wealthy teens vary too greatly from mainstream teens to include them here. Elijah Anderson, Code of the Streets: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (New York: Norton, 1999); Frank F. Furstenberg et al., Managing to Make It: Urban Families and Adolescent Success (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999); Jay MacLeod, Ain't No Makin' It (Boulder: Westview, 1995); and Peter Cookson and Caroline Persell, Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools (New York: Basic Books, 1985), provide good introductions to the (p.217) circumstances of poor and rich teens in America. Second, teens revise their post-high school plans often, particularly those considering direct entry to the workforce or enlistment in the military. (Several teens shared an interest in entering military service with me, but none did so, while one teen who planned to attend college ended up enlisting in the Armed Forces—and was soon assigned to several post-September 11 military actions and could not be reached for a formal follow-up interview. Even if every teen who indicated possible military service chose to enlist, I would not have had sufficient teen participants for more than anecdotal observations.) Third, teens do not believe attending community college or vocational programs excludes them from significant workforce participation; in fact, the dominant pattern for teens who attend community college or vocational programs full-time is to also work twenty-five or more hours weekly. Fourth, as pressure to apply to college is widespread among teens in the American cultural mainstream, I found it nearly impossible to identify and interview high school seniors in that mainstream who did not articulate plans to attend some form of postsecondary education.

Though I made a significant effort to reach high school seniors directly entering the workforce at two high schools, there were fewer than thirty such students in total, and none had any interest in talking to a college professor, even if paid for their time. One guidance counselor described these as “troubled kids”—teens from dysfunctional homes, who had behavior problems, substance abuse problems, cognitive deficits, and so on. Schneider and Stevenson report a similar phenomenon: fewer than “5 percent of high school seniors expected to complete their formal education with high school” (Ambitious Generation, 74), and “those who go directly to work after high school today are more likely to have had behavioral problems in school, such as skipping classes, getting suspended, and troublemaking” (70). Such teens are worthy of attention, but reaching them was beyond my resources and their stories beyond my project's focus.

After several years of conducting panel interviews, I began to realize a number of things about the project. First, I wanted to know more about my interviewees. I wanted to talk to their friends, meet their teachers and coaches, get to know their families, and see something of their world. Second, I wanted to diversify the teens I was interviewing. Snowball and purposive sampling kept netting me mostly white and college-bound teens, and I wanted a broader representation of teens. And third, I wanted to contrast what teens were telling me about their world with my own observations of it. Perceptions can be easily swayed by others, and I wanted to perceive for (p.218) myself the situations I was hearing about from teens. To do these things, I knew I needed to augment the project significantly.

I chose to add a year of field research at a carefully selected high school. I did not want one of those “top school district” high schools; I already had enough teens from those sorts of places. But I also knew I did not want Small City's high school, which was an urban school serving a mostly poverty-level population; such high schools have already been well studied, and I wanted to focus on teens from more stable environments. I wanted a high school that had a good number of working-class teens and a fair degree of ethnic diversity. That is exactly what I found with NJ High. Suburban Township, where NJ High is located, is an “old ring” suburb of Small City; many of its homes were constructed between 1950 and 1965, and it now houses a mix of working-class, middle-class, and a few upper-middle-class residents. Though the township is 75 percent white and 25 percent nonwhite, the high school's ratio was, 50 percent white and, 25 percent nonwhite, as many white parents pull their children out of the public schools before high school. Thanks to connections that my college's Dean of Education had with school districts throughout the state of New Jersey, I was warmly received by Suburban Township's school superintendent and my project unanimously approved by its board of education.

I met in the summer of 2000 with the principal, two vice principals, and their staff to work out the details of my field research. Because I had no desire to go “undercover” (besides being troubled by deceiving others, I had too many gray hairs and no acting skills), I was issued a “staff” school ID card, which I had to keep visible at all times. That was not unusual, however, as all staff and students had to do the same. This was, after all, just after a tragic series of violent, murderous school rampages in the United States. A pleasant vice principal gave me a tour of the building and introduced me to a few of the staff working there that summer day.

I returned to NJ High the day before the 2000–2001 school year began, to attend a meeting of NJ High department heads. I explained my presence and purpose in being at NJ High, and they mainly wanted to know whether I was going to be observing classes. I explained that I would always get the teacher's permission first, told them I was going to keep names and identifying information confidential, and let them know I would be spending most of my time in the lunchroom and attending events with students Their eyes widened on hearing the last part, and they wished me a hearty “Good luck!” while the principal glowered. The principal seemed a little (p.219) nervous about my presence and often talked to me about wanting to get a job teaching at my college when he retired. Still, he made sure that his staff knew of my presence and instructed them to facilitate my research there.

After meeting with the department heads, the social studies and history head enthusiastically invited me to “give a talk” in his sociology elective class. “It has a lot of seniors in it, it wouldbe great for them to meet an actual sociologist, and it meets right before lunch.” I thought that sounded like a great way to introduce myself to a dozen seniors at once, so I arranged to visit his class the first Friday of school. Because the class was just beginning to learn about sociology, I kept my presentation at a very basic level. I talked about what sociology is and the kinds of things that sociologists study. I told them about my own interest in sociology as a college student and how I became a sociologist. I introduced quantitative research and passed around one of myjournal articles and a copy of my dissertation. (The length of a dissertation really amazed them; I always knew that bound dissertation would be more than a good paperweight.) Then I talked about participant observation, inductive research, and my presence at the school over the next year.

