Core Beliefs Behind SoundOut

Founded more than a decade ago, the core beliefs behind my work with SoundOut are not unique. Rather, they were identified through workshops with 100s of students and teachers, and by conducting research into the history of education. They may be best summarized by researcher Alison Cook-Sather of Byrn-Mawr College in Pennsylvania, who wrote that,

“Because of who they are, what they know, and how they are positioned, students must be recognized as having knowledge essential to the development of sound educational policies and practices.” (2002)

When I work in schools, here is what I stand for: 

Belief #1: All students in all schools should learn how to make education meaningful. Many students express feeling subjected to education without understanding how they benefit from it. At the same time, many adults express frustration from the lack of student investment in learning. The connections between obtuse learning goals and static teaching methods often serve to further those negative perspectives, only pushing students further from success and teachers closer to abandonment. SoundOut programs and activities engage students as “meaning makers” within their own school, and throughout education.

Belief #2: Students need opportunities to apply learning in meaningful ways. Self-designed, place-based service learning encourages students to find purpose in broad lessons by contextualizing education. SoundOut’s projects embrace these approaches by infusing student learning with practical, applicable opportunities to change schools. Students see the affect of their learning as well as their action, additionally encouraging the same among their peers.

Belief #3: There is a need for equity between student autonomy and adult guidance. The divide between students and adults in society does not need to be replicated in schools, as evidenced in the most successful student-centered teaching methods. SoundOut positions students in equitable relationships with adults, as co-learners and colleagues, effectively allowing partnerships that can transform schools and the educative process itself.

These are some of my beliefs about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement. What do YOU stand for?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

An Intro to the Student Voice Movement

Around the world right now, there is a lot happening in education. There are struggles over accountability, challenges over funding, attempts to improve equity, fights against racial discrimination, and much more. However, when the question of student voice enters the picture, education advocate Michael Fullan may have said it best: “When adults think of students, they think of them as potential beneficiaries of change… they rarely think of students as participants in a process of school change and organizational life.”

The student voice movement is an international wave that’s sweeping throughout education right now. There are more individuals, organizations, classrooms, school buildings, education leaders, and parents committed to student voice than ever before. This movement largely intends to challenge what Fullan observed.

It’s working.

Like never before, teachers and students are forming student/adult partnerships within classrooms that are vital for success. They are understanding that when students are engaged as learners and leaders throughout education systems, schools become successful.

More districts, state and provincial agencies, and federal governments are infusing student voice into decision-making and policy developments. Building leaders have also recognized the importance of student voice by actively engaging students as partners in formal and informal efforts to improve schools.

While all that action is underway, the profiles of individual student leaders are rising in the mainstream media as they sound out about school reform and educational transformation. Nonprofit organizations and consulting firms have sprung up globally to support all this action, and even politicians and education publishers are starting to get on the bandwagon.

Here’s a breakdown of student voice throughout education.

  • Roles Affected By Student Voice: Students, Teachers, Parents, Building Leaders District Administrators, District Leaders, School Board Members State/Provincial Administrators, State/Provincial Leaders Federal Administrators Researchers, Advocates/Activists, Independent Consultants, Trainers Education-Focused Nonprofit Staff, Other Nonprofit Staff, and Others.
  • Places Affected By Student Voice: Classrooms, hallways, extracurricular spaces, building leadership, whole schools District administration, district boards of education, district leadership, Provincial/state leadership, Provincial/state administration Federal administration, Federal leadership United Nations, Local/national/international education-related nonprofits, and homes of students and adults in education.
  • Activities Affected By Student Voice: Learning, Education reform, Classroom teaching, School evaluation, Testing and assessment, Policy-making, Research, Curriculum, Classroom management, Dropouts, and much more!

Student voice happens all over the place, all the time. Focused on education-oriented topics, Student voice includes conversations related to Student engagement, Student participation, Meaningful Student Involvement, Student activism, Student-led organizing, Student-driven education transformation Student/adult partnerships, Students as allies, Students as partners, and Adult allies in schools.

