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Student Voice

Student Voices Needed in School Reform

Students' voices belong in the dialogue about what does and doesn't work in their education. Consider incorporating their wants and needs into your school reform efforts.
May 30, 2016
A young male in a blue button up and gray jacket is standing next to a podium with a microphone in his hand.
Photo credit: Clinton Global Initiative University (CGIU)

I cringe every time I hear an educational policy maker say that changes are being made because "kids come first" or "for the good of the children." Between these clichés and what is most helpful to students lies an abyss of failed educational reform. One reason for ineffective school reform is the relative exclusion of teachers from the process, but another is our failure to ask students what they see as the weaknesses in our schools and what changes they'd like to see. I think we might be stunned by how the perceptions of many of our students are right on target in both identifying problems and suggesting solutions.

So it came as no surprise to me a few years ago when high school student Nikhil Goyal received national recognition for his book One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student's Assessment of School. Accolades came from many of our major educational leaders. Now at age 21, Goyal has published a second book, Schools on Trial: How Freedom and Creativity Can Fix Our Educational Malpractice. The new book is also being heralded by major educational reformers.

Other reformers have expressed many of Goyal’s criticisms with similar solutions, but in chapters like "Stop Suppressing Children" in his first book and "The Radical Notion That Children Are People" in the second, he provides a wake-up call and a reminder that we should be paying attention to student voices. Just the fact that a young person can so articulately get to the heart of educational reform is an example of what could be possible if we encouraged students to assess their schools, examine public education, provide feedback on what they see, and suggest ways of addressing the problems.

More Wake-Up Calls

Another student also comes to mind. In Vicki Abeles' film Beyond Measure, we meet Sam Levin, a student in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. He hasn't published a book, but he easily could. He was the prime mover in starting an alternative school-within-a-school, the Independent Project at Great Barrington's Monument Mountain Regional High School. Like Nikhil Goyal, he exemplifies the value of including students' voices in the process of educational change. "I liked school," Levin says. "I did well. I got good grades. I liked most of my teachers. I never struggled. What happened was I began to struggle with what I saw around me. . . I felt my friends weren't engaged, that they weren't learning, that they weren't happy, and that started to wear on me." Encouraged by his parents, he did something about this, enlisting a school counselor, a responsive teacher, and ultimately the principal, to bring about change.

Every time I speak with students, whether they're in fifth grade or high school seniors, I'm reminded of the value of listening to them. By talking to kids, you can get a very good picture of what works and what doesn't in their education, what engages and motivates them, and what turns them off. And if you talk with high school and college post-graduates, you can learn a lot about what, in retrospect, was counterproductive, on target, or missing.

Recently I saw the short film, Before, which captures the voices of 11-year-olds about to enter middle school. The filmmaker was the father of an 11-year-old who got the idea as he listened to his son's friends. It includes their concerns about middle school ranging from fears about bullying to sex to growing old. The film is available as a free download, and I think every middle school administrator and teacher should see it. What would the social-emotional environment of middle schools look like if school leaders, teachers, and reformers listened to 11-year-olds as they looked at the nature of their schools and classrooms?

Dana Mitra's excellent book Student Voice in School Reform is also valuable because it prominently includes the voices of students of color and immigrant students, voices that are not well represented in Goyal’s book or many of the good films on school reform. It also provides some excellent pragmatic suggestions for how student voices can be an integral part of the reform process.

Making It Happen

I have two suggestions for how educators can encourage and utilize student voices in addition to simply getting student feedback. The easiest is creating a small group of student representatives in every class to serve as an advisory council to the teacher. They can represent all of the students and, through either direct meeting or online dialogue, engage with the teacher in the continual process of improving the class.

The most exciting avenue in my experience was to build in a unit on education in our high school social studies curriculum. This was an in-depth examination of our own school, its curriculum, instruction, behavioral policies, student government, and how decisions were made. My co-teacher and I included a couple of books by educational reformers to help guide students' thinking. If I were to teach this unit again, I might very well use one of Goyal's books. I suggest making sure that the principal knows about the unit and what its purpose is. The act of examining one's own school was revealing to our students, and we needed to work with them carefully to see routes to change, as some developed strong feelings about the need for change and were impatient to have it happen now. I also think that if I were teaching this unit today, I'd have students write an outline of the book they'd write if given the opportunity.

From Nikhal Goyal to Sam Levin to just speaking with our students about their schooling, it should be conventional wisdom that student voices matter. The challenge is to then pick up on this and begin in your own school.

Do you listen to your students' voices about the quality and direction of their education? Please share your experiences below.

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