Student Experience Research Network Blog

Student Experience Research Network is pleased to release the first video in its Spotlight Series about education intermediaries that have encouraged institutions to make research-based, structural changes to promote equity and inclusion – and the shifts in capacity and perspective that facilitated these changes.

There are few established feedback loops between research and education practice and policy. In other words, researchers, practitioners, and policymakers operate in a system that is not designed to support the flow of information and ideas across sectors.

The goal of the video series is to elevate stories of scholars and intermediary organizations using research to catalyze change. While research-based change is rarely easy, understanding where and how it has taken place can support more stakeholders in the education system to conduct and use research in transformative ways.

Our first video focuses on the research synthesized in the academic article, Black and Belonging at School: A Case for Interpersonal, Instructional, and Institutional Opportunity Structures, by DeLeon Gray, Elan Hope, and Jamaal Matthews. In the video, DeLeon and Elan speak with Kia Franklin and Sasha Rabkin, who oversaw the application of this research at Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), a national organization that collaborates with school districts to increase equitable access to advanced learning classes and better serve students of color and students from families facing economic disadvantage.

The impact of the research at EOS was made possible, in part, by how the researchers approached their work. Elan saw that “piecemeal approaches” for supporting belonging were not sustainable for practitioners in after-school and out-of-school programs. She considered: “How can we think about [belonging] with [a] broader ecological frame that takes the onus off of one organization, one phenomenal teacher, one phenomenal director, [and] really think more strategically about long-term systemic change?”

“The dominant discourse around belonging at the time was on the perception of the individual,” DeLeon explained. “But we also wanted to acknowledge that belonging has deep structural roots that are rooted in systemic injustices for students from historically marginalized populations.”

Kia Franklin, now Executive Director at Stand for Children Washington, was Chief Program Officer at EOS when EOS encountered the paper. Her team provides coaching and support to school leaders, and she described their “know better, do better” approach to taking up the ideas in the research. In a learning process like this, Kia said, “you have to be prepared to make the changes and to advocate for some… possibly disruptive actions based on what you learn.”

At the same time that Kia’s team incorporated new insights into their partner-facing work, Sasha Rabkin, Chief Strategy Officer, worked with his team to reshape the organization’s student survey based on the research. They shifted from measuring individual students’ perceptions of their own belonging to measuring the cues, experiences, and conditions in an environment that students identified as important for shaping belonging. Sasha explained that this allowed EOS to “hold the system accountable” for creating opportunities for students to belong, rather than holding up “a microscope to the students” within environments that systematically undermine the belonging of students from marginalized groups.

When asked about what advice they would give researchers and intermediaries undertaking similar work, Elan and Kia emphasized humility, noting that both parties should be “ready to learn” and “ready to have [their] thinking changed.”

The conversation also pointed to the need for shifts in research practice to produce insights that can meaningfully advance equity. DeLeon recommended that scholars “[question] conventions” to understand which norms in research “just don’t make sense for practitioners or things that just don’t make sense for the populations that you are investigating and committed to lifting up in your work.” Similarly, Sasha pointed out: “Intermediary organizations are often prized for our alignment with dominant research structures […] I think it really limits the horizons of intermediary organizations to be thinking about and basing their work on existing scholarship that wasn’t designed [to] disrupt systems of inequity.”

Watch the full video to learn more about how EOS used research to catalyze structural change. For a deeper dive into the research behind belonging-supportive learning environments, read our latest research synthesis. We also encourage you to check out the recording of Belonging Now: New Insights from Research and Practice, a virtual event held in August 2020.

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