There are threats to this movement. As Michael O’Loughlin wrote, “Teachers must resist the temptation to glamorize student voices, and recognize that the multiple voices that students bring to the classroom, while potentially possessing some elements of resistance and transformation, are likely to be imbued with status quo values.”

Building off O’Loughlin’s sentiment, along with other practitioners and my own work, I have identified a series of threats facing this movement, too, simply labeling them as whitewashing, showboating, pedestaling, heroism, lowballing, and sockpuppetry. These are all present, all the time, and are rearing themselves more as student voice increases in its vibrancy, vitality, and visibility.

There are many organizations involved in this movement. Roger Holdsworth started Connect magazine in 1979 to promote student participation in Australia. The University of Cambridge Economic and Social Research Council started a program on consulting pupils about teaching and learning in the mid-1990s. Here in the United States, I founded SoundOut in 2002 to promote a vision for student voice throughout education that I call Meaningful Student Involvement. Youth On Board started working deeply with across the Boston Public Schools around the same period, and TakingITGlobal was started around then. In the last decade, organizations have risen across the North America, the UK, Australia, and elsewhere focused on student voice too, including the English Secondary Students’ Association, r.u.MAD, Imagining Learning, Student Voice Live, and the Student Voice Initiative.

The California Association of Student Councils also operates important programs for the state’s education system, including the Student Advisory Board on Education (SABE) and Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education (SABLE). In Vermont, the unique UP for Learning (formerly YATST) does powerful work to build the capacity of students and schools for improvement. Inside the education system, there are several efforts too. They include Washington State’s former Student2Student program, Alberta’s SpeakOut project, Boston’s Student Advisory Council, Ontario’s Student Voice Initiative, and several others are happening across North America.

The future of these efforts is grand and wonderful, and calls for connectivity like never before. Recently, I re-launched The Student Voice News, a monthly collection of information related to the student voice movement. There are also collections of information from the Huffington Post and The Nation, as well as the important Student Voice Research and Practice group on Facebook. Several social media sites have important collections too, such as Bethan Morgan’s Scoop page. I continue to blog about student voice as well.

I would love to hear about the work YOU are doing to promote the student voice movement- please share in the comments section! Also, share this article with your networks and let’s GROW THE MOVEMENT further!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement

When considering infusing Meaningful Student Involvement into school change, many educators want to know what exactly is going to happen. The following chart shows the major areas that MSI impacts. Send me an email if you’d like to see the research supporting each of these outcomes.

Type of Action

Major Areas that Meaningful Student Involvement Impacts




Student  as researchers

Examine interest in subject, engagement in class, efficacy of methodology

Analyze student involvement, policies engaging partners, Activities of improvement activities

Compare perceptions of student voice, effects of training, attitudes towards achievement

Students as planners

Design program, learning projects, classroom layout, personal learning goals

Develop new policy recommendations, staff monitoring plan, school improvement process

Create classroom behavior standards, student/teacher partnership activities

Students as  teachers

Use student/adult teaching teams, student-centered methods, multiple intelligences

Provide professional development re: student voice, student-led training for teachers

Model student-driven learning throughout education, student voice in all school activities

Students as evaluators

Assess self, peers, teachers, curricula, classes

Critically explore policies and Activities absent of student voice

Contrast student/teacher relationships, respect throughout school

Students as  decision-makers

Engage in classroom management, resource allocation, and consensus

Develop positions on all committees, reception mechanisms for adult leaders, committees for students only

Authorize students to mediate, create spaces for student interactions, facilitate student forums

Students as  advocates

Embrace student interests and identities in program planning

Encourage broad representation by nontraditional students

Provide “safe spaces” and reception for self- and group-advocacy

The SoundOut website has featured examples of what each of these look like for almost a decade. Find them at
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

NEW Student Voice Evaluation!

Download the 2013 Meaningful Student Involvement Deep Assessment from SoundOut. I am making it FREE on my website, so check out for the goods!

Meaningful Student Involvement Deep Assessment

Look for The Guide to Student Voice, available NOW exclusively on!

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Critical Questions for Meaningful Student Involvement

Working with groups across the US and Canada to improve schools over the last decade, I’ve learned a few important points for everyone to consider before giving it a try. Here are 18 critical questions for Meaningful Student Involvement.

