How Adultism Happens in Schools

On the 20th anniversary of, I want to acknowledge that after all this time with teachers, building leaders, counselors, support staff and other adults in K-12 schools across the nation, there’s a reality that few people are willing to face: Adultism in schools is rampant and deeply affecting education in many ways. This article explains how adultism happens in schools.

Adultism is the bias towards adults which often results in discrimination against students. Bias towards adults means that the ideas, opinions, actions and outcomes of adults are more valued than those of students. Students experience adultism in every grade level, each subject, all activities, and almost every outcome of schools. Whether its apparent in the ways adults talk to students, in how buildings are designed, in what types of assessments are delivered, or in who graduates from school, adultism is present throughout the entire education system. However, in order to address it we have to understand how it happens.

Through my research and practice focused on adultism, I have found that it happens in three primary ways in schools:

  1. Personal Adultism: The attitudes, opinions, beliefs and actions every person takes that show bias towards adults.
  2. Cultural Adultism: The shared beliefs, joint actions, and common traditions within a classroom, school and community that demonstrate, reflect, uplift, or ensure bias towards adults.
  3. Structural Adultism: The formal and informal systems, processes, organization, and outcomes of schools that ensure, reinforce, sustain, or transfer bias towards adults.
Affton, Missouri teachers in an adultism workshop with Adam F.C. Fletcher of
Teachers in Affton, Missouri in an adultism workshop with Adam F.C. Fletcher of

These three ways are present in every school, pre-K through 12th grade, as well as school districts, state education agencies, and the federal government. Within these broad categorizations, there are many specific ways adultism are demonstrated in schools. In the last few days I’ve talked with more than 50 educators in the Affton School District outside of St. Louis, Missouri. Dissecting this issue, they share some of the ways they express and witness adultism everyday in school. Here are some things they shared.

How Personal Adultism Happens in Schools

  • The language we speak
  • Teacher and student attitudes
  • “No interruptions!” and other arbitrary or irrelevant commands
  • Writing off new media’s usage in schools
  • Banning phone use in classes
  • Assigning unneeded homework
  • Enforcing the Queen’s English in schools
  • Apathy towards students
  • Respect (or the lack thereof) for students
  • Self care
  • “My job is to keep you safe”
  • “My job is to teach you; your job is to learn.”

How Cultural Adultism Happens in Schools

  • Adults know best
  • Behavior management expectations
  • Must create confident, capable consumers
  • Social grouping and friendships
  • Demonizing social media
  • Enforcing the “proper way” to speak to an adult
  • Assuming school is the best way to instruct all students
  • Unspoken socio-economic dress codes
  • The teacher is responsible for all the students’ needs
  • Expecting respect for “those in charge”

How Structural Adultism Happens in Schools

  • Time schedules
  • Graduation rates
  • Diplomas
  • Grading
  • Teacher-driven lesson plans
  • Testing and assessments
  • School start times
  • Career and College Readiness Plans
  • Rules
  • Procedures for classrooms, buildings and the district
  • Seating styles
  • Dress codes
  • Standardized tests
  • Standardized curriculum

Every person in schools is capable of showing, supporting, uplifting and sustaining adultism in schools, including students themselves. As the barriers to student voice show, adultism can force students to preserve their personal best interest by undermining group success.

This is a poster showing how teachers in Affton, Missouri thought adultism happens in schools from August 2022.
This is a poster showing how teachers in Affton, Missouri thought adultism happens in schools from August 2022.

How to you think adultism happens in schools? Share your thoughts, ideas and knowledge in the comments section!

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Measuring Activities in Meaningful Student Involvement

When measuring Meaningful Student Involvement activities, its vital to examine the activities that make up what’s happening. Each activity can include many different parts. Here, SoundOut examines the culture of activities, the actions involved, the barriers in activities and the evaluation of activities.

Measuring the Culture of Meaningful Student Involvement

Measuring Meaning in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for
Measuring Meaning in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for

When assessing Meaningful Student Involvement its important to consider the effects on school culture. Engaging students as partners in school change should including creating the culture to support Meaningful Student Involvement for all students in all schools, all the time.

This culture should be reflected in a variety of ways. All students should feel safe to be meaningfully involved, which truly focuses on whether their involvement is equitable or not. Students should be identify in their own language and without coaching from adults how they are meaningfully involved, how they’re respected, and how they’re responded to by adults.

Involving students meaningfully should transform the attitudes and systems that underlay the culture of individual classrooms, whole school buildings and eventually, the entirety of the education system. This looks like Student/Adult Partnerships that are mutually supportive and accountable for both students and adults, whether in the classroom, board room, hallways, or legislatures. Meaningful Student Involvement changes can be apparent in school when students and adults address personal challenges and organizational barriers together, leading to healthier, more school democratic cultures where everyone can be engaged as partners.

Other ways school culture reflects Meaningful Student Involvement include, but are not limited to, educators maintaining a substantial focus on student involvement even when students appear to be disinterested; gradual or radical shifts in student-adult relationships to reflect higher perceptions of students and the elements of Student/Adult Partnerships introduced earlier in this book; and visually observable aspects, including relaxed conversations among students and adults about education and school improvement; verbal and written reflection shared among students and adults; and rituals reflecting Meaningful Student Involvement, including committee participation, Non-Violent Communication between students and adults; and student orientation programs led by students and adults.

