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Ideas and Solutions

Actionable Insights, Straight From Students

The Cultivate system helps teachers better support students’ academic and social-emotional needs by prioritizing student voice.

October 16, 2023
Headshot of Katie Buckley, Senior Research Scientist at Teach for America. In her role, she oversees the research and measurement on students’ social, emotional, and academic development

Katie Buckley

Senior Research Scientist

Headshot of Katie Buckley, Senior Research Scientist at Teach for America. In her role, she oversees the research and measurement on students’ social, emotional, and academic development

Katie Buckley

Senior Research Scientist

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students’ mental health, attendance, engagement in school, and grades are suffering.

At the same time, teacher preparation enrollment and retention are at an all time low. Meanwhile, researchers are concerned that artificial intelligence, which is quickly growing in popularity across schools, could further erode human connection and relationships. It is clear that we need to do better in supporting our students and teachers through these difficult times.

While there is not one simple solution to address all the challenges facing our schools, we at Teach For America believe there are concrete, practical, and equitable steps we can take now, which start with listening to what students think and feel about their experiences in their classrooms. In fact, what students feel and think in the classroom—that is, their lived experience—is one of the strongest predictors of academic growth and longer term-outcomes. And research has never been more clear on the importance of educators creating strong relationships and welcoming learning environments in order to foster student well-being and create the conditions for greater academic success.

This is why we have partnered with Dr. Camille Farrington, Andria Shyjka, and Nina Ryan at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research to implement the Cultivate system for TFA corps members. This year, TFA will have over 3,500 corps members working in under-resourced schools across the United States. Cultivate allows corps members to gather feedback directly from their students about what they are thinking, feeling, and believing about themselves in their classrooms, and then use these data to improve precisely those conditions that further support students' social, emotional, and academic development. 

Cultivate includes a twice-a-year (fall and spring) survey for students in grades 5-12 asking them about nine classroom conditions, seven learning mindsets, two learning strategies, and their motivation. After the fall survey administration, corps members receive reports providing insight into the classroom conditions to prioritize for improvement based on students’ lowest reported learning mindsets and strategies. Corps members then engage in ongoing learning experiences, including detailed guides and conversations with coaches, in order to learn and introduce new practices into their classroom. They also learn how to elicit ongoing feedback from their students—through participatory data collection—on what is working and what is not. Finally, using data from the spring student survey, corps members have an opportunity to reflect on changes in their practice, what impact they’ve had, what impact they hope to have, and therefore what actions to prioritize for the following year. 

“When our students feel valued and heard, they are more likely to continue to self-advocate throughout their educational journey.”

Katie Buckley

Through this process, teachers not only build capacity in supporting their students, they also build stronger relationships with students by creating an environment that fosters belonging and values student voice. While many teachers have already created these supportive environments, Cultivate keeps the focus on equitable and inclusive classroom environments at the forefront for every teacher. In fact, in a pilot implemented last school year, we heard directly from our educators about the Cultivate system. They told us:  

  • “You can’t build an equitable learning environment when you don’t elevate student voices. We say we want equity, but then we don’t include them in decision-making. I’ve seen powerful things happen when we allow kids to lead us as adults and use their voices and advocate for themselves.”
  • “Connection before content! It’s easy to focus on the meaty stuff when you are passionate about a subject, but students won’t care unless they know you care about them and why they should be learning this stuff. Content will flow when students feel like they belong and that you really see them.”
  • “Students may not always express their true thoughts or feelings openly, and their behaviors may not necessarily reflect their actual perceptions of the classroom culture. By actively seeking feedback from my students, I gained a deeper understanding of their needs, concerns, and perspectives, which allowed me to make informed adjustments to my teaching practices and classroom environment.”

We also saw real improvements in student experiences and beliefs during the pilot. Among over 1,000 students who participated in both the fall and spring survey, we saw considerable increases in their perceptions of their sense of belonging, their identity safety, and their agency. Further, we saw an increase in student perceptions of the degree to which their teachers fostered meaningful work in the classroom. In an internal study asking students their thoughts about the survey, many expressed appreciation that the survey provided them with an opportunity to share their experiences with their teacher. One student shared, “My reaction is kind of surprising because usually they don't ask students this type of stuff, but it makes me feel good that they are asking about how you feel and stuff. … Usually they don't let you express yourself, so you have to keep things in and just feel that way forever. But when you talk about it, it makes you feel better.”

There is still much to learn about how to best support our students during this time. As a field, we typically fail to ask those we are doing the work for—the students we serve—what they are experiencing and what they need. Cultivate switches the paradigm by prioritizing student feedback over adult perceptions as the primary driver of educator continuous improvement. This not only signals to our students that we value their feedback and care about their experiences, it also helps students develop agency and autonomy. When our students feel valued and heard, they are more likely to continue to self-advocate throughout their educational journey, ensuring that they are getting the education they deserve to thrive as individuals. 

Our hope at TFA is that in the next few years, formal and informal feedback from students will become as important to educators as academic assessments. Gathering, analyzing, and internalizing student perceptions will signal where teachers need to provide additional support so that our students experience the learning conditions they need to grow in their academic, as well as social-emotional,  development. And, during a period in time when many teachers have said they feel unsuccessful in their profession, our hope is that Cultivate will enable our educators to feel more connected to their students, more capable in their practice, and more inspired about the work ahead.  

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