STUDYING WHILE BLACK:WHAT STUDENT NARRATIVES CAN TEACH US ABOUT RACIAL DISPARITIES IN ACHIEVEMENT Mekides Mezgebu Enhanced Senior Year – Honors Graduation Project Work in Progress - Phase 2 March 2012 Faculty Advisor: Edward Byrne Cambridge Public Schools
Background I took on a year-long graduation project to learn why so few black students enroll in advanced classes at CRLS and in schools across the nation. The experiences of my peers and myself motivated me in finding the answer to this issue.
Where This Began • My personal experience in classes • My observations • My enduring question: Why don’t more black students enroll and succeed in advanced courses?
Percentage of Student Enrolled in One or More Honors Courses by Demographic Subgroup
Percentage of Students Enrolled in 3 or More Honors Courses by Demographic Subgroups
Hypothesis My Question: Why Aren’t More Black Students Enrolling And Succeeding in Advanced courses? • Lack of confidence to enroll in Honors/AP courses • Those who enroll don’t feel that they belong in these classes • Teachers and other adults in school indirectly and often inadvertently steer students away from advanced classes
My Approach Data isn’t sufficient to completely answer the question. Personal stories give an important insight that will never show up in data. I set out to interview CRLS students to get their stories.
Methods • Formed a hypothesis • Developed an interview plan & questions • Interviewed students • Collected data from those interviews • Analyzed my data • Collected other research to support my data • Drew several conclusions and made recommendations
Demographics • interviewed 20 black seniors • 8 students who enrolled in mostly Honors/AP classes. • 12 students who enrolled in mostly CP classes. • “Mostly” is defined as more than half the courses they took at CRLS.
Population & Terminology • All of the participants were black students. • 9 of the 20 participants were females. • 16 out of the 20 participants are American born blacks. • Of the 16 participants born in the US, 12 had at least 1 parent who immigrated to the US from an African or Caribbean country. • Each participant was asked how they identify their race and ethnicity.
Sample Questions for mostly Honors/AP students • What is your background/story? • What motivated you to enroll in these challenging courses? • What has stopped you from taking an Honors/AP course? • What challenges did you face? • How did those Honors/AP courses feel compared to CP courses? • Can you think of anything that could have made your experience in those advanced courses more successful?
Sample Questions for mostly CP students • What is your background/story? • What has stopped you from taking an Honors/AP course? • What are some issues you think you’d face in an Honors/AP course? • What makes you academically different from students who take Honors/AP courses? • What would make you confident enough to want to enroll in Honors/AP courses?
Five Themes Emerged • Confidence & Motivation • Readiness • Teachers & Guidance Counselors • Peer Influence / Friends • Family influence / support
Theme 1: Confidence & Motivation Four key issues : 1. Self-doubt 2. The labels “CP/Honors/AP” cause stigma 3. Lack of awareness of the importance of HN/AP courses as underclassmen 4. Fear of feeling unwelcome/out of place
Self-doubt “I’ve never taken an Honors or AP course mainly because it seems like kind of a reach. Honors itself is a reach and I felt AP would be overwhelming. I took one Honors class my freshman year and did very poorly. “When you’re there, originally taking one of your first Honors courses, it’s intimidating seeing other students talk about all the challenging courses they’re enrolled in. It makes me feel stupid.” “I’m an average student.” “I took an Honors class freshman year and didn’t do so well and it scares me to take it again let alone any harder courses.” “Some kids were smarter than me and it was evident. This makes me lack confidence.”
Analysis • Fear of personal failure prevents students from taking challenging courses. (Self Fulfilling Prophecy) • When students struggle in HN/AP courses, the long term effects include: - erodes confidence - less likely to take HN class again - limit their options - negatively impact their future
“CP/Honors/AP” labels causes stigma • “A lot of minorities fear Honors and AP classes.” • “There are kids that think they simply can’t do it. The word ‘honors’ just intimidates people.” • “I feel a lot more chill in those CP courses compared to Honors and AP ones.” • “CP has a bad reputation and that’s where the majority of minorities are in.” • “You don’t expect to see a black person in an AP class. Society thinks that blacks aren’t as smart as whites.” • “You see more whites in AP/Honors courses. It’s because there has been pre-set stereotypes that have been made.” • “I wanted to challenge myself but I felt fearful of Honors classes.”