  1. Are your expectations for Meaningful Student Involvement reasonable and positive? 
  2. What do you first think of when you think about Meaningful Student Involvement in your education setting? 
  3. Are you excited about the possibilities? 
  4. Are you considering the benefits and value of Meaningful Student Involvement? 
  5. What kind of students do you want to engage? 
  6. Have you selected students who are just like you, or different? 
  7. Do the students you’re listening to say things that make you uncomfortable? 
  8. Is Meaningful Student Involvement integrated into your school improvement plan? 
  9. Can you listen seriously to what students have to say even though they may not express their ideas in similar ways as you? 
  10. Have you clearly let students know your expectations for Meaningful Student Involvement? 
  11. Have you done your best to provide students with the resources they need to reach the set goals? 
  12. Have you picked a time when students are available to join in? 
  13. What kind of time commitment are you expecting? 
  14. Will students be able to fit activities in with other commitments? 
  15. Have you provided teachers with enough information to give students credit for learning while sharing Student Voice? 
  16. How will you reflect on Meaningful Student Involvement with students? 
  17. What will happen to the information, resources, activities, or tools that emerged from Meaningful Student Involvement? 
  18. How will Meaningful Student Involvement sustained after the initial activity? 

Once you’ve answered these questions honestly, you are ready to begin action planning for Meaningful Student Involvement.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Issues Addressed by Student Voice

Planning the winter dance, setting the price for Valentine’s Day candies, and deciding the new school colors are decisions some schools allow student voice to influence or even drive. However, Meaningful Student Involvement amplifies student voice much further than this. There are literally countless issues throughout the education system where engaging students as partners can be crucial for success, and yet rarely happens.

This SoundOut class is at work addressing issues in Miami.

There are countless issues that schools are facing and that are being discussed by people working in schools as well as those working for school change from outside schools, including politicians, community groups, and the media. Focused exclusively on school transformation, Meaningful Student Involvement catalyzes student/adult partnerships for education change. Students can be partners with adults to address these issues and many more through both convenient and inconvenient student voice. The following list is just a beginning of what can happen though.

  1. The Goals of Education and Student Success. Defining the purpose of schools focuses the direction of schools, teachers, and students. While some originally intended for public education to provide basic learning for successful democratic citizenship, others saw schools mainly as a way to support the economic workforce. Today, educational goals and “success” have become defined by student performance on standardized tests, in addition to measures like student attendance and graduation rates. While these might be part of the purpose of education, many school reformers are seeking ways to broaden the goals of education to include students’ social, emotional, and intellectual development, as well as helping students gain the skills needed to build a better and more democratic world. 

  1. Voice and Engagement. The question of who has control and authority in schools has long been answered with “leave it to the professionals,” meaning administrators and policy-makers. However, as more people push for participatory structures throughout the government, there are also efforts toward more participation throughout the educational system. Creating opportunities for meaningful involvement for students, teachers, and parents is growing in many communities, while the federal government is increasingly asking how and where nontraditional voices can be engaged in decision-making. Businesses, community organizations, mayors, and others want roles, too.  This is a topic that many people can rally around. 

  1. Curriculum. The question of who decides the curriculum in schools has a big impact on what goes on in schools. With influences ranging from textbook companies to politicians, and from school boards to businesses and more, schools and teachers somehow have to sort this out and provide a meaningful learning experience for students.  The federal government, along with a coalition of private organizations, is supporting the concept of “Common Core State Standards” that would create the same standards throughout the country, and many governors have urged their states to follow them.  

  1. Time in School. The length of the school day has been a popular topic for decades, and particularly in recent years. Recent brain research has shown youth have different sleep needs than adults, while it’s been popular to say that students in the US have less “seat time” than students around the world (as a matter of fact, this is incorrect: while students in some countries have more days of school than the US, most of those countries have shorter school days that actually results in less seat time). The length of the school year is also a consideration, as some advocates are determined to add more seat time by replacing traditional summer breaks with more frequent shorter breaks throughout the year. The amount of years a student needs to attend school is also an issue, as more public education leaders consider a “P16” system essential: pre-kindergarten through college graduation.

