Student Voice

Increasing Student Voice in Local Schools and Districts

Students deserve a say in running their schools and districts, and board members could easily make room for student representatives to share their wisdom and insight.

April 23, 2015

The most frequent cliché I hear regarding educational policy is, "We're doing this for the good of the students." We undoubtedly mean that, but the fact that students are not included in district-wide and school-wide decision making essentially excludes them from expressing what they perceive as "for the good of the students."

It should be conventional wisdom that including students directly and empowering them to help shape high school and district policy would be educationally beneficial for both schools and students.

The Value of Including Students

The reasons for student inclusion are multiple:

  1. It teaches democracy by giving students the experience of practicing the complexity of political decision-making in a democracy. Traditionally, our high schools have conceived of democracy as something taught in social studies classes, not as something to be practiced. Additionally, while most high schools include "developing responsible citizens" as part of their mission statements, few make any mention of democratic principles or the teaching of democracy. This is apparently not a high priority. Student governments are commonly viewed as social planning committees to run student events, nothing more. Students go through most of high school without ever directly experiencing participatory democracy.

  2. It helps develop student leadership. The only way to learn how to be a leader is by acting in a leadership role.

  3. There is considerable evidence that student achievement and engagement in a school can be increased if students feel that they have a real voice. Federal Hocking High School, which I describe below, is an example of this. As student involvement in school governance increased, the number of college-bound students grew from 20 percent to 70 percent! By giving students more responsibility and demonstrating confidence in their ability to be effective, we motivate them to develop even more.

  4. It can significantly improve a district and/or school's quality of decision making because of the quality of student input, and because students offer a perspective that is otherwise lost from that process. We each know some teens whose insight and wisdom make them capable of thoughtful, perceptive, well-measured decision making. Our efforts to educate would benefit from including the voices of these students.

There is no good, valid reason not to change this and give students a meaningful voice in district and school decision making.

Examples and Resources

There are multiple examples of schools and districts where this is taking place, albeit they are few and far between. One of the many things distinguishing Federal Hocking High School is that students are heavily involved in the decision-making process, including teacher hiring, curriculum decisions, and creation and enforcement of school rules. Every educator should read Time to Learn by George Wood, the man behind these policies at Federal Hocking, who explores this in more depth.

There are numerous other sources to help guide you. Dana Mitra has been a national leader in efforts to increase student voice in decision making and all of her work is worth reading, but start with Increasing Student Voice and Moving Toward Youth Leadership (PDF, 625KB) and the excellent Student Voice in School Reform.

Another two quick, helpful reads are Student Voice Initiative from Canada, and Roberto Joseph's The Excluded Stakeholder: In Search of Student Voice in the Systemic Change Process (PDF, 401KB).

Specific Changes Easily Implemented

In the meantime, here are my own suggestions for changes that could be accomplished easily and, if implemented, would help make your schools and districts comparable to Federal Hocking.

Although the age limit for school board members is 18 in most states, and although some districts that currently include students keep their role in decision making negligible at best, students can still have a significant influence on local school boards. I suggest having at least two student members on every school board, elected by the district's student body. They should sit at the table with the adult board members. Maybe they can’t vote or be involved in sessions deemed confidential under state law, but most effective boards eventually reach consensus on decisions, and the student board members should have an equal voice in that process.

Even the brightest and most politically savvy students would need training to become effective board members. I therefore recommend that a prerequisite to running would be participation in a board-related leadership training workshop that could take place after school or on a weekend. This would be led by a teacher, administrator, or former board member.

I also suggest that the district-wide election of these student board members take place simultaneously with the sanctioned school board elections, which would make their election a high-profile process and add some prestige to the role.

In addition, I suggest creating a student-faculty council in every school. Ideally, it would include four students, four teachers, and possibly one administrator. But of course the exact composition could be decided in each school. Every policy regarding student behavior should be a subject for discussion, and students should have an equal voice and vote. My recommendation is not theoretical. I experienced this highly effective process in a high school where I taught and was a member of the council. Two of the students went on to become class presidents at their respective universities.

Finally, although curriculum committees should be composed of teachers who have the experience and knowledge to make curricular decisions, I think a non-voting student representative could add to the quality of the committee and also be an excellent learning experience for the student.

Leadership Can Make It Happen

Student leadership involvement should take place in every high school district. The failure to do so excludes those most affected by decisions from having a voice in that process. It also deprives school boards of some potentially valuable insights.

The arguments against this role for students are weak, frequently founded on an underestimation of student maturity and perception that too often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the leadership must come from administrators and teachers, in concert with student leaders. We cannot expect the students, who have been taught for years that they should not have a voice, to lead the way. This can start on a school level, but it would also be exciting to see a consortium of administrators, students, and teachers in every high school work collaboratively to bring about this change. If a small school in one of the most economically challenged areas of Ohio can accomplish this, I think any district can.

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