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December 1, 2008
Vol. 66
No. 4

Student-Driven Research

When students gather and analyze data about their school, everyone learns something.

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Few students are typically around at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday at the Crawford High School Educational Complex in San Diego, California, home of four autonomous small schools. Wednesday is a "late start" day: School begins at 9:00 a.m., and teachers, administrators, and counselors spend the early-morning hours discussing various school matters. But on this June day, at the Invention and Design Educational Academy, one of the schools in the complex, the main office is bustling with the energy of 20 students. The school's morning professional development meeting is devoted to hearing about a qualitative research study recently conducted by a student co-research team.
At 7:40, the team walks into the classroom where the faculty meeting is occurring, and the students spread out in the front of the room and nervously wait to be introduced. One by one, the students explain their study of teachers' grading policies and classroom syllabi. One finding reveals that teachers vary in how they distribute D grades, with 4 of 17 teachers using a "no D" policy and another 4 teachers reporting that they give Ds to students to enable them to pass the class. Another finding shows that 75 percent of the teachers report consistently following their syllabi, whereas 25 percent admit they do not. Teachers respond by asking questions—"Does our school need to coordinate a homework policy?" or "Is it possible to build conformity to a grading policy, at least within the same subject areas?"—or reflecting on their practice—"We should all make sure that students understand how they are being graded, and do a better job of sticking to the syllabus. … I'm guilty of that."
For the past two years the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, has designed and run student co-research projects, with more than 150 students at eight racially diverse urban and low-income San Diego high schools. The students we have worked with have collected 449 student interviews, 122 teacher interviews, and 36 classroom observations; and they have surveyed 822 students and 13 teachers.

Student Voice and Inquiry

Our work embodies the fundamental premise that adolescents can help adults improve schools. Students have unique expertise regarding schools and can provide important information about school and classroom practices and policies.
Research into student voice highlights the power of asking students to help adults with education reform (Joselowsky, 2005; Yonezawa & Jones, 2008). Moreover, such work aligns with current discourse around data-driven school improvement at the district and school levels (Murnane, City, & Singleton, 2008) and provides opportunities for students to participate in real-world experiences to improve the larger school community (Marks, 2000; Newmann, 1992).

One Research Site

The School of International Studies is one of six autonomous small schools on the San Diego High Educational Complex. In 2006–07, the school enrolled just under 500 students, and its student population was 42 percent Latino, 34 percent white, 13 percent black, and 8 percent Asian. More than 50 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
The school's student co-research project began in 2006–07 with a study of classroom engagement in the school. That year, principal Karen Wroblewski recruited four students to participate. She used their findings to shape staff development the following year.
In the 2007–08 school year, students for the research group were recruited from a marketing class in which students learned, among other things, how to participate in a team to accomplish a shared goal or purpose. Wroblewski thought the students could enhance their collaboration skills by working on an authentic research project to help improve the school. The marketing teacher, Charos Maull, agreed that students who volunteered could use their research project toward their final grade in her class. Seven students eagerly signed up for the project.
We first met the seven students on the launch day, during which students learned about qualitative social science research through short lectures, discussions, and small-group activities. An important part of the day was talking with Wroblewski about her efforts to help teachers improve their classroom practices to better engage students. Students discussed in a focus group their personal classroom experiences and offered suggestions about how to engage students as learners. The focus group enabled students to share their thoughts and helped the group agree on a research focus.
The students hypothesized that the structure of the school affected students' attitudes toward learning. They began to define various aspects of school structure—positive and negative—that might affect students' lives. Some of the negative aspects of the structural environment included tight policies regarding bathroom access, restrictions on food and drinks in class, and the presence of drug-sniffing dogs. Positive aspects of the school structure included increased academic support and tutoring.

The Research Questions

The student researchers eventually decided to study the educational environment at the school and its potential effect on students' attitudes. One senior captured his passion for the topic in this comment in his research notebook:These topics epitomize everything I cannot bear regarding school. These are why my grades have dropped. I'm no longer motivated and so white with rage at times. If we could find a way to address these issues and conduct research to present to the staff which could facilitate change … that would be the first worthwhile thing I've ever done at San Diego High "Correctional Facility."
  • To what extent do the structure at the school, the quantity of work, and individual classes affect the overall attitude of students and the quality of learning?
  • Does the structure of the school encourage success for students?
To investigate their questions, the students surveyed 292 students in grades 9–12 and interviewed 17 teachers and 8 students. The 17 teacher interviews included 80 percent of the teachers. The research team wanted to capture a range of students' perspectives, but they realized that a student survey and a select group of in-depth student interviews would be the best methodological approach given resource constraints. We taught students how to develop sound interview protocols and surveys and talked with them about maintaining confidentiality, responsibility, professionalism, and research ethics. Students sought opinions on school policies, security, the overall school environment, the quantity of work expected of students, and student learning supports.

Data Analysis

The team met approximately four times in 90-minute sessions to analyze the survey data by gender and grade level. They created charts and matrices to organize the data. The students divided the data into three topics: structure, attitude, and learning. To analyze the data, they worked in small groups of two or three students, with each group taking responsibility for one topic. They examined data from the surveys and interview transcripts and discussed emerging patterns. They made notations in research notebooks and debated their findings, searching for evidence to support and refute the various arguments. The students would begin with one type of data (such as survey data) and comb it for tentative findings, and then turn to a second source (such as interview data) to look for additional evidence.
The small groups shared tentative findings with the team and further discussed which findings made sense overall. Students also debated how to represent findings. For example, should they report that 28 percent of female students felt that their school was like a prison or—the reverse—that 72 percent felt that it was not?