When schools continually demonstrate meaningful involvement in research, planning, teaching, evaluation, decision-making and advocacy, their culture demonstrates what we are looking for. There will be regular and ongoing expectations for all members of the school community to hold meaningful involvement tantamount for all learners, as well as a commitment by building leadership to professional development and training opportunities that foster Student/Adult Partnerships. Additionally, the culture of education reflects Meaningful Student Involvement when discriminatory language against students is not tolerated; clear expectations and policies reflect a commitment to Student/Adult Partnerships, and a total commitment to the Cycle of Engagement is apparent throughout learning, teaching and leadership.


Measuring Action in Meaningful Student Involvement

Measuring Activities in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for

Taking action is the crux of Meaningful Student Involvement. All action should start by students working with adults to determine what constitutes meaningful student involvement. Conscientious steps should be taken to ensure that student involvement is meaningful according to that initial work. Students should understand the intentions of the process, decision, or outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement in general, as well as the particular activity at hand, and they should know who made the decisions about Meaningful Student Involvement and why they were made initially.

Throughout the course of action the process and are the results of Meaningful Student Involvement should be recorded. That recording should be reported in writing and distributed to both students and adults. The process should include a variety of steps, including having students work with adults to identify school issues, challenges, or problems, allowing students to identify their own possible solutions or goals in their school, and engaging students in working with adults to identify possible solutions or goals in their school.

Students should feel fully informed about issues that matter to them, and learn about issues that matter to the whole school they’re in, the larger community, where they live, and the entire nation. Project ideas and activities should be co-initiated by students and adults, as well.

There is a large role for students in formal school improvement. They can be involved in identifying the problems, challenges, or needs to be addressed by school improvement, as well as formulating the problem and analyzing the situation. They can co-create school improvement policy, participate in adopting school improvement policy, and be meaningfully involved in approving programs, services, and activities to implement school improvement. Students can be meaningfully involved in teaching adults about school improvement, monitoring school improvement, and evaluating the impact of school improvement. Rather than act in isolation, students should be meaningfully involved with adults and other community members in school improvement as well. (Counts, 1978)

The best action for Meaningful Student Involvement should always end in reflection. Afterwards, students who are involved should receive a written or verbal report on the outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Measuring Barriers in Meaningful Student Involvement

Barriers in Schools to Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for
Barriers in Schools to Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for

An essential measure for Meaningful Student Involvement is to deliberately acknowledge and conscientiously address the barriers to engaging students as partners throughout education. The first step in addressing barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement is to acknowledge they exist, and to name them as best as possible.

False and negative assumptions about students’ abilities to participate should be deliberately addressed by students and/or adults throughout all activities. All adults in the school should be clear about the class or school’s intent to foster Meaningful Student Involvement. An informal assessment should be made of whether adults throughout the learning environment, and a determination should be made whether adults provide good examples of Meaningful Student Involvement. Students’ experience and inexperience addressed with Meaningful Student Involvement should be determined as well.

Barriers can be addressed when students and adults identify and address negative experiences students and adults have had with student involvement, and steps should be taken to reduce the resistance from adults and students. In some circumstances, this can mean adding an equal or greater number of students to boards, committees and other decision-making activities throughout the education system that previously only engaged a few students. However, more than likely it means creating new avenues for student voice in places where only adults made decisions before. This can happen by creating student roles for every student in decision-making affecting individual students; it can also happen by creating roles for students in activities where adults made decisions for large groups of students.

When adults throughout education actively educate students about the education system, including focusing on specific functions and outcomes, Meaningful Student Involvement can happen and the barrier of obfuscation can be overcome. A climate should be fostered in every opportunity for student voice where students feel comfortable engaging in learning, whether through question-asking, interacting, or otherwise engaging in the topic at hand. Deliberate steps should be made to foster this climate, including acknowledgment of student schedules, learning styles, developmental abilities, and other relevant actions. If activities happen outside school and school time, planning should consider whether the location and times of meetings are convenient to students; determining if the times and dates of meetings are convenient for students; choosing locations that are accessible to students and public transportation; and other initiatives or changes going on in classes, local schools, districts, or state programs that will complement the goals and processes of Meaningful Student Involvement.

A major barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement is student credibility. If representative participation is required in an activity, steps should be taken to ensure student representatives are chosen so that they are credible among the students they are supposed to represent. Given the diversity of every school, this should include accounting for all sorts of student cultures, attitudes, beliefs and ideas. Adults should check and double check when they think a student is credible by working with students as partners to ensure credibility. Sometimes, it is appropriate to select a high achieving, popular student to represent their peers in a student involvement activity. However, there are other times when it is not meaningful for students or adults to have that same student representing students who may be low performing or acting in ways that are not appropriate for school.

Many adults are addressing student voice as giving students a say in what, when, where, how and why they learn. This is a misunderstanding of student voice and actually serves as a barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement. It positions adults as the arbitrators of student voice, placing the responsibility for students’ expressions about education on the shoulders of educators. In reality, students are constantly expressing themselves; the question is whether or not adults are willing to listen and act upon what students have to say. Listening to students’ needs, interests and concerns has had a big impact on school life and classroom practice; engaging students as partners in learning throughout the educational process and the entirety of the education system has an even larger impact. Overcoming the barriers presented by students, adults and schools is a key to moving in that direction.


