The essential partner in school reform- students- are not routinely, systemically, or systematically engaged in the process of school reform; more so, their role is continuously relegated to that of “recipient.” Their roles must change in order for ANY school reform to be effective. The change that is required is the fostering of Meaningful Student Involvement.
The greatest challenge facing schools today is not the literacy deficit or even the achievement gap, as tragic and real as both those are. The single problem plaguing all students in all schools everywhere is the crisis of disconnection. It is disconnection from learning, from curriculum, from peers, from adults; it is disconnection from relevance, rigor, and relationships; it is disconnection from self and community; it is simple disconnection. While it doesn’t only affect schools, is does plague schools in a special way.
The cure to disconnection is meaningfulness. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when the roles of students are actively re-aligned from being the passive recipients of schools to becoming active partners throughout the educational process. Meaningful Student Involvement can happen in any location throughout education, including the classroom, the counselor’s office, hallways, after school programs, district board of education offices, at the state or federal levels, and in other places that directly affect the students’ experience of education. Real learning and real purpose take form through Meaningful Student Involvement, often showing immediate impacts on the lives of students by actively authorizing each of them to have powerful, purposeful opportunities to impact their own learning and the lives of others.
As we see increased interest in the entwined topics of student engagement and student voice throughout schools, it becomes easy to misunderstand the relationships between these topics and Meaningful Student Involvement. Student voice is any verbal, visual, or other expression learners make regarding education. This can include students sharing their life stories in class, or graffiting on the hallway wall. Student engagement is the outcome of learners’ emotional, social, cultural, psychological, or other bonds towards school; it is a feeling. 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. It can be said, then, that Meaningful Student Involvement strengthens, supports, and sustains student voice in order to foster student engagement for every student in every grade in every school.
Over the last 10 years more than 350 K-12 schools in dozens of districts across the US and Canada have used my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement to reconsider their approaches to learning, teaching, and leadership in schools. Following are six hallmarks of Meaningful Student Involvement that form my new vision for students in school reform.
Hallmark #1: School-wide Approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement. All school reform measures include opportunities for all students in all grades to become engaged in education through system-wide planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy, starting in kindergarten and extending through graduation. This includes a variety of opportunities throughout each students’ individual learning experience as well as those of their peers; within their school building; throughout their districts, and; across their states.
Hallmark #2: High levels of Student Authority through Meaningful Student Involvement.
Students’ ideas, knowledge, opinions and experiences in schools and regarding education are actively sought and substantiated by educators, administrators, and other adults within the educational system. Adults’ acknowledgment of students’ ability to improve schools is validated and authorized through deliberate teaching focused on learning about learning, learning about the education system, learning about student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, and learning about school improvement.
Hallmark #3: Interrelated Strategies Integrate Meaningful Student Involvement. Students are incorporated into ongoing, sustainable school reform activities through deliberate opportunities for learning, teaching, and leadership throughout the educational system. In individual classrooms this can mean integrating student voice into classroom management practices; giving students opportunities to design, facilitate, and evaluate curriculum; or facilitating student learning about school systems. In the Principal’s office it can mean students’ having equitable opportunities to participate with adults in formal school improvement activities. On the state school board of education it can mean students having full voting rights, and equal representation to adults. Whatever the opportunities are, ultimately it means they are all tied together with the intention of improving schools for all learners all the time.
Hallmark #4: Sustainable Structures of Support for Implementing Meaningful Student Involvement. Policies and procedures are created and amended to promote Meaningful Student Involvement throughout schools. This includes creating specific funding opportunities that support student voice and student engagement; facilitating ongoing professional development for educators focused on Meaningful Student Involvement; and integrating this new vision for students into classroom practice, building procedures, district/state/federal policy, and ultimately engendering new cultures throughout education that constantly focus on students by constantly having students on board.
Hallmark #5: Personal Commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement. Students and adults acknowledge their mutual investment, dedication, and benefit, visible in learning, relationships, practices, policies, school culture, and many other ways. Meaningful Student Involvement is not just about students themselves; rather, it insists that from the time of their pre-service education, teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, counselors, and others see students as substantive, powerful, and significant partners in all the different machinations of schools. When they have this commitment every person will actively seek nothing other than to fully integrate students at every turn.
Hallmark #6: Strong Learning Connections Within Meaningful Student Involvement. Classroom learning and student involvement are connected by classroom learning and credit, ensuring relevancy for educators and significance to students. This deliberate connection ties together the roles for students with the purpose of education, thoroughly substantiating student/adult partnerships and signifying the intention of adults to continue transforming learning as learners themselves evolve.
This new vision for students provides all people in schools, young and adult, with opportunities to collaborate in exciting new ways while securing powerful new outcomes for everyone involved, most importantly students themselves. The impacts Meaningful Student Involvement has are only beginning to be shown; with time, expanded practice, and investment, I am convinced that this vision will fully demonstrate not only the efficacy of the practice, but ultimately, of education, community, and democracy itself. There can be no lesser goal for any school, nor should their be.