U.S. Office of Students and Youth

The Office of Students and Youth is a former program of the United States Office of Education, now known as the United States Department of Education. Launched in 1969, the first leader of the office was Toby Moffet.

Activities

the office was created for several reasons:

  • To seek technical and financial assistance for innovative student-run programs
  • Keep USOE tuned in to students, and
  • Present a national overview of school tensions and ways of dealing with them
  • Run the Student Information Center in Washington, D.C., staffed mainly by local students, the center collects information on innovations in public high schools, especially those started by students; student rights; and participation in governance.

The Student Information Center also established a clearinghouse of information on secondary school issues, especially student-initiated reforms.

Citations

  • Moffett, A.J., Jr. (May 1970) “Youth Gets a Voice in New Student Center,” Nation’s Schools, 85(5). pp. 57-59.

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Every Student in Every School All of the Time

There are almost countless ways that every student shares student voice everyday. Are adults ready to listen? This article shares what student voice is, what student voice does, and whether student voice can make a difference in learning, teaching and leadership.

SoundOut defines student voice this way:

Student voice is any expression of any young person about anything, anytime, anywhere for any purpose as it relates to learning, teaching and education.

That means student voice is not the same as student leadership, student engagement, or other student activities. While all of those are some of the ways student voice is shared, they are not the only ways.

There are so many ways student voice happens. When a young person participates in class, they are sharing student voice. If they etch graffiti onto a hallway locker, they are sharing student voice. If they put on a suit and present at a school board meeting, they are sharing student voice. Here are some more ways students share student voice:

  • Attendance or skipping class
  • Submitting assignments or cheating and plagurizing
  • Completing group projects or not completing group projects
  • Voting or abstaining from voting
  • Complying or complaining
  • Joining clubs and teams or leaving fast
  • Mentoring or bullying

In some schools, student voice is treated as a synonym for student leadership. Only students who follow adult agendas, behave in ways adults approve, and decide things the ways adults would present student voice that is accepted by adults. In other schools, no student voice is ever valid, and every adult is always presented as having all authority over student expressions, no matter what they are. Neither of these is a true reality though.

Instead, as the list above shows, every action by any student, anywhere in school for any reason constitutes student voice—whether or not adults approve of it. With student voice constantly present, the question is not whether students are ready to share student voice—its whether adults are willing and prepared to listen to it.

There are many ways adults can embrace, engage and infuse student voice for students of all ages and all abilities for any purpose. Freechild’s sister program, SoundOut.org, shares the following as ways to do this:

  • Teach students about their voices: Rather than simply going through their days without consciousness, educators can teach every student about student voice
  • Teach students about schools: Many students spend 13 years in schools without ever understanding what it is they are part of. Help students understand the purpose, structure, activities, and outcomes of education
  • Teach students about improving schools: Share with learners how they are part of a system that includes grades, assessments, projects, reports, and democracy. Show them who affects them and what they can do to affect others, and engage them in activities to improve learning, teaching and leadership
  • Teach students about Meaningful Student Involvement: It is one thing to know about all of this, and another thing to actually do something about it. When student voice is activated for the purpose of connecting students to education, community, and democracy young people can learn most effectively

There are many other steps to take and a lot of examples available. For more information on engaging student voice, contact us today!

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Teacher Mindsets About Meaningful Student Involvement

Over the last decade, there has been a lot written about growth mindsets. There has been a lot said for adults learning about the concept, and teaching students about the idea. Here I want to elaborate on the role of growth mindsets for meaningful student involvement.

This graphic shows the differences between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.
This graphic shows the differences between the growth mindset and the fixed mindset.

In the 1990s, Carol Dweck started writing about growth mindsets. Centered on students’ perceptions of failure, Dweck found that some students came back quickly from failure and some students were devastated by failure. By studying their perceptions of failure, Dweck identified that the difference was that some students had a growth mindset and believed they could get smarter, while others had a fixed mindset and thought they would never succeed.

Testing whether those mindsets could be changed for the positive, Dweck and other researchers discovered that fixed mindsets could be changed with specific interventions.

