School & District Management

Critical Voices

By Lynn Olson — September 11, 2002 13 min read
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In this study, students are both the subjects of research and the researchers.

“Uh-oh, listen to this,” says Ashley Webb, a 14-year-old student at the Fashion Industries High School here. “‘Genetically, some races are more intelligent than others.’ ”

“Here’s one that says, ‘Whites and Asians are usually richer and they work harder,’ ” chimes in another student.

“I don’t think it matters who you are,” argues Amanda Osorio, a senior at the city’s East Side Community High School. “I’m not rich, and I’m doing good.”

The three are among 35 high schoolers examining students’ responses to a survey on race, class, and opportunity that the teenagers themselves helped design and distribute to more than 7,000 of their counterparts in nearly a dozen districts last spring. About 4,000 students responded.

The project is one of a handful of young but ambitious efforts taking place around the country to engage students in conducting research on issues that directly affect their lives. By teaching young people to become critical investigators of their own circumstances, researchers hope to enhance the accuracy of information collected on schools and to give students a voice in shaping educational decisions.

“This work challenges traditional assumptions about who the experts are, who gets to frame the questions and generate the interpretations,” says Michelle M. Fine, a professor of social psychology and urban education at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the principal investigator for the project.

Thinking Like Researchers

The immediate goal of the New York project is to examine the possible causes of —and potential solutions to—the achievement gap between minority and nonminority students and those from rich and poor families, as viewed by young people.

In this case, the students doing the looking are from a broad ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic mix of high schools in the greater New York metropolitan area. Assisting them are graduate students from CUNY.

Fine says the enterprise marks the first comprehensive, regional look by teenagers themselves at students’ perspectives on the achievement gap.

She describes the nature of the study as participatory-action research. “This means,” Fine explains, “that students and educators carry significant knowledge about educational practices, structures, dynamics, hierarchies, rituals, and ideologies, and that valid and useful research should include them as active and engaged members of any research team dedicated to the production of knowledge and action.”

The Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Opportunity Research Project is supported by grants from three foundations based in the city: Rockefeller, Leslie Glass, and the Edwin Gould Foundation for Children. It’s part of a larger effort to examine the achievement gap by a regional group of school districts, called the Regional Minority Achievement Consortium.

Over the two years of the project, the teenagers will help produce scholarly reports and issues briefs for policymakers, in addition to a host of offerings for other students and community groups. Students’ ideas range from photo documentaries to videotapes to protests.

‘[S]tudents and educators carry significant knowledge about educational practices, structures, dynamics, hierarchies, rituals, and ideologies. ...’

But first, the students have to learn how to think like researchers. They must master such basic research skills as analyzing qualitative vs. quantitative data; finding the best way to word survey items; negotiating the meaning of answers and coding responses; and learning when to throw out items because the questions didn’t work well.

One task the students tackle during a recent three-day retreat at CUNY is how to generate codes for responses to open-ended questions so they can search for meaningful patterns in the data. After reviewing a number of responses, the youth researchers devise a code that begins grouping the answers into such categories as “money matters,” “cultural expectations,” and “racism.”

Students also try to achieve “inter-rater reliability,” or consistent coding of the same responses. And they learn about and participate in various focus- group techniques.

Webb, for example, expresses surprise that researchers would code the response that attributed gaps in college-graduation rates to genetics because she feels the statement is so clearly wrong. But graduate student Monique Guishard gently reminds her that the purpose of the survey is to find out how students perceive inequities in education, not to identify the “right” answer.

As Candice DeJesus, a 17-year-old student at East Side Community High reviews the responses, she says, “I wondered, ‘Who answered this question? Was it a person of color?’ They shouldn’t be thinking that way.”

Students are similarly dismayed by the large proportion of survey respondents, more than one in 10, who could not identify a single thing a teacher had ever said or done that affected their academic achievement, positively or negatively.

In addition to helping students gain insight into the purposes and processes of research, says Stan Karp, a teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, N.J., “the project addresses issues that can help students make sense of their educational experience and put it in a larger context.”