Analysis • Honors and AP cause anxiety and fear just from the name because students don’t view themselves as Honors or Advanced students. • CP means “College Prep.” but how does it prepare one for college if it doesn’t prepare one for Honors/AP in high school? • Students fear the term, “Honors and AP” more than they do the actual work and curriculum. • While CP classes at CRLS can be rigorous, there’s a perception among black students that they are “chill”. • This perception reinforces stereotypes of Blacks’ intellectual inferiority because black students are enrolled in CP classes in higher percentages than White students.
THEME 1CONFIDENCE & MOTIVATION: > THE IMPORTANCE OF HN/AP COURSES IN ONE’S ACADEMIC FUTURE
THE IMPORTANCE OF HN/AP COURSES IN ONE’S ACADEMIC FUTURE • “I honestly felt like I didn’t need to take Honors and AP courses as an underclassman. I felt like I received the wrong information.” • “My elementary teachers chose the level of my course I took as a freshman. This totally affected my own belief in myself and my future academic path.” • “Let students know about all the opportunities and courses you can take as a freshman so that they can challenge themselves and not end up where I’m at!”
Analysis • Students claimed that they didn’t know about the importance of advanced classes as underclassmen. • Students who have taken mostly CP classes have feelings of remorse, regret, and neglect. • Elementary teachers determine what classes the student enrolls in at CRLS. This starts the tracking trend and leaves these students feeling locked-in. • Some study participants who enrolled in mostly CP classes in their time at CRLS, claimed they would’ve enrolled in more challenging courses as underclassmen if they were pushed & supported to do so.
Feeling unwelcome/out of place • “Let’s talk about race here. In my AP Biology class, there were two other black kids. The dynamic was uncomfortable. White people are more comfortable in their rigorous classes than blacks appear to be.” • “When you walk into an Honors/AP class as a black kid, they (other students of European descent) act like there is an elephant in the room.” • “I know a lot of the classes aren’t diverse and I don’t want to be uncomfortable. In the few honors courses I’ve taken, you don’t see your kind and that’s very uncomfortable. I know it’s possible to overcome that lack of comfort but it’s extremely difficult.”
Feeling unwelcome/out of place • “Comfort zone plays a big role. It’s not that one’s race is better than another, it’s just how things are.” • “I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t think I would share common interests as the other students in the class.” • “I absolutely feel that lack of confidence affects many black kids when taking an Honors/AP course. I think that if you ask a bunch of African Americans in our school why they don’t take an Honors or AP course, some would say “I’m too stupid to be in that class and some will switch out not because they can’t do the work, but because they feel out of place.”
Analysis • Students can’t be successful in classes that they don’t feel comfortable in and if a student doesn’t feel comfortable in class, they won’t continue to take classes like it. • The pressure black students face when enrolled in Honors and AP classes is immense. Already doubting themselves, their anxiety increases when they realize they are in class with students who can’t relate to their experience. • Being in these classes can be very socially isolating and we neglect the impact of that. • The feelings of being out of place don’t have to come from any deliberate or explicit comments or actions by other students or the teacher. They can come from the cultural norms/expectations of the school.
Theme 2: Readiness Three key issues students face: 1. Middle school experience 2. Students aren’t aware of the importance of freshman and sophomore year 3. Students lack necessary skills and tools to move into advanced classes (Middle School CP/HN HN/AP)
Middle school experience • “At KLO, I got an average education. I attended ISP which somewhat helped, but still.” • “I struggled with language barrier in Middle School. ISP didn’t make much of a difference. I felt it created a gap. It was a little segregating.” • “Education in middle school wasn’t good. I didn’t have a good foundation. I didn’t learn as much as I could’ve learned.” • “Middle school was very easy. I did minimal work and got A’s and B’s. High school required much more attention because of the different levels of classes.” • “I did well in Middle School. Middle School didn’t require much effort.”
Middle school experience • “My middle school experience was very impacting. They scared me coming into the high school about how hard it will be so I just simply stuck with CP courses.” • “In Middle school, teachers don’t expect too much from you. You’re on your own in High School. You have to set standards and goals for yourself. I did well in middle school academically. I struggled when I got to high school.” • “Other students’ middle school experience may have had a great impact compared to mine. They are prepared for high school. I came into high school thinking I’d pass (like in middle school.) Now looking back, I’m like damn, I should have taken it seriously and challenged myself.”
