Melanie Bertrand is an Assistant Professor at Arizona State University in Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. She holds a Ph.D. in Education from the University of California, Los Angeles, and served as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California. Her research employs micro- and macro-level lenses to explore the potential of student voice to challenge systemic racism in education.

(Photo Credit: Deanna Alejandra Dent)

“The claim we found is that students don’t have access to culturally relevant textbooks. I feel that if textbooks will have stories about my culture, I’ll feel more engaged with the class.” Alma, Latina high school student

Alma[1] made this statement to an engrossed audience at an educational conference in 2011. She and other Students of Color were presenting research findings from a study they implemented on access to educational resources—like textbooks and technology—at their urban high schools. After Alma left the podium, another student spoke about the surveys and interviews the group conducted to arrive at the claim, showing a PowerPoint slide with the following quotes from high school students:

“The only thing the history book mentions about Black culture is slavery.”

“The history I know is about White culture; I don’t know [anything] about my culture!”

Every year I go to the educational research conference where Alma presented, and I see a lot of presentations intended to influence what happens in schools. However, few of the presentations have the urgency this one did. The presentation was transformative in that it featured researchers who are often the objects of research—high school Students of Color—which infused a much-needed perspective into education reform discourse. Student-driven research, especially coming from Students of Color or other marginalized populations of students, has the incredible potential to spur school change and promote race and class equity.

I have become convinced of the need to radically rethink whose voices should drive educational change because of my participation in youth participatory action research (YPAR). In YPAR, students, with adult guidance, conduct research on their schools and communities, learning along the way about research methods, academic theories, and ways to disseminate research findings and take action (Morrell, 2008a). I was involved in a Los Angeles-based YPAR group called the Council of Youth Research, of which Alma was a member, from 2009 to 2013 (Bautista, Bertrand, Morrell, Scorza, & Matthews, 2013; Morrell, 2008b). And now I am part of a new YPAR project with middle-school students in a Southwestern state. I draw upon these experiences in addressing this month’s Equity Alliance Blog theme of “Contributions of Student Voice Research to Education Reform.”

Here’s why YPAR involving Students of Color and other marginalized students should be an integral part of school change:

  • YPAR often generates research findings that challenge local instantiations of more broad forms of injustice, such as systemic racism and classism in education. According to research, these forms of injustice can be seen locally in, for example, inequitable access to educational resources, such as experienced teachers and college-preparatory curricula (Darling-Hammond, 2010); educators’ low expectations for Students of Color, which can wind up diminishing academic outcomes (Jussim & Harber, 2005); and a lack of culturally responsive curricula (Ladson-Billings, 1994). As Alma and her colleagues illustrated, YPAR can confront these issues, which are arguably the biggest obstacles to equity-minded school reform.
  • YPAR is driven by the voices and research insights of those who are most expert in how racism and other forms of oppression operate in schools (Cammarota, 2014). Often Students of Color and other marginalized students are framed as problems to be fixed rather than those most affected by an unjust system (Ladson-Billings, 2012). YPAR not only corrects that framing, but shows the inherent value of their insider perspective. For instance, after Alma stated the research claim quoted above, she then explained it from her perspective, stating that more culturally relevant textbooks would encourage her to be more engaged in class. By centralizing student voice, YPAR has an action-oriented urgency that is often lacking in educational research. In addition, the unique perspectives of students have the potential to shed light on innovative approaches to improving schools and tackling the entrenched problem of inequity in education.
  • YPAR generates unique research that many adults cannot produce. For example, let’s consider the quotations above from high school students about the history text book and curriculum. The two quotes would have been difficult for me—as a white, middle-class, adult researcher—to obtain. The individuals who voiced these quotes, Students of Color attending the same school as Alma, would have been reluctant to discuss with me their views about the whiteness of the history curriculum. An adult researcher of a similar race and class background would have fared better, but could have been affected by the difference in age and position. Unlike adult-driven research, YPAR can provide a fuller picture of what’s happening in schools, better indicating pathways for school change.

