Review: “Listening To Urban Kids: School Reform And The Teachers They Want”

Originally published in Meaningful Student Involvement Research Guide by Adam Fletcher (2004) Olympia, WA: SoundOut.

Review of “Listening To Urban Kids: School Reform And The Teachers They Want” by B. Wilson & HD Corbett. Published in 2001 by State University of New York Press in Albany, New York.

Listening to Urban Kids provides a broad account of what middle school students at several low-performing schools think about their education. Based on the three-year study conducted by Wilson and Corbett in five Philadelphia middle schools, the authors conclude that successful school reform should become noticeable in what students say about school. They argue that students’ input should be an important part of planning, implementing, and adjusting reform.

The authors of Listening share students’ unaltered comments about a variety of topics that have direct relevance in school change. The second chapter addresses the changes that students said they witnessed during the three-year study period. The next chapter highlights the students’ descriptions of the differences in pedagogy, subject content, and learning environment as they moved from classroom to classroom. The fourth chapter contains the most crucial section of the book, emphasizing the value of students as constructive education critics. The remainder of the book discusses students’ experiences in middle school, the implications of the students’ descriptions and insights for educational reform, and the value of using students as resources on the progress of reform.

The researchers originally conducted a series of interviews with a cohort of 247 sixth grade students from six schools. Over three years the number was reduced to 153. Interviewing was an informal process that happened in casual settings throughout the schools, with the researchers emphasizing a casual approach in order to make students more comfortable. The book relies heavily on direct quotes from students, maintaining their original grammar. Throughout the book there is minimal commentary by the authors.

Listening offers several important thoughts from students:

  • Students value teachers who give them the extra help they need to succeed and explain their lessons clearly.
  • Students said that they want teachers who believe in them.
  • Students not only value having a variety of activities in the classroom, they value teachers who use content that mirrors real life, making schoolwork relevant and meaningful.

An important conclusion of the study comes from the authors’ advocacy for “reforming with, not for, students” (p126). Distinguishing between students as “beneficiaries” or “participants”, the authors call for educators to explore how successful any reform truly is. This is particularly important when reform practices runs counter to what the literature on change recommends – that is, engaging the recipients as main contributors to the process. According to this study, if education leaders listened to students, “they would find out that they have invaluable partners in the educational enterprise – if only students had the chance” (p128).

Ultimately, Listening offers an important introduction to the validity of student voice. However, without encouraging the engagement of students as meaningful actors in school change efforts, Listening misses the glaring potential of being a rallying call for meaningful student involvement.

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