Achievement Gap

How Do We Support Black Male Students? Start by Acting on Their Feedback

While 85 percent of White students in Seattle earn a high school diploma each year, only 65 percent of African-American students in the district earn a diploma. This gap down racial lines may sound out of sync with Seattle’s popular reputation as a liberal bastion of progress. But if you, like me, grew up in Seattle, it isn’t so surprising. In its latest attempt to combat this opportunity gap, the Seattle Public School District has started a student voice initiative to integrate the voices of African-American male students into policymaking. It’s easy to say you want to listen to students. And, unfortunately, lip service to student voice is common. But Seattle’s new initiative shows promise. The district’s challenge will be to prove Seattle’s liberal reputation and become a trailblazer in a still young student voice movement. Brent Jones, chief of strategy and partnership for Seattle Public Schools, told me that the initiative aims to provide “the district, school leaders, educators and education support professionals with a better understanding of the experiences of African-American males.” The district has identified three preliminary findings of the initiative. African-American males want the following in their education:
  1. To know someone cares about them
  2. To know they have a positive relationship with at least one adult
  3. A sense of belonging
These findings probably seem obvious to anyone who works closely with students. But student voice programs face multiple established myths that impede adoption of even the most obvious of findings. And even if student voice is taken seriously, the results are often tokenized when they enter the politics of school reform. Seattle will need to figure out how to successfully integrate their findings into its hyper political decision making. Overcoming these hurdles is always a challenge. But I’m cautiously optimistic about the district’s approach.

How It Works

The district has taken two main approaches to operationalizing their findings. The first, Jones explained, is aligning budget allocations with what they’re learning from African-American male students. Budgeting isn’t the sexiest of topics in education but it is among the most impactful—and most politically charged. Hammering out budgets can often pit groups against each other in a competition for limited resources. The initiative’s findings have to be deemed important enough to make it into the budgeting process for student voice to actually get used in Seattle's schools. To me, the district’s second approach is more promising. The district plans to pair their findings with existing policy advisory bodies. Superintendent Larry Nyland established an African American Male Advisory Committee (AAMAC) to “provide guidance on how to best transform our educational system so that we are ensuring educational excellence for all students, starting with African-American males.” Jones told me that the AAMAC’s fall 2017 recommendations to Supt. Nyland will complement the results of the student voice initiative. This approach to implementation seems to be the right track for a few reasons. First, it avoids the budget battleground and concretely prioritizes student voice by having the Committee develop recommendations that complement the findings. Furthermore, the district has a track record of implementing the recommendations of advisory bodies like the AAMAC. In fact, the district operationalized 5 of the 6 recommendations from the Committee’s predecessor, the African American Male Think Tank.

We Need More Than Just Nice Talk

Jones said that one of the broader lessons from the district’s work has been that “we need to do much more listening and gathering input and feedback from our students.” I’m glad to hear it. But if the district really wants to close the opportunity gap, it will need to prove its liberal pedigree and actually do something with what it hears from students. Let’s be honest, the entire education reform movement needs to move past nice talk and figure out how to turn students’ ideas and input into policy. But using student voice in a real way is still new—and Seattle has the chance to show the way. This trailblazing initiative has the potential to build some best practices for other districts to use in their own efforts to integrate student voice. But it will be on the rest of us in the reform community to take Seattle’s lessons to heart and see what we can learn from the students in every district.
Matt Fulle is an intern at Education Post and an undergraduate at Northwestern University's School of Communication studying communication studies and legal studies. He has spent the last 5 years working to advance student voice in education reform. In high school, he helped to start a pilot program for student surveys as a form of teacher evaluation for the Seattle Public School District. In ...

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