When adults assume and exert power and control over students, they often dismantle, demean or otherwise harm student voice. This article shows several ways Meaningful Student Involvement can be sabotaged.
For more than a century, the education system has been adult-driven, rarely making space for students in educational leadership. In the last 20 years though, more schools are considering student voice in decision-making. Unfortunately, it seems that many adults in schools are keeping just a few students in the room to remember why schools exist, instead of actually engaging many students as equitable partners in substantive decision-making practices.
Whether it’s by accident or on purpose, this approach sabotages Meaningful Student Involvement. There are many ways students, educators and school leaders could work together to make schools better places. However, in order for that to happen adults have to understand the value of students as partners throughout the education system.
“Partnering with students to identify school problems and possible solutions reminds teachers and administrators that students possess unique knowledge and perspectives about their schools that adults cannot fully replicate. Students can raise tough issues that administrators and teachers might not highlight—including examining structural and cultural injustices within schools rather than blaming failing students for not succeeding in schools.” (Savrock, 2014)
Following is an exploration of the ways schools sabotage Meaningful Student Involvement.
To sabotage something is to destroy, damage, or obstruct it, especially for some kind of advantage. Adults and students can sabotage Meaningful Student Involvement. This happens when we see student voice as a tool to manipulate, twist and turn to achieve a goal in education. We can stop sabotaging students though, and to begin, we have to understand the ways it happens. Following are several ways Meaningful Student Involvement is sabotaged.
When adults try to force something to be meaningful, it undermines their best intentions.
Students do not depend on adult approval to share student voice; instead, they inadvertently and explicitly share it in dozens of ways throughout the school day. Similarly, adults cannot force something to be meaningful for students—they are the ultimate judges. Introduce Meaningful Student Involvement to students and adults, educate them about the frameworks and options, and then allow them to make up their own minds about whether they want to be involved.
One of the most insidious ways that adults undermine Meaningful Student Involvement can be very overt and very subversive, sometimes at the same times. When teachers ask students to deposit their cell phones in a box before class begins, they are silencing student voice. Demanding students dress and talk a certain way before a school board or committee is silencing student voice. Leaving the experiences of students out of classroom lesson plans or ignoring the histories of the ethnic cultures students come from are examples of silencing students, too. Intentionally making spaces for engaging a wide range of students in activities and creating broad opportunities to learn, teach and lead in diverse ways is meaningfulness in action.
In the United States today, there are more than 56 million K-12 students. There is no way that any one individual, organization, hashtag, or movement can represent all of those young people.
In this changing nation, it is more important than ever to honor pluralism. Pluralism is when smaller groups within a larger society maintain their unique cultural identities, and larger groups honor their identities. A characteristic of Meaningful Student Involvement is Personal Commitment, which includes honoring all voices for their diversity of experience and knowledge. There’s no reason to pretend that all voices are represented by one voice, particularly if that voice does not and cannot effectively represent their peers.
Allowing room for diversity and difference is positive, and enhances the meaningfulness of student involvement.
The student voice movement is not the same as basketball or business, and there is no room for showboating.
This is a diverse movement filled with multiple perspectives and broad actions focused on many, many issues. Showboating happens when someone exaggerates their own skills, talents, or abilities. In the student voice movement, individual young people may be tempted to self-promote and make it sound as if they are the only students, or their organization or program is the only student voice program of value.
Instead of focusing on themselves, Meaningful Student Involvement engages all voices and teaches students and adults to honor the contributions and abilities of all students everywhere all the time in order to avoid showboating.
Adults can be easy to amaze.
Seduced by mainstream media and politicians that routinely dismiss the positive power of youth, adults often feel like they’ve discovered gold when students stand up for themselves and work together to create change. In some instances, they lean on these students constantly and raise them to the point of infallibility. I call this pedestaling students. It includes romanticizing, which is making someone always right and out of way of questioning.
