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Why students should have a voice in school reform





by Marc Brasof

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If the School District of Philadelphia plans to address systemic issues like youth violence, dropouts and academic apathy, this talk of market-driven, portfolio management-based school reform needs to stop.

That model of reform sees test-score triumphs and charter school expansion as pillars of success. What we need is reform that harnesses a democratic vision of ethical leadership, one that values the voices of students and faculty. Under this model, educators and communities can challenge faulty premises while working to ensure that students have the means and values to take ownership over their own learning and success.

Students should have a voice in deciding how they learn and how their schools operate. Schools have experimented with expanding the role of students in school policy and curriculum decisions in different ways. Students have co-planned, and sometimes even led, professional development. Some schools have created courses where students research school problems and present solutions to a council of their peers, educators, and administrators. Elsewhere, students have sat on school advisory councils and state education boards as voting members. And many have continued to work in afterschool, nonprofit youth and government service organizations.

A promising approach for including both students and faculty in school reform conversations has emerged here in Philadelphia. At Constitution High School (where I was a founding history teacher), a school governance system was created in a collaboration with the National Constitution Center. Modeled after the federal government, it divides power over school affairs among three branches:

  • The executive branch consists of a principal, school president, and executive cabinet.
  • The legislative branch is made up of an all-staff Faculty Senate and House of Students.
  • A Supreme Court of seven students and two faculty judges makes up the judicial branch.

Lawmaking and review powers are split among the branches, ensuring that school policy ideas can emerge from anyone in the building.

This collaborative process helps to strip away assumptions, creating practical and responsive school policy. Constitution High School's government has since tackled a host of issues troubling the school: student lateness, unhealthy lunch options, lunch-period misbehavior, resistance to uniform policy, and negative impact of school hours on extra-curricular participation, among others. 

Research shows that when students partner with educators to plan and implement school policy, curriculum, and professional development -- to name a few -- everyone improves. Students who are given a voice in school affairs have a greater connection to their school. They hone academic skills and even cultivate new ones, build social capital, improve school climate, and address school cultural issues that drive students out of school. Parental engagement increases. Communities can become safer as a result of youth involvement in civic problems. And these are only some of the benefits positively linked to schools with strong student voices.

If student voice can improve schools, why is it not the norm? Much of the research on student dropouts, violence, and academic disengagement -- and the policy created to address these -- is often a story of failure. Adults often label students as emotionally immature. They see them as being in a constant state of storm and stress. Are they capable of taking on responsibility in school affairs? they might wonder. Do they even possess the kind of knowledge needed to solve some of our most pressing problems in our schools and neighborhoods? Educators believe they know what’s best for students and can speak for them. But these images of students are inappropriately monolithic.

Take, for example, the difference between how educators and students explain the so-called achievement gap. Educators tend to blame low achievement on factors like absent family involvement, poverty, lack of supplies, and no motivation. Students, on the other hand, describe their own learning experiences as boring, their schools and teachers as tedious. They cite the disrespect shown to struggling students and the feeling that they are merely cattle being prodded toward graduation. This is student disengagement, and it is showing up in research as one of the main reasons for student dropouts. 

Perhaps it’s worth considering placing more responsibility and power into the hands of the students as well as those directly shaping the lives of the students -- the teachers. Giving students a voice cannot, of course, adequately address the impact of poverty on achievement. But it can foster a sense of agency and belonging. When facilitated in authentic ways, schools can dramatically improve. As long as students lack the chance to voice their opinions and turn them into workable solutions, we will continue guessing our way toward improvement.

Marc Brasof was a founding social studies teacher at Constitution High School. He is now pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies and teaches pre-service teachers at Temple University. Brasof is also the National Constitution Center's Education Fellow and on the Pennsylvania Council for Social Studies’ Board of Directors.

The opinions expressed in this guest post are solely those of the author. The Notebook invites readers to submit guest posts on current topics in education. Send submissions to

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