Measuring Evaluation in Schools

Measuring Meaning in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for
Measuring Meaning in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for

Assessing outcomes should always be a part of Meaningful Student Involvement opportunities. Every opportunity focused on Meaningful Student Involvement should opportunities for formal and informal feedback from students. The events, opportunities, and numbers of students measured with regard to all the factors affected by the opportunity, as well as the levels, motivations, and impacts of students and adults who are involved or affected. The quantitative effects of Meaningful Student Involvement can be measured, monitored, and reported, including grades, attendance records, dropout rates, the number of student participants in a given activity, and other numerical effects of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Meaningful Student Involvement affects many people. Students other than those who are directly involved can provide substantial input when given the opportunity to be involved as independent evaluators in assessing action. Formal assessments of Meaningful Student Involvement completed by students and adults, and the summative impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement should be identified. The varying short- and long-term impacts may include short and long-term effects and impacts. The effects of Meaningful Student Involvement on classrooms may include the creation of new curriculum or programs, widespread engagement of student-led evaluation and all types of meaningful involvement, and more. All of these should be assessed for their presence, purpose and power.

Meaningful Student Involvement can impact school administration through the development of administrative support and structures. Professional development for school staff focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, including teachers and others, can be made mandatory or more made more available. Materials on engaging students as partners can be made widely available, too. One of the most effective measures of meaningfulness may be the amount of more appropriate, student-friendly policies, rules, or guidelines adapted in order to promote, ensure, and sustain Meaningful Student Involvement. Another structural development is the creation of more and more meaningful opportunities for all students to become involved. More accessible or convenient opportunities for students are part of that approach.

Developing this infrastructure requires new approaches to engaging students as partners. This can happen through the intentional recruitment and preparation of nontraditional and new student leaders. It can also happen with the intentional development of new social norms among the student body, between students and adults, and throughout the entirety of the school community. Meaningful Student Involvement should be assessed for those new approaches to relationships among students, between students and adults, and ultimately, between students, adults, and the education system as a whole.

The desires, dreams, and possibilities students envision for school should be acknowledged, documented and assessed throughout the opportunities, particularly those of students who are not traditionally engaged in conversations about school improvement. Reports focused on Meaningful Student Involvement should be created with multiple audiences in mind, including politicians, policy-makers and other officials, as well as educators, administrators and students themselves. Additionally, significant time should be spent reflecting on who is involved in opportunities. This means students and adults should work together to examine which students participate; why they were involved; what percentage of students in a school were involved, and so forth.

Engaging students themselves in reflecting on the nature of current student involvement in your school, as well as plans or implementations focused on Meaningful Student Involvement. These reflections should also be shared with everyone possible throughout the education system. Their reflections can including benefits and limitations of Meaningful Student Involvement in school planning, education research, formal teaching and capacity development, learning evaluation, systemic decision-making, and education advocacy. Exploring which opportunities students are meaningfully involved in and why those opportunities happen is essential to evaluating and assessing Meaningful Student Involvement. Students should facilitate capacity building activities for students and adults to increase their ability to become meaningfully involved.

Assessments should be conducted by adults, too. They should have opportunities to continuously increase their capacity to meaningfully involve students, and identify limitations and possibilities of Meaningful Student Involvement throughout education. There should also be opportunities for everyone, including students and adults, to assess what the levels of commitment to Meaningful Student Involvement are from various parties throughout the education system. This means that all sorts of students, administrators, teachers, support staff, parents, and other community members should be asked whether they are committed to Student/Adult Partnerships and Meaningful Student Involvement.

Looking across your current location in education, a specific evaluation should determine what opportunities for focused student voice, substantive student engagement, and Meaningful Student Involvement currently exist. Examining your policies, you should determine whether your classroom, individual school, local district, or state education agency has policies that can ensure or deter sustainable opportunities that meaningfully involve students throughout education. That same examination should determine whether your school or organization can compensate for the budget considerations affecting Meaningful Student Involvement. Ultimately, you should determine how far away your location is from one hundred percent Meaningful Student Involvement. Identify how many students experience meaningful opportunities and how frequently they experience them. When you have determined this percentage, you will know exactly how far you have to go.

There are many ways you can evaluate whether Meaningful Student Involvement exists and is recognizable. Simply allowing students to be involved is one way. Another way to determine existence is to examine classroom learning and determine what extent Meaningful Student Involvement is present in teaching activities. Acknowledging the classroom learning that happens through Meaningful Student Involvement should happen through students receiving credit. Other ways to identify meaningful involvement is by determining whether fiscal rewards, including stipends, scholarships, or salaries, are given to students who are involved, as well.

The quality of student involvement helps determine the meaningfulness. Sometimes, that quality is ensured through policy-making. When appropriate, schools should provide equitable or equal opportunities for students and adults to serve by establishing and enforcing substantive and appropriate terms of office, voting rights, or positions. Contingency plans should be developed to replace students whose terms, service, or job end early, and a conflict of interest policy for appropriate occasions. Policies that formally allow and encourage students to be involved in multiple activities without penalizing them are often necessary, as well as policies that give students appropriate access to adult allies who are involved including teachers, parents and support staff. Students who are involved should be allowed uninhibited access to information sources that allow them to be meaningfully involved, whether through the Internet, adults who are involved in decision-making, records, etc. Schools should also provide opportunities for students to continuously increase their capacity to be meaningfully involved through capacity building activities of all sorts.