I began learning about mindsets a decade ago. Applying what I found to the K-12 schools I worked in, I found that educators’ mindsets often determined which student voice they would listen to, which students would be meaningfully involved in schools, and which students would be focused on to engage. These seemingly innate perceptions about students were routinely informed by student identities and performance in schools, and were far from the equity that many educators say they aspire to.

Fixed Mindsets about Students

I quickly found that student involvement in traditional school activities, such as extracurricular clubs and athletics, was predicated on whether teachers thought the students who were involved deserved to be involved. If they deserved it, they let the students know. I call this gatekeeping. Gatekeeping allows certain students to be involved and keeps roles for teachers as gatekeepers. Gatekeepers decide which students can be involved according to various spoken and unspoken factors, including:

  • Academic achievement
  • Likeability
  • Compliance
  • Race
  • Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation
  • Socio-economic background

These “gates” are predicated on bias, allowing and disallowing some student voice to be valued while other student voice is silenced. It is the educators’ mindset or the join mindsets of several educators or school administration that permits, accepts and sustains this bias. This fixed mindset about students believes:

  • Students have to deserve or earn the right to have student voice heard
  • Only certain students selected by adults should be heard and other students should not be heard
  • There is a “perfect” or “right” type of student voice, and every other student voice is imperfect or isn’t right
  • Student voice should reproduce teacher voice
  • Only certain students have innate abilities to share student voice, and other students do not have this ability

Growth Mindsets about Students

A growth mindset about student involvement, student voice and student engagement allows and encourages all students to experience Meaningful Student Involvement whether adults accept them or not. Educators see that all learners have student voice, and all students understand they deserve to be involved — not because they’re particularly special, but because they are learners, and all learners should be heard, seen, acknowledge, and empowered.

When educators have growth mindsets about students, they…

  • Believe every student voice deserves to be heard
  • Make space for students to share what they want to, rather than just what adults want them to share
  • Work to deliberately engage every single student every single day in every single way possible
  • Teach students to focus on improving how they share student voice, not which students share or what they share
  • Focus on why student voice matters and why students share how they do
  • Believe in increasing others teachers’ capacities to meaningfully involve students

Decades ago, Dweck and her colleagues showed that teacher mindsets directly and deeply impact student mindsets. One of the informal findings from my work has been that when teachers think students are capable of positively transforming schools, students think they are positively capable of transforming schools. While their actions are (luckily) not contingent on adults believing in them, more students are going to become more active in education transformation when we check ourselves.

How do adult mindsets affect student voice, student engagement, and Meaningful Student Involvement in your school? Leave your thoughts in the comment section!

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Articles by SoundOut

Following are articles written for SoundOut about a variety of topics related to Meaningful Student Involvement. These publications cover student voice, student engagement, student/adult partnerships and more.

Articles on Meaningful Student Involvement

  1. Intro to Meaningful Student Involvement
  2. Making Student Involvement Meaningful
  3. Understanding Meaningfulness
  4. Tips on Action for Meaningful Student Involvement
  5. Spheres of Meaningful Student Involvement
  6. Critical Questions about Meaningful Student Involvement
  7. Measuring the People in Meaningful Student Involvement
  8. Measuring Activities in Meaningful Student Involvement
  9. Measuring Meaningful Student Involvement
  10. Strategies for Meaningful Student Involvement
  11. Measuring the Outcomes of Meaningful Student Involvement
  12. Elements of Meaningful Student Involvement
  13. Planning for Meaningful Student Involvement
  14. The Characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement
  15. Fully Meaningful Schools
  16. Learning from Meaningful Student Involvement
  17. Meaningful Student Involvement Activities
  18. Whole School Meaningful Student Involvement
  19. Reflection and Meaningful Student Involvement
  20. Methods for Meaningful Student Involvement
  21. Meaningful Student Involvement for Teachers
  22. Grade-Specific Approaches to Meaningful Student Involvement
  23. Adult Learning through Meaningful Student Involvement
  24. Preparing for Meaningful Student Involvement
  25. Places Meaningful Student Involvement Can Happen
  26. Issues Addressed Through Meaningful Student Involvement
  27. People Affected by Meaningful Student Involvement
  28. Impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement on Learning
  29. Impacts of Meaningful Student Involvement on Development
  30. Meaningful Student Involvement Deepens Learning
  31. Meaningful Student Involvement Engages All Students
  32. Meaningful Student Involvement Expands Student Expectations
  33. Meaningful Student Involvement Instills Commitment
  34. Meaningful Student Involvement Provides Systemic Responses
  35. Meaningful Student Involvement Acknowledges Students
  36. Meaningful Student Involvement Creates Student/Adult Partnerships
  37. Meaningful Student Involvement Does NOT Filter Students
  38. Meaningful Student Involvement Recognizes Students Rights
  39. Aims of Meaningful Student Involvement
  40. Learning from Meaningful Student Involvement
  41. Meaningful Student Involvement in North America
  42. Help Us Help Ourselves: Creating Supportive Learning Environments With Students
  43. Student-led Advocacy Success Stories
  44. Ladder of Student Involvement
  45. Students Can Improve Schools
  46. Student-Led Research Planning Guide

