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Student Agency: The Equity Challenge of Our Day

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This post is by Gia Truong, CEO of Envision Education.

Robert is a typical Envision Education student: he is African American; he is from a low-income immigrant family; and no one in his family has ever attended college. Robert is bright, charismatic, and filled with hope and aspirations for his future. He recently graduated from Impact Academy, Envision's 6-12 school in Hayward, California.

But in at least one important way, Robert is not typical of low-income students of color in our country: this fall, he is headed to Saint Mary's College of California to pursue his undergraduate degree. That achievement defies the statistics of students from similar backgrounds as Robert. If he were typical of other low-income American students of color:

  • He would be seven times more likely to drop out of high school than if he were higher income.
  • It is unlikely he would have ever enrolled in college.
  • He would have a 1 in 10 chance of earning a college degree.
  • He would earn $1.2 million less in his lifetime than someone with a four-year college degree.
  • Without a college degree, Robert and his future children would be locked in a perpetual cycle of poverty. Children of parents without college degrees go to college at significantly lower rates than those whose parents hold degrees.

So what has made the difference for Robert? How and why has he been able to beat the odds and go to college?  What is different about his experience and his education that has made college a reality for him?

Robert's school, Impact Academy, is in the Envision Education Network. Envision's three Bay Area schools use the Portfolio Defense Model to educate students and open up a world of possibilities to them. This means that in order to graduate, our students (including Robert) stand before a panel of educators and demonstrate how and why they are ready for college. In a masters-like defense, they tell the story of their four-year education journey using artifacts that represent various academic disciplines and leadership competencies, responding to critical questions from the panel along the way. Each defense is evaluated against a rigorous rubric that assesses things such as content knowledge, presentation skills, and critical thinking. This is how we know when a high school student is ready to move on. A proficient defense tells the panel, and more importantly the student, that he has what it takes to succeed in college, career, and life. Below is an example of a portfolio defense.

So why did this make the difference for Robert?

At Envision, we hold the following core beliefs (adapted from the work of the National Equity Project). We believe...

  • that the inequity in education arises from institutional racism, classism, language bias, and other forms of systemic bias.
  • that educational equity is absolutely achievable. Achievement gaps based on race, class, language, or other social difference can be eliminated in excellent schools that are responsive to students' needs.

This is our starting place, and we share that focus on equity with many schools and educators around the country. It guides the work we do in our three Bay Area schools and with districts around the country through Envision Learning Partners (ELP), our training and consulting division.

As we have refined our equity focus over the years and worked to revise our model for the most transformative effect, we have noticed a recurring challenge: As is true with many low-income populations, and as a direct result of educational inequities, many of our students come to us with low reading and math skills, far below grade level. This is not an uncommon experience for schools, especially urban public schools. In response to our students' persistent skill gaps and in an effort to continuously improve, several years ago we began to focus intensely on literacy and numeracy in daily instruction. We designed and implemented interventions to develop basic skills, allowing us to engage our students in stronger project-based learning as a result.

And as we focused more intensely on skill development, we noticed a swirling debate in education circles: for low-income kids, should schools focus on building core skills or on project-based learning? Should they fill the gaps and provide that solid basic education, or should they challenge students to do more, achieve more, grow more? Could a Portfolio Defense model and project-based learning really work with low-income kids, or are those strategies reserved for kids who are "already there," already ready to tackle real world problems and collaborate on solutions?

We know this: that middle- and upper-income families are rarely, if ever, asked to choose between strong skills or strong projects. They do not have to pick between developing core reading and math skills and developing strong critical thinking and communication skills. They rightly expect their children to have access to both. And we, along with many of our colleagues around the country, feel strongly that low-income families shouldn't have to choose either. 

Today, after over a decade of implementing the Portfolio Defense model, six years of working with partner schools, and four years of intensive skill development with our students, we are more convinced than ever that low-income students and families do not need to choose. We have seen the transformative power of ensuring that students build the necessary skills and that they apply those skills to meaningful work. But what truly enables them to apply those skills and overcome educational inequity?

We believe the answer is agency. Agency - the ability to take ownership of one's learning, to be empowered to grow and develop, to be responsible for one's goals and progress - is what students need, in order to unlock their power and potential. You can see definitions of agency here.

So how do students acquire agency? We believe that the process of building a portfolio of work, using academic skills to revise and improve it, and then defending it in front of a panel promotes student agency more than any other learning or assessment model. This is because the process of defending--defending your own readiness to advance, defending that you belong, defending how you plan to overcome future challenges--requires you to stand up and prove your capacity to achieve, reflect, grow, and have an impact. For students like Robert, the Portfolio Defense is the key driver of student agency. His story illustrates how support for skill development, combined with the high expectations of Portfolio Defense, results in students who have a strong sense of self, their place in the world, and how they can make a difference. 

Equity is when young people who have been underserved feel empowered to change their lives and the inequitable system in which they grew up. This, therefore, is the equity challenge of our day: to develop and strengthen agency in students, so that armed with skills and competencies, they can head into college, careers, and their lives equipped to make the changes most relevant to them.

This is what made the difference for Robert; this is why he is defying statistics and heading to college. Through Portfolio Defense and everything that prepared him for it, Robert proved to himself what he is capable of and that he has agency to change the world and interrupt inequity.

In our next post, we'll see how Robert's Envision school prepared him for his Portfolio Defense. What strategies and systems did his school put in place to support his education journey and increase his sense of agency and empowerment? What strategies would you recommend to increase student agency?

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