Youth researchers at his school will administer the survey to 9th graders there this year. “We will follow up the survey with a discussion of attitudes and experiences that contribute to success or failure in school,” Karp says. “As the researchers analyze their data, we hope they will present their findings to other groups of teachers and students for discussion.”

Diversity of Perspectives

Students have to struggle with their own views about race, class, and educational opportunity, even as they learn to apply traditional research methodologies to the issues.

To help them, retreat organizers show the youth researchers a brief video excerpt about an attempt in Montclair, N.J., to eliminate academic tracking from a 9th grade English class. The youth researchers then take part in a focus group about tracking and its relationship to race and class in their own schools.

Students have to struggle with their own views about race, class, and educational opportunity, even as they learn to apply traditional research methodologies to the issues.

Charles Penn, a senior at Columbia High School in the South Orange/Maplewood school district, says his suburban New Jersey high school has a diverse enrollment. “But then when it comes down to the classes and the levels, it’s not that diverse,” he says. “The higher up you go, the whiter it becomes.”

“Sometimes, I’m the only black male in the class,” Penn says, “and you feel inferior and you do draw back because there’s nobody to relate to.”

“The video really hit home for me because I go to a school that doesn’t have a tracking system,” says Emily Genoa, a student at East Side Community High. “I don’t think I could go to a school where tracking is the norm. It would really hinder my learning, not help it.”

“Everybody has the right to learn, so they should be integrated,” agrees Fidel Touvarez, a student at New York City’s El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice. “It doesn’t mean the smarter people should have advantages over others. Everybody should have the same opportunities.”

Yet the students also note that segregation occurs both inside and outside the classroom, with athletic teams and lunchroom tables often divided by race.

“At my school, the whole cheerleading squad is black,” as are most of the sports teams, says Anthony James Smith, a student at Paterson’s John F. Kennedy High. “It just so happens at my school, that’s how it comes together.”

“I don’t know how it happens,” says Chelsea Mullarney, a 16-year-old from Montclair High School in New Jersey, “but a lot is the comfort level.”

After participating in a focus group themselves, the youth researchers read excerpts from about a dozen such sessions conducted last spring and begin searching for themes. They also contribute to a “graffiti museum” about the achievement gap that expresses their thoughts about the experience.

“This changed the way I think about research,” says Penn of Columbia High School. “I didn’t think research was as truthful as I thought it should be, and now I see it’s really hard to get an accurate picture of how things really are, simply because of the data we have.”

He observes, for example, that the youth researchers interpreted the same open-ended responses differently, based on their backgrounds, and had to negotiate a coding system they could agree on. “The second day was better than the first,” Penn writes at the end of that day. “We as a group became more open and really got into our questions and coding. And the group discussion was great.”

One of the challenges has been working to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard. While more affluent and well-educated students feel more entitled to speak and press their perspectives, Fine points out, they are sometimes less generous about listening to the views of others. In contrast, she says, less privileged students sometimes are hesitant to speak and far too willing to assume that others “understand it better than I do.”

Rather than searching for consensus, Fine says, the project is explicitly seeking the different viewpoints that exist within a school building. “We take as seriously the perspectives of students sitting in special education as we do those in Advanced Placement classes,” she says.

Participants hope the “bottom up” research project will give students the data and the voice to confront potentially explosive issues in education—such as fiscal inequities, tracking, and divergent teacher expectations—that adults often sweep under the rug.

“I hope these statistics will show to the adults in power what is going on,” says Penn. “What I hope this does is shed a little light on some things that are being left out.”

“We are aware of what’s going on around us, and we do have a point of view,” says Nikaury Acosta, a student at East Side Community High. “We’re not just kids.”

‘This changed the way I think about research. I didn't think research was as truthful as I thought it should be, and now I see it's really hard to get an accurate picture of how things really are, simply because of the data we have.’

Preliminary analyses from the survey show dramatic differences in how students experience school based on what track or level of classes they are in, and the size of school they attend.

