Kentucky’s Student Voice Movement

In states across the U.S., there have been divergent efforts to promote student voice in a variety of ways over the years. This month I want to feature Kentucky, which has BLOWN UP dramatically over the last year after more than a decade of strong efforts.

In my studies and discussions with student voice advocates, researchers and practitioners across the state, no single leader has emerged as leading the way for all others to follow. Instead, there are several different locations where action has emerged, spread, died off and reemerged again.

After partnering with a program there this school year and helping friends there with a separate initiative, I want to feature the great work I’ve found going there not just right now, but over the course of my 15 years in this field.

Following are several examples of Kentucky’s student voice movement over the years:

  • (1997) Students as Informants: In 1997, the Partnership for Kentucky Schools and Roberts & Kay, Inc. launched a statewide research project promoting student voice called “Students Speak”. They conducted dozens of data-gathering activities with students, wrote several reports and created resources for others. One is the Students Speak Tool Kit, developed to guide educators, school board members, parents and others in planning and carrying out strategies for listening to students in order to improve their school experiences, including academic performance, school climate, and school safety. Find the toolkit and more here.
  • (1998) Students as Decision-Makers: In 1998, then-doctoral candidate George Patmor conducted a statewide study of high school schools in Kentucky. He surveyed 310 students and adults opinions about how students should be involved in school decision-making. I have talked with George repeatedly over the years, and hosted a visit for him here in Washington State a decade ago to talk about his work. A summary of his research is here, and a full version of his dissertation is available from SoundOut.
  • (2002) Students as Policy-Makers: In June 2002, Kentucky’s then-Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit requested the Kentucky Department of Education gather preliminary information concerning student input to education policymakers. An intern named Zach Webb conducted interviews with more than 20 state boards of education to discern what the national scene was. I admired this report so much, A National Assessment of Student Involvement in School Policy-Making – Meeting Kentucky’s Educational Needs: Proficiency, Achievement Gaps, and the Potential of Student Involvement (2002), I put it on the SoundOut website with Webb’s permission.
  • (2010) Students as Informants: The Kentucky Department of Education is facilitating statewide data collection via a Student Voice Survey. Its questions are aligned to The Kentucky Framework for Teaching, which was adapted from the Charlotte Danielson framework for teaching. Districts are encouraged to share the Student Voice Survey questions. The 3-5 and 6-12 Student Voice Survey questions are available in the toolkit here. Read an article about the tool and its context here.
  • (2012) Students as Advocates: In September 2012, the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence formed a Student Voice Team. Today, After spinning off into their own nonprofit, today the SVT is comprised of middle school through college students working to elevate the voices of Kentucky youth on the classroom impact of education issues and support students as policy partners in improving Kentucky schools. Since then, they’ve launched a variety of advocacy campaigns meant to build the state’s student voice movement. I admire the SVT greatly and follow their work regularly. Learn more here.
  • (2013) Students as Learners: The Green River Educational Cooperative and the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative operate a program called kid∙FRIENDLy. Working with dozens of districts in their regions, kid∙FRIENDLy is promoting student voice as a component of their classroom transformation efforts. I worked with them this year to help teachers in these regions grapple with classroom-focused student voice efforts. Learn more here.

To date, many things have transformed, improved and been changed throughout the state. I think one of the morals of the story that’s implicit in this laundry list, though, is the need for a larger framework that infuses student voice into a sustainable course of educational transformation. I wrote the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change to help with this type of effort; perhaps people in Kentucky might consider it as they proceed.

If you want to learn more, I encourage you to follow up with any of the leads above to learn what’s happening right now, and to visit their social media, too.

Kentucky’s Student Voice Movement is a model for the nation and the world. What’s happening in YOUR community today?!?

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Adultism In Schools

The following post is adapted from Adam Fletcher’s book Facing Adultism and focuses on what adultism looks like in schools.

Adultism Is The Reason

Adultism is bias towards adults that can result in discrimination against young people.

Adultism is the reason schools exist.

