"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, 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: My scholarship focuses on examining urban school contexts and the sociocultural experiences of students and their families to better understand how to strengthen relationships with students, teachers, and schools. I have a deep commitment to inclusiveness, which includes students, teachers, families, and community stakeholders, with an emphasis on acknowledging existing strengths and assets within urban contexts.

I am also interested in market-based school reform, including school choice, with an emphasis on “no-excuses” charters. Within this context I am drawn to Black and Latino males’ experiences. 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 black male masculinity, historically speaking, in the context of the United States. 


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

A: This latter line of research concerning Black boys’ experiences was prompted by the fact that I used to believe in the American Dream: this idea that all anyone had to do was work hard and pull themself 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 atrocities 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 the systems in this country, and how the intersection of ethnicity, socioeconomics, and spatial location can impact the inequities in the school systems. Whether these inequities are tied to how schools are funded, the expectations for students who have been historically marginalized in this United States, how educators value (or not) students lived experiences, particularly students of color, and the like. It was important for me to understand students lived experiences.

My first year at New York University, I visited a no-excuse charter school and I remember having a conversation with a teacher there, asking them about their black boys, and this administrator articulated that they had just started a new afterschool 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 tutoring the boys’ afterschool in math and social studies. After building a rapport with these students and after receiving permission from their parents and caregivers, as well as permission from the school, I asked about a formative evaluation of the program. The first part of the evaluation I gave students an 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 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 continually being funded.

Q: What are the key takeaways of your work?

A: Value student voice and affirm their lived experiences. Some would say that I am proposing a classroom of chaos. "Let's have classrooms where young people are just without rules." But that's not what I'm suggesting when I talk about valuing student voice and affirming their identities and lived experiences. Unfortunately however, teachers and some of the students in "no-excuses" schools suggested that's what would happen if students didn’t have the rules at this particular no-excuse charter school. But, again, that's not my proposal. I am talking about culturally responsive and sustainability. 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.