I explained that I wanted to understand what it was like to be a high school senior “in the year 2000,” that I planned to keep track of what happens to “a small sample” of seniors during the first year after graduation, and that I hoped to write a book about all of this when I was done. The class became quite excited about all of this; several seniors immediately volunteered to be interviewed (including Lowanda Smith and Raquel Johnson) and to introduce me to other seniors. Several juniors volunteered to be interviewed, too. They were all incredulous when I said I was going to hang out in the lunchroom and eat the lunchroom food with them. “You're taking your life in your hands,” they teased me. All in all, it made for a great entry into the students' world at NJ High.

I spent the fall term just getting to know the seniors. Though some embraced my presence immediately, like the Girlfriends Seven, others were more wary. Some asked, given my staff identification card, whether I was a teacher or a security aide at the school. A couple heard that I was a “narc,” that is, an undercover narcotics officer. That one especially amused me; because I wore a photo ID and made no effort to disguise myself or my intenlions, I would surely qualify as the worst undercover investigator in history. One senior wrote an article about me for the student newspaper, which was accurate but very short. No NJ High student admitted to reading the school newspaper, however. “The principal and teachers write that,” they told me. (p.220) In time, I got to know some seventy NJ High seniors by name, participated in many hours of lunchroom conversation, and observed plenty of teen antics in the lunchroom, hallways, library, and outside.

I also got to know a dozen teachers (several of whom also coached varsity teams) and talked with four teachers on a regular basis. I became acquainted with several security aides, a couple of cafeteria workers, the library staff, a school social worker, the director of the guidance counseling, the main office secretaries, two vice principals, and the principal. My focus, however, was always on the seniors. Besides spending Fridays at the school, I attended pep rallies, spirit week events, games, concerts, rehearsals, and shows. I also visited several students who worked at Suburban Township businesses. Beginning in February 2001, I began to ask seniors to sit for indepth interviews. I used quota sampling to do this, balancing interviewees by race, gender, involvements, and future plans. To answer student questions and reassure parents, I created a trifold brochure about the in-depth research interviews, including in it answers to frequently asked questions, and adding my contact information at the college. My twenty-one in-depth interviews with NJ High students all occurred after the school day in an empty conference room or classroom, and I gave each interviewee $10 in appreciation for their time. All interviewees received informed consent forms in advance, which their parents signed if they were under eighteen years old, and all retained a copy of the brochure and informed consent form for their records. These interviews took place between March and June of 2001. My field research at NJ High ended in June 2001, when 220 seniors enthusiastically graduated from high school and began their first year out.

During the process of writing this book, I realized I needed to explore a few issues further. I did so in two ways. First, I recruited twelve college teen volunteers to participate in a focus group on interpersonal relationships and substance use. This focus group asked questions about a number of matters about which I had drawn some preliminary conclusions, but for which I wanted to check my conclusions against teens' own experiences. By using a focus group, I could contrast answers, interpretations, and patterns among the participants. We had a wide-ranging and engaging discussion, and many participants stayed afterward to talk with me further about their experiences and observations. I was also happy because I was correct in my preliminary conclusions, but gained more nuanced information and solicited some rich examples from the focus group participants.

The second way I supplemented my data was through recruiting twenty-four college teen volunteers, who sat for a group survey and follow-up (p.221) discussion. These teens first completed and handed in answers to openended questions about the potential impact of the violent rampage at Columbine High School on their schools and their own lives and then discussed their answers as a group. (By turning in their written answers before the discussion, I prevented these responses from being influenced by the subsequent discussion.) This, too, produced a wide-ranging discussion that was also quite emotional (even though the discussion occurred more than six years after the Columbine rampage). Review of survey responses confirmed my preliminary conclusions, but in far more significant ways than I had expected.

A strength of qualitative research is, of course, the opportunity it gives researchers to improve their questions and methods as their investigation proceeds. I shifted the first-wave interview to before high school graduation, developed a process to increase participation in those first interviews, probed issues of interpersonal relationships, sex, and substance use more fully, switched to cash honorariums, increased the proportion of interviews I conducted personally, supplemented in-depth interviews with field research, and then supplemented these with a focus group and open-ended group survey to evaluate a few preliminary conclusions. I hope describing these adjustments will assist future researchers.

An important aspect of qualitative research is determining its “end.” Data collection ends when researchers reach the “point of saturation,” that is, when researchers no longer discover important new information from their data sources and can largely anticipate what respondents will say. Though the breadth of this inquiry meant that I left a few interesting but more peripheral matters for future investigators, I did reach saturation in both in-depth interviews and field research. I began to hear the same answers again and again and could predict how teens would answer the second half of my questions based on their answers to the first half, or second-wave questions based on their first-wave answers. I also reached saturation at NJ High. Beyond growing weary of the lukewarm, carbohydrate-laden offerings of NJ High's cafeteria, I had learned the organization of the school and the culture of its senior students and shared something of their elation in being “done with high school” on that June graduation night. After spending a fifth year of my life in high school, I too was happy to “graduate” back to the colleagues, lectures, coffee shops, and campus quads of my college “home.” (p.222)