Focusing on our shared humanity, Meaningful Student Involvement has room for disagreement and mistakes, and model consensus and collaboration. It is a continuous learning process that engages all participants- adults and students- as equitable partners without artificially or superficially elevating one voice above all others.
Making Students Heroes
In a room with too few representatives, a particularly loud voice standing above all others can sound brave and unique, especially when they represent an under-acknowledged majority.
This is especially true in the student voice movement. Just because a young person puts on a suit and discusses education reform in a way that makes adults listen to them does not make them heroic or a superhero. It makes them dressed right and well-versed. In the same way, there are organizations and programs in the student voice movement that are made heroic too. They are made out to represent students particularly well or be the “right” whenever they talk. Among the 56 million students in schools though, adults do not lionize programs that make them uncomfortable or ideas that are too far from their acceptance. The ones that are uplifted are generally satisfactory to adults who make decisions about funding, data usage in schools, and education leadership. Organizational heroism is also a danger to the student voice movement.
Meaningful Student Involvement makes room for young people who do not please or appeal to them so easily, and emphasizes teaching young people about the education system that affects them so much.
There is more out there than just what you see.
Many organizations and individuals today are calling for students to be informants to adult decision-making in schools. They want student voice to be heard. They want a seat at the table for students. There’s a lot more at stake for students than simply being able to talk or be represented somewhere. In reality, students comprise up to 94% of any given school building’s population. They should be fully integrated into the operations of every single school, if only for their energy and to educate them about democracy. Every layer of educational bureaucracy should infuse students as well, positioning in them in powerful roles that effect not only individual students, but all students; not as recipients, but as active partners who design, implement, critically assess, and make substantive decisions about the education system as a whole. Additionally, while orgs like PSU represent a sophisticated, deep understanding of the complex underbelly of schools today, many people and programs in the student voice movement simply do not get it. Reduced to reacting, they rally students around the apparent problems in schools without recognizing the deeper issues.
Reaching much further than simply acting like the flavor-of-the-day, Meaningful Student Involvement positions students as constant, deliberate, and fully engaged partners throughout all of education, all of the time.
Students as Sockpuppets
A lot of adults use students as sockpuppets: We give them verbiage and giving them the issues adults expect them to address.
Intentional or not, this usage of students is designed to deceive the people who are listening to make them think what’s being said is genuine student voice. In schools, sockpuppetry is often coupled with manipulation: If students do what adults say, they’ll be rewarded; if they do not follow expectations, they’ll be punished in some form. Students often do not know they’re being used to prop up an adult’s perspective. Sometimes adults use students to provide an alternate or opposite perspective to their own. This is called strawman sockpuppetry. Having no real authority to enact anything in education without adult approval, adults may deliberately position students to say outlandish or contrary things, only to show their perspective as more valid, valuable, and important.
Meaningful Student Involvement deliberately positions both traditional and nontraditional student voice to be heard in safe and supportive environments, ensuring that students speak for themselves and are treated as equitable partners with adults throughout education.
The key to preventing student voice from undermining Meaningful Student Involvement is to follow the pathways described throughout this handbook. However, it is equally important to move beyond these pathways by inventing and re-inventing involvement in every situation for every student all of the time. Maintaining critical vigilance for purposeful or accidental sabotage is vital, as is taking deliberate steps to address the ways described above.
Preventing undermining may require what poet Audre Lorde refers to as, “transformation of silence into language and action [as] an act of self-revelation.” (Lorde, 1984) Paying attention to the dangers within student voice by engaging schools through Meaningful Student Involvement honors the legacy of past and present efforts. With more students and more adults working together to transform the education system, the very least we can do is honor their contributions.
Meaningful Student Involvement actually moves beyond that by powerfully enshrining, codifying and infusing transformation. More importantly, meaningfully involving students gives space for students and adults to share in the deliberate and ongoing critical examination of that enshrinement and codification. Not only does this discourage education systems from stagnation and irrelevance, it makes consistent critical thinking the norm, effectively elevating the roles of both students and adults throughout schools.