One of the key measurements for Meaningful Student Involvement is that every student in every school has opportunities to systematically, intentionally learn about the structures, purposes, actions and outcomes of education. School should be assessed for whether they afford opportunities for students to expand their involvement in subsequent grade levels. Their learning about this should happen in a constructivist fashion, acknowledging what they know regardless of their grade level and expanding upon it through teaching, action, reflection and critical examination.

Students should be allowed and encouraged to address schoolwide issues, not only those that affect students. The language and concepts used in Meaningful Student Involvement opportunities should be adjusted or explained to students in order to create plainly accessible ideas for everyone involved. Students should also have opportunities to learn about different aspects of the activities they are involved in, whatever it may be focused on. If students are partnering with adults to create a classroom curriculum focused on local history, they should have opportunities to learn about curriculum design and delivery, as well as local history. This is true for any aspect of planning, research, teaching, evaluating, decision-making, or advocacy.

Measuring Infusion in Schools

Measuring Outcomes in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for
Measuring Outcomes in Meaningful Student Involvement by Adam F.C. Fletcher for

A large measurement within Meaningful Student Involvement is the extent to which every student experiences Student/Adult Partnerships. While there is a starting point for all action, it is important for schools, agencies, or education programs to have a strategic plan for expanding Meaningful Student Involvement. Ultimately, every student in every school can experience meaningfulness, whether in their individual classroom experience or collective school wide experience, whether in special and specific district or state education agency opportunities, or in broad student organizing for education improvement. All of this should be assessed in order to determine the efficacy of approaches.

The amount of authority between students and adults should be measured. In almost every circumstance throughout schools, students are held accountable by adults. They are held accountable for their academic achievement, classroom performance, attendance, behavior, attitudes and increasingly, opportunities outside of school. However, adults are not held similarly accountable to students. In Meaningful Student Involvement, mutual accountability is essential for partnerships. Similarly, students should experience appropriately and equitably distributed amounts of authority. Considering the specific conditions for Meaningful Student Involvement when determining how much authority students has is important; however, that should not be the determining factor for whether students should have authority. Instead, every situation should be seen objectively for its potential, purpose, and outcomes. Authority—the ability to author one’s story—is something that should be enculturated and codified throughout education for every participant whether students or adults. That authority should be present throughout learning, teaching and leadership as exemplified by Meaningful Student Involvement in education planning, research, teaching, evaluation, decision-making, and advocacy.

Parents should learn about Meaningful Student Involvement too. Their role in supporting, encouraging, sustaining and expanding Student/Adult Partnerships should not be under-acknowledged. In addition to teaching parents, they should also have opportunities to become engaged partners as well.

Opportunities should be assessed for whether they obligate or otherwise compel students and adults to be meaningfully involved. This helps determine amounts of authenticity and generosity, as well as the amounts of time required to build ownership and investment by the participants in Meaningful Student Involvement. These obligations can happen through mandate by education leaders, grant requirements, or agreements between students and adults. They can happen through teacher mandate over students. When policy is set in place, rules are made, or other formalized, codified decisions are written, they can be compulsory as well.

Meaningful Student Involvement necessitates continuous capacity building for students and adults. This may happen through knowledge-sharing and skill building, as well as other means. It may mean providing opportunities for students and adults to co-learn about skills such as communication, time management, project planning, meeting facilitation, budget management, and other skills. It could also mean that all partners learn about school improvement; equity and diversity in education; curricular approaches; leadership issues in education, and other issues. These continuous capacity building opportunities could also focus on topics that are core to Meaningful Student Involvement, including student/adult relationship building; inquiry-based learning; service learning; project planning; curriculum development; teaching skills; evaluation techniques; decision-making methods; and advocacy skills.

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Student Voice Revolution by Adam Fletcher ad 1

Students Stopping COVID-19

Students can help schools face the challenge of COVID-19.

As educators and leaders navigate COVID-19 (coronavirus), SoundOut encourages schools to foster student/adult partnerships to address the challenges facing schools right now. 

With that in mind, we call on classroom teachers, building leaders, district officials and others to engage the power of students to address the coronavirus. 

Students can…

  • Partner: Partner with educators to make decisions affecting students
  • Communicate: Make posters, videos and more to promote healthy actions
  • Inform: Inform peers with positive action and messages through social media
  • Build: Co-create webpages about COVID-19 for schools and districts
  • Research: Students can research quality resources for schools to learn more

Educators can…

  1. Take Action: Have create learning projects focused on preparing for the spread of coronavirus.
  2. Share Examples: Share student-created projects including posters, videos, webpages and more that students create in partnership with teachers, school leaders and communities in addressing coronavirus.
  3. Keep Going: Keep students active creating empowering messages and helping educators and administrators prepare for COVID-19, and keep sharing.

Working with adults as partners, students can help schools overcome the challenge of COVID-19. Have students helped your school so far? Share your examples in the comment section below!

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Habits of Meaningful Student Involvement

Fostering the attitudes needed to support Meaningful Student Involvement requires intention and action. The following attitudes form the habits of Meaningful Student Involvement. They reflect the highest attitudes and best potential individual habits required. In order to support every student in every school becoming meaningfully involved throughout every facet of the educational system, every part of the education system from kindergarten classrooms to the president of the country should foster these habits among students and adults alike.