Articles on Student Voice

  1. Reasons Why Meaningful Student Involvement Matters
  2. Assessing the Conditions for Student Voice by Michael Fielding
  3. Definitions of Student Voice
  4. Student Voice Tip Sheet
  5. 65 Ways Students Can Share Student Voice
  6. Intro to Student Voice
  7. Why Student Voice? A Research Summary
  8. Student Voice and Student Engagement as a Trojan Horse
  9. Advocate for Student Voice
  10. Adults Must Engage Student Voice
  11. Share Student Voice Daily
  12. Four Kinds of Student Voice
  13. Student Voice in School Building Leadership
  14. Where Student Voice Happens
  15. Overcoming Barriers to Student Voice
  16. Bullying and Student Voice
  17. Convenient or Inconvenient Student Voice
  18. Broadening the Bounds of Involvement: Transforming Schools With Student Voice
  19. Acknowledging Student Voice

Articles on Student Engagement

  1. Multiple Engagement Styles
  2. Five Lessons About Student Engagement
  3. Intro to Student Engagement
  4. Defining Student Engagement: A Literature Review
  5. Cycle of Engagement

Articles on Barriers to Students

  1. Adult-Driven Student Voice
  2. Adultism in Schools
  3. Barriers to School Transformation
  4. 20 Ways to Stop Student Tokenism
  5. 51 Ways Student Tokenism Happens
  6. Students Sabotaging Meaningful Student Involvement
  7. Education Structure as a Barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement
  8. School Culture as a Barrier to Meaningful Student Involvement
  9. Students as Barriers
  10. Adults as Barriers to Meaningful Student Involvement
  11. Students on a Pedestal
  12. Intro to Student Tokenism

Articles about Student/Adult Partnerships

  1. Student/Adult Partnership Activities
  2. Elements of Student/Adult Partnerships
  3. Types of Relationships between Students and Adults
  4. Four Ways Adults Treat Students
  5. Adult Perspectives of Students

Articles for Understanding the Education System

  1. Understanding State Education Agencies
  2. How Decisions Are Made In School
  3. Learning to Learn
  4. Parts of the Education System
  5. The Purpose of Schools
  6. Extracurricular Activities
  7. Modern Schools
  8. Engaging the Disengaged

Articles about Students on School Boards

  1. Students on School Boards Fact Sheet
  2. Terms Related to Students on School Boards
  3. Activities for Students on School Boards
  4. Rationale for Students on School Boards
  5. How to Get Students on School Boards
  6. Options for Student Voice on School Boards
  7. Should School Boards Elect or Select Student Members?
  8. State-By-State Summary of Laws Affecting Students on School Boards
  9. State-By-State Summary of Students on School District Boards
  10. State-By-State Summary of Students on District School Boards
  11. State-By-State Summary of Students on State Boards of Education
  12. Students on School Boards in Canada
  13. Province-By-Province Summary of Laws Affecting Students in Decision-Making
  14. Summary of Students on District School Boards
  15. Students on District School Boards
  16. Students on State Boards of Education
  17. Students on School Boards Toolbox
  18. Involving Students on School Boards
  19. Barriers to Students on School Boards
  20. Quotes about Students on School Boards
  21. Critical Questions
  22. Publications Related to Students on School Boards
  23. FAQs
  24. Sources

