Review: Critical Voices in School Reform; Students Living through Change

Originally published in Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide by Adam Fletcher (2004) Olympia, WA: SoundOut.

Review of “Critical Voices in School Reform: Students Living Through Change” edited by B. Rubin & E. Silva. Published in 2003 by RoutledgeFalmer in New York and London.

Critical Voices addresses student inclusive school change by examining a series of activities thought to do just that: engage students as agents in educational transformation.

The authors examine a variety of activities, analyzing both challenges and successes in many areas of social justice in school reform, including race, class, and gender equity.

This collection of studies is presented in two sections that include details on research conducted in a variety of settings. In the first, the editors attempt to “illustrate the richly nuanced view of school reform that emerges through student-centered research.”

Overall, the researchers contend that engaging students in the work of education reform is rare, and when it does happen students are presented in “fixed and uncomplicated” language that misrepresents them.

In the second section, the authors detail five studies of reform projects that “take into account, build upon, and address the specific needs and concerns of those students at the bottom of the achievement gap.” According to the students involved, Meaningful Student Involvement helped them navigate learning environments that are discouraging and even hostile towards them.

The chapters in Critical Voices scan a variety of activities and environments where student inclusive school change is happening. From the introductory chapter through the conclusion, the reader is presented with research that supports meaningful student involvement in school decision-making and research, students’ perceptions of detracking, gender, school support, and learning environments, students’ experiences of identity-based curricular reform and school governance. Researchers offer critical analyses of the experience, reflecting on their own thinking and offering suggestions for improvements.

Important findings include:

  • Adults must consider the complexities of inviting students to participate in democratic processes that have never been modeled for them (p29).
  • Students must have realistic space and time to become part of the process of school change, particularly if they do not experience schools as inclusive environments (p29).
  • Circumstances for engaging students in education reform work cannot be standardized or identically duplicated across diverse communities (p149).
  • School reformers should silence their own voices in order to create school structures that meaningfully engage culturally marginalized students (p149).

Critical Voices advocates for social and educational justice as the purposes of meaningful student involvement. The research successfully proves that adults can look to students for more than answers – that we must look to students to become central players in the ongoing process of school change.

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