Student Experience Research Network Blog

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 third in a series of four blog posts in which we synthesize lessons from the event.

In previous posts in this series on the 2021 SERN Funder Briefing, we described research on the experiences of students from minoritized groups in classrooms and institutions and how equity-centered, data-driven continuous improvement practices can help improve those experiences.

This post explores the range of stakeholders that must be authentically involved in efforts to transform practices, policies, and norms in education, including students themselves, family and community members of both K-12 and postsecondary students, and the unique network of decision-makers in postsecondary contexts.

The 2019 SERN Funder Briefing focused on the theme, Is My Voice Heard? Does My Voice Matter? The event demonstrated that when educators, institutions, and systems understand and integrate students’ perspectives, they support students’ sense of efficacy, competency, and motivation; their well-being and outcomes; and their development as contributors to their community and broader society. Speakers also offered examples of how to show students that their voices and contributions are valued.

Expanding the range of voices involved in educational decision-making not only benefits students, but institutions as well. Students, families, and community members have a wealth of expertise to share in terms of making learning environments more culturally responsive, identity affirming, and belonging-supportive. However, they are often left out of decisions that directly affect them.

When leaders can engage diverse stakeholders in the community they serve as true partners, they can channel that collective energy into building more equitable and inclusive learning environments. Once they establish a foundation of trust, leaders are also better positioned to problem solve and weather the challenges that inevitably arise when transforming longstanding structures in education.

Speakers at the 2021 briefing described the ways in which sharing power with students can help initiate and sustain progress toward equitable learning environments. In the following clip, Taryn Ishida, executive director of Californians for Justice (CFJ) and Jonathan Collins, professor at Brown University, describe what it can look like to build relationships with and work in partnership with students, families, and communities.


CFJ’s Relationship Centered Schools model provides students with clear avenues for enacting change in Long Beach Unified School District. Taryn explained: “Students and recent alums who we’ve hired as part time Capacity Building Fellows regularly facilitate professional learning experiences with teachers, staff, and administrators. Through our adult capacity building and youth organizing we support students to meaningfully participate in teacher hiring committees, school culture teams, and instructional leadership teams.”

Taryn described how Superintendent Jill Baker’s leadership, grounded in deep listening, facilitated transformation in the district over time as they built mutual trust and respect. “What was required to make this shift from kind of a confrontational relationship at times to an actual collaborative relationship,” Taryn explained, “was a real commitment from folks like Jill Baker,” who modeled an “openness to learning” and was “visible and active” in the work.

In his research, Jonathan Collins explores cultivating student, family, and community engagement through governance and budgeting processes. He has found that when people who are randomly assigned to view a clip from a school board meeting see the board directly responding to public comments, they are more likely to express increased trust in school boards and to want to attend meetings in the future.

Similarly, community members who participated in drafting and voting on proposals for how to spend $100,000 of their school district budget saw an increase in their willingness to contact school and government officials and were more likely to see community and youth groups as powerful.

In his Community Decides project, Jonathan allocates $10,000 grants to schools. In one group of schools, he asks students to work collaboratively to develop a collective spending agreement that reflects their preferences for how the money should be spent. In another group of schools, the principal and administration determine how to spend the funds.

Jonathan is finding “promising preliminary evidence [of] empowerment,” with students who participated in the budgeting reporting higher trust in students to make these kinds of decisions.

Speakers at the funder briefing also illuminated the ecosystem of stakeholders in postsecondary education who can take part in creating more equitable learning experiences, and how leaders can enable individuals to participate in this work.

Denise Bartell is the associate vice provost for student success at the University of Toledo and participates in the Student Experience Project (SEP), which is described in our last post. She noted that non-tenure track faculty, women, and people of color play a disproportionate role in supporting students through the SEP work on her campus.

“We know in our system of higher education,” Denise said, “that these are the folks who may be penalized for doing this work, because it often comes at the expense of doing the work that is valued for getting hired in a tenure track position, or getting promoted in a tenure track position.”

Denise advocated for “recognizing that faculty are key leaders in institutional change, not just in their classrooms.” She described: “Instructors who are participating in this project are […] advancing institutional change for their departments and in their institutional service across campus. But we really need to think about revising our incentive structures in ways that give teaching a more equal footing to the research, which is the more highly valued endeavor in higher education.”

Along with challenges related to tenure structures, Royel Johnson, professor at the University of Southern California, pointed out that instructors who implement race-conscious practices often face backlash. He encouraged leaders to identify “racial equity champions” in positions of power on campus and consider utilizing consultants to facilitate conversations about equity, as those messages may be better received when coming from an external voice.

Royel also recommended “thinking about multiple levels of leadership and who’s often left out of these conversations around racial equity.” He pointed, for example, to boards of trustees as an undervalued pathway to change. Denise agreed, but also acknowledged a common hesitancy to bring areas for improvement to the attention of trustees.

“One of the things that has been helpful on our campus is to leverage data, and to share with upper-level administrators, data on DFW rates [the percentage of students who receive a D, an F, or withdraw] in key gateway courses,” Denise said.

She recommended “[talking] about the impact of that on retention and on completion, and on public perception of the institution and [packaging] that with information about […] what we could do about it.” Grounding the conversation in data, aligning it with trustees’ priorities, and offering solutions to improve students’ experiences and outcomes can help enlist boards of trustees in furthering educational equity.

Finally, families and communities can continue to play an important role as their students advance through the education system.

Judy Marquez Kiyama, associate vice provost and professor at the University of Arizona, described: “In K-12, there’s so much emphasis on parent engagement and family involvement. […] And then students start transitioning to higher education, and we expect families to kind of move aside, […] but we don’t want to of let go of those family relationships. That cultural knowledge and that cultural support is still so important.”

In the below clip, Judy shares concrete and actionable insights about how postsecondary institutions can invite families’ and communities’ participation.

All of the approaches described here require a significant investment of time and resources in order to build authentic relationships and to make shifts in response to a wider range of perspectives. This upfront investment and community-building, though, lays the groundwork for sustainable advances in equity and inclusion.

Read the next post in the series >>>

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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