Every Resource I’ve Made for Schools

1+soundout+logo1Are you a student, a K-12 educator, education administrator, school advocate, concerned parent, a nonprofit partner, or somebody else in the community who is concerned about schools? Following is a list of resources I’ve created focused on schools. Let me know what you think in the comments section below!


My Resources On Student Voice


My Resources on Meaningful Student Involvement


My Resources on Student Engagement


My Resources on Education


My Resources on Democracy in Education

Hard Lessons In Student Voice

Today I was talking with some program administrators from a state education agency about student voice when one of them brought up doing “fishbowl”-style activities with students and adults. I remembered some hard lessons about student voice, and I want to share one story with with you here.

How long can adults expect to keep student voice bottled up?

When It All Comes Back On You: Hard Lessons in Student Voice

Yammering and going on about how great they felt, the room came to a hush as I began talking. Gathered around me was a group of 10 students who were excited about changing their school, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Two days earlier, I’d asked for nontraditional student leaders to join me as co-facilitators and data evaluators for a student forum at their school. Working with their small, rural school district’s lead school improvement facilitator, we’d secured the school leadership’s verbal commitment to incorporating student perspectives on what needed to change in their school into their formal school improvement plan, the plan mandated by No Child Left Behind and enforced by the state.

This was the seventh school I’d worked with in the SoundOut School Improvement Pilot Project. Partnering with a state education agency, several districts, and a university, with fiscal support from a local foundation, I felt we were ready to address the issues facing incorporating Meaningful Student Involvement in school improvement in a substantive way.

After working out the kinks in a few schools, I thought I’d struck on a relatively easy formula for these Forums. Beginning early in the morning on the first day, I led a teacher’s meeting. During this session I talked to the almost every teacher for the middle and high school students I’d be working with. I shared my early Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement with them, walked them through the process, and took questions. Sharing some initial hesitations, as a group the teachers gave verbal approval for the process ahead.

In the next two hours I facilitated intensive readiness training for the student facilitator/evaluators. Learning about student voice and school improvement, we then reviewed the process ahead. In two days, we’d spend 90 minutes with each grade level in their small school leading a SoundOut Student Voice Forum. In each session we’d brief the participants about school improvement, and then ask them to answer four simple questions:

  • What do you love about learning?
  • What would you change about learning?
  • What do you love about your school? 
  • What would you change about your school?

They answered these in small groups using Mr. Sketch markers and flip chart paper divided into quadrants. Students were encouraged to be frank, honest, and meaningful in what they wrote. There were just few guidelines presented, including one that came from my early morning session with teachers: Focus on characteristics, not characters. I didn’t want to know the teacher’s specific names that students were complaining about; I wanted to know what behaviors the teacher had that were worth complaining about. That also went for specific classrooms, topics, and other identifying features- especially in a small school! The sessions weren’t intended to threaten or target anyone; instead, they were meant to identify the practical concerns of students.

Gathering up nine hours of facilitated responses, the student facilitator/evaluators and I retreated to a room at noon on day two. Spending two and a half hours leading data aggregation with these students, we discovered a variety of hopes and dreams, frustrations and failures at their school. I encouraged the student facilitator/evaluators to identify the trending data, and from that to develop a quick report-out for their peers. They identified the top five answers to each of the questions for each grade level, and shared the overall topic concerns for the whole school. Remember that every student in grades 7-12 participated in the Forums.

Beginning by leading the students in a quick, interactive activity, I turned the floor over to the student facilitator/evalators. They walked through the data, written freshly on flip chart paper for the audience, which included every single student in the school, all the teachers, and the school support staff. After a half hour, they were finished. The audience clapped, some students stood and whooped, and the students were released for the day.

Reconvening the teachers with their principal, I began by handing out in-depth copies of the data sets we’d collected. Almost immediately teachers were disapproving. A physical education teacher said kids shouldn’t be heard, and an older teacher asked something to the effect that students didn’t have anything meaningful to add to their class, so why should they listen to what students have to say about schools. And so on. The principal stepped in to defend the process for a moment when the district superintendent piped up. Essentially, he said that he’d been mislead by the district school improvement facilitator. He was disappointed by the process and the outcomes, and doubted they’d use the data presented. “We can’t trust students with this responsibility.”

