Ripple Effects: How Teacher Action Research on Culturally Relevant Education Can Promote Systemic Change

Winter 2021

Source: Action in Teacher Education, 43:4, 411-429

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this study, the authors followed six teachers as they designed and implemented inquiry-based action research projects in the pursuit of more culturally relevant and equitable education.
The teachers— who worked in different grade levels, content areas, and community contexts—analyzed the data they collected as part of their research to assess the impacts of their actions.
Although the authors began the study with an interest in the impacts of this action research professional development model on teachers and students, they (the teacher researchers and university-based researchers) ultimately found that this type of action research can have ripple effects outside the teacher’s classroom context, enhancing equity across entire schools and school districts.
This is a potential outcome of action research that has received relatively less attention in the scholarly literature.
This study thus expands the literature base on teacher professional development by exploring the extent to which (and means through which) action research on culturally relevant education might contribute to systemic, justice-oriented improvement of schools.
Their research question was: What do teachers perceive as the impacts of conducting their own action research projects focused on culturally relevant education?

This project used a constructivist, qualitative multi-case study design (Stake, 1995), designating the individual teachers participating in the program as the cases.
Case study design was selected in recognition of complexity of the context (classroom, school, district) within which each teacher’s work and individual development occurred.
Using multiple sources of qualitative data allowed us to consider the cases of teachers and their professional work, while accounting for the ways in which teacher development and the ripple effects of their work were influenced by the context of practice.

Action Research Program and Participants
This action research project was part of a broader study by a research–practice partnership (Coburn & Penuel, 2016) focused on teacher professional development in the context of culturally diverse schools.
The action research project, which served as the pilot professional development program, was led by a team that included both school-based practitioners and university faculty who had formerly been teachers.
From an outreach effort, the authors received 14 applications, and ultimately accepted eight teachers to the program.
They selected teachers with a clear commitment to culturally relevant teaching who represented a range of grade levels, content expertise, and school/community settings.
The program started with nine hours of workshop time spread over several meetings in the fall of 2017.
The workshop sessions were designed to
(1) develop a better understanding of cultural diversity and culturally relevant professional practices,
(2) introduce the teachers to the theory and practice of teacher action research, and
(3) develop an initial plan for the first action research cycle.
During these workshop sessions, teachers decided on a research question to guide their individual AR projects, based on the areas they wanted most to explore and improve in their pedagogy.
Following the sessions, each teacher implemented her plan within her school setting and collected data to document the impact of the action taken.
Cycle meetings, which brought the eight action researchers together with the research team, were held every six to eight weeks throughout the school year.
At the cycle meetings, teachers shared their projects and received critical feedback from project leaders and other cohort members.
The four project leads worked closely with two action researchers each, visiting the schools and communicating with the teachers regularly to provide support and feedback between cycle meetings.
Feedback was tailored to each teacher’s particular interests, contexts, and needs.
The project culminated with a research showcase event, which consisted of a structured poster session for guests from the partnering districts, the university, and the community.
This paper focuses on the projects of six of those teachers for whom the authors had the most complete data, and whose projects illustrate the variance in teacher identity, school setting, and grade level/subject area.

Data Collection and Analysis
Beyond the teachers’ own data collection and analysis, a second level of data collection and analysis was carried out by the university-based researchers.
To document the action research model and determine its possible impacts, the authors conducted a series of three interviews with each of the participants.
They also collected audio recordings of workshop sessions and cycle meeting discussions, as well as artifacts from the teachers’ projects including a final research poster developed by the teachers to share their work.
A team of six researchers, including the four authors, as well as a practicing middle school teacher and a pre-service elementary teacher who were not part of the action research cohort, used thematic analysis (TA) techniques to analyze all data.

