Improving the social and emotional climate of schools has become a growing priority for educators and policymakers in the past decade. The prevailing strategies for improving school climate include social and emotional learning, positive behavioral supports, and trauma-informed approaches. Many of these strategies foreground the importance of students having a voice in intervention, as students are special experts in their own social and emotional milieus.
Parallel to this trend has been a push toward student-centered pedagogical approaches in high schools that are responsive to cultural backgrounds and that promote skills aligned with the demands of the modern workplace, like critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration. Culturally responsive and restorative teaching and problem- and project-based learning are prominent movements. In this guest blog, Dr. Adam Voight at Cleveland State University discusses an ongoing IES-funded Development and Innovation project taking place in Cleveland, Ohio that aims to develop and document the feasibility of a school-based youth participatory action research intervention.
Our project is exploring how youth participatory action research (YPAR) may help to realize two objectives—school climate improvement and culturally-restorative, engaged learning. YPAR involves young people leading a cycle of problem identification, data collection and analysis, and evidence-informed action. It has long been used in out-of-school and extracurricular spaces to promote youth development and effect social change. We are field testing its potential to fit within more formal school spaces.
The engine for our project, which we call Project HighKEY (High-school Knowledge and Education through YPAR), is a design team composed of high school teachers and students, district officials, and university researchers. It is built from the Cleveland Alliance for Education Research, a research-practice partnership between the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cleveland State University, and the American Institutes for Research. The design team meets monthly to discuss YPAR theory and fit with high school curriculum and standards and make plans for YPAR field tests in schools. We have created a crosswalk of the documented competencies that students derive from YPAR and high school standards in English language arts (ELA), mathematics, science, and social studies in Ohio. For example, one state ELA standard is “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence,” and through YPAR students collect and analyze survey and interview data and use their findings to advocate for change related to their chosen topic. A state math standard is “Interpret the slope and the intercept of a linear model in the context of data,” and this process may be applied to survey data students collect through YPAR, making an otherwise abstract activity more meaningful to students.
Assessing the Effectiveness of YPAR
Remaining open-minded about the various ways in which YPAR may or may not fit in different high school courses, we are currently testing its implementation in a pre-calculus course, a government course, an English course, and a life-skills course. For example, a math teacher on our design team has built her statistics unit around YPAR. Students in three separate sections of the course have worked in groups of two or three to identify an issue and create a survey that is being administered to the broader student body. These issues include the lack of extracurricular activities, poor school culture, and unhealthy breakfast and lunch options. Their survey data will be used as the basis for learning about representing data with plots, distributions, measures of center, frequencies, and correlation after the winter holiday. Our theory is that students will be more engaged when using their own data on topics of their choosing and toward the goal of making real change. Across all of our project schools, we are monitoring administrative data, student and teacher survey data, and interview data to assess the feasibility, usability, and student and school outcomes of YPAR.
Impact of COVID-19 and How We Adapted
We received notification of our grant award in March 2020, the same week that COVID-19 shut down K-12 schools across the nation. When our project formally began in July 2020, our partner schools were planning for a wholly remote school year, and we pivoted to hold design team meetings virtually and loosen expectations for teacher implementation. Despite these challenges, several successful YPAR projects during that first year—all of which were conducted entirely remotely—taught all of us much about how YPAR can happen in online spaces. This school year, students and staff are back to in-person learning, but, in addition to the ongoing pandemic, the crushing teacher shortage has forced us to continue to adapt. Whereas we once planned our design team meeting during the school day, we now meet after school due to a lack of substitute teachers, and we use creative technology to allow for mixed virtual and in-person attendance. Our leadership team is also spending a great deal of time in classrooms with teachers to assist those implementing for the first time. Our goal is to create a resource that teachers anywhere can use to incorporate YPAR into their courses. The product will be strengthened by the lessons we have learned from doing this work during these extraordinary times and the resulting considerations for how to deal with obstacles to implementation.
Adam Voight is the Director of the Center for Urban Education at Cleveland State University.
For questions about this grant, please contact Corinne Alfeld, NCER Program Officer, at Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov.