A History of Student Voice in the United States

History of Student Voice in the United States by Adam Fletcher for SoundOut

Students have been striving to improve schools for more than a century.

The student voice movement today is being presented as a new thing, something invented by ambitious students determined to improve their schools. However, this simply is not true. In classrooms and education programs scattered across North America and around the world, students have been naming their own intentions for education for decades. Over the last twenty years, this call has become louder and more urgent than ever. (Corbett & Wilson, 1995; Rudduck, 2007; Fielding, 2001) They have been working for democracy and social justice throughout education, and many times, calling for more empowered, engaged roles for students in all sorts of places. (Klein, 2003; Dzur, 2013)

Roots of the Student Voice Movement

This was the Dodge Street School in Omaha, Nebraska from circa 1872 to circa 1920.

Like many student voice advocates, I learned a lot from A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in the United Kingdom, founded in 1921 and a clear inspiration for Meaningful Student Involvement. However, further back than this was Russian author Tolstoy’s foundational work focused on fostering freedom through schooling. In the 1850s, Tolstoy wrote an article entitled, “Who Should Teach Whom to Write, We the Peasant Children or the Peasant Children Us?”. In it he proposed that students are the most effective teachers of other students, and that learning is most effective when it addresses real world situations. (Simmons, 1968) Tolstoy did not want to promote a method or structure for learning or schooling, either. While it did not succeed in Russia more than 160 years ago, Tolstoy’s work influences my conception of Meaningful Student Involvement substantially.

Stories of meaningful involvement and deep student voice emerge throughout the history of American public education from the 1920s through the 1970s. In 1922, students at Mineola High School in New York protested the suspension of their senior class president. When she was suspended for skipping study hall, a disagreement between the students and the school led to a walkout. (The New York Times, 1922) Elsia Clapp, an educator in Arthurdale, West Virginia, pioneered a school there that was centered on the role of the student in education in the 1920s. From 1927 through the 1960s, teacher Grace Pilon developed the concept of “The Workshop Way.” Pilon’s approach has worked in thousands of schools by focusing on making students active agents in learning and teaching. Pilon wrote the Workshop Way depends “on an environment that provides equal opportunities to manage the same experiences in different ways” for elementary students. (Loflin, 2006) There are dozens of similar examples of singular teachers and individual schools that deliberately involved students in school functioning and other systemic ways.

Students Taking the Lead

Chicago Youth United
Student organizers advocating for better schools with Chicago Youth United in the 1990s.

As time passed, students started taking the lead. A vanguard organization of the hippie movement, Students for a Democratic Society, wrote a manifesto including democratic student involvement throughout the public education system in 1962. (Hayden, 1962) In 1968, on the day following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., more than 250 African American students at William Penn Senior High School in York, Pennsylvania, refused to attend class. Instead the students quietly barricaded themselves in the auditorium of the school to commence Black Pride Day. (Wright D. C., 2003) More than 100 high schools across the United States were reported to have student-led campaigns focused on changing schools, according to a snapshot of of student activism in 1971. (Erlich & Erlich, 1971)

That same year, the Montgomery County, Maryland Board of Education, adopted the following declaration:

“Students must be actively involved in the learning process. Therefore in each course and at each grade level, students shall be encouraged to participate in establishing grade goals, suggesting interest areas, planning classroom activities and appraising the courses. Student suggestions and recommendations concerning curricular offerings and opportunities shall be permitted at any time and shall be solicited by the professional staff.” (Kleeman, 1972)

This is clearly a precedent for Meaningful Student Involvement. Also in 1971, the 16-student Task Force of Student Involvement for the North Carolina State Department of Education released a statement that said,

“What students are saying is that they care about schools’ they want to be contributors to the educational process, not just recipients. Educators greatest potential resource lies in taking advantage of this interest and channeling it into responsible areas of action.” (Kleeman, 1972)

A concern over students’ First Amendment rights has factored into much of this work for more than forty years. After strong forays into the subject of student voice through self-expression, clothes, print magazines and student-led organizing, several campaigns assailed schools for stifling student voice in the 1960s.

This action led students towards many then-radical acts, including a student for a school board in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and launching a nationwide press for student-created publications[ii]. In 1969, these actions culminated in the United States Supreme Court trial Tinker v. Des Moines. In Tinker a school district was sued after denying students the right to protest in their high school. The justices famously ruled, “Students do not shed their constitutional rights at the school house gates.” However, the Court was not unanimous in their opinion. Framing many arguments against Meaningful Student Involvement that are still used today, Justice Hugo Black wrote in his dissent that he did not want to be part of,

“a new revolutionary era of permissiveness in this country fostered by the judiciary… I wish, therefore, wholly to disclaim any purpose on my part to hold that the Federal Constitution compels the teachers, parents, and elected school officials to surrender control of the American public school system to public school students.”[iii]

Troubles Today

Student organizers walkout from a Seattle high school in the 2010s.

Despite that ruling, many students and adults continue to struggle in order to ensure students have First Amendment rights in schools today.[iv] The US Supreme Court also wavers in their support for student voice, alternating supporting students and denying their rights. This includes the 1988 Hazelwood decision, which ruled that student newspapers are not protected by First Amendment rights. (Verchick, 1991) In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that schools can suppress student voice outside of schools as well, as long as students are at a school-supervised event. (Dickler, 2007)

Beane and Apple found that student voice work continued over the next three decades. They shared examples of students sharing in school design decisions along with teachers, administrators, parents, board members, and community organizations in Port Jarvis, New York, in 1972.

