Hearing Students’ Voices to Address Opportunity Gaps

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For nearly twenty years, I have been engaged in addressing the achievement gap – as a teacher and teacher educator. My time spent in schools has led me to better understand the importance of integrating students’ voices into our discourse, and strategizing solutions for addressing these gaps. Too often we talk about what needs to occur for students to increase their academic outcomes without actually taking the time to ask students themselves. Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, our schools are increasingly re-segregated in many areas and simultaneously more ethnically diverse in others. Yet many of the same factors that have contributed to student achievement gaps historically persist today: inequities in teacher quality, school funding, unhealthy teacher-student relationships, and culturally irrelevant curriculum. As we consider how best to address academic gaps, particularly between Black and Latino students and their White and some Asian-descent counterparts, we must first reframe our discourse in a way that is responsive to the voices of those students at the bottom of these stated gaps—students of color and low-income students.

Research indicates that the achievement gaps that we often speak of are rooted in racial and economic inequities in schooling. Even when socioeconomic status is controlled for, racial differences in academic outcomes persist. While many might contribute the underperformance of Black and Latino students to the students or their home contexts, studies show that differential access to learning opportunities and academic resources also play a role. Thus, we must think about these as gaps in opportunity and access, not solely as achievement gaps. This way, we charge ourselves with examining not just the student factors that contribute to achievement inequities, but also the structural, environmental/communal, and institutional factors that play a role in unequal access to the same learning opportunities, regardless of skin color or economic status. Furthermore, if we focus our attention on understanding what students need to realize their full potential, we will listen intently to their cries for help through their feedback on what we offer them inside the four walls of our learning institutions.

In the wake of numerous reports regarding the crisis in education for African-American students, Black males in particular, a growing number of educational scholars have engaged mixed-methods approaches to gleaning student voices regarding their educational experiences. In my own work with school districts in Michigan, a Student School Experience Survey (SSES) that I have developed has been useful in helping school leaders and teachers better understand students’ perceptions of their schooling experiences by soliciting their feedback in several areas that affect their learning and achievement:

  1. Perceptions of discrimination
  2. Teacher rating
  3. Teacher relationships
  4. School engagement
  5. Peer relationships
  6. Opinions of academic and extracurricular curricula
  7. School culture and climate

Two common themes across school types (e.g., racially homogenous, racially diverse) is that students’ opinions of teachers (teacher rating) and their perceptions of the school culture and climate are significant predictors of whether or not they believe their school is a good school. These perspectives are shaped by students’ relationships with teachers and opinions of the school curriculum, and whether the students believe it provides them with diverse perspectives.

These findings are particularly important for those students identified in the lowest tier of achievement inequities. Researches indicate that teachers may be the single most important factor in students’ academic achievement, and that students cite culturally irrelevant curriculum as a reason for academic disengagement. The cultural dynamics at work in teacher-student relationships and content delivery is important for educators when identifying interventions for closing achievement gaps. As my data shows, if students of color and low-income students perceive that they are not disciplined fairly in school, or that other students and adults in the school community do not respect their cultural differences, this affects their motivation to learn and engagement with course content. Cultural differences between African-American students and their non-African-American teachers can produce conflicts within the classroom. The relationship between African-American students and their teachers may not be an issue of discipline, but differences in racial and ethnic beliefs about school expectations and how one “does school.”

When students of color do not believe that the course materials relate to their life experiences or integrate diverse viewpoints and content into the curriculum, or that the teacher does not take time to get to know them on a personal level, this affects teacher-student relationships and students’ ability to fully engage in the classroom. When considering the perspectives of African-American students, data from the SSES administered in various school contexts reveal that African-American students are less likely to report that their school curriculum represents diverse viewpoints or that they are encouraged to participate in academic extracurricular activities. On the other hand, they are more likely to report being encouraged to participate in social extracurricular activities, such as sports, and never having taken an advanced placement course in their schooling. These findings are problematic given the research on the national underrepresentation of Black students in advanced placement courses and gifted and talented programs, and the overrepresentation of these students in lower-level courses and special education programs.

So why do we need to listen to students’ voices regarding their school experiences? Because they can tell us what they value in relationships in the school setting, how we can best help them grasp content material through innovative and creative material and instructional strategies, and how we can most authentically educate their whole selves by validating their cultural differences in the learning environment. It seems, then, that schools have to be places that are identity-affirming for African-American students and other traditionally marginalized students, and educators have to identify ways to provide equal access and opportunity in learning through the academic and social curriculum, and through our culturally situated relationships with young people. In later posts, I will consider the academic and cultural interventions that can help schools narrow achievement inequities, particularly for low-income black and brown youth who are most underserved.