Engaging students in school reform
by Eric Braxton on Aug 06 2009 Posted in High schools
Often when we talk about engaging stakeholders in school reform we include teachers, parents, and even community and business leaders. Unfortunately, students, who are the most direct stakeholders of all, are often left out of the mix.
I believe that if we are really going to turn around our high schools, we can no longer view students as passive beneficiaries of education. We must start to see them as active participants in creating change.
Doing this requires a fundamentally different way of looking at students. Too often our schools use a banking model of education, where it is assumed that teachers have knowledge and students are empty vessels to receive it.
This way of thinking not only negates the knowledge that students have, but it also contradicts the way that people actually learn, which is an active process where the knowledge people already have is instrumental in creating new knowledge. In addition, the idea of students as passive learners disengages them from school, adding to a sense that whatever is happening in school is irrelevant to their lives, which of course is a major contributor to the dropout crisis.
If our high schools are really going to work, students have to be active and engaged and this means they need to be respected and listened to. There are a number of different ways of doing this, but traditional student governments that do little more than plan dances are not getting the job done. The Web site What Kids Can Do tracks a number of good efforts.
One way to do this is by finding new and innovative ways to engage students in official decision making.
What is important is that these efforts not slip into tokenism, where a small number of specially chosen students are given a voice, while the majority has no way to participate. Some schools hold regular “town meetings” that help make some of the rules. Boston has created a new citywide student government where students get training on how to truly represent their peers.
Another approach, which is alive and well in Philadelphia, is student organizing, like the work of the Philadelphia Student Union and Youth United for Change. With student organizing, outside organizations support students in developing leadership skills, understanding the issues facing their schools, and organizing campaigns to make change and hold schools accountable.
Many students on the verge of dropping out have gotten reengaged because of participation in student organizing. At the same time these organizations have won campaigns that have improved education for their peers.
Another idea I have heard students suggest is to create some kind of student evaluation of schools and teachers. Students know a lot about what is working in their schools and what is not. They know who the good teachers are and they know the teachers that need some help. We should ask them.
Voter participation shows that democracy in our country is in trouble. The way many of our schools work now disempowers students and prepares them to be unengaged citizens.
If we want young people to grow into active citizens and leaders with the skills to solve the problems that face us, our schools need to give people opportunities to practice those skills now. Giving students a real voice in their schools is good for improving schools and good for strengthening our democracy.