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Stanford undergrad examines efforts to make classrooms in Guatemala more welcoming to traditionally marginalized groups

What does it mean to make a school inclusive?
Education and Skills

Alejandra Salazar, '23, is currently an undergraduate research assistant for Dr. Alfredo J. Artiles, the Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education and a King Center faculty affiliate. Working with researchers in Guatemala, Artiles and Salazar are examining the ways in which inclusive education is defined and enacted across various levels of the educational system, including interventions to promote an inclusive classroom and barriers to implementation.

Alfredo Artiles
Alfredo Artiles

"We didn’t design the study with a predefined definition of inclusive education," Artiles says. "We were interested in applying an emic perspective to document what inclusive education meant from the vantage point of actors in local settings."

The inclusive education movement is centered around increasing access to education for marginalized groups, including students with learning differences and ethnic and linguistic minorities. It also aims to enable members of these groups to participate meaningfully in educational programs, and to improve learning outcomes. However, most research on inclusive education has been conducted in high-income countries, and consequently fails to consider the financial, social, and educational barriers that perpetuate inequities in low- and middle-income nations. The lasting impacts of colonialism also complicate the successful implementation of inclusive policy in many areas. Artiles aimed to build on previous work in Latin America, gaining greater insight into “practices and contextual considerations” through ground-level outreach. 

Artiles calls this project “25 years in the making” in light of his prior research on the subject matter, which includes a previous book and multiple articles and reports. The evidence for this study is part of a larger comparative project that included Guatemala and Malawi. Artiles and his colleagues began with a broad analysis of the data at the national level. Although extensive data was compiled in five distinct regions in Guatemala, the previous research team did not examine such evidence. Artiles hired Salazar to help analyze these five sites in greater detail.

alejandra salazar
Alejandra Salazar '23

Salazar, a public policy major, is Artiles’ first Stanford undergraduate research assistant hired through the King Center’s Summer Undergraduate Full-time Research Assistant Program. After working with Artiles in summer 2021, Salazar chose to continue with the project through the academic year. Salazar has family in Central America, and welcomed the opportunity to explore the region; she also had a pre-existing interest in educational policy, but hadn't yet found an avenue at Stanford through which to explore this area. Her work with Artiles was her second foray into research at Stanford, and proved to be an opportunity to develop both her writing skills and her ability to analyze data. She said that the project has “shaped her focus,” and encouraged her to prioritize an international lens when choosing coursework.

Salazar's work for Artiles has been primarily qualitative: developing codes and producing analytic reports based on themes and patterns in the data. Artiles’ dataset consists of transcripts of interviews conducted at multiple levels in Guatemala’s education system. To understand the broader perspective of how inclusive education is conceptualized, Artiles arranged interviews with Guatemalan government leaders, Ministry of Education personnel, and NGO researchers; then, Artiles moved to the state and local levels, speaking with regional government agencies, school administrators, and then teachers, parents and students.

Artiles and Salazar are documenting the complexities of implementing inclusive education in a low-income nation. Guatemala has made meaningful progress through the development of inclusive policies and reforms. Children with disabilities have historically been excluded from schools altogether, particularly in rural areas. While schools in urban settings may presumably be better equipped to serve these students, the conditions of the educational system have not been organized to promote inclusive models. These learners have been generally diverted into separate classrooms in which their needs continue to be neglected or have been excluded altogether from educational programs.

“The push to open [ordinary] schools to these children was a novel idea,” Artiles notes. “Parents were then motivated by the idea that schools [could] make these experiences available.” Artiles indicated many challenges are still impeding the adoption of inclusive models, such as financial and technical capacity factors, structural barriers that impinge upon social mobility as well as local beliefs about ability differences. Inclusive education models, he added, should monitor the effects of these programs on student learning.

Artiles worked with Salazar in the early stages of the project to develop strategies for coding and analyzing transcripts, and was careful to focus on the assumptions and cultural interpretations behind informants’ perspectives to allow her to develop a better understanding of the project. Artiles says that the King Center seeks out students with analytical ability, but he clarified that formal experience working under a professor is not a prerequisite. While Salazar hadn’t conducted extensive qualitative research prior to joining the project, her background in economics gave her “an intuitive understanding of research and data.”

Artiles said that a student wishing to work with King Center faculty should possess “an eagerness to ask questions,” a desire to “understand complex problems,” and the ability to “deeply familiarize him/her/themselves with the cultural practices and terms” of the region or contexts being studied.

“Working as a research assistant has been much less intimidating than I originally thought,” Salazar said. “I’ve found a really good balance [between] independence and connection with my supervisor, and I’ve also had the ability to work on a project that I’m passionate about.”

Please note that prior to January 2024, the King Center’s Undergraduate Research Fellow Program was known as the Undergraduate Research Assistant Program.