Habits of Meaningful Student Involvement

  • Trust: Mutual trust is required, including trusting oneself and trusting others, whether its students trusting other students, students trusting adults, adults trusting students, or adults trusting other adults.
  • Inclusiveness: Intentionally reaching out to every student and every adult throughout a school or district or state agency should be a habit of all meaningful involvement.
  • Commitment: Everyone shares a commitment to build and support Student/Adult Partnerships for every student.
  • Reciprocity: Forming a habit of sharing with others what is shared with you is a key to meaningful involvement.
  • Challenging: Students should take on challenges throughout the educational process and across the entire education system by partnering with adults.
  • Equality: No student is more deserving or naturally needing meaningfulness in education than any other student.
  • Grit: Working hard to improve schools benefits each of us and every generation after us.
  • Learning: We learn valuable lessons we would not otherwise by serving our schools, communities and society at large through Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Equity: Adults should not do anything to or for students; they should do everything with students, or create opportunities for students to do it on their own.
  • Transformation: Schools are places where students will continually grow and change, and because of this they will continually grow and change in order to support students. They will do this through Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Humility: Students and adults are humble and accept that there are things about themselves and what they do in schools that can be transformed through Meaningful Student Involvement.
  • Accepting: Creating space for students to provide critiques instead of criticism requires adults become accepting of difference and acknowledging of ongoing change.

These attitudes are vital for individuals the education system to adopt, including students and all adults no matter what their roles. Our attitudes inform the deep beliefs every person has about teaching, learning and leadership—no matter what their age. These beliefs drive student and adult decisions and behavior in schools. The attitudes behind Meaningful Student Involvement are about looking at education in terms of creating value for everyone involved instead of adults alone. This is an engaging and necessary approach in today’s dynamic society that continues to transform every single day.


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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook written by Adam Fletcher published by CommonAction Publishing in 2017.


Truancy and Meaningful Student Involvement

For more than 100 years, schools have wrestled with truancy. Anytime students are intentionally late for class, late for school, or skipping class, they are deemed truant by schools. There are a lot of rules and regulations in schools governing truancy. Most schools and school districts use punishments to enforce those rules and regulations. Meaningful Student Involvement can play an important role in overcoming the challenges truancy presents in learning, teaching and leadership in K-12 schools.

Opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement

Students can become partners in addressing truancy in a lot of ways. With adults as allies, they can learn a great deal about why truancy happens, what it does and means, how it affects them and their schools, and why it matters so much. In schools and district offices across the nation, students and adults are working together to transform truancy through research, evaluation, planning and decision-making.

  • BOSTON: Working with district administration and their superintendent, the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC) investigated why students do not stay in school and became disengaged. BSAC created a survey, interviewed students, collected data and presented their findings to the School Committee. BSAC has combined their solutions with those of the dropout rate research and created a document that is still alive.

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Want student ownership? Be a learning partner, not a learning provider. Learn more at


Dropouts and Meaningful Student Involvement

Students and educators in a SoundOut workshop in São Paulo, Brazil in 2014.
Students and educators in a SoundOut workshop in São Paulo, Brazil.

The question of dropping out and Meaningful Student Involvement is challenging. Research collected by a variety of researchers shows that students who leave school early often want to be meaningfully involved in schools. They frequently attribute dropping out to not feeling heard or engaged in their learning, by teachers or from education leadership.


Students face a variety of realities within schools. With large percentages of students graduating on-time, many educators lose focus on students who are likely to leave schools early. Sometimes, systematic discrimination and institutional racism conspire to pushout these students. This happens through harsh punishments, punitive grading and uncommitted student support. Educators trying to control students’ behavior through punishments take away student ownership of their own education, which affects every other part of their schooling and beyond into their out-of-school experiences, too. Instead of pushing out students and causing them to dropout, educators can empower students through Meaningful Student Involvement in order to foster student autonomy, increase their sense of competence, and building their capacity to be in community with others. Negative consequences, timeouts, and punishment just make bad behavior worse

Dropouts can also feed into the school-to-prison pipeline.  Its more important for schools to focus on what causes students to dropout than it is to focus on dropping out.


There are challenges to using strategies for Meaningful Student Involvement to meet address dropping out. The dilemma is that a lot of research on student voice is qualitative. With student voice being embedded in a lot of methods, approaches and pedagogies, its effects haven’t been thoroughly analyzed for direct causation. The quantitative, data-driven, longitudinal outcomes of student voice simply haven’t been proven. Instead, its treated as having corollary effects on measurable challenges like dropping out. Research doesn’t really show that student voice directly impacts the dropout rate.


As more schools become committed to student voice, it becomes more important for educators to stay ethically grounded in their efforts. That means deliberately engaging students who aren’t normally engaged in class with dynamic, powerful strategies, and those include Meaningful Student Involvement. Researchers can continue their efforts to measure the significance of these approaches in a variety of ways, including establishing the causative effects of student voice, student engagement, and Meaningful Student Involvement.

In the meantime, educators, students, community partners and education leaders should keep innovating. More can, should, and must be done to engage all students in every school all of the time. By examining the behavior of students, as well as the perspectives of adults and adultism in schools, as well as using approaches like restorative justice in schools, student voice can transform schools for all students.


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Democracy and Meaningful Student Involvement

Democracy is at the heart of Meaningful Student Involvement. The goal of public schools should always focus on the primary role of anyone in society, which is that of citizen. First and foremost, if you live in a society and contribute to it, you are a citizen of that society, whether that is acknowledged or not.