Analysis • Depending on where the student went to middle school, their preparation to do high school level work varied • The 8th to 9th grade transition creates a large gap. ‘A’ students in middle school can become ‘C’ students in a matter of months. • Even programs like The Intensive Studies Program (ISP) don’t adequately prepare students for high school level work. • Regardless of ISP’s effectiveness, it began the segregation of students by their potential abilities. • You can be successful in middle school without much effort. Students don’t understand the need to seek out challenges because they feel they didn’t need to in middle school and weren’t taught when they got to CRLS. • Most students interviewed felt they didn’t have skills to do challenging high school level work when they entered 9th grade
THEME 2READINESS> STUDENTS AREN’T AWARE OF THE IMPORTANCE OF FRESHMAN AND SOPHOMORE YEAR
Students aren’t aware of the importance of freshman and sophomore year • “High school is NOT like the movies show it to be…you have to quickly learn how to adapt and adjust.” • “No one took freshman and sophomore year seriously. Everyone was interested in their social lives.” • “Academically, my freshman and sophomore year hurt me and my progression in high school and further.” • “In middle school, teachers don’t expect too much from you. In high school, you’re on your own. You have to set standards and goals for yourself. There is a lot of independence.” • “It’s hard to go from a CP class to an Honors/AP one as a student.”
Analysis • Many students claimed as upperclassmen that they weren’t aware of the importance of rigor as underclassmen. • We assume the students will automatically know what is expected from them and what courses they should be taking but, how can they if they’ve never been taught the importance of it? • 9th & 10th graders are about socializing and taking advantage of extracurricular activities and opportunities and there is not enough emphasis on the increase of rigor they’ll experience at CRLS. • It’s hard to come back from a rough 9th/10th grade year.
Students lack necessary skills and tools • “The challenges of doing the work is an issue I think I’d face in Honors/AP courses.” • “The habits are what make me academically different from a student who takes Honors/AP courses. The kids in AP classes can balance time and studies and everything else.” • “Students in Honors/AP classes are more prepared. They are ready for college. They have skills. Some CP classes are a joke. Students in Honors/AP classes aren’t ready for that level of work. Students who started as a honors course in freshman year continuing, it’s not hard for them, but for students like me who are in CP slowly adjusting into honors, it’s much harder.” • “Some challenges I think I’d face in an HN/AP is the intense work load and organization…I lacked the skills of organization and balancing time.”
Analysis • Coming from middle school where students weren’t challenged and skills weren’t sharpened, they are required have abilities that were never developed. • Fear they can’t keep up since they don’t have the basic skills (studying, time mgmt., organization.) • There are no building blocks to do advanced level work. • You’re expected to have the skills or not take the class.
Theme 3: Teachers & Guidance Counselors 3 key issues : 1. Low encouragement to challenge yourself 2. Messages of doubt 3. Overcoming assumptions & first impressions
THEME 3TEACHERS & GUIDANCE COUNSELORS:> LOW ENCOURAGEMENT TO CHALLENGE YOURSELF
Low Encouragement to Challenge Yourself • “Some of my CP teachers don’t like when students are too advanced but some CP courses are just WAY too easy.” • “AP/honors courses should be more encouraged through guidance counselors, who don’t mention it a lot.” • “Teachers simply can’t and don’t support every student.” • “I was worried about the lack of support I’d get in high school.”
Analysis • For many black students, walking into an HN/AP class, they already feel vulnerable and anxious because they think teachers don’t believe they’ll succeed. • Students want to know they have an adult that supports them in the classroom. • Students reflect back the confidence level their teachers have in them. • Students don’t want to be babied, but instead, they’d like to be reassured that someone has their back and they are in fact, welcome in the class.
Messages of doubt • “CP teachers make students feel really stupid.” • “My guidance counselor indirectly urged me not to take Honors/AP courses, therefore, I didn’t see the importance of it.” • “When I tried to switch from a CP to an Honors class, my teachers would urge me not to. This made me lose confidence in myself.” • “I expected teachers would be open to having our back and that wasn’t the case.” • “What stopped me from enrolling in more Honors/AP classes is one of my teachers saying I couldn’t do it. They didn’t mean it in a hurtful way, but that’s what it was.” • “My guidance counselor doubts me. I’ve failed before so there is a lot of doubt. He doesn’t even mention Honors/AP to me.”
Analysis • Regardless of intentions, every message about course levels and ability has a greater impact than we expect on our students. • Students who fail advanced courses early in their high school careers are discouraged from enrolling in advanced classes in the future. • By not having substantive conversations with students about why they were unsuccessful, they internalize their failure. • All students, regardless of course level, want to believe that adults believe in them. • If a teacher is not confident in their student, they will definitely not work hard to live up to the teachers standard, vice versa.