  1. Schedule. The schedule of a school often drives the learning and curriculum in the school.  The traditional 45-minute period of high schools, for instance, means that projects and activities are harder to do and fit within that time, as is traveling outside of the school for field trips or connecting with the community.  Block schedules often have 1.5 or 2 hour blocks of time for classes, which provides some of these opportunities.  Other schools provide classes for part of the time and give students self-directed learning time to pursue projects that earn them credit.  

  1. Out of School Time. Offering activities after school, in the evenings, on the weekends, and throughout the summer are common in some schools, while other schools do not provide them at all. Tutoring and mentoring, sports and extracurricular clubs, and other learning or social experiences are out of the norm for many students, as their families or their schools are fiscally incapable of participating. Schools and communities could come together to devise creative ways to offer these opportunities to all students, regardless of income.  

  1. Charter Schools. In most states that have them, charter schools are schools that are publicly funded and privately operated (outside of the typical school district), and which students and parents can choose to attend instead of the local public school. Charter schools are all different, some are experimental and innovative, while others are very traditional but with longer hours.  Studies are mixed about the benefit of charters, but the issue is becoming one that dominates education today.  Many political leaders are supporting the creation of more and more charter schools, while those opposed believe charter schools take the most engaged parents and students, leaving the least engaged to stay in the regular public schools.

  1. Class and School Size. The number of students to teachers, called “student/teacher ratios,” has been shown to affect how well students learn.  Many advocates call for smaller class size, while others claim size makes little difference.  School consolidation, where small schools in local communities are merged into a single large school for a large surrounding area, has been happening since the 1940s. Now many of those larger schools are being closed, such as in New York City, to create smaller schools.  

  1. Teacher Development. Thinking about what teachers learn and how they learn it is important to making schools work better. The idea is that more and better opportunities for support, mentorship, and professional development for teachers will lead to better teaching and improved teacher quality.  In some countries, teachers have far less teaching time than in the U.S., and have more time to plan with other teachers and observe the teaching of others.  Half of all teachers leave teaching within their first 5 years, and new teachers have a steep learning curve.  

  1. Teacher Quality. Teacher quality is one of the biggest issues being discussed now by teachers unions, politicians, and teachers themselves.  Many are saying that we need to determine who is a good teacher and who is a bad teacher.  What some are saying is that when students are not succeeding in schools at sufficient rates, it must be the teachers’ fault. While teachers certainly have impact on their students, outside factors are also a big issue, including poverty, home life, and the outside community.  Getting rid of teacher tenure (which gives teachers extra support from being fired) and firing low-performing teachers based on student test scores is the new approach taken by districts around the country.

  1. Technology in Schools. The issue of schools maintaining their relevance in the face of technological developments isn’t new. In the 1950s the US became engulfed with the Cold War, and schools were forced to innovate their educational goals with the supposed purpose of keeping America competitive with the Soviet Union. Today the issue of how to teach about technology in schools continues, as some schools limit access to the Internet, raising concerns about free speech, while other schools are increasing their use of technology in the classroom.  Virtual schools and online classes are becoming more and more common, and many educators believe the future of education is found in technology.  

  1. Special Education. The questions facing special education include the labeling of students, funding the support services that special education students receive, and “mainstreaming” special education students throughout the school population. There are concerns about disproportionate representation of males and students of color as special education students, as well as equal access to support for such learners.  Charter schools and other schools of choice are sometimes criticized for weeding out special education students since they have more leeway in which students they accept.  

  1. Funding Priorities. Traditionally funded by taxpayer dollars at the local, state, and (at a smaller level) federal level, in recent decades schools have actively sought funding from corporations, philanthropic foundations, and private donors as well. Funding basic education is an increasing issue in times when government support is waning, and as a result teaching materials and school buildings are becoming neglected or worn out. Teachers often purchase supplies out of their own pockets, or simply go without in communities where schools are underfunded. In affluent school districts students generally have access to better materials and teachers get paid high salaries, affording those students better educations. In turn, this reinforces the “academic achievement gap” that separates many students.  Calls for equitable funding are frequent, and have found mixed success.

