May 15, 2016

Student Perspectives Essential to Understanding Gaps

By Susie Smith & Andrew Brennen

As biracial and African-American Kentucky students, the color of our skin has always been a relevant part of our education careers. From a young age, we were peppered with questions about our hair and requests to touch it. We were grilled on why we felt so comfortable speaking in full sentences, known as speaking “white.” We were called “Oreo,” the implication being that we were black only on the outside. Success is not something people that look like us are supposed to achieve. Many of our peers have had experiences like ours. 


As part of our work with the Student Voice Team, we have been speaking with students across the state about school for nearly four years now. That experience, coupled with our own, prompts us to believe that in many pockets of our school system, there is a significant disconnect between the way different groups of students experience school, which has a profound effect on school success. This is particularly acute for any set of students not a part of the “norm.” In Kentucky, that definitely includes African-Americans who make up less than 8% of the state’s population.


One high school junior we interviewed in Scott County told us that even as a relatively high-achieving student, the social isolation inherent in being a racial minority was something she couldn’t shake. “I feel looked down at,” she told us. “In the beginning of the school year, I was in [Advanced Placement] History and I was the only black kid. I moved out of the class because I didn’t feel comfortable. [My teacher] asked me why I left the class. I never gave her a reason.”


Mounting evidence suggests that while this student may feel very alone, she is far from it. It is clear that students’ sense of social connection in school impacts their learning. A 2009 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development study affirms that quality of school climate contributes not only to the well-being of pupils but also to academic outcomes. Another 2009 study published in the American Education Research Journal by Astor, Benbenistry & Estrada goes even further in validating that a positive school climate can actually mitigate the negative impact of socio-economics on academic success. 


With this in mind, it doesn’t surprise us that on Kentucky’s official school report card, based on results of the academic K-PREP exam, African-Americans score 40 points lower on elementary school proficiency, 41 points lower on middle school proficiency, and 37 points lower on high school proficiency than our white counterparts. Furthermore, as a racial category, we score 39 points lower than our peers in producing high school graduates who are considered “college and career ready.” 


We know there is a problematic disconnect between students who look like us and our school systems. And while policy experts have produced reams of research on the so-called academic achievement gap, we believe students can and should play a more active role in shedding light on this issue. 


To that end, we have been experimenting with soliciting student feedback on a range of issues related to school climate and student agency in Kentucky schools. We first began this work as part of a student voice audit we conducted in one Central Kentucky junior high school, and we hope to continue it. We are intrigued by some preliminary data showing that surprisingly large percentages of students feel disconnected from school. Our field-testing shows that:


  • 35.5% of students disagree with the statement: “Students at my school treat one another with respect,” 

  • 51.7% of respondents do not like going to school most days, 

  • 67.3% of students do not feel that their teachers understand what their life is like outside of school, and

  • 45% of students find it hard to focus on school when there are problems outside of school.


We suspect that this disconnect is even more pronounced among groups of students who are historically marginalized, which leads us to wonder: is it possible that some of the problems and solutions inherent in closing academic achievement gaps lie here?


Creating the space for students to provide feedback about school environment and their role in it is critical as they are the only ones who can speak candidly to how it all plays out for them in the classroom. If Kentucky is to have any hope of better understanding why some groups of students test so significantly lower than others, we must more seriously integrate student voice into the conversation. At the very least, doing so can also add the sense of urgency and agency such discussions deserve and require.

This op-ed ran as part of a package with several other Student Voice Team op-eds in the Courier Journal.

Andrew Brennen

Andrew Brennen

Andrew is a Senior Advisor and co-founder of KSVT. He is a former member and was previously the Student Director. Andrew graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2014 and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 2019. He is a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Susie Smith

Susie Smith

Susie is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. She graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 2015 and the University of Kentucky in 2019.