To better understand how YPAR can influence school change, we need to know more about the interaction between YPAR and broader contexts. YPAR projects can generate research that includes varying levels of focus, from the group, to the school, to the district, and beyond. This research should avoid a few potential pitfalls that have been found in research on student voice, a related field: 1) a lack of interdisciplinarity, 2) an absence of explicit theoretical framing, and 3) a disregard of students’ multiple and intersecting identities (Gonzalez, Hernandez-Saca, & Artiles, 2015). Addressing these issues will result in nuanced and robust research that illuminates the relationship between YPAR and the processes involved in school change.

There are many ways that educational stakeholders—from school administrators, to teachers, to researchers, to elected officials, to community members—can infuse YPAR or the lessons of YPAR into school-change efforts. Stakeholders can seek out or organize YPAR groups or projects. For instance, K-12 teachers and administrators can encourage the formation of school-based YPAR initiatives. Universities or community organizations can also spearhead such efforts.

In any of these approaches, it is important for stakeholders to be continually reflective of power differences and the ways that Students of Color can be overlooked, even when they are ostensibly granted “voice.” For instance, the educational leaders in contact with the Council of Youth Research often expressed surprise at the student members’ achievements as researchers (Bertrand, 2014). This surprise reflected a possible deficit view of the students and also inhibited the leaders’ authentic consideration of what was most important—what the students had to say. Indeed, this was my response to the first Council presentation I attended, a response that necessitated a great deal of self-reflection since it conflicted with my views of myself as a white ally in issues of equity.

For YPAR to realize its potential to promote equity-minded change in education, we, as educational stakeholders, have to make ourselves authentically open to hearing and acting upon the research insights of YPAR while reflecting critically upon our identities, backgrounds, and viewpoints. This is a stance that requires vulnerability, especially for educational leaders who may be implicated in the YPAR findings. However, with this perhaps painful vulnerability comes the potential of radical, equity-minded change in schools.


Bautista, M., Bertrand, M., Morrell, E., Scorza, D., & Matthews, C. (2013). Participatory action research and city youth: Methodological insights from the Council of Youth Research. Teachers College Record, 115(10).

Bertrand, M. (2014). Reciprocal dialogue between educational decision makers and Students of Color: Opportunities and obstacles. Educational Administration Quarterly, 50(4), 812-843. doi: 10.1177/0013161X14542582

Cammarota, J. (2014). Challenging colorblindness in Arizona: Latina/o students’ counter-narratives of race and racism. Multicultural Perspectives, 16(2), 79-85.

Darling-Hammond, L. (2010). The flat world and education: How America’s commitment to equity will determine our future. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gonzalez, T., Hernandez-Saca, D. I., & Artiles, A. J. (2015). In search of voice: Theory and methods in student voice research, 1990-2010. Tempe, AZ: Arizona State University.

Jussim, L., & Harber, K. (2005). Teacher expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies: Knowns and unknowns, resolved and unresolved controversies. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 9(2), 131-155.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1994). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2012). Through a glass darkly: The persistence of race in education research & scholarship. Educational Researcher, 41(4), 115-120.

Morrell, E. (2008a). Critical literacy and urban youth: Pedagogies of access, dissent, and liberation. New York: Routledge.

Morrell, E. (2008b). Six summers of YPAR: Learning, action and change in urban education. In J. Cammarota & M. Fine (Eds.), Revolutionizing education: Youth participatory action research in motion (pp. 155-184). New York: Routledge.

[1] A pseudonym.

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2 Responses to “The Transformative Potential of Youth Participatory Action Research By Melanie Bertrand”

  1. Maritza Del Razo on 2/7/15 12:11 AM US/Eastern

    Dr. Bertrand’s suggestion that we allow ourselves to be vulnerable even in the face of being implicated in the findings of YPAR is refreshing. And to lead by example and expose her own vulnerability in this piece is a perfect example for one of my favorite mandates….”We cannot rely on faith in our own goodness as a substitute for the careful examination of our beliefs and actions.” – Ian Haney Lopez in White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, page 103.

  2. Melanie Bertrand on 2/10/15 11:09 PM US/Eastern

    Wow, what a fantastic quote! Yes, I agree with need for constant self-reflection in YPAR and really in all work in education.

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