These are some of the issues students can address in schools as you consider what to change and how to work with adults. By learning more about these issues and taking firm stands, young people can contribute to the conversation and take action in sophisticated, relevant ways that make you a partner in working with adults to improve your school.

Visit the SoundOut website for more information on issues addressed through student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement.

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Student Voice Alert!

Dana Mitra of Penn State has been working to create a Student Voice, Participation and Partnership Special Interest Group at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting starting in 2014. It would be a regular, ongoing home where researchers and practitioners can share work on student voice, partnerships, and participation.

She need to collect 70 signatures on the petition to submit the paper work. PLEASE support the movement by signing your name to this survey, no matter if you’re an academic, a student, an advocate, a teacher, or a house mover. PLEASE do your part!


The Student Voice, Participation and Partnership SIG Survey is at
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

How to Make Student Voice Matter

Thinking about doing massive school reform projects, teaching a class on school improvement, or trying to get students on school boards and change other policies might feel overwhelming to any adult who works in schools. Yet, this is what a lot of student voice advocates demand of schools.

In addition to focusing on whole systems school reform, I want to encourage adults who work in schools to consider Meaningful Student Involvement part of their daily motions in schools.

Here are nine ways to make student voice matter every day in schools, including teachers, counselors, afterschool workers, and others, can take to meaningfully involve every student in schools.

9 Ways to Make Student Voice Matter

  1. Teach about school. Show students of all ages how learning happens, how the school system works, and what school improvement is. Teach classes to develop your students’ leadership, communication, problem-solving, and partnership skills.
  2. Promote self-advocacy. Teach students of all ages how to necessarily and accordingly advocate for themselves and their peers in schools.
  3. Encourage public support. Teach students about state and local education laws without manipulating them to become involved.
  4. Infuse Meaningful Student Involvement. Make roles for students to research education, plan learning, teach course topics, evaluate teaching and learning, make systemic decisions, and advocate for their own education within and throughout your own classes.
  5. Engage new voices. Create roles for nontraditional student leaders on regular decision-making committees you belong to in school, work with students to organize a student union in your school, or be active with student-led organizations in your school. 
  6. Share knowledge. Reach out to other teachers and students who aren’t in your classes to share information about schools and school reform.
  7. Be an ally to all students. Build community within your school and create opportunities for students to engage with each other and share student voice. 
  8. Foster support. Recruit and train community volunteers and mentors for student school change agents who reflect the diversity of the broader community. 
  9. Share the love. Thank local businesses, nonprofits, and leaders who engage in school improvement, and encourage students to do the same.

These are practical steps that any adult in every school can take to make student voice matter every single day. What would you add to the list?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!

Students Assessing Student Voice

Students showing me their research on their school during a statewide project I led in 2004.
I think that one of the dilemmas facing the student voice movement underway in the United States and worldwide today is that there is not a clear agreement on what student voice means. This has been the case since the earliest research specifically citing the term “student voice” was conducted in the late 1970s.
At that point, student voice meant one of three things:
  1. the distinct self-representation of students in classroom teaching practices;
  2. student representation in school governance activities, and;
  3. active student participation throughout the school environment.
In my early writing on student voice more than a decade ago, I sought to move towards embracing all the different research on student voice by saying that student voice is, “the distinct perspectives and actions of young people throughout schools focused on education.” Recently, I’ve made that more succinct by simply saying that student voice is any expression of any student anywhere related to education.