Seven years later, students in Ulysses, Pennsylvania, elementary students and teachers debated and voted on a new rule for anyone caught vandalizing school property. They agreed that guilty student would spend free time over 3 days working with the custodian. In 1991, middle school students in Madison, Wisconsin worked together to create new social studies curriculum out of students’ questions and concerns regarding the world. (Beane & Apple, 1995) As they are highlighted later in this book, my own research showed how these examples continued to grow from the 1990s into the 2000s. (Fletcher, 2005b)

Cities Growing Student Voice

Students in Madison, Wisconsin are presenting ideas for school transformation with SoundOut.

Some individual cities have deep histories of student-driven school change, especially Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. According to Conner and Rosen, the city’s pertinent history stretches back to 1967. That year, a campaign demanded new black history courses, no more police in high schools, and more black principals. To leverage their demands, 3,500 students walked out of school.

Thirty-three years later, in 2000, thousands of students again walked out, this time rallying at City Hall and marching to the state education agency. The state took over their local school district and signed a multimillion dollar contract with a for-profit education management organization. In 2013, severe budget cuts to public education closed 23 schools and left those remaining schools without extracurricular programs, guidance counselors, librarians, and other vital resources.

Thousands of students again organized a walkout to protest the cuts on the anniversary of Brown versus the Board of Education. All of this action was driven by students who struggled to learn about the education, leverage their community’s energy towards positive change, and challenge the political and economic forces forcing change in area schools. The longevity of their struggle was driven by several organizations, including the long-standing Philadelphia Students Union, a student-driven nonprofit. (Conner & Rosen, 2013)

The Movement Grows

Middle school students in a SoundOut planning workshop in Washington State.
Middle school students in a SoundOut planning workshop in Washington State.

Today, as never before, these examples are less anomalous. Instead, they are coalescing and leadership is stepping forward to build a movement of students focused on improving education around the world.

Across the United States today, this movement is made of groups like Student Voice[v]; the Pritchard Committee Student Voice Team in Kentucky[vi]; and the Boston Student Advisory Council.

There are literally hundreds of other efforts too, including activities in local school buildings by organizations like Up For Learning in Vermont, school district programs like New York City’s Student Voice Collaborative, and individual educators like Donnan Stoicovy in Pennsylvania (McGarry & Stoicovy, 2014; Dzur, 2013) and Nelson Beaudoin in Maine. (Beaudoin, 2005)

Other programs, education agencies, nonprofit organizations and individuals are promoting this concept in other countries around the world. Particularly strong work is happening in the United Kingdom, Chile, Australia and my native country, Canada. (Rudduck, Chaplain & Wallace, 1996; Fielding, 2001)

For more than a decade, SoundOut has been consulting and training individual schools, districts, and state education agencies to actively implement Meaningful Student Involvement. More than 300 schools across North America have launched efforts, all to varying effects. This book shares their processes, our learning and other outcomes from their action.

Challenging Meaninglessness

Students stand with a shed they made as a service learning project outcome.
Students stand with a shed they made as a service learning project outcome.

I believe we must challenge the meaninglessness of being a student in schools today. Forced to sit in rows, learn facts through rote memorization, exhibit their mastery through standardized tests, and behave according to adult standards under threat of expulsion or imprisonment, schools are routinely harangued for what they inadvertently teach learners. Compliance, obedience and authoritarian submissiveness are often the silent assassins of creativity in young people today.

This treatment as tabula rasa makes students yearn for meaningful in school starting at the youngest of ages. Without that meaningfulness, they have a harder time identifying meaningfulness and purpose in throughout their lives. In the meantime, we must recognize the reality that strategically weaving meaningfulness throughout the education system meets the purpose of the Common Core State Standards. (McGarry & Stoicovy, 2014)

Leaving seven to nine hours in school settings every day in order to return home where their parents are beginning daily recuperation from their workaday lives, young people face the prospect that after thirteen years of their daily conditioning they get to face the same realities their parents do, day in and out. However, without adult role models who live in fully meaningful, purposeful ways, students are left to the devices of popular culture, mainstream media, and socio-economic norms in order to find their way in the world.

This forms a vacuum in society, a void where young people and adults lose their bearing on what matters to them, what matters to their families, and what matters to the world community as a whole. Entire generations have been raised without the prospect that there is a better life for everyone beyond the shallow materialism and hollow sentimentalism propagated by television shows, pop music, and junk magazines. Brought up to love conformity and honor authority, entire social classes reject the notion of transformative living or revolutionary thought.

The value of meaningfulness is that it harbors within it an inherent hope, a prospect that all things can be better in all ways. Finding meaning means naming purpose, finding belonging, or identifying pathways for living in any of its myriad forms. Meaningfulness is, by its nature, a restlessness and a particular urgency that insists that life is not merely what is right in front of us, but something more, something deeper—or more so, that life is what it is, and that there is meaning in that, too. That’s the awesome thing about meaningfulness: it’s entirely up to each and every individual to determine what the meaning is.

Schools should aspire to nothing less than helping students discern the meaning of learning for themselves and with adults as partners. This vision insists that learning is to be lived anew by every student everywhere all of the time. It is urgency combined with the reality that everything means something, and it stands in direct opposition to popular yet drab prospect that nothing means anything. This vision is the reason why meaningfulness is more important than ever before.

Current and Historical Examples

There are many, many other examples throughout history, too!

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