The Findings

In the end, the researchers found that students generally believed that the school's structure worked well and that teachers were providing a good education. Students (especially seniors) did question, however, the extent of campus security and the bathroom and food policies. The researchers further learned that students (especially sophomores, at 46 percent) were overwhelmed by the workload. Female students were slightly more overwhelmed (34 percent) than male students (31 percent); and male students (42 percent) were slightly more likely than female students (39 percent) to sacrifice grades in one class to keep up in another. Support classes helped students, but they did not provide enough assistance given the amount of work assigned.
The students presented their study to the teachers and Wroblewski. The presentation prompted conversations among the impressed faculty members about how to address workload issues yet maintain the school's mission for academic excellence. Wroblewski asked her teachers, "Hypothetically, do you think our students would learn less if we gave them less work?" Pausing thoughtfully, many teachers slowly shook their heads.
The principal suggested talking about the data in upcoming professional development sessions. The teachers said that they wanted to continue thinking about how they could incorporate the students' data into their classroom plans. Although the school has not yet made concrete changes, Wroblewski has reported that she intends to revisit these issues with her faculty this school year.

Supporting Student Co-Research

How well student research is implemented and valued in any given school or classroom depends largely on the support it receives from school faculty. At the eight schools we have worked with, the research teams were fortunate to have supportive educators who believed student co-research improved their school communities and provided an important learning experience. The principals provided needed resources as well as emotional and political support to the student co-research teams.
In June 2008, a third-party researcher interviewed the principals of the schools we worked with about the project. From their comments, and those of the students, we gleaned a few key ways that school leaders can support student co-research teams at their sites.
Because student co-research projects can tackle issues that are sensitive to teachers, principals believed that asking teachers for nominations of thoughtful (if not necessarily academically successful) students to participate helped garner faculty support. This approach helped when the students' research made "some conclusions that were going to be a little bit shocking to the faculty," said Diego Gutierrez, principal of the Multimedia and Visual Arts School, whose student co-research team uncovered the facts that only 23 percent of students considered their courses interesting and only 19 percent of sophomores considered their courses challenging, compared to 75 percent of teachers who believed their courses were interesting and challenging.
Staying informed and involved in ongoing projects is also important for principals. In every team, some student attrition occurred, and principals were instrumental in encouraging students with wavering commitment by impressing upon them the value of their insights. This helped retain borderline participants, thereby making the projects and teams more representative of student populations.
Principals also told us that returning to the students' findings when planning future professional development or shaping the guiding principles of their schools signaled to faculty that the students' work was significant. As Joe Austin, principal at the School of Business, explained,We debriefed as a faculty on [the students' findings] and have added them to the list of guiding principles at our school … and the recommendations are the students' so I really feel like it was legitimate and purposeful … it's driving decisions.
Angela Kinlaw, dean of students at the School of Community Health and Medical Practices (CHAMPs), reiterated this point for her school:Our teachers actually used a lot of the research to make decisions about what things they're going to focus on in terms of their own professional development. … The students did their research talking about the motivation of students here at CHAMPs and what kinds of things it would take to motivate students. So that particular information is going to be used during the summer work that the teachers are doing to make decisions about things that they're going to incorporate into that professional learning.
In addition, principals used the student co-research groups during their schools' accreditation process. Principals incorporated the teams and their findings into the Western Association of Schools and Colleges accreditation reports to prove that the schools were serious about gathering data in innovative ways. Indeed, Don Mitchell, principal of the Invention and Design Educational Academy, had visitors from an accreditation team observe one of the student co-researcher data-analysis meetings and ask questions. The team left impressed and commented on the uniqueness of the project in elevating students' involvement.

What Schools Can Learn

The eight schools, their student co-research teams, their teachers, and their principals have taught us about the range of ways that student-based research can be incorporated into schools and classrooms. Students can effectively research substantial problems in education such as student and teacher engagement, safety, racial segregation on campus, relationships between the school environment and student apathy, and even teachers' grading and assessment policies and practices.
Students designing, conducting, and presenting research about their schools is a powerful way to initiate and support educational reform, but it will not happen without adequate adult support. Student-driven research is an authentic and meaningful educational experience for students, but it is also helpful to the administrators and teachers who choose to take student co-research seriously. It is our responsibly as adults who work with schools to make these types of opportunities available to students and to celebrate the voices of young people willing to take on the challenge of improving the schools they attend every day.

Joselowsky, F. (2005). Students as co-constructors of the learning experience and environment: Youth engagement and high school reform. Voices in Urban Education: High School Redesign, 8, 12–22.

Marks, H. (2000). Student engagement in instructional activity: Patterns in the elementary, middle, and high school years.American Educational Research Journal, 37(1), 153–184.

Murnane, R., City, E. A., & Singleton, K. (2008). Using data to inform decision making in urban school districts: Progress and new challenges. Voices in Urban Education: Using Data for Decisions, 18, 5–13.

Newmann, F., M. (1992). Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

Yonezawa, S., & Jones, M. (2008). Reforming schools from the inside out: Student voice and the potential influence on school policies and practices. Manuscript submitted for publication.

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