It wasn’t long after that I received the most heartbreaking email I’ve ever received. Risking his own mental and emotional safety, a student from the facilitator/evaluator team sent me an email to report of the treatment him and his peers received from the teachers in the week after I’d left. He said that several teachers had said derisive things to their classes, and that more than one had been specifically punished by a teacher for their participation in the facilitator/evaluator team. Reporting back to the superintendent, I received the reply that teachers made their own determinations of how to treat their students, and that while the teachers were disappointed by what was shared with them in my report, nobody had specifically retaliated against students. “That’s what you get for giving students a voice!” he said, and that was the end of our conversation.

Its been a decade since I launched the SoundOut School Improvement Pilot Project. Since the Forum I described above I have worked in hundreds of other schools across the US and Canada. I have worked with student/adult partnership teams, provided thousands of hours of professional development to educators, and consulted dozens of programs doing spectacular work for student voice. However, I’ve never led another SoundOut Student Voice Forum.

Examining the assumptions behind the Forums that led to the breakdown I described here, I have identified a few sticking points. First, I realize that I should have worked harder to assure the district’s investment in the process of engaging students in school improvement. Rather than simply relying on the school improvement facilitator, which was a state-funded position to support this failing district, I should have handled relations with the district and the building directly. I should have worked harder to protest students’ anonymity in order to ensure their safety.

Ultimately, I could have gotten deeper investment from parents. One of the greatest levers that exists in public schools is the lever of democratic control: Public schools are responsible to be responsive to voters. If public schools do not look the way voters do not want them to look, voters are responsible for their condition, and for changing them. I made a map of How Decisions are Made in Schools, and I encourage you to read it.

In the meantime, I have stayed strong and continued to work. Working more deliberately to secure adults’ interest and ability to engage students as partners, I have also strove to engage parents as partners in student voice work. The levers of policy change, procedural transformation, and the transformation of classroom, building-wide, and administrative practices throughout education have been worked for too. These are hard lessons I have had in student voice. I hope you can learn from themand maybe teach me a thing or two, too!

CommonAction is available to train, speak, and share about this topic and many others. Contact me to talk about the possibilities by emailing adam@commonaction.org or calling (360)489-9680.

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

Calling the Shots

Adam’s Note: This is an unpublished article I wrote about student involvement in district and state school boards in Washington. Let me know if your organization is interested in publishing it by emailing adam@commonaction.org

In the spring of 2011 a student-led campaign began working with the state’s Legislative Youth Advisory Council to lower the voting age for school board elections to 14. This campaign, which would give students a substantial say in education policy-making, is unique across the United States, and after 10 years of watching these trends internationally, I believe it may be the only proposal of its kind anywhere.

Answering the question of how students can be effectively involved in district and state decision-making is one that has been grappled with by educators, administrators, and policy-makers across the country for decades. Over the last decade, as part of my work through SoundOut, I have provided technical assistance and training to districts nationwide that are interested in systematically engaging students in education decision-making. I have researched more than 40 years of involving students in school boards, and I continue to follow national trends carefully. It is exciting to report that indeed, the practice of involving students in school decision-making is spreading, and even though it’s not widespread yet, there have been important strides made.

There are several types of practices that involve students in school decision-making on the district and state levels. The lowest bar is simply and routinely asking students what they think about school board policy-making issues. This can be a formal process mandated through policy, conducted through online surveys or in-person student forums. Another practice is to require regular student attendance at school board meetings. Generally viewed as non-meaningful forms of involvement, neither of these practices require students have an active role in the process of decision-making beyond that of “informant”.

Higher up the ladder is the practice of having student advisory boards that inform regular school board decision-making. This is the case in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Boston Student Advisory Council is a citywide body of student leaders representing their respective high schools. BSAC, which is coordinated by the administered by the district office in partnership with a nonprofit called Youth on Board, offers student perspectives on high school renewal efforts and inform their respective schools about relevant citywide school issues. In addition to personal skill development and knowledge building activities for their 20-plus members, BSAC students have strongly influenced district policy-making about cell phone usage, truancy, and reducing the dropout rate. They also have regular dialogues with the district superintendent and school board members.

The Denver (CO) Student Board of Education is a group of 30 students who represent the15 high schools in the city. They are charged to serve as leaders in their schools and represent all students at the district level. Students create projects that affect their local schools and report back on them to the district. They have also created a curriculum that is used in several high school leadership classes. However, these students have to ask permission to speak to their regular board, and that does not happen frequently. Closer to home, the Portland (OR) Superintendent’s Student Advisory Council meets with district administrators and provides feedback and ideas for issues facing students and schools in their district.

