Students Speak: How Kentucky Middle and High School Students View School
1993, 1997 1998
The work of the Partnership for Kentucky Schools and RKI on students' experiences of school, teaching, and learning has a long history. Our research efforts have involved a cross-section of students throughout the state and fall into two main phases:
Students Speak: 1993
In 1990, the Kentucky General Assembly passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA), the most sweeping education reform legislation in the United States. Forced to action by a successful funding equity lawsuit, and accelerated by a decade of focused work by citizens' groups, particularly the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, the members of the General Assembly overhauled Kentucky's approach to such issues as funding elementary and secondary education; providing for early childhood education; assessing results; educator compensation; professional development; school governance, and more.
In 1991, RKI began conducting in-depth focus groups sponsored by the Partnership for Kentucky Schools (then the Partnership for Kentucky School Reform) and the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. We conducted large studies in 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994 with specific groups of Kentuckians, such as business people, educators, citizens, and parents.
As our understanding of these groups' responses to reform deepened, our clients also became interested in how students were experiencing reform — or whether they were experiencing it at all. We knew that the greatest changes in classroom practices had taken place in the elementary grades (now called "primary") because the reform legislation mandated those changes. In contrast, the legislation depended on a system of assessment, accountability, rewards, and people's interest in excellence to bring classroom changes to middle and high schools.
In 1993, we included a group of middle school students and a group of high school students in our study, along with:
The student findings shocked us and our clients, and proved too incendiary for release, considering the small sample. We learned that students saw no changes in classroom practices, resented what they understood of KERA, and felt a great, unsatisfied hunger for respect at school. In short, the students reported themselves to be pretty miserable at the place ostensibly dedicated to their development and well-being.
Students Speak: 1997-1998
The Partnership for Kentucky Schools, particularly its Director, Dr. Carolyn Witt Jones, took the findings from the 1993 student research to heart and in 1997 arranged for funding for further study with students. In 1998, RKI completed Students Speak: How Kentucky Middle and High School Students View School, a study conducted with eight selected groups of Kentucky public school students.
We conducted a pilot group and then four high school groups (two male, two female) and four middle school groups (two female, two male). We chose the schools in the hope that we could see differences in instructional practices, based on the extent to which we presumed the schools would have adopted KERA-inspired changes in classroom practices. Two of the schools had performed well on state mandated assessments, and two had performed poorly. Two were rural, two were urban. Two were large, two were small.
We encountered significant challenges at several different stages of this research effort, particularly in the following areas:
Recruiting student participants
Challenge: Students are minors, and must have parental permission to participate in research, especially when being audio and videotaped. In the 1993 study, we addressed the problem by recruiting students and their parents as a unit. One of us conducted the student groups at the same time the other conducted the parent groups. For Students Speak, a study of students alone, we still needed to use a defensible random selection process to recruit students into the target "slots" we had created in each group (regarding grade point average, grade level, race, gender, and so on), and we still had to get parents' permission for students to participate. We had to work without lists of students, because this information is rightly protected by schools.
Our strategy: We first tried working with our usual professional market recruitment firm. They worked from standard telephone lists in the areas of the schools we had selected for the study. The recruiters planned to "qualify" the parents first by telephone, get their permission for their son or daughter to participate, then speak with the student directly. If the student agreed, then the parents would receive a parental consent form by mail. This strategy failed, utterly and totally. It was too complex, too hard to explain by phone, too "iffy" sounding to convince parents.
Steve conceived of Plan B, a beauty. We contracted with the PTSA/PTSO organization in each of the targeted schools (two middle, two high) and offered to teach them to draw a stratified random sample of students to meet our specifications. We described all the steps in recruiting and getting students to show up at the focus groups. We provided the confirmation letters, script for phone calls, and the all-important parental consent forms that had to be in hand before each student left home to travel to her/his session. We offered to pay the PTSA/PTSO organization the same amount we would have paid the professional market recruiters for each student who actually showed up for the group. The PTSA/PTSOs jumped at this opportunity, and, with one exception, delivered a quality group of participants that met our specifications precisely.
