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Why Student Voice? A Research Summary

SoundOut facilitates workshops at dozens of conferences across the nation every year. Of the many questions that we get asked, there is a base question that comes drifting to the surface in almost every discussion, “Why student voice?” Sometimes it is a rhetorical question; sometimes facetious; usually honest. Educators simply want to know what advantages there are to engaging students as partners throughout education.

When we talk about student voice we are talking about more than simply listening to students. Student voice is the individual and collective perspective and actions of young people within the context of learning and education. This definition can help us understand the power of students today.

Following is a simple summary of outcomes illustrating why student involvement matters, and how student voice is changing schools right now.


The following outcomes include improving learning, teaching, school improvement, youth development, school culture, diversity, bottom line, integrity, and civic engagement.

Outcome 1. Student Voice is About Learning

Engaging student voice may be the most powerful lever available to improve student learning in schools.

  • Students learn better when they are engaged partners throughout the educational process (Beaudoin 2005; Olsen 2004; Dorman & Adams 2004; Cook-Sather 2003; House 2000; Kordalewski 1999; Newmann 1994; Wehmeyer & Sands 1998; Holdsworth 1996; Kohn 1993; Johnson 1991).
  • Students learn more effectively when taught by peers (Batty, Rudduck, & Wilson 2000; Nelson & Frederick 1994).
  • Students learn more from self- and peer-evaluations (Kinney, Munroe & Sessions 2000; Benson, Barnett 1998; Hackman 1997; Pierce-Picciotto 1996; Le-Countryman & Schroeder 1996; Austin 1994; Little & Allan 1988).
  • Students are represented more effectively by themselves or their peers (Project 540 2004; Austin 1994).
  • When students plan educational activities their investment, ownership, and consequent learning is greatly increased (Flutter 2006; Grace 1999; Wehmeyer & Sands 1998; Platz 1996).
  • Student-led research can pose more effective questions and identifies more useful findings (Gardner Center 2004; Fielding & Bragg 2003; Steinberg & Kincheloe 1998; Kushman & Shanessey 1997).

Outcome 2. Student Voice is About Teaching

Student involvement throughout the teaching process, from planning to evaluating teachers, can increase teacher efficacy, self-confidence, and retention.

  • When they are taught to engage students in the classroom, both as learners and partners, pre-service teachers feel better prepared to teach diverse students (Cook-Sather 2002, 2001).
  • Classroom teaching can be more effective when students are engaged as partners (McIntyre, Pedder, & Rudduck 2005; Arnot, McIntyre, Pedder & Reay 2004; Rudduck, Demetriou, & Pedder 2003; Mitra 2003; MacBeath, Demetriou, Rudduck, & Myers 2003; Cushman 2003; Lewis, Justinianno & Scherer 2001; Farrell, Peguero, Lindsey & White 1998; Scriven 1995; Pigford 1994; Branscombe, Goswami & Schwartz 1992).
  • School activity and teacher evaluations are more authentic and valuable when students are central evaluators and assessors of data (Dorman & Adams 2004; Cook-Sather 2003; SooHoo 1995; Campbell, Edgar & Halsted 1994; Branscombe, Goswami & Schwartz 1992; Coburn 1984).
  • Adults feel they are better mentors and coaches to students when they are partners (Zeldin, Kusgen-McDaniel, and Topitzes 2001; Wood 1998; SooHoo 1996).

Outcome 3. Student Voice is About School Improvement

Involving students can significantly improve adult leadership throughout education.

  • School improvement can meet needs more effectively when students are engaged as partners (Mitra 2005; Beaudoin 2005; Whitehead & Clough 2004; Flutter & Rudduck 2004; Dorman & Adams 2004; Rudduck & Flutter 2003; Fletcher 2003; Mitra 2002; Cook-Sather 2002; Tolman, Irby & Ford 2001; Mitra 2001; Fielding 2001; Cook-Sather 2000; Kruse 2000; Beresford 2000; Rudduck, Chaplain, & Wallace 1996; SooHoo 1995; Oldfather 1995; Wasley, Hampel & Clark 1994; SooHoo 1993).
  • Students have more investment in school improvement efforts when they are engaged as partners (Jovenes Unidos 2004; BSAC 2004; REAL HARD 2003; Cervone & Cushman 2002; Cook-Sather 2002; Wilson & Corbett 2001; Shultz & Cook-Sather 2001).
  • Listening to student voice can encourage adult leaders to make important decisions and effectively prioritize decisions in schools (Association of Alaska School Boards 2006; McLaughlin & Mitra 2003; Critchely 2003; Cook-Sather 2002, 2001; Wilson & Corbett 2001; Shultz & Cook-Sather 2001).
  • Actively engaging students as partners strengthens students’ trust in adults’ investment in student voice and school improvement (Wilson & Corbett 2001; Shultz & Cook-Sather 2001; American Youth Policy Forum 2002; Kaba 2000).
  • Policy-making is more effective when students are partners in the process (Evans and Anthony 2001; Marques 1999; Patmor 1998; Bolmeier 1995; Kohn 1993).