Findings and discussion
Study findings illustrate the power of equity-focused action research as a form of professional development that has immediate and significant impact on, not only the participating teachers and their students, but often, their entire school communities.
In terms of impacts on teachers, the authors found that the action research project promoted professional growth in ways that deepened participants’ understandings of root causes of educational inequalities.
These projects also offered potential for transformation through the opportunities they created for collaborative professionalism.
Through the use of a collaborative professionalism model, these teachers took on the role of leaders in equity within their schools and districts, thus enhancing their capacity to effect system-level change.
Whereas most studies of action research on culturally relevant education (CRE) have focused primarily on its impacts on teachers (e.g., Brown & Weber, 2016; Souto-Manning & Mitchell, 2010), this study demonstrates potential impacts on students as well.
The projects enhanced students’ academic opportunities and identities, as well as their understanding of diversity and difference.
Ultimately, all PD is intended to promote student gains, through enhancing teacher effectiveness (Desimone, 2009).
This study contributes to growing evidence that teachers’ implementation of CRE can improve outcomes—both academic and beyond academic—particularly for historically marginalized groups (Aronson & Laughter, 2016; Dee & Penner, 2017).
This study reveals that the impacts of the action research projects can ripple out not just to individual colleagues, but to whole systems.
The possibility for systemic change was cultivated by organizing action research projects around the concepts of equity and culturally responsive pedagogies—aims that led organically to questions around the structural changes necessary for the pursuit of educational justice.
The authors have a few hypotheses about why some projects led to ripple effects, while others did not, but these would have to be tested through additional research.
One possible explanation is that some teachers are drawn more to the potential for action research to improve their own practice while others may be more drawn to its potential for effecting larger system change.
Future research might explore the degree to which cultural traditions and epistemologies influence teachers’ use of action research and how theories and structures of action research might be reimagined from these epistemological standpoints.
Through their focus on pedagogies, these action research projects illuminated assumptions and beliefs that undergird practice, thus leading to greater understandings of root causes of inequities and how they can be interrupted.
The idea that teaching is an essential element of systemic change was less obvious in the beginning, but emerged as participants drew connections among projects, and began to see how their action research was related to broader societal issues.
Through facilitated, collaborative action research, the teachers were able to direct their growth and produce their own insights, but perhaps even more importantly, they ultimately felt empowered to continue engaging in cycles of inquiry.
Most reported during the final poster showcase that they had already put in place plans to continue their work the following year.
When these teachers recognize an area of concern in the future, they will have the tools and self-efficacy to design an intervention, collect appropriate data, and draw conclusions from that data to help them address the issue. In other words, participation in action research may have a compound interest effect in which the returns expand exponentially.

Implications for Practice and Policy: Action Research for PD and School Improvement
Whereas most PD continues to be characterized by short-term workshops with pre-determined knowledge to be transmitted unidirectionally to school personnel (Flint et al., 2011), this action research model allowed teachers to construct their own knowledge after posing self-determined inquiries and reflecting on the particular contexts of their classrooms and pedagogical growth areas.
In doing so, this model exemplifies not only tenets of the coherence theory of change, but also core features of effective PD: active learning, collaborative participation, extended duration, and coherence (Desimone, 2009; Garet et al., 2001).
In this study, the teachers’ focus on equity and diversity led them to look at student outcomes beyond narrow measures of academic achievement (e.g., test scores) and toward those aims of education that are often neglected in the current high-stakes standardized testing regime.
These include stronger feelings of self-worth, cultural pride and expectations for the future, expanded intellectual opportunities and enrichment, and greater appreciation for peers of different backgrounds.
Some of these outcomes may indeed contribute to higher academic achievement, but they are all also worthy goals in their own right.
Involving teachers (and, ideally, students) in policy decisions may help ensure these goals are not overlooked in the hyperfocus on indicators such as standardized test scores.

Aronson, B., & Laughter, J. (2016). The theory and practice of culturally relevant education: A synthesis of research across content areas. Review of Educational Research, 86(1), 163–206
Brown, C. P., & Weber, N. B. (2016). Struggling to overcome the state’s prescription for practice: A study of a sample of early educators’ professional development and action research projects in a high-stakes teaching context. Journal of Teacher Education, 67(3), 183–202
Coburn, C. E., & Penuel, W. R. (2016). Research–Practice partnerships in education: Outcomes, dynamics, and open questions. Educational Researcher, 45(1), 48–54
Dee, T. S., & Penner, E. K. (2017). The causal effects of cultural relevance: Evidence from an ethnic studies curriculum. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 127–166
Desimone, L. M. (2009). Improving impact studies of teachers’ professional development: Toward better conceptualizations and measures. Educational Researcher, 38(3), 181–199
Flint, A. S., Zisook, K., & Fisher, T. R. (2011). Not a one-shot deal: Generative professional development among experienced teachers. Teaching and Teacher Education, 27(8), 1163–1169
Garet, M. S., Porter, A. C., Desimone, L., Birman, B. F., & Yoon, K. S. (2001). What makes professional development effective? Results from a national sample of teachers. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 915–945
Souto-Manning, M., & Mitchell, C. H. (2010). The role of action research in fostering culturally-responsive practices in a preschool classroom. Early Childhood Education Journal, 37(4), 269–277
Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research. Sage. 

Updated: May. 14, 2022