When children and youth packed factories, farm fields, mines, and service jobs around the western world in the late 19th century, many adults could not find jobs. This caused adults to rally against child labor and for public schools. A lot of adults said they wanted to end children ending up on the streets without an “occupation”- especially after newspapers reported that was the case. Schools suddenly became popular as places where young people could have productive experiences throughout the day. In the early 20th century they were made compulsory in many Western nations. Moving children from compulsory labor occupations into compulsory learning occupations without their input, ideas, or contributions in any way paved the way to the state of education today.

That is the first way we can see adultism in schools.

More Than Neglect

Adultism is the cause of many different outcomes in schools. They include their compulsory role, neglect and abuse, the physical design of schools, curriculum and assessment, the culture of schools and the climate in classrooms, parent engagement, and much more.

In nineteen states across the U.S. corporal punishment is legal in schools. Corporal punishment is any physical punishment administered to students. This includes spanking, slapping, smacking, pulling ears, pinching, shaking, hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles. Corporal punishment also means forcing a child to stand for a long time or forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position. It can mean forcing a child to stand motionless or forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones. Corporal punishment can also mean forcing a child to retain body wastes; forcing a child to perform strenuous exercise, or; forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice. In schools where students received corporal punishment, students often have no format to appeal such punishment. They frequently do not have the ability to raise concerns over the legitimacy of the claims made against them, and they may not have the ability to raise concerns over the severity of the punishment being administered for their presumed violations. Corporal punishment may be one of the most obvious physical impacts of adultism, but it is not the only one.

One hundred years ago, because of the influence of Italian educator Maria Montessori, educators began paying attention to the physical apparatuses young people were expected to learn with. Their desks got lower, the chalkboards were holdable, and drinking foundations were built at their height. These types of accommodation ended where young people were expected to stop interacting with adults. School board meeting rooms were built for adults; school counselor offices were built for adults; cafeteria food preparation areas were built for adults. Even in high schools students are expected to be “of average adult height” in order to operate learning instruments such as microscopes, computers, and other devices. Research suggests that within in school students comprise an average of 93% of the human population, with adults accounting for the other seven percent. There is an awful lot of accommodation of that  seven percent!

At every grade level, the overarching topics students learn about in schools are chosen by adults for students. Individual issues within those topics are generally selected by adults too. Teaching styles, classroom activities, and demonstrations of learning are made according to what adults want to see, as well as the contents of student assessments including tests and portfolios. When students are given choices within classes and throughout school buildings, they are within a range of options that adults determine for the reasons that adults want. All of this is adultism in practice, as each item is biased towards the will of adults for the purposes adults select.

The social and emotional environment within the school, including interactions throughout the student body, between students and teachers, among teachers and between teachers and administrators, adults within the school and adults from the community including parents, and every cultural interaction is painted, tainted, and provoked by adults. This leads to adultist school cultures throughout every educational setting in our society today.

Bias towards adults happens in almost every school, including the most progressive and democratic school. It is not always bad or wrong either, but instead needs to be situated in the larger context of democracy.

Discrimination By Mandate

Adultism is apparent when large numbers of young people of any age are not allowed to congregate, cooperate and coordinate. Schools today are rooted in age segregation that disallows young people from socially and educationally interacting with each other. With few formal opportunities to socialize, young people may learn to distrust their peers and seek the approval of adults only. Some adults in schools lose the ability to distinguish between conspiracy and community, and they make continuous efforts to keep students from interacting with each other in schools.

Adultism drives adult behavior throughout schools, as well as a lot of student behavior. Teaching styles frequently represent adults’ values and skills rather than young peoples’ perspectives and capabilities. Adults determine what is valuable for students to learn and how young people need to demonstrate their learning. They enforce inequities between students and teachers in everyday behavior, too: When teachers yell at students, they are controlling classrooms; when students yell at teachers, they are creating unsafe learning environments. Ultimately, students in schools are subjected to their parents’ and their teachers’ assessments of their performance in the classroom, and have no formal input into grading or graduations. Searching for adult approval in order to receive the most praise or achieve the best grades, students routinely appease adults with sufficient class work without actually engaging in the content being taught. They find solidarity with the adults who control their classrooms while betraying the trust of their peers as they tattle and compare each other.

