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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.