Reviews

  1. Review: Fires in the Bathroom
  2. Review: “Student Voice in School Reform” and “Opening the Floodgates”
  3. Review: “What Works in Education Reform: Putting Young People at the Center”
  4. Review: How to Improve Your School by Giving Pupils a Voice
  5. Review: Critical Voices in School Reform; Students Living through Change
  6. Review: Student Leadership and Restructuring: A Case Study
  7. Review: Learning from Student Voices
  8. Review: FORUM Special Issue on Student Voice
  9. Tools for Listening to Student Voice
  10. Review of In Our Own Words: Students’ Perspectives on School
  11. A Review of “Student Perspectives on School Improvement”
  12. Review of “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education”
  13. Review: The Question of the Student in Educational Reform
  14. Review: The Roles of Youth in Society; A Reconceptualization
  15. Review: Look Who’s Talking Now; Student Views of Restructuring Schools
  16. Review: Putting Students at the Centre in Education Reform
  17. Review: “Listening To Urban Kids: School Reform And The Teachers They Want”
  18. Feature on Alison Cook-Sather
  19. Feature on Michael Fielding
  20. Feature on Roger Holdsworth
  21. Feature on Dana Mitra
  22. Feature on Adam Fletcher

 

Related Content

Student Burnout and Student Voice

The COVID-19 pandemic has ravished K-12 schools across the United States and around the world. After months or years out of physical school buildings, students have been brought back into classroom learning. However, a new epidemic has emerged throughout schools, and it is best summarized as student burnout. This article is about the connections between student burnout and student voice.

Student burnout happens when learners of all ages have had enough. Consciously or unconsciously, they’ve surrendered their will to learn. In response, they have become apathetic about learning and disconnected from school. Student burnout can be obvious or subtle, intentional or accidental, incidental or sustained.

When students throw trash around bathrooms, fight on social media posts, run out of classrooms, or skip school, they are being obvious. However, missing assignments, staring out the window and answering questions with rote memorization instead of thoughtful replies can all be indications of student burnout, too.

At SoundOut, we’ve discovered there is an intersection between student burnout and student voice. Working with more than 500 schools globally over the last 20 years, we’ve found the ability of students to express themselves about learning and schools is key to retaining positive possibilities for education. When students have authentic opportunities to share their knowledge, ideas, opinions, and concerns about education, they stay engaged in learning, teaching, and leadership throughout schools. When students feel compressed, repressed, or oppressed within schools, they disconnect from the teachers with the best intentions, the classes with the finest honed curriculums, and the most supportive learning environments to be crafted.

5 Steps to Fight Student Burnout

While we continue to move into this post-pandemic reality of educating students in highly compromised classrooms, we should center all of our work on engaging students by empowering authentic student voice. Here are some ways you can do that.

  1. Make space for student voice everyday »
  2. Build the power of students to share their voices »
  3. Network with other educators committed to fostering Meaningful Student Involvement in classrooms »
  4. Engage students with passion-oriented teaching methods »
  5. Consciously foster student voice in your classroom all the time »

If you see the potential and possibilities for student voice to combat student burnout but you’re not sure where to start, contact us today. SoundOut is excited to partner with K-12 educators and schools that are committed to Meaningful Student Involvement — find out why!

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Indicators of Student Engagement

In more than 20 years of academic research on student engagement, scholars have constantly tried to identify what reflects student engagement. Some studies have focused on teachers’ reflections about student engagement, while others have fixated on supposedly objective perspectives on students’ time-on-task and other observable phenomenon.

When I became Washington state’s first-ever student engagement specialist in 2000, I conducted a three year action research project to identify and advocate for the active, intentional, and practical engagement of every learner throughout K-12 schools. Since then I have supported more than 2,000 schools in their efforts to foster, expand, and sustain student engagement.

These are Adam F.C. Fletcher's five indicators of student engagement for SoundOut.org.
These are Adam F.C. Fletcher’s five indicators of student engagement for SoundOut.org.

SoundOut’s Indicators of Student Engagement

Following are the the five main indicators of student engagement I have identified through my work with SoundOut and beyond.

