In December 2021, Student Experience Research Network (SERN) convened 20 researchers; educators, administrators, leaders of educational organizations; and communications, community organizing, and legal experts along with nearly 100 education funders at our annual funder briefing. The group discussed how to build instructional and institutional leaders’ capacity to promote inclusion and how to initiate and sustain progress toward equitable learning environments. This is the first in a series of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.
SERN holds an annual funder briefing where members of the philanthropic community learn about and discuss the cutting edge of research and the latest insights from the education sector related to student experience.
Over the years, speakers at this event have demonstrated that creating equitable K-12 and postsecondary learning environments – that communicate to each student that they are respected as a valued person and thinker – requires structural shifts within classrooms, institutions, and systems so that they are culturally responsive, identity affirming, and belonging-supportive. Speakers have shown that these shifts are not only possible, but can bolster students’ well-being and academic outcomes in the near and long term.
However, enacting this type of structural change is complex. The theme for the 2021 SERN Funder Briefing, From Understanding to Action, took up the pressing question of how to make shifts in educational structures that are deeply embedded in a social, political, and historical context.
Currently, there is a growing conversation in the field about the need for equity – particularly racial equity – in education, and at the same time, education has become increasingly politicized.
This context requires leaders to build the capacity of their systems and build will within their communities in service of educational equity. This entails articulating an inclusive vision of the experiences and outcomes that a system is working towards; using data and collaborative meaning making opportunities to illuminate how students are experiencing the learning environment; and partnering authentically with students, families, and community members in decision-making.
This type of transformation also requires field-level conditions that support change, including messaging, community organizing, legal work, and research that facilitates the protection and expansion of the structural shifts in practice and policy that drive more equitable student experiences of school.
To this end, the event began with three brief research talks that demonstrate how research that is practically relevant, equity-centered, and interdisciplinary can help inform and advance change on complex social issues.
Mesmin Destin, professor at Northwestern University, presented research on how postsecondary institutions can recognize students’ differences as strengths to better support the achievement and well-being of students from marginalized groups.
Through a series of experiments, Mesmin and his colleagues established the power of these types of asset-based approaches. For example, first-generation first-year students who heard third- and fourth-year students discuss how their diverse socioeconomic backgrounds connected to their academic success were more likely to seek help and had higher grade point averages during their first year than first-generation students in the control group (who heard advanced students have a general discussion about what they do to be successful).
Similarly, in experiments in which faculty explicitly named the strengths of students from marginalized backgrounds, and in which the institutional climate emphasized resources like financial aid, students from marginalized groups were more likely to feel like they could succeed academically than their peers who did not receive these messages. In his talk, Mesmin emphasizes how these findings illuminate a host of structural shifts that postsecondary institutions can make to better support students.
Next, research by Yasmiyn Irizarry and Tia C. Madkins, professors at The University of Texas at Austin, shed light on high school mathematics teachers’ work with students from minoritized groups. Tia defined racialized learning environments and the deficit-based beliefs that characterize them, which can be explicit (e.g., “Black and Latinx families are not invested in their children’s success in mathematics learning”) or implicit (e.g., “It’s not fair to ask students who are struggling to take on challenging mathematics assignments”).
Yasmiyn, Tia, and their colleagues administered the first large-scale teacher survey with race-oriented measures to investigate teachers’ beliefs and practices. Over half of the nearly 300 respondents endorsed deficit narratives about their students. Over half of respondents reported using inclusive teaching practices, although some practices were used less frequently than others (e.g., facilitating discussions about current events involving racism).
Overall, their findings provide an important picture of the shifts in teacher beliefs and practices that are necessary to support identity development and deep learning for students from minoritized groups in mathematics.
Finally, Jamaal Matthews, professor at the University of Michigan, presented his research on Belonging-Centered Instruction – a framework of interpersonal and instructional supports for students’ belonging in mathematics contexts. Jamaal and his colleagues have found that various dimensions of the framework are correlated with student engagement, sense of agency, persistence, and achievement. His presentation also includes an example of a teacher expertly weaving empathy and affirmation with high expectations and accountability into her interaction with a student.
