Opinion
What Happens When Students Have Ownership Over Their Success

We heard a lot of concern this summer in the education sector about "learning loss," "accelerating learning," and making sure some students do not "fall further behind." Such fears are not new for Black, Indigenous, and Latinx students; students with disabilities; or students from low-income communities. These young people have always been subject to scrutiny in a system that keeps them at a disadvantage and then worries over their differences in performance.

Even before the upheaval of the last several months, our education system was in dire need of a shift in how to define success for our young people. Our over-reliance on high-stakes, test-based accountability systems in the context of historical and contemporary injustices has left little room for students' full humanity to be cultivated in American schools.

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Nicole Williams Beechum and a HBCU freshman discuss how educators can support students in the pursuit of success.

We know from research that students can have more robust learning experiences when what happens in school is relevant to their lives, helps them connect to a larger purpose, and is grounded in a sense of belonging. This means that the system must be responsive to their goals, interests, and sense of self and community. If young people are not at the center of conversations about what constitutes success, we will not get school right.

About This Project

With the rise of the pandemic this spring and the national fight for racial justice, many young people are displaying inner reserve, resiliency, self-regulation, leadership, service, and citizenship in ways that no one could have anticipated.

In this special Opinion project, educators and students explore how young people are carving their own paths.

Read the full package.

We often show students that we don't see them as experts about their own lives and astute observers of their surroundings. This is especially true when the conversation shifts to groups of students who have been marginalized by race, culture, language, family income, or disability. Insidious cultural beliefs seep in, and the "real experts" take over to tell students what is possible for their futures and then design policies, curricula, and professional development without their input.

But students demonstrate daily that they can define and realize their own success, including the work of detoxifying their environment. At High Tech High Chula Vista in California, three students-Ana de Almeida Amara, Izadora McGawley, and Luz Victoria Simón Jasso-created an ongoing, student-run ethnic-studies course when they realized their school offered nothing about the cultural and historical background of its many Latinx and Filipino students. In the Bloomfield Hills, Mich., school district, students helped draft and win school board approval for a new equity policy. And in Oakland, Calif., members of the Kingmakers of Oakland-Black male middle and high school students-are learning to lead by centering their cultural wealth.

What is the work of adults in supporting students to define and achieve success that is meaningful and motivating to them? A key is building relationships that make space for young people to articulate what they want and what they need. The Search Institute in Minneapolis has identified five features of such relationships. Young people want adults to express care, challenge them to grow, provide support, share power, and expand their potential by broadening their horizons and connecting them with others. In these ways, adults create the conditions for trust and agency.

At least as important, adults must know themselves and reject the oppressive systems they have been part of. Decisionmakers at all levels (classroom teachers to state and federal policymakers) have failed to interrogate their own identities, experiences, biases, pedagogy, and they have resisted analysis of racism's impact on school and life outcomes. The result is that, too often, we place the burden on young people to navigate oppressive structures on their own. Instead, an aim of education should be to help students build the capacity to critique and dismantle the parts of the system that don't work so they internalize that agency for themselves.

In schools, it is, first of all, up to educators to create equitable learning environments, and groups such as the Building Equitable Learning Environments Network are compiling resources for teachers and school leaders to do just that. With sound strategies, educators can examine their current environments and shape opportunities for young people to define success for themselves and pursue it.

As my own work has moved from research to the translation of research into practice, I have had the humbling opportunity of deeply listening to students. What stands out is that when young people are able to take agency, feel affirmed (their lived experiences, families, histories, cultures, communities), and share power with adults, they thrive. My biggest fear is that we adults don't actually want to hear what young people have to say. Taking them seriously disrupts our comfort and expertise-and threatens our sense of authority.

The 2019-20 school year in Chicago, where I live, demonstrated the power and potential of young people. They stood beside their teachers during the fall's labor strike. They have navigated a global pandemic. They took to the streets to protest police brutality and they have organized across the city to remove police from their schools. If we cannot connect the dots between these life-altering experiences and academic success for young people, then it is we who have failed.


Nicole Williams Beechum is a senior research analyst in the University of Chicago's Consortium on School Research and a trained social worker. Her research interests include the transition to high school and postsecondary opportunities, teacher-student relationships, and how noncognitive factors contribute to student success.

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