Student Engagement at the District Level
In March 2005 the Boston (MA) Public Schools responded to the growing disruptions caused by cellular phones in schools and classrooms by announcing a new district-wide policy regarding student use in school buildings. According to Superintendent Thomas Payzant,
The policy was developed through a collaborative process among the School Committee, schools, and the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), who surveyed their peers on this issue and presented their findings publicly at several [Boston] School Committee meetings. This final policy reflects extensive involvement of the members of the BSAC, and I am grateful for their thoughtful participation.
The BSAC is a citywide group of approximately 50 high school students who represent their respective schools to the School Committee and keep their schools informed of plans and issues originating at the city level. The BSAC was created through the Boston Public Schools Office of School Renewal in partnership with the non-profit organization Youth on Board (which has designed tools aimed at increasing the roles played by community-based organizations in "mutually beneficial, structured partnerships with school districts"). According to its student members, "BSAC is about promoting messages and expressing opinions on issues and events that affect our education and our life in general."
> Tip #1: Assess your organization's readiness to involve youth in school evaluation and reform.
Other approaches to systematically develop and sustain student engagement in Boston are being led by local reform support organizations with the support of philanthropic funding. The Boston Plan for Excellence, as part of the High School Renewal (HSR) initiative, developed the Student Researchers for High School Renewal (SRHSR) project. Fourty-five students from seven BPS high schools and one pilot school were interviewed with 11 students selected. SRHSR researchers meet each week for two hour sessions to design and conduct a research project. The HSR initiative's two complementary goals are: (1) to improve instruction to correspondingly improve students' literacy skills and (2) to reduce student alienation. Based on these goals, the SRHSR team focused on school climate, namely student-teacher relationships, student-student relationships, and school environment.
Methodology and Data Collection
The research team designed a 45-question survey with close-ended choices (i.e. often, sometimes, rarely, never). Respondents could also choose "No response" for any or all questions. The researchers also conducted focus groups.
The student-researchers benefited from the assistance of School-to-Career coordinators in administering the survey in classrooms. Over four days in March 2003, students took the surveys during regular class periods. Teachers could choose not to participate (which may have affected the survey outcomes).
In total, the researchers received 1,538 responses from 12 BPS high schools and one pilot school.
Analyzing the Data
The researchers analyzed the data by school size (large to small) and disaggregated by sub-group (grade level, race, gender, school size, academic program).
The findings revealed that 64 percent of students surveyed feel respected by "all/most" of their teachers, but only 39 percent report that their teachers teach with enthusiasm.
With respect to student-to-student interactions, a lack of respect increases with grade level. And while school size did not affect teacher-student relationships, students in large schools are significantly more likely than students in small schools to "strongly agree/agree" that students do not respect each other. Also, 47 percent of students in bilingual programs said that students do not respect each other (compared to an overall rate of 59 percent).
Building on the Findings
The researchers prepared individualized reports for each of the 13 schools involved in the survey. Also, administrators at 10 of the 13 schools scheduled meetings with the researchers to discuss the findings.
And the momentum did not stop there. Teachers at one of the schools, stunned by the students' responses in the survey, created a committee on school climate. Other schools implemented practices such as "lunch with the headmaster" or on-going dialogues between students and adults on school-based rules.
> Read the full SPHSR report. [PDF: 26 pp., 634 KB]
What Commitments Need To Be Made To The Student-Research Team?
The stories from Boston are not only examples of how research projects can be structured to include student participation, they also serve as benchmarks for other schools, districts, and organizations regarding what is actually done with the completed research. Before sponsoring a research project, the respective district leaders or school administrators should guarantee that they will listen to the findings and recommendations at the conclusion of the project. If it is not feasible to implement the recommended changes, these leaders must clearly explain why that is the case (Campbell and Edgar, 1994).
It is very important to remember that student research and evaluation projects can serve as powerful and empowering opportunities for young people: As one student said at the completion of a research project, "It makes you feel like you can just take on the world!" However, if the students perceive that their work was for naught, frustration and disillusionment with the entire process are likely results.
The Harvard Family Research Project (HFRP) outlines the importance of clearly defining goals at the outset of a research and evaluation project that involves young people as active participants:
One is not better than the others but explicit choices need to be made. A university-based project with reporting requirements from a grant funder would, of course, require a much different level of research reliability than, for example, a program initiated within a single high school around an issue specific to that school. The HFRP also points out that "multiple priorities can be met in the same youth-involved research and evaluation project. However, youth involved research and evaluation priorities must be reviewed, assessed, and communicated to adult and youth members in order for a project to be successful."
- Is the organizational priority to promote youth leadership and empowerment?
- Is it to promote a high-quality final product that meets rigorous research and evaluation standards?
- Is it to take action and make community change?
Below are additional evidence-based practices to design and implement student-involved research and evaluation projects.
School-based Program Evaluation: Tips for Adult Facilitators implementing the student evaluator model (from Campbell and Edgar, 1994):
- Care should be taken to ensure that program evaluations do not conflict with exam periods or other important school activities that require the attention of students and teachers.
- The evaluation project should include at least two class periods, separated over 3 or 4 weeks of data collection.
- If the project is not classroom-based, the student evaluators should not be chosen on a voluntary basis. Students who might not ordinarily volunteer to participate in a leadership activity should be encouraged to participate.
- Combine "yes/no" and closed-ended choices (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree) with probing questions that ask "why" or "how." The data are then easy to code but also full of important details.
- Six key questions is a realistic limit for surveys and questionnaires.
ANALYSIS AND FINAL REPORT
- Five interviews per student is a realistic goal (a lesson on sampling can be instructive for students).
- Practice the language that will be used in the interviews (and to begin the interview).
- Provide student evaluators with an official letter stating the role of the students and their scope of work.
- Set deadlines.
- A trouble-shooter needs to be available every day that the students are conducting interviews (if the adult facilitator is off-site, a teacher or other school staff person who has attended the planning meetings can fulfill this role).
- The adult facilitator keeps the project moving forward by checking in on the progress of students' interviews and helping them to contact remaining interviewees.
USE ADULT FACILITATOR TO BUILD CAPACITY IN THE SCHOOL
- If the final report is written solely by the adult facilitator, a draft should be circulated to the student evaluators for review, revision, approval, etc.
- Students should be listed as co-authors.
- Teachers or others interested in training to be a facilitator should "shadow" the experienced facilitator throughout the process.