Outcome 4. Student Voice is About Youth Development

Students can become more effective learners when their emotional, intellectual, and social needs are met.

  • Involving students throughout education can build participation skills young people need today and in the future (Pittman, 2004, 2005; Mitra 2004; Cushman 2003; Cook-Sather 2002; House 2000; Kurth-Schai 1998; Rudduck, Day & Wallace 1996).
  • Student involvement leads to significant gains in youth development goals (Mitra 2004, 2006).
  • Engaging student voice increases students’ leadership abilities (Cushman 2003; Wade & Putnam 1994; Branscombe, Goswami & Schwartz 1992).

Outcome 5. Student Voice is About School Culture

The attitudes, policies, and structures of education may change when students are engaged as partners in schools.

  • Involving students in decision-making transforms the attitudes and systems that underlay the culture of organizations, schools, and communities (Young & Sazama 2006; Flutter 2006; Flutter & Rudduck 2004; Critchely 2003; Cushman 2003; Cook-Sather 2002; Zeldin, Kusgen-McDaniel, and Topitzes 2001; Rudduck & Flutter 2000; Kruse 2000).
  • Classrooms become mutually supportive for teachers as well as students (Cervone & Cushman 2002; Houghton 2001; Branscombe, Goswami & Schwartz 1992).
  • Addressing personal challenges and organizational barriers to student voice leads to healthier, more school democratic cultures where everyone can be engaged as partners (Cushman 2003; Fielding & Rudduck 2002; Kohn 1998).

Outcome 6. Student Voice is About Diversity

Embracing a diversity of perspectives can make student voice the most significant tool in the school improvement toolbox.

  • Engaging student voice can ensure cultural, racial, economic, and social diversity in school improvement efforts (Rubin & Silva 2003; Cushman 2003; Glenn Paul 2000; McDermott 1998).
  • Student voice activities can reinforce high-risk students’ investment in schooling (Farrell, Peguero, Lindsey & White 1998).
  • Student involvement can lead to creative, energetic, and effective decision-making that may not have existed without them (Young & Sazama 2006; Fletcher 2003; Lesko 1997).

Outcome 7. Student Voice is About the Bottom Line

Engaging student voice can help schools save money while meeting the rigorous demands facing public education systems.

  • Involving students in decision-making saves time, energy, and money in education (Beaudoin 2005; Wood 1998).
  • Simply put, students know what works for students, and that knowledge works in schools (Rudduck 2003; Fletcher 2003; Critchely 2003; Cook-Sather 2002; Fielding 2001; Shultz & Cook-Sather 2001).
  • Schools in Anne Arundel County, Maryland saved more than $100,000 annually when a student school board member proposed a more student-responsive busing plan (Fletcher 2003).

Outcome 8. Student Voice is About Integrity

Educators have an ethical responsibility to engage student voice.

  • The ethical imperative of teaching in a democratic society demands educators actively engage students as partners (Fullan ; Freire 2005; hooks 1993; Dewey 1916).
  • Despite the face that people under 18 make up 26% of the U.S. population, they are routinely denied opportunities to participate. (Lesko 1997).
  • Students can be critical partners who challenge ineffective, anti-democratic practices throughout education (Giroux & Searls-Giroux 2003; Shor 1996; Giroux & McLaren 1989).
  • While students make up approximately 92% of any given school’s population, the decisions in schools are routinely made by the remaining 8% who are adults (Harper, 2005).

Outcome 9. Student Voice is About Civic Engagement

When students are partners throughout schools they can learn about the necessity of active citizenship in their schools and throughout their lives.

  • Engaging students in school improvement activities can lead to increased feelings of belonging and purpose in schools (Beaudoin 2005; Cushman 2003; Apple & Beane 1995; Project 540 2004; Rudduck 2003; Wood 1998; Dewey 1916).
  • Engaging students as school change agents can lead to the development of vital skills and abilities which allow them to be effective members of their larger communities (Young & Sazama 2006; hooks 2004; Carnegie Corporation 2003; Cook-Sather 2002; Wood 1998; Giroux 1998; Shor 1996; Brennan 1996; Apple & Beane 1995; Freire 1987).
  • Engaging student voice throughout education teaches young people the responsibilities required to be a citizen in a democratic society (Freire 2005; Fielding & Prieto 2001; Giroux 1998; Counts 1932; Dewey 1916).

MAYBE the most important factor to student voice is that it just feels right. Students, teachers, administrators, researchers, professors, parents… the rooms of people attending SoundOut workshops come from a lot of different places and do a lot of different work that affects education in many different ways. However, by the end of any of our workshops they usually agree that, at the very least, student voice feels right. That important identification lays a foundation to work from, and the important findings detailed above support it.


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Student Voice is only as strong as the least engaged student.

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