From that understanding, I have sought to identify related work since 2001. Building and maintaining website since then, I compiled a number of tools that allow students and/or adults to assess the climate of their learning environment in general. I also found several tools that allowed them to assess their classrooms, schools, and activities as they pertain to student voice.
  • The Government of South Australia designed the Student Voice Indicator Tool to measure several aspects of student voice throughout schools. The document was based on a study conducted by the Australian Council for Educational Research, and measured how students relate to others; whether they’re committed to community well-being; their interest in learning; conformity to rules and conventions; self confidence; and optimism for the future.
  • Prof. Michael Fielding first published the Framework for Assessing Student Voice in 2001 based on research he’d conducted in UK schools over the previous decade. Projects across that nation have used it to evaluate their efforts.
  • Students at Lexington High School in Lexington, Massachusetts, created their own “Best Practices Club” to assess teachers’ classroom performance in 2006. Their Student-Designed & Delivered Classroom Observation Tool was a loose measurement to determine what they had to share with teachers.
  • Consulting Pupils About Teaching and Learning is a spectacular tool series created by some of the UK’s most accomplished academics focused on student voice. Its absolutely essential for schools committed to engaging students as assessors of the learning environment, both in terms of preparedness and implementation.
  • A private consulting firm in Kentucky called Roberts & Kay, Inc. created Turn Up the Volume: The Students Speak Toolkit for usage by Kentucky schools and published it in 2002. The Partnership for Kentucky Schools used it in hundreds of schools to promote student voice and integrate student voice into school improvement.
  • The Northwest Regional Education Lab, now called Education Northwest, published Listening to Student Voices in 2001. It provides a process for K-12 educational leaders and school-based teams to include students in continuous school improvement, and involves use of one or more of four Listening to Student Voices tools.
On a page called, Student-Led Research on Schools, I brought together a collection of student-written research studies focusing on school climate and performance. These studies were conducted by students in order to share their own and their peers’ perceptions of schools. On another page I identify examples of students as school evaluators, and on another, students as education researchers.


All of these tools take different aims at identifying the culture necessary to foster student voice that benefits the school improvement process or improves the learning environment. After studying and using each of these tools over the last decade, I can say that they’re all missing a few things.
While all of them examine student voice and make concessions for preparedness, few take into account the necessity of training students and adults in schools to support student voice. Few others talk about infusing student voice into the ongoing practice of school improvement; instead, they rely on a one-time gathering of student voice without mechanisms for sustaining activities. They also neglect to identify the need to integrate student voice throughout all school improvement activities. Thorough research conducted by Mitra (2002), Fielding (2005), and Levine (1999) all identify the necessity of this, along with others’ studies.
My hypothesis on Meaningful Student Involvement includes all of these characteristics, and more. I created a series of proprietary evaluation tools for SoundOut that includes these measures and others. I will detail them in a future post.
In the meantime, its important for schools, nonprofits, and others to know that much of this work has happened before. What needs to happen next?

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement is not a stand-alone activity. Educators and school leaders commit to transforming the hearts and minds of school communities through initiatives that concentrate on the well-defined need to integrate roles for students as partners throughout education. Taking a whole systems approach to addressing that challenge, individual classrooms, whole buildings, or entire districts emphasize new designs, materials, processes, tools, policies, or any combination, in order to address multiple problems
surrounding student engagement and student voice. These strategies should be integrated, dealing with key issues throughout the school community.

I’ve created the following graphic to illustrate the systems approach of Meaningful Student Involvement. It reflects three spheres of activity where I have seen and worked with schools as they integrate the approach.

The Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Transformative Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement

Core Sphere: The first sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement are the locations for Meaningful Student Involvement. While I have identified specific activities throughout the school where student voice can be engaged, this sphere reflects a larger systemic approach to integrating students as partners throughout the education system.

Nesting Sphere: The second sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement are the roles through which research and practice consistently demonstrate the outcomes of the approach. I call it the “Nesting Sphere” because these activities hold the Core Sphere intact by nurturing student/adult partnerships in action rather than concept. Meaningful Student Involvement is conceptual and practical, not either/or.

Surrounding Sphere: The outer sphere of Meaningful Student Involvement are the avenues for transformation. Each of these reflects a different way that summarizes the major areas of action: Culture is made of the beliefs, habits values, visions, norms, systems, and symbols within a specific and definable school community; The named activities, policies, strategies, processes, allocation, coordination, and supervision of people throughout a school community happens through the structure; and the opinions, actions, knowledge, and beliefs of individuals are best summarized by their attitudes. All this surrounds Meaningful Student Involvement.

Each of these spheres interacts within itself and throughout the entire model. This particular graphic demonstrates the different avenues for action, outcomes, and transformation. What do you think?
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to Learn more at!