We hear it all the time: American schools are terrible and only getting worse. For more than 25 years, the country has been massaging the egos of educators, administrators, and politicians who think they know what’s best for young people and our country. Bill Gates and countless rich people have tried throwing money at solutions they want to see. Yet none of this has seriously improved our schools, and in some cases, its only made the situation worse.
In the meantime, there are more young people than ever before who are working steadily, progressively to fix schools today. They’re partnering with educators, community members, businesses, and others to move school reform forward and actually achieving real outcomes. Student engagement in school improvement has been shown to have powerful effects on every aspect of learning, teaching, and leadership in education.
Past the hype, beyond the media, and without biased research, evidence shows that when students improve schools, they are creating lasting changes, saving schools real money, and improving learning experiences for themselves, their peers, and younger students.
Five Ways Students Are Improving Schools
- Students Are Leading Research. In elementary, middle, and high schools across the nation, students researching education. Among countless subjects, they’re discovering student learning styles, identifying best practices in classrooms, and exploring structural changes in learning. First grader students in Cheney, Washington, helped teachers develop curriculum in their classroom to make learning more meaningful for both students and educators.
- Students Are Planning Education. Budgeting, calendaring, hiring and firing, curriculum designing, and many other activities are happening throughout schools with students as partners. Students are also involved in some district and state education agency activities, and helping elected officials plan more effective schools. In Anne Arundel County, Maryland, students have been voting members of the district level board of education for 25 years. In the same district, every advisory, curriculum, study committee and special force task includes students.
- Students Are Teaching Courses. In all grade levels, students are taking the reigns of pedagogy by facilitating learning for their peers and younger students. They’re also teaching adults! Students are increasingly being engaged as essential teaching partners, and the outcomes are changing learning for everyone involved. In Olympia, Washington, there is a program that gives students classroom credit in return for helping teachers learn how to use complicated hardware and software in classrooms.
- Students Are Evaluating Everything. Examining their own learning, identifying teachers’ strengths and challenges, exploring curriculum and climate in schools, and looking at ways schools can improve in strategic ways are all ways that students are driving school improvement in their own schools and throughout education. High school students in Poughkeepsie, New York researched their districts budget crises, conducted a student survey on the next years budge, and then analyzed the data and submitted it to the board which used it in its decision-making process. The board adopted it and saved more than $50,000 the next year.
- Students Are Making Systemic Decisions. Joining school boards as full-voting members, forming student advisory committees for principals and superintendents, and getting onto important committees at the building, district, and state levels, more students are participating in systemic decision-making than ever before. In Stuart, Ohio, students at the local high school have and equal vote in faculty hiring decisions, choosing curriculum, and class offerings.
Between these five categories of action, deep change is happening. However, beyond the expectations of adults, students are working further still to improve their schools. Students advocating for education changes are organizing their peers and larger communities to create powerful, effective agendas that consistently and determinedly transform schools.
In order to broaden, deepen, and sustain these activities there needs to be a systemic, intentional pathway to engage all students as partners throughout the education system. More than a decade ago, I combed research and practice happening nationally and internationally to identify my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. Since then, these tools have been used around the world to promote these activities, and to build further beyond many peoples’s expectations. As I’ve written before, Meaningful Student Involvement is, “the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy.”
6 Steps To Engage Students As Partners in Fixing Schools
Here are some steps anyone can take to engage students as partners in improving schools.
- Teach students about learning. Learning is no longer the mystery it once was. We now know that there are different learning styles, multiple learning supports and a variety of ways to demonstrate learning. In order to be meaningfully involved, students must understand those different aspects as well.
- Teach students about the educational system. The complexities of schools are not known to many adults. Theoretical and moral debates, funding streams and the rigors of student assessment are overwhelming to many administrators, as well as teachers and parents. However, in order for students to be meaningfully involved in schools, they must have at least a basic knowledge of what is being done to them and for them, if not with them.
- Teach students about education reform. There are many practical avenues for students to learn about formal and informal school improvement measures, particularly by becoming meaningfully involved within those activities. Sometimes there is no better avenue for understanding than through active engagement in the subject matter, and school improvement may be one of those areas.
- Teach students about student voice. While it seems intuitive to understand the voices that we are born with, unfortunately many students seems to lack that knowledge. Whether through submissive consumerism, oppressive social conditions or the internalization of popular conceptions of youth, many students today do not believe they have anything worth saying, or any action worth contributing towards making their schools better places for everyone involved. Even if a student does understand their voice, it is essential to expand that understanding and gain new abilities to be able to become meaningfully involved.
- Teach students about meaningful student involvement. While meaningful student involvement is not “rocket science”, it does challenge many students. After so many years of being subjected to passive or cynical treatment, many students are leery or resistant towards substantive engagement in schools. Educating students about meaningful student involvement means increasing their capacity to participate by focusing on the skills and knowledge they need. Only in this way can they be effective partners, and fully realize the possibilities for education today and in the future.
These aren’t the easiest steps in the world, as many adults and even educators haven’t taken these steps for themselves. However, in these years I have worked hard to share some of the things I have learned and written a number of materials designed to help. Here is a simple list of ways students can improve schools, and a separate list of ways adults can support students fixing schools. I’ve written a number of publications, too, including the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in Schools, the SoundOut Student Voice Curriculum, and my latest and easiest-to-read book, The Guide to Student Voice. I also have dozens of free publications available on my website.
Another great advantage today is that several other organizations are working in earnest to promote ideas related to Meaningful Student Involvement. Aside from my program called SoundOut, there are groups like UP for Learning in Vermont, the Student Voice Matters website, and Student Voice Live!, an annual gathering of students talking about school improvement. Evidence supporting this work is growing too. The work of researchers like Dana Mitra and Alison Cook-Sather in the US, Michael Fielding and Julia Flutter in Europe, and the penultimate advocate Roger Holdsworth in Australia is moving all of this further faster than anyone could have anticipated.
Whatever your opinion about schools today, the case is clear that we must engage students as partners. What are you going to do?
Adam Fletcher is the author of several books and a consultant who has worked with more than 200 K-12 schools and districts in more than 25 states and Canada. Sign up for his newsletter by visiting adamfletcher.net.
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