For example, students in AP, honors, or International Baccalaureate programs report much higher levels of responsiveness on the part of educators, greater confidence in their college preparation, and more challenging opportunities in their classrooms than do students in regular, remedial, basic, or special education. Students in higher tracks also view their schools as much fairer in terms of racial and ethnic equity than do their peers in regular or remedial classes, but those higher-track students rate their classrooms as much less integrated.

Greater responsiveness also characterizes small schools, which, according to initial findings, are more effective than large schools at engaging students and integrating young people by race and class.

African- American, Afro-Caribbean, and Latino students in the data set are more likely than white and Asian-American students to be in lower academic tracks or levels. African-American and Afro-Caribbean students also are most likely to disagree about fair treatment in their schools and less likely to report integration in their classrooms.

School size seems to be a particularly significant predictor of whether African-American youths feel confident and prepared for higher education, says Fine. That factor seems even more important for them than it does for Latino and Afro-Caribbean students—a finding that the project will pursue with more rigor as it progresses.

Los Angeles Agenda

Similar work is taking place across the country, at the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access of the University of California, Los Angeles.

For the past four summers, Los Angeles high school students have enrolled in a seminar at the university for which they read literature about the sociology of education and engage in research about their own and other schools in the metropolitan region.

“We’re trying to figure out whether students and parents can actually conduct meaningful research about the conditions in their schools,” says John Rogers, the associate director of the institute. Out of that effort, research participants hope to find ways to improve school accountability report cards.

For their latest exercise, the Los Angeles students examined the physical and social ecology of their schools, access to a rigorous curriculum, access to well-qualified teachers, and access to textbooks and other learning materials. A group of parents also formed a research team.

Youth researchers surveyed young people at local shopping malls, conducted focus groups with students at their schools, and interviewed individual students, teachers, school officials, lawyers, and policymakers. They also established “rubrics,” or checklists, for keeping field notes about the conditions at the schools, such as the availability of textbooks and other materials. During the summer, the students gave presentations of their findings. Their research is summarized in the current issue of the institute’s online journal,

The students found, for example, that while the California education code requires all instructional materials to reflect “current standards depending on pupil’s grade,” 47 percent of students at one high school reported that their books were at least 5 years old.

Students participating in both the Los Angeles and New York projects can receive college credit. To date, the West Coast work has been supported by the Los Angeles Basin Initiative, a University of California effort to increase the college-going rates of poor and minority students in Los Angeles, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Work Ahead

To get an up-close look at what school life is like elsewhere, the youth researchers involved in the New York City-area project also are visiting one another’s schools. Last spring, some students from East Side Community High visited Fox Lane High School in Bedford, N.Y., a well-to-do suburb, and vice- versa. East Side students became interested in studying fiscal equity after hearing about the suburban high schools that some of their fellow researchers attend.

“Their auditorium, you go see a Broadway show, that was their auditorium,” says DeJesus, the East Side senior. “Music was a part of the curriculum. They had different science labs for each subject. Their gym was a lot nicer than ours. Very different from my school.”

‘We're trying to figure out whether students and parents can actually conduct meaningful research about the conditions in their schools.’

But she adds: “They were surprised that we sat in circles and discussed issues ... and how we were so comfortable with the teachers.”

Much work on the project remains. Graduate students will co-teach a class at East Side High on research methods and help students explore issues of fiscal inequity in New York state’s public schools. In Paterson, students are conducting a street survey of youths in and out of school. And at the El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, teenagers will interview graduates of their school, and possibly other small schools in New York, to determine how they’ve fared in college, the military, and the workplace.

A similar undertaking will track first-generation college students at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. Young people are also working with a group called Mothers on the Move, a community-based organization in the South Bronx, to produce a CD-ROM celebrating that group’s 10-year anniversary.

In addition, the project will analyze the transcripts of a racially and ethnically diverse sample of high school seniors from participating districts to examine courses taken, disciplinary histories, grades, types of assessments, and postgraduation plans.

“Even though all of us come from vastly different backgrounds, it’s good to see that we can join together for a common cause,” Genoa of East Side High says. “There are so many underlying issues that need to be discussed and in front. They’re not discussed.”

The Research section is underwritten by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.


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