What’s Missing From The Conversation About Education Reform? Student Voices.


The education law that President Obama signed at the end of last year to replace No Child Left Behind, called the Every Student Succeeds Act, has garnered widespread bipartisan support. The legislation is particularly popular among states and teachers, who hope that ESSA will allow them to play a larger role in shaping the education system.

But there’s one major stakeholder whose voice is being left out of the conversation — students.

Under the new law, states must use nonacademic indicators beyond test scores in their annual measurements of school success. One possible indicator they could use is student engagement,according to Education Week. Focusing on student engagement could encourage students to participate in community service, hone their leadership skills, and to become responsible citizens.

“There are non-academic means to academic end,” said Michael Corso, Chief Academic Officer for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations. “By allowing states to measure non-academic measures of success, ESSA brings us a little closer.”

And ultimately, the fact that the law recognizes student engagement makes this an opportune time for states to start acknowledging student voice.

“When I think of ESSA, I think there goes another regulation my teacher has to follow that will stress me and my [peers] out. We don’t understand what is going to happen actually, but it would be nice for students to have an input in how we can succeed,” said a District of Columbia high school senior who wishes to remain anonymous. His perspective serves as reminder that students want to be active participants in education decision-making — even though education reform communities rarely make an effort to engage students in the process.

The Current State Of Student Voice

Much of the conversation around the school system focuses on what adults believe students need — from high-stakes testing to the controversial Common Core standards — without any consideration of how students are affected by these policy changes. It’s no surprise, then, why many students are disengaged and disconnected.

“Adults do not educate us and inform us about new laws… and if I’m unsuccessful under the new law, and they never informed me, I would be frustrated. And that would impact my engagement and the way I do my work,” said Davida, a high school student from Ohio.

There is some evidence that student engagement is directly connected to students’ academic success. Students who say they have a voice in school are seven times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not believe they have a voice. Simply having more meaningful engagement can boost student achievement and student participation.

Perhaps surprisingly for a nation that values democratic participation, the United States has become an outlier in youth participation. Many European nations encourage student voice and even mandate it to some degree.Swedish students, for example, are encouraged to partner with their teachers in the classroom to express their views about their learning structure under the Swedish Education Act and the Swedish curriculum. These countries have responded to a growing body of evidence demonstrating the importance of promoting responsible citizenship and civic engagement among youth, particularly those of disadvantaged backgrounds.

The vision for civic engagement among youth is also found in state constitutions that emphasize the right to adequate education for all students. For instance, the Supreme Court of New York requires the state to provide opportunities for all students to become “citizen’s capable of civic engagement,” which is defined as developing skills to “evaluate complex issues” and “determine questions of fact.” But even the states that are required to provide student engagement opportunities don’t always follow through on it.

Students in the United States who are lucky enough to engage in democratic dialogue with adults are more likely to develop leadership qualities, civic knowledge and ownership of their school community. Take representatives of the Boston Student Advisory Council or BSAC, for example. The body of elected student activists have made headlines as they work towards addressing youth-related issues in the city of Boston.

At the state level, under the leadership of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau and Deputy Superintendent Steve York, several Montana schools have pursued strategies for better student engagement in school policy. From conducting surveys and focus groups to engaging in meaningful decision-making with its students, academic measures are improving, and there is more peer support, and nearly 56 percent of Native American students feel their teachers are willing to learn from them.

Unfortunately, many students graduate within the U.S. school system without these opportunities.

“Students are encouraged to think critically about everything in school except school itself… the academic attainment benefits of high levels of student engagement must be part of the DNA,” said Andrew Brennan, national field director of Student Voice. He noted the need for a transformative school system that includes student voice to send a signal to adults — policymakers, principals, teachers — that students are capable citizens and should be granted the same voice as other major stakeholders in the education space.

A Hopeful Shift Toward Student Voice

Still, many student voice advocates remain hopeful that these opportunities will grow. Dana Mitra, the associate professor of education at Penn State University, is optimistic about the progress states might make in this area.

“The language in ESSA is pretty vague…but states have to decide what to value. My hope is states are creative and use a holistic approach to engage students,” Mitra said. “A state has to be an example to stretch the law in favor of [students]…Who will step in is the question.”

Student voice does not have to mean students sitting down at the decision-making table complaining about the school system. Nor does it mean adults, particularly teachers, handing over responsibilities to their students.

It all comes down to tweaking the traditional school system, which currently embraces an “adults know best” culture. This will involve a shift toward student-adult partnerships where students are consulted in the teaching and learning environment. Students can evaluate complex issues, ask the important questions, and give authentic answers.

This may cause discomfort at first, but adults can learn to appreciate it. “Teachers are happy too as it leads to a meaningful school climates where people feel like they are included and the student-teacher interaction is elevated,” Mitra said.

With ESSA underway, freer and more open environments are available for meaningful discussions.

“Through the opportunities created by states and the U.S. Department of Education, students should submit comments emphasizing the importance of student engagement measures in the classroom,” Brennan said. “ESSA left the door open for states to begin experimenting with accountability measures for schools. This opening should be explored thoroughly by states and is the easiest way to meaningfully incorporate voices from the education system’s stakeholders-in-chief.”


Zoe Kamara is pursuing a masters in public administration with a focus in policy studies at George Mason University. She was formerly an Education Policy Intern at the Center for American Progress.


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