Exploring how the structure of education can be a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement, this article shares examples and tips to overcome challenges to student voice.
Structure in school is any formalized activity within education. There are “4 Ps” in the structure of schools: positions, policies, practices, and process. It may be tempting to neglect the importance of developing structures that embrace student voice, as it may seem daunting or impossible to change those “4 Ps”.
However, the education system is inherently steeped in process; that is what makes it a tool of democracy. Process is imposed by policies, enforced by practices, and secured by positions. That is why in order to maintain and strengthen democracy and education, Meaningful Student Involvement must be integrated throughout education.
The structure of schools is anything formal within education. The structure of schools includes elementary, middle and high schools; and everything that happens in local buildings, at the district level, throughout regions, at the state level, and at the federal level.
The structure of schools includes any policy, practice or procedure in schools. It is all classes, supplies, curriculum, and activities in schools. The guidelines, rules, and regulations governing schools are part of the structure, as are the times, schedules, homework, lunchtime, and playground time. Cafeteria food, vending machines, and the building environment are part of the structure too.
Three elements exist in the structure of education, including policies, practices and procedures.
- POLICIES: Policies include any written or dictated rule, process, outcome or procedure in education. Policies determine the length of the school days, who can attend schools, what they can learn, who teaches them, how much money those people earn, and almost every other consideration within schools. Policies determine the ways people dress in schools; the assessment of students; and the amount of student voice that will be tolerated, trained, or embraced by adults. Another structural issue has to do with awarding credit and other forms of recognition: Adults generally are not paid to support student involvement, and students are reluctant to spend a lot of time on activities for which they receive little or no credit or money. Policies determine the outcomes of different student behaviors, including positive or negative acknowledgment.
- PRACTICES: The practices within a school are any implementation of policies. The formal roles everyone has within the school are practices, including teachers, principals, headmasters or principals, para-educators, aides, secretaries, librarians or media specialists, janitors, school psychologists, student counselors, speech/language pathologists, cafeteria workers, and other school support staff. The formal roles of students in schools are also structural, including the title of student, class president, club leader, honor society member, varsity football captain, student council treasurer, drama club member, school newspaper staff, etc. All of these roles, whether actively involved, passively excluded, or intentionally silenced can actually be barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement, as well. (Bhavnani, 1990)
- PROCEDURES: All extra-curricular activities and assemblies are part of the structure, along with the colors, mascot, and school spirit activities. School funding, including voting-approved levies and education grant money, are structural, as is the administration of the educational system and the local, district, state, and federal laws governing education. The structure of schools also affects students, aside from the actions of adults in schools. Traditionally, student involvement is an extracurricular activity that happens before or after school. Activities have focused on athletics or interest-based clubs or have been token opportunities for student decision-making, such as planning dances.
In order to transform schools with student voice, the policies, practices AND procedures of schools must be changed.
Structure as a Barrier and Solutions
The structural barriers in schools that limit Meaningful Student Involvement are no less than every norm, regulation and process that keeps students powerless throughout education, from their individual classrooms to highest political offices in the land. (Giroux, 1981) When asked what prevents them from meaningfully involving students, many adults specifically mention having too many things to do; classroom or school size and layout; a lack of support from the school administration; under-motivated teachers or program staff; and an absence of sustained interest. (Lewis & Burman, 2008) When asked what prevents them from being engaged, many students—particularly students of color and low-income students—suggested that culturally offensive or irrelevant structural practices in schools were to blame. (Nieto, 1994)
One structural barrier may be the hierarchy affecting educators. Despite their enthusiasm for Meaningful Student Involvement, a building principal that denies their request to do an activity in their school can quash any well-intentioned educator. One solution may be to discuss Meaningful Student Involvement with other educators online and identify who is successful at it to share that with a building leader. Another may be to seek information and materials that will encourage Meaningful Student Involvement in your school. A last potential solution may be to develop networks among peers to develop interest and support with other adults. Another challenge may be that there is little encouragement, incentives, or recognition of Meaningful Student Involvement currently existent in the school. A solution may be to develop lesson plans to integrate Meaningful Student Involvement into classes, allowing students to earn credit.
A national study from 2012 found that activities embodying Meaningful Student Involvement could be done successfully by reallocating existing school resources. (Usher & Kober, 2012)This includes teachers as resources; school curricula, assessments, technology, and learning materials; and other essential resources. Another study (Miller, Gross, & Ouijdani, 2012) recommends several potential solutions to structure as a barrier, which are adapted here:
- Encourage school leaders to think about tradeoffs. When schools begin investing heavily financially in Meaningful Student Involvement, they should reduce spending in non-meaningful activities to keep school budgets in balance.
- Fund all schools in the district equitably, and then enforce a hard budget constraint.
- Provide schools with resource flexibility that allows them to invest in their model as they see fit, while making the necessary cuts to balance their budgets.
Teach principals how to successfully attract resources from the community and give positive recognition to principals who are successful at doing so.