Students do not have to wait until they are 18 to become citizens, and people from other countries do not have to wait until the government acknowledges their citizenship. Instead, everyone who contributes is a citizen right now, no matter who acknowledges that.

As a citizen, everyone should be able to participate as fully as they can with as few obstacles as possible. Student voice is one avenue for participation.

When they enter the door to schools, students are participating as citizens in society. Their purpose in schools is more than to simply become adults or workers. Instead, it is what W.E.B. DuBois challenged when he wrote, “The ideals of education, whether men [sic] are taught to teach or plow, to weave or to write, must not be allowed to sink into sordid utilitarianism. Education must keep broad ideals before it, and never forget that it is dealing with Souls and not with Dollars.”

Meaningful Student Involvement narrows the broad ideals of student voice and targets students on democracy building in education. Some of the democratic purposes of education include:

  • Discovering—Exploring one’s own abilities and desires, and determining what their abilities are to fulfill their desires.
  • Learning—Deliberately setting about expanding, critiquing and transforming one’s abilities to fulfill their desires according to their own discovery and assessment.
  • Belonging—Joining a larger community of learners, students have powerful opportunities to self-identify who they are, who they aren’t and how they fit into the society they are part of.
  • Purpose—Through discovery and learning, students can also identify what they stand for and what they stand against, what matters to them and what doesn’t, and so forth.

There are many other purposes of education in general, but when it comes to democracy its vital to recognize the powerful, positive potential of Meaningful Student Involvement in schools.


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SoundOut Ideas to Transform Schools: Ten BIG Ideas

Adam Fletcher in Kentucky 2014
SoundOut’s Adam Fletcher presenting “10 Big Ideas” to educators in Kentucky.


For almost 15 years, SoundOut has been working to improve schools in the United States and Canada. During this time, we’ve focused on three primary platforms: Student voice, student engagement and Meaningful Student Involvement. Based on our studies and practice, we have many ideas about improving schools. Following are ten of the most important ones.

  1. Infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into every school’s improvement plan, everywhere and for every student.
  2. Teach all students about education as a process, as an institution and as a democratic responsibility.
  3. Educate every teacher in every school about all aspects of students’ cultures.
  4. Create opportunities for students to co-lead federal, state and district educational policymaking.
  5. Establish every student as an active, empowered and engaged partner in every aspect of schools and throughout the entire education system.
  6. Engage every educator in exploring the roles of discrimination throughout education.
  7. Develop standard opportunities for all students to research education, in  either elementary, middle or high school.
  8. Promote widespread understanding of adultism throughout the education system.
  9. Foster policies, professional development, student training and other sustainable supports for Meaningful Student Involvement.
  10. Challenge all student tokenism in all education settings, everywhere, all the time.



1. Infuse Meaningful Student Involvement into every school’s improvement plan, everywhere and for every student. Through currently existing programs and efforts, Meaningful Student Involvement can enliven, encourage and empower student/adult partnerships. Using the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement, educators and students can transform all parts of schools, including the culture and climate, the curriculum and assessment, the student support services, building leadership and extracurricular activities, as well as community connections and beyond. Learn more about school transformation through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right nowAt Park Forest Elementary School in State College, the Lead Learner (aka principal) Donnan Stoicovy has been using Meaningful Student Involvement as a guiding principle for more than a decade. Her efforts have created an elaborately healthy approach to student/adult partnerships throughout the school’s curriculum and culture, encouraging every learner to become engaged, empowered and successful.


2. Teach all students about education as a process, as an institution and as a democratic responsibility. Schools can begin empowering every learner by teaching them what education is, how it happens, how it affects them and what they can do to improve it by teaching students about education as a process, an institution and as a democratic responsibility. Like Toto running up to the Wizard of Oz’s curtain and pulling it back, students need to learn that school is not a mysterious process or unmovable force. Learn more about the purpose of schools.

Where its happening right nowSince the early 1970s, NOVA Project High School in Seattle, Washington, has been engaging students as partners. In the course of their learning, students explore their roles in the school and throughout the larger community. They become active in social change projects, lead school improvement activities and partner with educators and others in school decision-making.


3. Educate every teacher in every school about all aspects of student cultures. Student cultures are as varied and diverse as the entirety of North America. Even within homogenized communities, there is diversity of thought, opinion and belief that isn’t obvious to the naked eye. Teachers should learn to envision, identify, foster, embrace and enhance student cultures, giving students the abilities they need to be themselves throughout schools. Learn more about student cultures.

Where its happening right nowEducators with the kid∙FRIENDLy project in Kentucky have been taught about student culture from students and SoundOut staff. Working with hundreds of classroom teachers and building leaders from the western part of the state, SoundOut helped educators learn about the diversity of students today, they different ways students perceive their educations, and a variety of ways educators can embrace student voice right now.


4. Create opportunities for students to co-lead federal, state and district educational policymaking. Educational decision-making at all levels needs to include students as partners. Empowering and infusing student/adult partnerships into schools, its essential that students have opportunities to deeply affect, address, create and critique district, state and federal educational policymaking. With equal numbers of elected, full voting positions on school boards, regularly hired spots in education agencies, and appointed seats on committees, students will be seen and treated as partners, not only at school but throughout the entirety of the education system. Learn more about student voice in education agencies.