Undermining Purpose

Finally, and perhaps ultimately, adultism undermines the very purpose of educating students in schools.

Student engagement has been shown to directly affect academic achievement. When students experience adultism, their engagement is severely affected in negative ways, no matter the environment. Classroom management, learning activities and student discipline are all affected by adultism, in all grade levels. In response to all of the bias towards adults throughout their educations, some young people completely acquiesce to adult expectations. Others completely abandon or apparently rebel against these expectations by routinely performing lowly in school through behavior or academic achievement, and through dropping out. Dropping out of school is one of the ultimate impacts of adultism in schools. Other ultimate impacts of adultism in schools include physical violence, bullying, low self-esteem, and student disengagement.

In addition to those such as Montessori, who was almost uniquely oriented against adultism in schools, educators have rallied against adultism in schools without naming it as such for more than a hundred years. Massively influential, thought often misunderstood, American school philosopher John Dewey constantly promoted a curriculum for schools that was footed in student realities instead of adult conveniences. He once wrote, “Nature wants children to be children before they are men… Childhood has ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, peculiar to itself, nothing can be more foolish than to substitute our ways for them.” This situates him squarely on the side of anti-adultist teachers. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose theories on teaching oppressed people continue to inform school change, justly sought authentic learning for students, too. His attitude could be summarized by his singular belief that, “the educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees.” This positions the student as the holder and determiner of learning, and that is anti-adultist. While some theories address students’ roles indirectly, and others head-on push against the overbearing domination of adults, in schools, all are valuable as allies in this struggle.

It is because of all these realities that adultism makes schools today ineffective in every way.

Is there anything you’d add, take away, criticize, or expand on?

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Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher at
Order FACING ADULTISM by Freechild founder Adam Fletcher!

Penn Coalition for Equity

The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education Coalition for Equity sought to infuse student voice into schools across three states to foster racial equity, inclusion, and justice throughout K-12 education.

Focused on providing “innovative resources, research-based training, and technical assistance and consultation to school district leaders throughout the Mid-Atlantic region in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York,” Adam provided more than 50 hours of professional development and consultation to more than 100 K-12 districts to support their transformation efforts focused on equity through student voice.

In 2021-22, Adam facilitated more than 20 hours of professional development for 250 individuals through this contract. The partners in this series included:

  • 38 school districts in the Delaware Valley Consortium for Excellence & Equity (DVCEE), along with three county intermediate units and the Pennsylvania State Education Association
  • 42 districts in the New Jersey Consortia for Excellence through Equity (NJCEE) in partnership with the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, and
  • 32 districts in the Long Island Consortium for Excellence & Equity (LICEE), including the Nassau and Eastern Suffolk Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES)

In several five hour sessions focused on co-learning to build practical knowledge and skills, these schools, districts and organizations focused on Finding Purpose for Student Voice through Meaningful Student Involvement. Participants included classroom teachers, teacher leaders and instructional coaches, school building leaders, counselors, support staff, district administration, community leaders/elected officials, and students themselves.

In these highly engaging workshops, Adam facilitated learning activities focused on engaging students as partners throughout K-12 schools. Using his dynamic, research-based Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement, Adam guided participants in hands-on, interactive exercises that reveal multiple possibilities to foster student/adult partnerships for all learners in every school, all of the time.

Whether they were students or adults, participants left with tools to critically examine their current school challenges and climate, and the ability to identify new roles for students within a variety of spaces in the learning environment and beyond.

Immediate post-session evaluations showed that participants’ knowledge and skills increased across areas related to student voice.

Long-term surveys showed that areas of impact included:

  1. Classroom learning in each grade level;
  2. Building-level and district-level leadership effectiveness;
  3. Teacher preparation and practice, and more

Adam is available to support your district, state, university or organization projects, programs and activities focused on student voice, Meaningful Student Involvement, and student engagement. To learn more, contact him »

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