One of the main issues in student involvement in boards of education is whether students are legally allowed to sit on boards, and if they are allowed, whether they have a full vote akin to their adult peers. A 2002 study posted on the SoundOut website identifies laws regarding student involvement on state and local school boards in 39 states out of 50 states across the U.S. The results vary: As many as 16 states have laws allowing students to sit on school boards at the state level, with no vote. 20 states allow the same at the district level. Six states disallow either entirely, while seven allow full student voting on the state and district levels.

Despite being allowed otherwise in those seven states, only California and Maryland actually have full-voting members on their state boards of education. Both of those states have highly influential student organizations that openly lobby for student voice. The California Association of Student Councils, founded in 1947, proudly proclaims that all their programs are student-led. One of their most powerful activities is the Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education, or SABLE. Each February SABLE convenes in the state capital to set education priorities and share them with key decision-makers. They have a direct audience with the Senate Education Committee, and their influence helped form a position for a full-voting student member of the California State Board of Education, whose position was created in 1969. They gained full voting rights in 1983, including closed sessions. The Maryland Association of Student Councils has similar impact in their state, with a student member serving in a regularly elected position annually.

Our state’s law regarding membership qualifications for directors of school boards, RCW 28A.343.340, does not specify whether students in Washington can join district and state school boards. In 2009, a staff member with the Washington State School Directors’ Association reported to me that as few as 20 out of our state’s 195 school districts included formal student representation. Currently, two student representatives from the Washington Association of Student Councils serve two-year terms with the state board of education.

There is an inherent dilemma in all these forms of student involvement, though. While an extremely limited number of students have the opportunity to share their voices with adult decision-makers in the system, this type of “convenient student voice” is generally conducted at the adults’ convenience and with their approval. In a growing number of states, the status quo of being excluded does not suit students themselves anymore. Currently, a disjointed but growing movement is seeking to increase the authority of students in school policy-making and decisions. In Maryland, where students already have a role on the state board of education and in many district boards, in counties across the state there are active campaigns to increase the effect of student voice, with students calling for a full and regular vote in education policy-making. There is even an instance in Maryland where an 18-year-old named Edward Burroughs was elected to his local school board after running an effective campaign. According to a local newspaper, he is rated one of the county’s most effective school board members by voters.

These examples allude to a process of what I refer to as engagement typification, where the roles of students are repositioned throughout the education system to allow Meaningful Student Involvement to become the standard treatment for all students, rather than something that is exceptional. Consistently positioning students as in special positions doesn’t allow adults, including educators, administrators, or parents, to integrate students throughout the regular operations of the educational system. While seeing their peers as school board members is enticing to a number of students, most are disallowed them from seeing themselves as regular and full members of the leadership and ownership of education, or as trustees for their own well-being. That is what differentiates Meaningful Student Involvement from other attempts at student engagement and student voice: Positioning students as full owners of what they learn. Giving students the right to vote in school board elections is a step in the right direction; the next question is whether any district in Washington is ready to go to the next level.

About the author: Adam Fletcher is the president of CommonAction Consulting, a firm working nationally from Olympia that supports youth engagement throughout communities. Learn more at www.commonaction.com or their program website for schools, www.soundout.org.

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

Students On School Boards

Download the

SoundOut Guide to Students on School Boards



There is a powerful location for student voice in schools, and its one that isn’t even in schools. One of the realities of meaningful student involvement in school improvement is the acknowledgement that a lot of decisions that affect students aren’t really made in schools at all. Rather, they are made in cubicals, offices, conference rooms and board meetings that happen far beyond the view of the “average” student, and they happen every single day.

One of those locations is the school board of directors, both at the district and state levels. Of all the different school administration structures I’ve learned about across the U.S., the school board seems to be a fairly constant fixture. Engaging students as partners on school boards is a tricky venture for a several reasons. Here are some of those challenges:
  • Relevance – Many of the decisions school boards make have long-ranging effects whose outcomes aren’t obvious or take a long time to see. Why would students want to be involved in making the mundane and tedious decisions that school boards make?
  • Reputation – Deserved or not, adultism reigns in many student/adult relationships in schools. Why school school boards take students seriously?
  • Equity – Adults in schools are generally used to treating students in a vertical manner. Why should roles for students on school boards be any different? What would a horizontal relationship even look like?
These are just a few of the many other considerations that I have learned dominate the thinking of both young people and adults who are considering student members, student representatives and other roles for students on school boards. Making that reality more harsh is the truth that there are also several practical considerations school boards face, including:
  • What are the rights of student school board members?
  • Which decisions should students be allowed to participate in and which should they be excluded from?
  • How can school boards secure effective student board members?
  • Who from local schools is best positioned to be a student board member?
  • Why should student board members reflect anyone other than high-performing, high-achieving students?
  • When other members are elected for two- or four-year terms, why should students serve any different terms?
And there are many other considerations there, as well. A growing number of school districts already engage students in school boards in some fashion, and many of these questions have been answered by them. There is also a small body of research examining roles of students who are meaningfully involved in school decision-making. This blog is an overview of one of those roles in one location in schools; at some point in the near future I’ll re-examine this and provide some critical examination of the questions I ask here. In the meantime, please reply with your examples, ideas, concerns and considerations about students on school boards! Thanks.
Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

