Killing The Student Voice Movement


A version of this article was published last week on the Cooperative Catalyst website as Dangers Within The Student Voice Movement. Here it’s published in its original form. 

There’s a growing movement taking form across the US today. Over the last decade, I’ve watched it emerge from the grassroots, and become adopted from the treetops. I consider myself a gardener in this effort, as I’ve spoken to thousands and trained tens of thousands of people about the basis for the movement. It is called student voice, and it’s coming fast. But there’s something insidious happening right now.

The seeds of this movement have existed for a long time. In a few scattered classrooms and education programs across the country, students have been making their voices heard for decades. Today, as never before, those voices are beginning to coalesce and leadership is stepping forward to build a movement of students focused on improving education. It’s populated by groups like the Philadelphia Students Union, Student Voice, Students United for Public Education, and the Boston Student Advisory Council. There are literally hundreds of smaller efforts too, activities fostered in local school buildings by organizations like YATST.
Disrupting status quo, challenging social norms, and radically transforming schooling forever are some of the wonderful dangers that excite students and adults in this movement. However, threats to the education system withstanding, the student voice movement may kill itself.

Wrangled into an adult-driven system by force, students are almost always neglected in educational leadership. When they are asked, they’re usually last and their voices are generally tokenized. This understanding offers a glimpse into how the student voice movement is getting killed.

Despite this, like never before we can hear students’ opinions about topics like the achievement gap, charter schools, privatization, rural education, violence and safety, and year-around schools. They’re rallying outside state capitals, speaking in school board meetings, and demanding change specifically from students’ perspectives.

More than a decade ago, I began a campaign to ensure that student voice wouldn’t kill itself. Studying thousands of examples of student voice around the world, I identified a series of patterns and started teaching people about what I call Meaningful Student Involvement. In workshops across the U.S. and Canada I taught audiences about the dangers of simple student voice, and why Meaningful Student Involvement is necessary. These patterns ensure the authenticity and veracity of student voice.

Today, we sit on the edge of a bonafide national movement centered on engaging students in school reform. As an approach, Meaningful Student Involvement offers a clear, focused avenue towards integrating student/adult partnerships throughout education. It’s not a program or a silver bullet, and must be invented and reinvented in every situation. But in schools, districts, and communities where the approach has been adapted, results emerge in many ways.

Here are five ways education is killing the student voice movement, and how Meaningful Student Involvement can be a bullet-proof vest for the movement.

5 Ways To Kill The Student Voice Movement

Death One: Whitewashing.
In the United States today, there are more than 56 million K-12 students. There is no way that any one individual, organization, hashtag, or movement can represent all of those young people. In this changing nation, it is more important than ever to honor pluralism. Pluralism is when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and larger groups honor their identities. A characteristic of Meaningful Student Involvement is Personal Commitment, which includes honoring all voices for their diversity of experience and knowledge. There’s no reason to pretend that all voices are represented by one voice.

Death Two: Showboating. 
The student voice movement isn’t the same as basketball or business, and there is no room for showboating. It is a diverse movement filled with multiple perspectives and broad actions focused on many, many issues. Showboating happens when someone exaggerates their own skills, talents, or abilities. In the student voice movement, individual young people may be tempted to self-promote and make it sound as if they are the only student voice, or their organization or program is the only student voice program of value. Instead of focusing on themselves, Meaningful Student Involvement engages all voices and teaches students and adults to honor the contributions and abilities of all students everywhere all the time in order to avoid showboating.

Death Three: Pedestaling. 
Adults can be easy to amaze. Seduced by mainstream media and politicians that routinely dismiss the positive power of youth, adults often feel like they’ve discovered gold when students stand up for themselves and work together to create change. In some instances, they lean on these students constantly and raise them to the point of infallibility. I call this pedestaling youth. It includes romanticizing, which is making someone always right and out of way of questioning. Focusing on humanity, Meaningful Student Involvement has room for disagreement and mistakes, and model consensus and collaboration. It is a continuous learning process that engages all participants- adults and students- as equitable partners without artificially or superficially elevating one voice above all others.

Death Four: Heroism.
In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority. This is especially true in the student voice movement. Just because a young person puts on a suit and discusses education reform in a way that makes adults listen to them doesn’t make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them dressed right and well-versed. In the same way, there are organizations and programs in the student voice movement that are made heroic too. They are made out to represent students particularly well or be the “right” whenever they talk. Among the 56 million students in schools though, adults do not lionize programs that make them uncomfortable or ideas that are too far from their acceptance. The ones that are uplifted are generally satisfactory to adults who make decisions about funding, data usage in schools, and education leadership. Organizational heroism is also a danger to the student voice movement. Meaningful Student Involvement makes room for young people who don’t please or appeal to them so easily, and emphasizes teaching young people about the education system that affects them so much.

Death Five: Lowballing. 
There is more out there than just what you see. Many organizations and individuals today are calling for students to be informants to adult decision-making in schools. They want student voice to be heard. They want a seat at the table for students. There’s a lot more at stake for students than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, students comprise up to 94% of any given school building’s population. They should be fully integrated into the operations of every single school, if only for their energy and to educate them about democracy. Every layer of educational bureaucracy should infuse students as well, positioning in them in powerful roles that effect not only individual students, but all students; not as recipients, but as active partners who design, implement, critically assess, and make substantive decisions about the education system as a whole. Additionally, while orgs like PSU represent a sophisticated, deep understanding of the complex underbelly of schools today, many people and programs in the student voice movement simply don’t get it. Reduced to reacting, they rally students around the apparent problems in schools without recognizing the deeper issues. Reaching much further than simply acting like the flavor-of-the-day, Meaningful Student Involvement positions students as constant, deliberate, and fully engaged partners throughout all of education, all of the time.

Bonus! 

Death Six: Sockpuppetry. 
A lot of adults use students as sockpuppets, feeding them verbiage and giving them the issues adults expect them to address. Intentional or not, this usage of students is designed to deceive the people who are listening to make them think what’s being said is genuine student voice. In schools, sockpuppetry is often coupled with manipulation: If students do what adults say, they’ll be rewarded; if they don’t follow expectations, they’ll be punished in some form. Students often don’t know they’re being used to prop up an adult’s perspective. Sometimes adults use students to provide an alternate or opposite perspective to their own. This is called strawman sockpuppetry. Having no real authority to enact anything in education without adult approval, adults may deliberately position students to say outlandish or contrary things, only to show their perspective as more valid, valuable, and important. Meaningful Student Involvement deliberately positions both traditional and nontraditional student voice to be heard in safe and supportive environments, ensuring that students speak for themselves and are treated as equitable partners with adults throughout education.

Stopping Death

Paying attention to the dangers within the student voice movement will honor the legacy of the past and present. As students around the world rally for more influence within the educational systems that are meant to serve them, the student voice movement in the U.S. can do the same, and more. Meaningful Student Involvement embodies much of this transformation.

In 2002, after spending two years researching the role of student voice in education reform for Washington state’s education agency, I knew there was a movement emerging around this work. Signs were everywhere, and soon after I left the agency to found SoundOut.org. After more than a decade I’m still working to provide tools, research, workshops, and consulting to schools and nonprofits focused on student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement. Because of the work of many nameless and under-acknowledged individuals and organizations, the movement continues to grow stronger.

“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” – John Doane


Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

About Adam

I'm a writer, trainer, speaker, and consultant. My work focuses on helping schools, nonprofits, and government agencies become more effective at engaging people.

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