Category Voices
Author By Richard Lofton, PhD

Over fifty years ago, James Coleman and Edward McDill established the Center for Social Organization of Schools (CSOS). They were eager to delve deeper into the findings of the Equality of Educational Opportunity (EEO) Report (also called the “Coleman Report”), which indicated that students’ social and economic backgrounds had more impact on their academic achievement than the actual school they attended. Since then, CSOS researchers have aimed to conduct rigorous social scientific research on the social organization of schools to understand the educational structures and processes that would enable all students to succeed in school. Researchers learned that not only did schools’ tangible and intangible resources affect academic success (addressed in the 1954 Brown v. Board ruling), but also students’ actual experience in classrooms, homes, and communities.

Although school is often looked upon as the great equalizer, many African American students still encounter unequal educational experiences. In many predominately-Black schools, students do not have adequate resources to meet their educational needs (NCES, 2015). Many students in racially diverse schools still confront academic tracking, which places them in less challenging classes and prevents them from gaining skills needed for upward mobility.

Despite disparate treatment, many African American students have remained committed to education. Graduation rates continue to rise. In 2015, 75% of African American students graduated from high school, a 6.8% increase from 2011-12 (Grad Nation). College graduation rates also continue to increase. And, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) remain at the forefront of preparing many students to compete successfully in the global economy.

The complex picture sets important challenges. Unequal educational experiences have not deterred all African Americans from higher learning. Yet even fifty years after the Coleman Report and the founding of CSOS, social scientific research still is needed to identify current-day struggles in homes, schools, and communities that affect students’ academic performance. As important, researchers must find solutions to these problems by designing, testing, and scaling up interventions that will better meet all students’ developmental needs.

My research agenda ties directly into the seminal work of the CSOS founders by theorizing and researching the everyday lived experiences of African American students and their families. In some studies, I use ethnographic methods to explore the impact of neighborhood inequalities, intergenerational educational experiences, and the unequal distribution of resources on students’ academic performance. My theoretical work extends the conceptual framework of Pierre Bourdieu’s habitus by centering on the experiences and voices of African American students and their parents. I want to understand how students and parents make sense of the systemic inequalities they face at home, at school, and in the community. Also, I explore how these inequalities are linked to students’ agency, logic, and actions—giving rise to what I refer to as the Black Habitus

One study that I co-lead, the Student Success Mentor Initiative, is a national randomized control trial that aims to promote meaningful relationships between school-based mentors and chronically-absent students. My research indicates that access to school resources is extremely important, but still not enough to ensure that students and parents who have experienced generations of unequal treatment can overcome hurdles to good attendance. Mentors can help foster a school and community environment where students and family members feel that they belong. They can also validate a student’s cultural knowledge and experience. The Student Success Mentor Initiative moves away from the use of courts and punishments to address chronic absenteeism by highlighting the potential impact of a mentor’s relationship with students and their families to combat the problem. The Student Success Mentor Initiative is currently being implemented in thirty-three school districts throughout the United States.

Besides researching educational policies and interventions, I also work with a Design Team known as the D-Unit that includes researchers, theorists and former practitioners. D-Unit members work with schools, districts, social agencies, and states to identify and design reforms that meet students’ developmental, social, and emotional needs. This is primarily accomplished by building on the Talent Development model to construct educational pathways that foster academic success.

In addition, I enjoy the opportunity to learn from and teach Ph.D. students in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University. Teaching brings a sense of joy to my academic life. In my teaching, I explore critical theories and sociological concepts to help young scholars grapple with the educational experiences of students, families, and communities. We examine the role of federal and state educational policies on students’ academic success. In my qualitative seminar, I also present and discuss methods that enable researchers to gather detailed information on social actors in schools and discover the lived-experiences of students and families.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of CSOS, my colleagues and I remain committed to the ideal of ensuring that all students reach their academic potential and achieve adult success. The studies of Coleman and the researchers who followed have provided crucial insights into the importance of out-of-school time in students’ educational experience. My research, theorizing, and teaching goes “back to the basics” by unpacking the social and economic background of today’s students, investigating systemic inequalities in their schools and communities, and acknowledging their logic, actions, and agency. I apply this knowledge by designing and implementing policies and practices that attempt to improve students’ academic outcomes and adult success.

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