  1. Academic engagement is repeatedly choosing connection with curriculum, learning, and assessment within schools. Frequently positioned as “book learning” or “classroom learning,” academic engagement is shown through formal, structured, and specific activities and demonstrated through similar outcomes;
  2. Emotional engagement happens through Social Emotional Learning in classrooms and beyond. Emotional engagement is demonstrated through increased emotional intelligence, or EQ, and isn’t simply attached to curriculum. Instead, EQ is reflected in the interplay between classroom, climate, community, and interpersonal / intra-personal exhibition;
  3. Social engagement is reflected in connections students make through peer-to-peer relationships as well as with younger and older students, teachers and administrators, student support staff, and the broader school community. Again reflecting intra-personal engagement, the social indicator of student engagement is a direct reflection of culture and climate throughout the school environment;
  4. Cultural engagement is demonstrated through the continuous connections a student makes to language, history, dance, clothing, songs, and other types of cultural learning experiences within schools and beyond. Its obvious display isn’t the only way cultural engagement happens; rather, it is through stated, obvious, and demonstrable connectivity that students make their engagement known;
  5. Personal engagement is shown through students’ repeated connections to what matters most within themselves and throughout the world around them; and many other forms of student engagement. This is a largely interpersonal indicator, apparent only in the focuses of learners as they demonstrate interest, show consistency, and practice any given area of personal engagement.

All of these types of engagement happen within schools right now. However, with the exception of academic engagement, they are often treated as coincidental to the schooling experience. Research and practice reflected in literature from the last 20 years shows that quite the contrary, these indicators of engagement are essential for learner success in many ways.

With the breadth of student engagement clearly understood, it becomes easier to understand the rampant reality of student disengagement in schools today. This is what makes it essential to radically rethink how students are engaged throughout the education system.

What do you think of these indicators? I would love to read your thoughts and ideas, so share them in the comments. Interested in learning more? See the links below or contact SoundOut right now!

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SoundOut School Board Training

In a climate where more attention is being paid to student voice in the classroom, many are asking how school boards might approach incorporating students into their work in a way that goes beyond inviting someone to report on Homecoming festivities.

Bring SoundOut to your school district or conference for a workshop dedicated to understanding the power of student voice and the possibilities of student representation on the board of education. Adam Fletcher, a leading expert on student voice and representation, explores the benefits, challenges and opportunities for engaging students in the work of boards in a deep and meaningful way.

Outcomes

Workshop outcomes include participants…

  • Learning what student voice is, what it does, who it is for and how it happens;
  • Exploring roles for students on school boards, including activities, topics and outcomes that are appropriate for them, and;
  • Understanding how students are engaged on boards, including recruitment, training, maintaining and evaluating their roles.

For more information including fees and scheduling, contact SoundOut today!

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How to Sound Out: Making School Meaningful

For more than 20 years, SoundOut has been supporting Meaningful Student Involvement. But what makes school meaningful for students? After working with thousands of learners in more than 500 K-12 schools across the U.S., Canada and beyond, we have found that there are four steps every school can take.

To make school meaningful, every student should learn about learning, learn about schooling, learn about meaning, and learn about voice.
To make school meaningful, every student should learn about learning, learn about schooling, learn about meaning, and learn about voice.

To make school meaningful for every learner, everywhere, all the time, students should do these steps. Every student should…

  • Learn about Learning
  • Learn about Schooling
  • Learn about Meaning
  • Learn about Voice

Following is an exploration of each step for how to sound out by making school meaningful for all learners.

Learn about Learning

Learning is treated like a puzzle in schools today, where educators cryptically choose is learned, how its taught, why its important, where learning happens, and what the outcomes should be. However, through Meaningful Student Involvement students deliberately learn what learning is and why it matters; how learning happens and how they learn best; they choose when and where learning happens; and students themselves select who can teach them and what they want to learn.

