During the eight years L. Trenton S. Marsh worked for the IBM Corporation, he often spent weekends and holidays mentoring youth and volunteering in public schools. On Martin Luther King Jr. Service Day in 2011, Marsh, wearing the red shirt on the right, wound up painting murals in a public school in Washington, D.C., with fellow volunteers President Barack Obama and his family. 

When Trenton Marsh was collecting data for his Ph.D., one of his research methods involved giving middle-school students cameras and asking them to take pictures of what they saw as success. One student, a seventh grader, took a photograph of her parents smiling and holding each other and presented it to Marsh, saying, “This is family. This represents black love. This is unity.”

The girl was a student in a ”no-excuses” charter school, the type of public charter school that puts a strong emphasis on rigid behavior compliance along with reading and math assessment scores. For his dissertation, Marsh explored the philosophies of success as understood by students, teachers, and parents in a ”no-excuses” charter school in a major U.S. city. “No-excuses” charter school models are often located in historically underresourced communities of color, and in such schools there’s often a mismatch between the way teachers and administrators—who are largely White—see success and how students themselves perceive it. Marsh says this kind of mismatch can make a big difference in a young person’s future.

“In ‘no-excuses’ schools, teachers rarely see family and neighborhood as places or sites of success,” Marsh explains. “Instead, success is getting into an Ivy League school and getting out of the low-income community where you grew up.

“If we’re defining what a successful young person looks like,” he adds, “I’d love to have those young people and their families contribute to that larger conversation.”

Marsh is a research fellow in LSA’s National Center for Institutional Diversity, which is in its thirteenth year at U-M. A primary goal of NCID is “to produce, promote and catalyze, and support the dissemination of research and scholarship that helps us understand the challenges, benefits, and opportunities of diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says NCID director Tabbye M. Chavous. The center also supports the use and application of scholarly evidence in policy and practice toward creating a more equitable and inclusive society. NCID awards one to three postdoctoral fellowships annually to early-career diversity scholars.

As an NCID fellow, Marsh is now designing methods similar to those he used in his dissertation to understand how ideologies of success impact U-M’s Wolverine Pathways. Wolverine Pathways is a free, year-round program to help students be more prepared for college, and, specifically, to prepare them to enroll in U-M on a full, four-year tuition scholarship. The program partners with middle- and high-school students and their families in three southeastern Michigan communities.


 Trenton Marsh on Central Campus.

Marsh plans to use both quantitative and qualitative methods—interviews, focus groups and a photography-based methodology called Photovoice, which was developed at U-M—to find out how Wolverine Pathways scholars and their families conceptualize success inside and outside the classroom, and to make sure their voices are heard by the program’s decisionmakers.

Photovoice is a research method in which participants use cameras to record and reflect their community’s strengths and concerns. Those strengths and concerns are then discussed in both large- and small-group settings with the ultimate aim of informing policy. Marsh says he’s seen Photovoice lead to systemic changes at the local level, and he hopes the data he collects from Wolverine Pathways participants will have that kind of impact here too.

“Given Trenton’s background in school programs, curriculum instruction, and his expertise in policy and method, Wolverine Pathways is a really good fit,” says Robert Jagers, the director of the program. He expects Marsh’s findings will help to guide improvements to the program.

“A lot of what we think about as success in our lives and schools, even in how we structure our families, is predicated on what society has told us about success,” says Dana Davidson, project coordinator for Wolverine Pathways. “We think it’s important for every young person to get a chance to think about how they define success, and whether that definition matches what society says.”

The United States is a quantitative-driven society, says Marsh, and for young people—especially minoritized young people of color—that can be problematic. “If students don’t have the right GPA or SAT score, they’re seen as failures,” he says. “But I think there is value in a student’s lived experience and narrative that might not be reflected in a GPA.”

His interest in these issues springs in part from his own experience. As a high-school student in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Marsh says he had, a “straight-D” GPA. His SAT scores were no better. By societal measures, he was a failure—but Marsh had other gifts. He was socially engaged and entrepreneurial, with a solid work ethic and obvious leadership skills. He came from an upper-middle-class background and neighborhood, which meant doors were open to him that might have been closed to a less affluent young Black man. And he wrote a powerful college essay in which he talked about leadership that he thinks helped him get into American University, where he participated in an academic bridge program that aided his transition to college. He promptly became a straight-A student.

He could be describing his teenage self when he writes, in a recent article, that “students should not be identified as mere guests who are accepted and enter during one term and exit some quantifiable years later, but as unique individuals with different stories and different ‘funds of knowledge.’”

As he and his wife await the birth of their first baby this summer, Marsh thinks about his hopes for his own child’s future school. “I want him to learn to be critically engaged with his fellow human beings — to not default to judgement or discrimination, but rather to exhibit unconditional love and empathy towards others. I want him to learn to be reflective, and to have the courage to speak up or to change his practices or thoughts in moments when justice in this world is needed."


images courtesy of L. Trenton Marsh