Students as Education Advocates

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement can infuse roles for students as education advocates throughout learning, teaching and leadership. Following is an introduction to this practice, as well as some details, stories and resources.


Student advocacy has a long history going back to at least the 1930s, when a youth-led group called the American Youth Congress presented a list of grievances to the US Congress including public education. Through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to the free expression movement of the 1960s to the resurgence in student voice in the 2000s, student education advocacy is alive in the US today.

There are many faces to this effort that aren’t as predictable as many adults assume. Rather than fighting against a specific expulsion of one of their friends, students today are working to change the discipline policy that expelled him in the first place. Instead of badgering a teacher or mentally checking-out of class, students today are redesigning curricula and classroom topics. Students have powerful ideas, knowledge and’ opinions about topics like the achievement gap, charter schools, privatization, rural education, violence and safety, and year-around schools. They’re rallying outside state capitals, speaking in school board meetings, and demanding change specifically from students’ perspectives. There are dozens of cases of students advocating for policy change, procedural modifications, and cultural transformation within education.


I have found that advocacy activities already exist throughout education that engage students in school improvement. However, these are not inherently meaningful, and students are frequently discouraged from sharing their authentic perspectives about learning, teaching, or leadership in schools. Instead, they are manipulated and used as decorations throughout this advocacy. Research has shown that all students have the capability to learn about building, maintaining, and sustaining school improvement activities. I have also found that Meaningful Student Involvement presents a logical avenue to engage students as educational advocates.

Moving students from being passive recipients of teaching to active drivers of learning is the goal of more educators today than ever before. What happens when students cross the bridge from self-motivated activities that are inherently “okay” to leading efforts that aren’t okay with teachers or administrators? Meaningful Student Involvement may push those boundaries by exploring new roles for students by infusing them as advocates for their own learning as well as the future of education, affecting their friends, their siblings, and generations of young people beyond them. It is important for adults to check their assumptions about your own ability to allow students to experience Meaningful Student Involvement through education advocacy.

Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as education advocates to work within the education system and throughout the community to change schools. Many students participate in committees, on special panels, and in functions that help raise awareness or interest in education issues.

Across the country there is a growing movement being led by students who are working with adults from their communities and schools to contribute to school improvement by calling for social, economic, racial, and environmental justice in schools. These student-led activist organizations use sophisticated analysis, appropriate action, and creative partnerships to challenge the education systems to become responsive to student voice.

Places for Students as Advocates

Places in schools that can engage students as education advocates include:

  • Classrooms: Student interests and identities are engaged throughout the process of curriculum decisions.
  • Administration: Non-traditionally engaged students are encouraged to participate throughout the school environment with deliberate steps towards meaningful involvement.
  • Culture: Creating “safe spaces” and promoting adults’ reception of self- and group-advocacy are fostered throughout the learning environment by school leadership on all levels.

The failure of many traditional attempts by schools to engage students as partners in education leadership or “democratic education” lies in the mixed messages of many communities’ agendas for public education. When educators have asked students to represent their peers, they often seek out the most academically gifted or popular, thereby narrowing the validity and ability of students to be valid democratic representatives. When schools offer courses to teach leadership, they can be steeped in traditional leadership models and teaching styles that alienates many students and limits important connections. Ironically, these classes are often offered at the expense of creating courses that could teach students about their own culture and heritage, which effectively negates the potential influence student leaders can have on everyday community life. Meaningful Student Involvement embraces every student as their own self, but also as the son or daughter of a family; as a member of a larger community; and as a partner in transforming schools. Understanding power, an essential component of Meaningful Student Involvement, begins in discovering and acknowledging who students are, and what education means.

Advocating Across Issues

Students can be powerful advocates for student involvement, as well as for other changes that students want in policy or governance. It makes a big difference for a student to say what students think; adults tend to listen to student advocates in a different way than we listen to each other. Student advocates can attend School Committee meetings and make presentations or proposals about their ideas.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once presented us with the challenge of advocacy by saying, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Meaningful Student Involvement in education advocacy happens when students are engaged as advocates for the schools they learn in; for the education system the next generation will inherit; and for the needs of the larger community surrounding the school. Students can be engaged in many ways: as members of committees, demonstrators in protests, on special panels, and in functions that help raise awareness or interest in education issues.

Stories of Students as Advocates

All of the roles delineated in previous chapters of this book are essentially different forms of students advocating for education. However, the following examples stand apart as uniquely specific models of students as education advocates.

Considerations for Students as Advocates

A report on student activism for education equity stated, “Whatever the risks, there is no shortage of reasons for teachers and others to support young peoples’ education advocacy work.” (Tolman, 2003) It may be uncomfortable when students begin to speak when not spoken to, but their voices are too powerful, and their words too true, to be silenced for long. This book underlines the necessity of not only listening to students, not only engaging students, but actually giving students the platform to create, inform, and advocate for positive school transformation. Meaningful Student Involvement is not a complete process without this important focus on advocacy.

You Might Like…


  • Cervone, B. & Cushman, K. (2002). “Moving youth participation into the classroom: Students as allies.” New Directions for Youth Development (96): 83-100.
  • HoSang, D. (2002). “Youth and community organizing today,” Occasional Papers Series on Youth Organizing 2.
  • Kunst, K. (2003). “Hope for schools thru student activism: Stories of success.” Olympia, WA: SoundOut.
  • Lewis, B. (1998) The Kids Guide to Social Action. Minnesota: Free Spirit Publishing.
  • Tolman, J. (2003). If not us, then who? Young people on the frontlines of educational equity. Unpublished paper.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s