Instead of acting as a sage-on-the-stage, teachers become learning facilitators and coaches whose mission is to help infuse the love of education into the hearts and minds of all learners. In places where Meaningful Student Involvement happens, starting at the earliest ages, students become empowered, engaged co-facilitators for themselves and their peers, interacting across grade levels and beyond individual topics to experience entwined learning across curricular areas in order to have rich, holistic learning experiences. Constructivist approaches ensure appropriate learning occurs, while jointly identified learning goals encourage student ownership and student agency throughout school. Learning about learning is the first step toward Meaningful Student Involvement for all learners, everywhere, all the time.

Learn about Schooling

Almost every student goes through schools without understanding what they are part of, why it matters, and how it operates. Instead, they go through the education system with the expectation that at some point they’ll be finished. Rather than being the passive recipients of adult-driven decision-making, all students of all abilities in all grade levels can become active, engaged, and equitable partners with educators and parents throughout the entire educative process. Starting in kindergarten and extending through to graduation, learning about schooling includes understanding the structure of the education system; the practices throughout the entire educational journey; the outcomes of schools; and the surrounding factors that make schooling a necessary and productive part of everyone’s learning in life. Learning about schooling is the second step towards engaging all students everywhere through Meaningful Student Involvement.

Learn about Meaning

Making meaning in our lives, our learning, and schooling should be the core of every students’ experience in K-12 education. As students learn about their attitudes and abilities, they should come to understand the meaning of what they’re acquiring starting in kindergarten, and why it matters all the way through graduation. When they understand why schooling matters for themselves, students can do almost anything necessary in order to learn. This is completely opposite from how many schools address meaningfulness today; instead, they act as if students need to be able to do anything demanded of them without any sense of purpose or meaning. SoundOut’s approach to Meaningful Student Involvement is contingent on students finding the meaning of their schooling experience, no matter what age or ability they have. This is the third step.

Learn about Voice

The last step in Meaningful Student Involvement happens when students learn about student voice; that is, any expression of any student about anything related to learning, schools, and education. When students learn what student voice is, how student voice is shared, why student voice matters, and who student voice is shared by and for, students find the deepest possible meaning and purpose for schooling. This can allow students to be effective and equitable partners throughout the education system, from the smallest classroom lesson to the largest hallway traffic to the most important school board meeting. Most importantly though, it can also allow them to be active agents of change in the systems that affects them most, including education, community, and democracy. That’s the goal of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Conclusion

As this article shows and our experience attests to, its entirely feasible for every student of any ability level in every grade to experience Meaningful Student Involvement every single day. There is a lot of work involved in this; however, this is what schools should be for: ensuring the meaningfulness of every student’s life every single day in every single way possible.

To find out how SoundOut can help you make school meaningful for every learner, contact us now »

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Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook by Adam Fletcher http://amzn.to/2xL3obn

Stop White Supremacy in Student Voice

“NO RACISM ALLOWED,” announced a loud banner across the school’s entrance. I’d come this high school in Michigan to train the new SoundOut Student Equity Team, and was greeted by a handful of students.

Seattle students at the SoundOut Summer Camp
A group of high school students in a SoundOut training.

As we walked through the hallways on a winter day in 2018, I listed to stories from the students about their work to challenge white supremacy in the education system. It was an alternative high school for historically disengaged learners in a mid-sized urban school districts. The students led training for their peers and teachers, and the building was known for being progressive. It was an inspiring experience.

During our workshop focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, the students talked openly about white supremacy, white fragility, willful ignorance, whitesplaining and all bias, especially discrimination and hatred against Black people, American Indians, and other people of color. All sophomores and juniors, they shared that in their careers as students they’d experienced these realities directly as racist slurs, white supremacist curriculum, the school-to-prison pipeline and other hate-filled, explicitly discriminatory activities in schools. However, they also said that white supremacy poisoned their experiences from their youngest years through micro-aggressions and other toxic behaviors by teachers, principals and other students, including being facetious, making light, being condescending, gaslighting and otherwise demeaning, belittling, or insulting Black people, American Indians, and other people of color.


White Supremacy in Student Voice

Do your student voice activities reflect these traits? These traits are damaging to both students of color and white students. They reflect predominant white culture, and should be addressed and dismantled through Meaningful Student Involvement.