Arranging for student facilitators
Challenge: Students are much younger than most researchers. Because of this age difference, we feared the presence of unknown adults in the room would have a chilling effect on students' candor. We needed a way for students to conduct the focus groups, and to do so at professional standards.
Our strategy: Carolyn Witt Jones drew on the Partnership's long, deep connections to the Governor's Scholars Program (GSP), held on two Kentucky college campuses each summer. GSP targets outstanding rising high school seniors. GSP agreed to allow RKI to come onto the campuses and train interested students in focus group facilitation.
Steve conducted a half-day training at each site. Interest was so high that Steve trained more than 100 students in focus group facilitation basics. We only needed 16 facilitators, two for each of the eight groups, so Carolyn chose the facilitators by lot after determining which students were willing to drive to which locations. We supplied written guides in advance to the student facilitators, and had them come early to the focus group sessions for a final hour of instruction. As each focus group took place, either Steve or Rona was present on site, in an adjoining room, watching the event on a television monitor. At a prearranged point in the session, one of the two facilitators stepped out and conferred with one of us, checking on additional questions that needed to be asked, or getting suggestions for any changes in the process. For the most part, the strategy of using highly skilled students to run the focus groups with other students accomplished our aims.
Later we discovered that students at all academic performance levels excel at all aspects of planning and carrying out focus group research. Students are naturally curious about each other, and eagerly learn professional-level standards for question design, facilitation, analysis, report writing, and presentation. Students who are willing to listen to other students work particularly well as faclitators. Every work team includes some students who grasp the challenge of analyzing themse and pattersn from written transcripts; these students often excel at explaining the abstract work of qualitative analysis so all student work team members can participate successfully. And students wowed RKI professional researchers with their presentations of research results.
One important RKI discovery is that students must make up a majority of their schools' work teams. When the numbers of other students are sufficient, all students step up to work as partners with adult educators and community members. Without student work group members' involvement at each stage, student focus groups are likely to fail due to poorly designed question language or other mistakes in understanding of what will work well in the student culture of the school.
Providing incentives for participation
Challenge: Students, particularly middle school students, are dependent on others for transportation. We knew we would have to persuade student recruits that the research would be interesting enough for them, in turn, to persuade a parent or other adult ally to drive them to and from the focus group (all groups took place in the evening).
Our strategy: We offered a significant financial incentive to students for participating. We let them work out transportation. We learned that if we held the groups in places where parents could wait for their children to complete the session libraries, for example that worked pretty well.
Creating a safe, comfortable climate for participants
Challenge: Impression management among men and women is a worrying, confounding problem in any focus group. We feared that impression management among middle and high school students would be even worse. That is, we feared that instead of talking with each other openly, boys would manage their responses in order to impress girls, and vice versa.
Our strategy: We conducted groups that were homogeneous by gender. Female Governor's Scholars conducted groups of all female middle school and high school students. Male facilitators conducted male groups. While this seemed helpful, we still saw a lot of what looked like impression management students appearing to check out the validity of their responses with each other before proceeding, or guarding against revealing some opinions they thought might be unpopular.
We had large groups. Each of our eight groups included between 11 and 14 students. In the future, we might cut the number substantially in order to give each student more time and reduce the number of impression management worries each student may have to consider.
The results are proprietary, and so we can't describe them here. We can say, however, that the Partnership for Kentucky Schools intends to build on this line of work in its Expect More, Achieve More strategic plan by promoting student focus group research in individual schools and school districts. Our experiences with the Students Speak research and lessons learned have proved invaluable in our recent work with Jessamine County and Fayette County Public Schools, both of which have conducted their own student-based focus group research. In addition, the 1997-1998 Students Speak research effort helped to inform the Turn Up the Volume Toolkit, a complete guide for school-community groups that want to conduct their own focus group research with students.
For more information about RKI's and the Partnership's work with students, visit these project pages:
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