Cover Story

Sometimes the people best suited to find out about the experiences and opinions of teenagers are other teenagers. So when researchers at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY) wanted to study how young people today--50 years after Brown v. Board of Education--think about the "achievement gap" that still remains between white students and racial minorities and between students of different socioeconomic groups, they recruited a diverse group of high school students as assistants.

The students came from many backgrounds: white, black, Latino and Asian; wealthy, middle class and poor; urban and suburban; and in special education, regular and honors classes. The researchers taught the students social science research methods, then sent them to interview and survey their peers.

Researchers and high-school students alike learned much from each other, says project leader Michelle Fine, PhD, a CUNY social psychology professor; in fact, the high school students quickly renamed the project.

"They told us right away that it was not an 'achievement' gap but an 'opportunity' gap," Fine said. Four CUNY graduate students working on the project discussed their ongoing research at the 2004 Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Biennial Convention.

  • Yasser Payne collaborated with students from a large, underfunded urban school in Paterson, N.J. Together, they interviewed and surveyed the students' peers. Payne found that students recognized the injustices and economic disparities at their school, saying things like, "Almost any book you need, you have to order it from a white school." He also found that the students still recognized the value of education: 82 percent said that it was important to go to a good high school and 86 percent thought that it was important to go to college.

  • April Burns described her examination of how upper-middle class students at a suburban New York high school made sense of their academic success.

"Critical consciousness is not usually asked of relatively privileged youth," she said. Still, in small focus groups and interviews, she found evidence that some of the students were aware of their advantages and anxious about their "unearned" privileges.

  • Monique Guishard discussed her work with teens and their mothers from the group Mothers on the Move, a coalition of mostly black and Latino mothers who fight for issues like education, housing and traffic safety in their Bronx neighborhood.

According to Guishard, the women's sense of injustice was fluid and context-dependent--within one one-hour session, they could alternate between blaming the system and blaming themselves or their children for the achievement/opportunity gap.

  • Maria Elena Torre described Echoes, a summer institute run by the CUNY researchers that brought together students from diverse backgrounds into a "contact zone." At the institute, the students used art, poetry, music and drama to communicate with and learn from each other.

The setting worked, Torre said, because everyone openly acknowledged and explicitly addressed the differences in each others' backgrounds and opportunities.

Many of the student participants said they'd had a positive experience. "At the end of the institute, we heard them yearn for more places like this," Torre said.