Where its happening right nowStudents on the Alberta Minster of Education’s Student Advisory Council have been informing the provincial Alberta Education agency as they plan and implement school improvement for more than 5 years. Affecting everyone of the provinces 61 school districts, the Council has shared opinions and ideas about dozens of topics with Ministry officials. Focusing primarily on the question of how to promote student engagement throughout education, the Council has influenced decisions on curriculum, teacher prep, and many other issues.


5. Establish every student as an active, empowered and engaged partner in every aspect of schools and throughout the entire education system. Routinely asking the same students to be active again and again only perpetuates an ineffective vision for student leadership. New opportunities should be created and sustained for every student in every school, not just the convenient students in traditional roles. Learn more about traditional and nontraditional student voice.

Where its happening right nowFor almost a decade, Youth and Adults Transforming Education Together, or YATST, has been working to transform the entire education system from within. School-level teams work to study and transform their buildings, while the program works statewide to ensure student knowledge and ability is kept at top levels with training, networking and other activities. State-level officials stay in-touch with the program regularly, and recent legislation was passed to ensure longterm sustainability for the program.


6. Engage every educator in exploring the roles of discrimination throughout education. Whether they are elementary class teachers, senior high literature teachers, building leaders, elected district officials or appointed state school board members, every educator has a responsibility to identify, examine, critique and denounce discrimination throughout education. This happens from the delivery of classroom content to the development of assessments; from behavior practices to parent involvement. Learn more about discrimination in education.

Where its happening right nowA growing awareness of adultism in schools is driving several national organizations to adopt new policies, approaches and programs. They include the Southern Poverty Law Center, which features a lesson plan about adultism on their website. This lesson plan is intended to help educators understand what they may consciously or unconsciously be doing in schools and how that affects students.


7. Develop standard opportunities for all students to research, plan, teach, evaluate, make decisions and advocate within the education system, in  either elementary, middle or high school. Every student should experience the depth and breadth of Meaningful Student Involvement throughout their education careers. Starting in kindergarten, all students should have gradually expanding and deepening opportunities to learn, grow and lead schools. Learn more about growing through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right nowWith a focus on whole school Meaningful Student Involvement, Jefferson County Open School has implemented a K-12 approach to education for more than 40 years. Students have opportunities to lead, partner and implement many parts of the educative process, as well as the school itself.


8. Promote widespread understanding of adultism throughout the education system. Adultism is bias towards adults, consequently resulting in discrimination against students. Adultism is present in the very assumption behind public schools, which is that all young people should be forced to attend. Continuing from there, adultism becomes obvious in school design; curriculum and assessment; teaching and classroom management; building leadership; state policy; and beyond. Learn about adultism in schools.

Where its happening right now: Do you know of a school where this is happening? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


9. Foster policies, professional development, student training and other sustainable supports for Meaningful Student Involvement. Every effort should be made and supported to address, identify and implement policies that support Meaningful Student Involvement, as well as policies that are barriers to student/adult partnerships. From there, new and rewritten policies should be written that emphasize Meaningful Student Involvement. Different approaches, ideas and abilities need to be implemented and evaluated, all centered on Meaningful Student Involvement. Learn more about policies affecting Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right now: Do you know of a school where this is happening? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


10. Encourage Meaningful Student Involvement in all education settings, everywhere, all the time. When students, educators, administrators, parents and community partners are empowered with the knowledge of Meaningful Student Involvement, they are automatically charged with challenging status quo. Rather than just knowing about it, people who learn about Meaningful Student Involvement must feel compelled to do something about it. Standing still is simply no longer an option. Learn more about Meaningful Student Involvement.

Where its happening right now: Do you know of a school where this is happening? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Tips for Teachers: Meaningful Student Involvement Everyday

There are simple ways that classroom teachers can foster Meaningful Student Involvement everyday. By infusing students as partners throughout teaching and learning, teachers can empower, engage and enliven the experience of every learner in their classes.

Through the years we’ve been teaching and training and leading projects in K-12 schools across the United States, SoundOut has collected best practices of all kinds. Here are some ways Meaningful Student Involvement can happen everyday.

Tips for Teachers

Following are some tips for teachers who

Tip #1. Respect All Students, Everywhere, All the Time

  • Learn students’ names and use them frequently.
  • Show students you’re interested in them through deliberate interactions, thoughtful words and kindness.
  • Teach students about and foster student/adult partnerships in order to flip the traditional passive student role they assume.

Tip #2. Build School Belonging and Student Ownership

  • Students can become meaningfully involved in your class by evaluating your lessons, creating your learning materials, facilitating activities for their peers, co-teaching with teachers, being peer mediators, tutoring younger students or peers, or contributing in other areas. After school student engagement in extracurricular activities, sports and more should focus on belonging and ownership of the learning experience.

Tip #3. Recognize and Share Each Partner’s Worth

  • Challenge students to do their best and share your confidence in their ability to do many things well. Make your expectations clear and give them space to develop their expectations for you. Encourage perseverance, facilitate applied learning and teach critical thinking. When students are ready to take action to improve their learning experience, make classroom learning better, or improve their schools, work through the Cycle of Engagement.

Tip #4. Accentuate Cooperation Instead of Competition

  • Structure classroom learning so students experience feel safe, secure, supported, and ready to learn. Acknowledge individual improvement and group work instead of emphasizing who is smartest, fastest, or most talented. Give recognition freely and compliment individual and group effort without people students against each other.