A Parent’s Question about Punishment in Schools

I receive a lot of email and have a lot of conversations with concerned parents, people who know that their childrens’ rights are being violated or that Youth Voice is being suppressed or any of a number of bad, bad things. Sometimes it is overwhelming; sometimes enlightening. Following is an email I received last night:

My daughter was “sentenced” to Saturday work detail (picking up garbage after a Friday night football game) for talking in class. This occurred without any due process. There were no warnings, no “in school” punishment handed out and the “dean” of discipline told my daughter that when he receives a complaint from a teacher (called a referral) he automatically believes the teacher and not the student. there are probably 25 or more of these a day handed out. In addition, the school that she attends (public school) has a “wall” labeled in BIG letters “THE WALL” where the students who had referrals must line up against to receive their assigned punishments. (in this case, my daughter contends she was one of many students talking during an in class “lab” type assignment where students are paired up to collect personal information from each other (by talking). There was no loud speaking during class, no swear language, nothing that should rise to this level of punishment. We recently moved here. My daughter has never had problems with discipline or otherwise, and is a 4.0 college bound senior. The dean who handed down the punishment suggested to my daughter that she should drop this class if she believes she is being unfairly singled out by the teacher. This is the second school official to tell her this. Doesn’t she have the right to protect her transcripts that have already been sent to colleges (by not dropping out). Several issues here seem like a violation of her civil rights. am I right ? I have spoken to school officials who say this is how they handle these situations. what can I do?

The following is my response:

If your daughter is receiving the treatment that you described it is bordering child abuse, and according to the United Nations it is definitely corporal punishment. It is too bad that situations like this have to occur in order to bring light to the situation, but this country is too big and its schools are too big to bring light to every injustice at once. That said, the unfortunate reality is that long ago courts decided that schools operate in loco parentis, meaning that when you’re not there they can act as parents. Furthermore, in 22 states schools retain the right to physically punish students at their own discretion and without consent of parents. The Supreme Court has continuously ruled that schools retain the right to limit the civil liberties of students in – and out – of schools. However, as your daughter’s scenario shows, school discipline is generally in a pathetic situation, and one that we, as parents, should not and cannot continue to allow.

There are alternatives to the ways that schools treat students, including methods teachers and administrators can use to actually teach students. In big cities and small towns across the country, parents and students and teachers and school board members are actually doing good through student discipline. Not all programs are radical; some are subtle changes, and some are just wrong. But the common thread is that things are changing.

In your daughter’s particular circumstance I’m not able to say what the next best steps are. I would encourage you to remember this: Schools are instruments in a democracy, and democracy CAN create change in schools. This requires you, as a parent and school community member, to DO something. If you have attempted to discuss this situation with your school’s principal and other administration, and they have not responded, I would suggest that you attempt to identify the person in your local school district office who is responsible for discipline – every district has one. If that person is not responsive, then contact your district superintendent. If you do not get an answer to your satisfaction from that person, then I suggest that you contact your local school board member. That person is elected by the public to represent the public’s interest in schools. If that person fails to answer your questions or meet your needs, you have several routes to take: There is a state-level official in every state in the nation who has the job of answering these types of concerns from parents. They may be an ombudsman or a state education agency official – but regardless of where they are, they are ultimately accountable to YOU as a parent. Their bosses are either a “chief state school officer” or the governor. Every state also has a state board of education that is generally elected by the public and generally accountable to the public.

If all those steps fail then you MUST run for school board and change this policy from the inside. The end run is that may be your only choice – to use the instruments of democracy to change a democratic institution. Good luck.

I don’t know if this was the best response – but it is what I know and believe: Public schools are not going to behave more democratically until the public demands they behave more democratically. We – parents, students, concerned community members – have allowed them to be autocratic, dictatorial institutions for too long, and we must hold them accountable for that. Transparency: I am not blameless here. I work in a public agency and am responsible for including students, parents and concerned community members in my work, and I have not been particularly successful in each of those categories thus far. I know how challenging this is; however, it does not let us off the hook.

As usual, let me know what you think.

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