"Do well in school and you can grow up to be anything you want to be," is a mantra that children know all-too-well. Nearly everyone would agree that part of children’s roles is to do well in school in order to be successful in their communities and in society. But what does “success” mean in this context? Do students and teachers and administrators agree on this definition? What should be done to ensure that students’ needs are prioritized?

L. Trenton S. Marsh, PhD, sat down with us this month to talk about his work on “no excuses” charter schools and the effect they have on students and, ultimately, communities.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


Q: What is your research interest?

A: Broadly speaking, my research interests really are intersected between black male/Latino studies, critical race studies, and poverty studies in the context of no-excuses charter schools. Oftentimes, the young men who are in these schools, specifically black males, have been seen by their teachers and the administration as defiant and different, and I believe part of that is due to the construction of the black male masculinity, historically speaking, in the context of the US.


Q: What prompted you to examine this line of research?

A: My interest in this particular line of research was prompted to the fact that I used to believe in the American Dream: this idea that all anyone had to do was work hard and pull oneself up by their bootstraps. I'm coming from a homogenous community, seen as an upper middle class background. That's important because I think it really shielded me from a lot of tragedies that have affected men of color.

This line of research became important to me after I became more of a critical thinker. I'm not saying that I didn't understand that I was a black man in this country. By no stretch of the imagination. I identified as a black man and have been in classroom and corporate environments, knowing that I was the only black person, but just really thinking critically about school systems, being critical about systems generally, and being critical about institutional racism piqued my interest in this topic.

My first year at New York University, I visited a no-excuse charter school and I remember having that conversation with a teacher there, asking them about their black boys, and this administrator articulated that they had just started a new program because a lot of the young boys were failing, so they were not being promoted to the next grade level.

I started to volunteer for a math and social studies program. After building a rapport with these students and after receiving permission from their parents and caregivers, as well as permission from the school, I gave them as assessment called the Harter Scale. This particular scale allowed me to assess their self-confidence and how they viewed themselves, and I was really surprised. Out of the 19 young men, 16 out of the 19 did not like or love themselves. I thought, you have a school and an afterschool program that was supposedly designed for these young men. They think they're helping them, but at the end of the day, they're harming them. So, at that moment, I thought I need to really try to understand the black boy experience in these spaces, which are being either locally or federally funded.


Q: What are the key takeaways of your work?

A: Some would say that I am proposing a classroom of chaos. "Let's have classrooms where young people are just without rules." That's not what I'm suggesting and, unfortunately, teachers and some of the students suggested that's what would happen if they didn't have the rules at this particular no-excuse charter school. But, that's not my proposal. If classrooms are culturally responsive to the needs of the young people and the needs of the community, you could have an experience that is respectful. You could have an experience that has the ethos of caring and love, of hope, and this is possible if we just affirm the experiences of young people coming into these classroom spaces, if we say to them, "Your communities are great. You are great people. I just want us to understand that there are some rules and guidelines that we may have in this school, but we're going to make sure that any rule and guideline that we have, it still affirms who you are as a human being." I don't think chaos is at the other end of respect. I don't think chaos is at the other end of affirming experiences. I don't think chaos is at the other end of hope and love in classroom settings.

Are you interested in Dr. Marsh's work? Visit his profile here.