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Students Conduct Their Own Groundbreaking Research About Learning

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Morris Justice Project/Public Science Project (Morris Justice Project/Public Science Project)

Most education studies involve academic researchers coming into schools trying to figure out the answer to a predetermined question. But what if students themselves helped shape questions about their own school reality -- and learned the social science tools to research those important questions?

That's what the Public Science Project is doing with students. The group, primarily located in New York City, approaches the experiences of students as a crucial kind of expertise that helps inform the research and makes it more authentic. To capture the information, academic researchers train school-aged young people in statistics and research methods so they can participate equally in conducting studies on education.

In one iconic project called Echos of Brown 50 Years Later, students and researchers delved into the history of Brown vs. Board of Education, interviewed civil rights leaders, and surveyed more than 10,000 youth nationwide about their experiences of subtle segregation in school. The group of 13 students represented various socio-economic levels and came from suburban and urban New York and New Jersey. Together, they created a multimedia expression of how their personal stories fit into the history of inequality, including spoken word, interpretive dance, and an interactive multimedia book that has since been used in teacher training. Echos of Brown is just one outcome of the Opportunity Gap Project, a longer running effort to involve the area's youth in research about education inequity.

Public Science Project has been enlisting the help of young people and motivating them to engage in research in large part because they value what students bring to the table. Researchers expect students to be equal partners in the task and have found that they rise to that challenge. To understand complicated issues, like how inequality is perpetuated in the school system, the Public Science Project tries to recruit students from diverse ethnic, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds. They're interested in the kids who have dropped out of school as well as the ones struggling to get through it.

The organization conducts two-day research camps (usually on weekends) to bring students up to speed on methods training, interviews, focus groups, survey design, and participant observation. Some students receive high school or college credits for their work, while others get paid. This model offers interesting insights for educators struggling to motivate and challenge learners that seem disengaged or disinterested in learning.


“One of the presumptions of our work is that people actually desire to learn and be engaged,” said Michelle Fine, a graduate school professor of social/personality psychology at CUNY Graduate Center and a co-founder of the Public Science Project. She empathizes with teachers stressed out by testing regimes and frustrated by kids who don’t seem to value an education. “If you went to those schools it would be easy to assume that those kids don’t care about learning,” Fine said. But that’s because it's hard to care when no one expects anything from you. “We are under-recognizing that the context is creating those dynamics,” she said.

Expecting more from students and giving them the support to meet those expectations results in strong, thoughtful work from students whose teachers have sometimes given up on them. “We believe that expertise is widely distributed, but legitimacy is not,” Fine said at Big Ideas Fest 2013. Paying young people for their expertise is a way of validating it, while giving them the chance to make a difference.

“They’re really into it especially if one of the product is a video or a website or a book for younger kids,” Fine said. “Especially for poor kids, there’s a deep sense of responsibility for the next generation.”

Fine and her colleagues find students by connecting with social service organizations that cater to youth in a variety of ways -- everything from schools to homeless shelters. When Public Science Project teams visit schools, her researchers hang around, looking for the kids on the margins, not always the ones the school wants to offer up.

Other research the Public Science Project has conducted with students includes documenting racial disparities in both special education classes and disciplinary action, and the negative consequences of high-stakes testing for English Language Learners. Youth researchers even wrote a “Youth-to-Youth College Guide.” They've documented a spike in high-school students seeking GEDs instead of finishing four-year high school degrees, which they believe is linked to the pressure high stakes testing puts on schools. Poor and minority youth who don't do well on the tests are instead pushed towards the GED, even as its value diminishes.


Her extensive work with students who have been let down by school has made Fine apprehensive about the calls for change dominating education discussions. Educators are looking for new and innovative ways to teach, partly because they are inspired and partly because the Common Core State Standards require a different type of teaching. But within this time of change, Fine worries the foundation of community-based, public education will get lost. “I work in the communities where innovations come and go,” Fine said. “Who is accountable when innovation fails?”

For many people, the word innovation connotes positive things: change for the better, new ways of approaching problems, and something different from the status quo. But Fine has been involved in education long enough to have seen many versions of "innovation" rise and fall.

“Education innovation used to be the small schools movement, where alternatives were developed that were public, that were transparent and that actually took the hardest to educate kids and created very different settings to support their development,” Fine said. Now, the language of innovation has been tweaked to largely reside outside the public sector. “It leaves behind the community, the practitioners and the justice principles that grew it,” she said.

“For me innovation should actually have a deep participatory element, a broad perception of expertise, and ultimately should be owned eventually by the people it was designed to help,” Fine said. That definition closely mirrors the principles of her research. She believes that if innovation is more inclusive and respectful of multiple kinds of wisdom, then it won’t become detached from the community and will have a greater chance of sustaining itself.

That’s an important message when it comes to scaling good ideas. “When I think about scale, I think about something that can go deep and across so we don’t abandon those communities where they are rooted,” Fine said. She’s adamant that solutions can’t be divorced from local context and that what works in one community might not in another.


Like her research, Fine believes that innovating within schools must be a participatory process and that it will take time. But ultimately the change that can come of a process rooted in community will last longer because its participants will own their successes and be accountable for failures.