Tip #5. Teach Student Voice Skills

  • Empathy, communication, responsiveness, teamwork and collaboration and many other skills need to be taught, modeled and stressed. Be aware of and prevent teasing, gossiping, excluding, and other bullying behaviors, which are all expressions of student voice. Have the students role play partners and equity skills; ensure students and adults model the behaviors you want to reinforce.

Tip #6. Teach Problem-Solving Skills

To foster self-awareness and self-control have students use the following steps:

  1. Ask, “What is the problem?”
  2. Ask, “What can I do?”
  3. Make a list of ideas.
  4. Decide which one to try.
  5. Try it.
  6. Ask, “Did it work?”
  7. If not, ask, “What will I do now?”

Tip #7. Foster Skill Building and Knowledge Sharing About Schools

  • Provide opportunities for students to discuss their ideas for education and make decisions regarding learning, teaching and leadership in schools. Learn which skills to focus on and what knowledge to share with students. Establish a classroom action team to engage students’ interests and concerns and promote Meaningful Student Involvement. Build a school climate to support student voice by having students and staff write down behaviors and attitudes they’ve seen that are focused on improving schools, Meaningful Student Involvement and sharing student voice, and acknowledge the identified students.

Tip #8. Help Students Discover Their Educational Strengths and Talents

  • Provide time for students to imagine themselves doing something in the education system that is outstanding and worthwhile. After they set goals for themselves, discuss ways to reach their goals, and brainstorm choices they may need to make.

Tip #9. Model Tenacity, Emotional Maturity, and Healthy Attitudes

  • Be organized, consistent and use appropriate coping skills. Be genuine and avoid embarrassing or using sarcasm with students.

Tip #10. Involve Parents To Foster a Bonding, Nurturing Parent-Child Relationship

  • Help parents see that they are their student’s most important teachers, and that as role models they need to spend quality time teaching, training and exhibiting those habits and values they want their child to have. (For tips on how to encourage such a relationship, see our Parents Tips.)

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Whole School Meaningful Student Involvement


What would whole school Meaningful Student Involvement look like? There are a lot of ways to picture that vision. Following is one way to picture all of it.

What It May Look Like

Imagine a school where democracy is more than a buzzword, and involvement is more than attendance. It is a place where all adults and students interact as co-learners and leaders, and where students are encouraged to speak out about their schools. Picture all adults actively valuing student engagement and empowerment, and all students actively striving to become more engaged and empowered. Envision school classrooms where teachers place the experiences of students at the center of learning, and education boardrooms where everyone can learn from students as partners in school change. (Fletcher, 2005a)

Components of Whole School Meaningful Student Involvement

Whole school Meaningful Student Involvement happens when every student in every classroom experiences Student/Adult Partnerships throughout their educational experience. Following are some components that may be included:

Classrooms: Classrooms that embody Meaningful Student Involvement can look many different ways. However, certain attitudes and characteristics soak through these places. The main thing that is evident are Student/Adult Partnerships, which every student and every adult involved in a learning environment can experience.

Teaching: Teaching is more than methods or attendance. Instead, its a combination of intention, ability and outcomes, and everything in between. Meaningful Student Involvement happens when all of these reflect the Principles of Student/Adult Partnerships and the Elements of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Assessment: Rather than simply looking at the outcomes of teaching, learning and leadership, assessment should reflective a formative approach. Students should be at the center of their own assessment, too, with explicit instruction and direct opportunities to evaluate themselves, their peers, their classes, their schools and the entirety of the education system.

School Culture: The shared behaviors, actions and outcomes of students, teachers, support staff, leadership, parents and others form a school’s culture. Committing to engaging students as partners requires a high level of whole school commitment. Every partner in schools should be aware of these commitments and should demonstrate a high level of their own commitment, too.

School Climate: While some people have innate amounts of social and emotional intelligence, what they often sense in education is the school climate. ALL people are affected by school climate, which is made of the common feelings, attitudes, opinions, thoughts and beliefs of everyone within the school. If students are visibly disengaged, that is because educators, parents or others are too; vice versa is true as well.

School Committees: Comprised of various people from throughout the learning environment for a variety of purposes, school committees can address dozens of longterm topics, or many immediate issues facing a school. These bodies should make student involvement a high priority, deliberately nurturing opportunities, education and other avenues for Meaningful Student Involvement. With adjustments, they can be among the most direct ways every student can be involved.

Extracurricular Activities: Athletics, clubs and other activities that happen outside structured classroom time provide a lot of opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement. None of them is the exclusive domain for Student/Adult Partnerships though, including student government, honors clubs and ethnic clubs. All of those are opportunities, but so is being a library aide, peer mediator and even JROTC drill team member.

School Leadership: Principals, headmasters, assistance managers and other adult figures can foster Meaningful Student Involvement in many ways, including all the ones shared above and others. In context, Principals’ Advisory Teams, professional development, student body wide surveys, student training and other tools can foster Student/Adult Partnerships.

School Rules: All schools are governed by laws, policies and regulations from beyond them. However, they also develop their own rules. Meaningful Student Involvement can be infused throughout these rules, reflected in their structure and purpose as well as their creation and implementation. Since everyone in a school follows the rules, this is a great way to impact all students in every school.

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