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Why students should have a voice in school reform

By thenotebook on Dec 10, 2012 05:49 PM

by Marc Brasof

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 notebook@thenotebook.org.

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Comments (8)

Submitted by Jeffrey B (not verified) on December 10, 2012 7:19 pm
Awesome commentary. Thanks, Marc.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 11, 2012 2:03 am
just to be clear, he's describing the experience of district school children. I think the description of the students view of the achievement gap is telling. they get it. stop blaming poverty. it's bad teaching that is the major factor. it's clear to them that the low expectations and the "pass them through" mentality hasn't been lost on them. constitution, like sla and palumbo, is a small theme focused high school of choice. that's why it works. Give the students you folks relegate to the "too poor, messed up family, bad neighborhood" pile the same opportunity for choice and we'll all be better off for it. thank you mr. brasof.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 11, 2012 3:08 am
In order for all students to have "choice," schools like Constitution, SLA, Palumbo (Masterman, Central), etc. have to have open enrollment. All of these schools have high criteria (test scores, grades, behavior, attendance) and also require essays and/or interviews. Are special admit / magnet schools willing to give up their selective process? Don't hold your breath. This doesn't negate the need for students having more influence over their education and school environments. But, comparing what happens at a special admit/magnet school with what happens at a comprehensive/neighborhood high school is disingenuous.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 11, 2012 5:57 am
get rid of the neighborhood schools. that's a no brainer. you want assign the credit for the constitution kids' success on the fact that their school picked them. it's really because they picked their school. they too would underperform and hate the teachers in a neighborhood school.
Submitted by Marc Brasof (not verified) on December 11, 2012 9:28 am
While I understand the sentiment regarding city-wide admission/special admit schools, some of the innovations emerging from those schools are possible elsewhere. Furthermore, the research on student voice comes out of schools all across the world, including highly troubled places. Read Mitra's Student Voice in School Reform. It was a study of a very poor performing school and the efforts of some students tackling the low expectation school culture stemming from both students, teachers, and community.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 11, 2012 9:31 am
Neighborhood school students are capable of participating in the "innovations" but the powers that be have to allow it. We are emerging from 4 years of Ackerman rule which assumed neighborhood school students were capable of next to nothing. It is not all of the teachers - I'd argue some of the most capable and committed teachers are in neighborhood schools. We haven't given up on the truth that all students can learn and want to learn. We don't cherry pick.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 11, 2012 11:14 am
in a time of limited resources, it would be a better use of funds to create new schools that work instead of trying to resuscitate schools that have been awful for years. there's no reason why the effective teachers can't be given a new start in a more functional environment. all high schools should be open enrollment. if they just did that, the students and their families will have the ability to chose what they feel is best for them. that's what you all do, either by moving to the an area where the schools are good or chosing to attend private school. how the ideacame about that low income people are not able to make the right choice is troubling. think about it this way: if you lived where they lived, what would you want?
Submitted by anonymous (not verified) on December 11, 2012 1:54 pm
"just to be clear, he's describing the experience of district school children. I think the description of the students view of the achievement gap is telling. they get it. stop blaming poverty. it's bad teaching that is the major factor." Please, can't we recognize that things are a little more complicated than this? It's not either/or, it's both/and. We shouldn't BLAME poverty, but we would be foolish not to understand that we have to work, in this country, to eliminate it. Yes, there should be better teaching, but how do we get there? And we need more resources - like the resources these so called "no excuses" charter schools have. And let's face it, they have more money because of investments from millionaires and billionaires who would like nothing better than to say this country doesn't have to pay attention to the INCOME gap and to ending poverty.

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