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Emerging Research Highlights Promise of Student Empowerment

By Jerome A. Steele, CASDA Assistant Director of Research and Program Development

A body of research on student empowerment has recently emerged. This resource guide will explore two studies from the Empowering Schools Project, an endeavor which sought to identify, analyze and measure characteristics of empowering schools. The studies examined below are distinct from the larger literature on student engagement because they emphasize the unequal power relations that often operate in schools, particularly those serving historically marginalized students. 


“The Empowering Schools Project: Identifying the Classroom and School Characteristics That Lead to Student Empowerment” (Kirk, Brown, Lewis, Karibo, Scott, & Park, 2015) and “The Power of Student Empowerment: Measuring Classroom Predictors and Individual Indicators” (Kirk et al, 2016) make a strong case for the efficacy of student empowerment. The research team uses the same theoretical foundation in both pieces. Drawing from psychological research on empowering settings (Zimmerman, 1995), the authors define empowerment “as a process by which people gain mastery over issues of concern to them. In schools, this process occurs as disempowered students gain the power needed to meet their individual needs (e.g. learning, social relationships, diploma) and work with others (e.g. students, teachers, administrators) to achieve collective goals (e.g. a safe and positive school environment)” (Kirk et al, p. 830).  Empowerment is realized in student outcomes consisting of intrapersonal components (competence, meaning, self-determination), interactional components (awareness, interpersonal and academic skills, connectedness), and participatory behaviors such as attendance and cooperation, student initiated dialogue, activity participation, and governance (Kirk et al p. 833). 


The researchers utilized extensive surveys, focus groups and observation data to detail how both individual student characteristics and ecological contexts such as the school and classroom play a role in the empowerment process. Ecological conditions “refer to the multiple settings that exert influence on both the student and the school including family, neighborhood, social status, and culture” (Kirk et al, p. 835).  Notably, “larger ecological issues of racism, discrimination and poverty were always present in the student’s responses” (p. 835). The authors identified common themes at both the classroom and school level that supported student empowerment. The tables below are excerpted directly from the “Empowering Schools Project” article: 







The researchers published the “Empowering Schools” piece entitled “The Power of Student Empowerment: Measuring Classroom Predictors and Individual Indicators” (Kirk et al, 2016). This piece hypothesized that “intrapersonal student empowerment can be predicted by classroom characteristics including positive and equitable teacher-student relationships and a sense of community in the classroom after controlling for demographic indicators” and “empowered students would report better scores on behavioral and academic indicators including school attendance, school behavior participation in school activities, self-reported grades, and aspirations or expectations for future educational attainment" (Kirk et al, p. 590). 


A condensed version of the Learner Empowerment Scale (LES) was utilized to measure student intrapersonal empowerment (Cronbach’s 𝞪 =.84). The Inventory of Teacher-Student Relationships survey explored dimensions of communication and trust from the perspective of the student (𝞪 = .92 for communication and .88 for trust). They measured equitable teacher-student roles through a modified Teacher Use of Power Scale (Schrodt, Witt, & Thurman, 2007), which produced a robust reliability (𝞪 = .94) for teacher use of referent, or pro-social power, and weaker, but still acceptable reliability  (𝞪 = .71) for coercive use of power. Finally,  the Sense of Community Index-2 instrument (Chavis, Lee, & Acosta, 2008) was utilized “as a measure of membership, identify and relational connection student’s experience in the classroom” (Kirk et al, p. 591). Behavioral indicators were collected through student self-reports on class attendance and disciplinary sanctions such as in and out of school suspension (p. 593). 


 Researchers divided the results of the LES survey into quartiles to distinguish between empowered (top two quartiles, LES > 51) and disempowered students (bottom two quartiles, LES < 52). They found that the classroom characteristics identified above in Table 1 “predicted student empowerment above and beyond demographic factors”(p. 592). Trusting relationships between teachers and students, pro-social use of teacher authority, and student sense of community  were the classroom factors most strongly correlated with student empowerment. Similarly, empowered students were less likely to cut class, be absent from school or encounter disciplinary sanctions. Their chart, reproduced below, shows the mean z scores for skipping class, getting in trouble, ISS, OSS, participation, grades, educational aspirations and educational expectations (p. 593). The data is quite clear: 























The two articles that emerged out of the Empowering Schools Project propose a framework of elements that support student empowerment and produce promising data on how empowerment can improve student outcomes. “How High Schools Become Empowering Communities: A Mixed-Method Explanatory Inquiry into Youth-Adult Partnership and School Engagement” (Zeldin, Gauley, Barringer, & Chopra, 2018) reinforces some of the Empowering Schools Project’s primary findings. Specifically, Zeldin and his colleagues found “in brief, the indicators of instructional climate were associated with engagement far more strongly than sociodemographic variables” and “youth voice was the only climate variable with a significant direct impact on cognitive engagement” (Zeldin et al, p. 361). 


While these studies are limited by small sample sizes, their results suggest that schools can actively empower youth through rethinking traditional power dynamics, cultivating trusting relationships and nurturing a strong sense of community. 

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