Together, the talks illustrate a few key themes that came up throughout the funder briefing. The first is the integration of academics and belonging. Jamaal’s work demonstrates that mathematics content cannot be disentangled from students’ experiences in mathematics classrooms.
Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, described her district’s BMore Me social studies curriculum, which centers the culture and history of Baltimore and allows students to participate in their community. Chong-Hao Fu, CEO of Leading Educators, also shared his organization’s Teaching for Equity framework, which outlines how educators can integrate anti-racist curriculum and standards, radically inclusive relationships and communities, and equitable instructional practices across content areas.
While student belonging is sometimes perceived as tangential to the core work of education, these presenters explained that the opposite is true. Belonging is fundamental to learning and delivering belonging-supportive instruction is complex and rigorous work. Sonja described: “It requires teachers to be comfortable at a different level with their content. […] It is not just about curriculum implementation. This has got to be around what your teaching looks like and your ability to incorporate student perspective into that.”
The research talks also set up the importance of asset-based beliefs and approaches. Tia and Yasmiyn explained how educators’ deficit-based beliefs can show up in and be reinforced by practices in their classrooms and schools, including the rigor of the available coursework, the types of assessments they utilize, and how educators and counselors talk to students about advanced mathematics courses and recommend them for such courses.
“There’s a lot of impact […] both in the moment in the classroom, outside of the classroom in [students] seeing themselves in relation to the broader structure and system of education and of students in the school, and then even after they leave school in the way that that continues to carry with them,” Yasmiyn described.
The field’s approach to transformation in the education system must also recognize students’ assets, and those of their families and communities. “The dominant approach,” Mesmin explained, “is often a more deficit-based emphasis on leading students to assimilate” rather than altering the environment in ways that benefit all students.
Judy Marquez Kiyama, associate vice provost and professor at the University of Arizona, reiterated that the unit of change must be the institution, rather than the people it serves: “It’s really up to us in postsecondary settings to think about how we integrate [families’ and communities’] cultural knowledge, those rich cultural assets into what we’re doing, from everything, starting with outreach efforts, to orientation programs, to curriculum.”
Finally, the research talks exemplify the type of equity-centered measurement and scholarship that is needed to unpack and make progress on longstanding challenges in education. “There’s been decades of belonging research, but much of it really lacks an equity focus and often fails to recognize the heightened relevance that belonging may have for people groups who have historically been denied a sense of belonging,” Jamaal said, describing how he and his team developed the Belonging-Centered Instruction protocol.
“To combat this, we use Black and Latino students’ own narratives of what belonging means to them as the inspiration for this work and this centered students as experts on their own experience of belonging.” Jamaal and his team utilized over 250 hours of student interviews, as well as classroom observations to build from the inclusive practices that teachers were already employing, in developing the framework.
In their project, which like Jamaal’s was funded as part of SERN’s K-12 Teachers and Classrooms research portfolio, Yasmiyn and Tia held focus groups with teachers to inform the development of their survey, and gathered qualitative data from teachers through open-response survey items. This helped them achieve a deeper understanding of educators’ beliefs and practices in a context in which many individuals may have different definitions for terms like “inclusive,” or may seek to present themselves in the best possible light when responding to a survey.
By working directly with the people closest to the issues they are studying, researchers can develop more sophisticated and actionable insights that reflect the complex reality of teaching and learning. Their findings can also more easily bridge the gap that often exists between research and practice, as research that involves students, educators, and communities is often perceived as more trustworthy by stakeholders outside of academia.
These projects can help inspire other research and development or measurement-focused work that incorporates multiple disciplinary and methodological perspectives; considers the social, historical, and political context of the phenomena and participants; takes an asset-based lens; and engages the stakeholders the research is intended to serve across the research lifecycle. In turn, this research can yield insights and scientific warrant that can inform and advance structural change in education.