  • Perfectionism, instead of a culture of appreciation
  • Sense of Urgency, instead of realistic workplans and outcomes
  • Defensiveness, instead of understanding that school cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse
  • Quantity Over Quality, instead of fostering processes and quality goals in your planning
  • Worship of the Written Word, instead of accepting that there are many ways to get to the same goal
  • Paternalism or Adultism, instead of making sure that all students know and understand who makes what decisions in the class, program, school and education system
  • Either/Or Thinking, instead of noticing when students use either/or language and pushing to come up with more than two alternatives
  • Power Hoarding, instead of including power sharing in your class, program, school and education system’s values statement
  • Fear of Open Conflict, instead of handling conflict before conflict happens and distinguishing between being polite and raising hard issues
  • Individualism, instead of honoring students based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals
  • Progress is Bigger, More, instead of fostering deep impact, meaningful processes, and holistic outcomes of all involved
  • Objectivity, instead of realizing that every student has their own world view and that every student’s world view affects the way they understand things
  • Right to Comfort, instead of understanding that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning

Adapted from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001


The reason I was there was to learn with them about how Meaningful Student Involvement has no room for racism. Ultimately, we resolved that white supremacy should be canceled from every student voice activity of any kind. These students were determined to immediately and completely address all white supremacy in their schools, whether from other students expressing internalized racism, or from educators who were resistant or ignorant of their own indiscretions and hatred for students of color. They were determined to make their school stop being racist.

Unfortunately, in my experience working with hundreds of schools nationwide, this isn’t the case across the United States. A lot of well-meaning but poorly informed student voice activities inadvertently reflect an overwhelming trend towards white supremacy, including featuring white student voice as representative of all student voice; homogenizing student leadership and acting as if small elite groups of designated student leaders can represent large swaths of the student body effectively, and otherwise diminishing the capacity, power and possibilities of African American, Latino/a and Hispanic, American Indian and other students of color to share their voices in positive ways throughout the education system in order to affect curriculum, learning, teaching and leadership.

Worse still, most of the current practices in student voice clearly and wholly minimize and undermine the tremendous ways that students can be meaningfully involved in the entire functioning of schools, including the teaching of classes; research of educational practices; planning curriculum, calendars and policies; evaluation of learning, teaching and climates; decision-making at all levels; and advocacy for what students themselves believe in.

SoundOut Student Voice Team at Cleveland High School, Seattle WA
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington.

The potential of students becoming substantively involved in determining the course of their own learning, let alone leading the entire education system, is regularly dismissed by educators who claim the lack of students’ abilities, skills and knowledge is the undoing of Meaningful Student Involvement. However, more than twenty years of research clearly shows otherwise.

I am beginning to understand that these concerns are merely convenient cloaks for “keeping kids in their place.” By denying their roles, adults everywhere are working hard to ensure the status quo is maintained. Today, however, we know this is merely the defense of white supremacy everywhere. In order to confront our collective racism, white supremacy, willful ignorance, and ANY bias against students of color, every school with every grade everywhere across the country must shift to Meaningful Student Involvement immediately.

Spaces for Student Voice
These are the spaces where student voice should be engaged throughout education.

Fostering the characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement is the first step in this process. Moving towards re-conceptualizing the roles of students throughout the education system is further down the line. Ultimately, we must establish the role of the Public Student, whose sole purpose is to actualize the potential of democratic society be becoming an educated, engaged member of the world around them through learning, teaching and leadership.

Are you ready to stop white supremacy in education? The first step is to stop white supremacy in student voice. What are you going to do next? Please share you thoughts in the comments below.


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Typical Engagement? Students on School Boards in the U.S.

Originally published in Connect, Volume 2011, Issue 187.

A recent study reported that as much as 92% of any individual school building population in the U.S. is comprised of students, with adults accounting for only 8% of the total humans in any given school. There is a growing concern for the vastly underutilized majority as well as the unjust nature of decision-making in schools as people everywhere struggle with how to make schools more effective for all students.

At the same time, through our observations and study, I have determined there are more than 500 school districts across the United States that engage students on boards of education in some way.

As part of my work through SoundOut, I provide technical assistance and training to districts that are interested in systematically engaging students in education policy-making. I have researched more than 40 years of involving students as school board members, and follow national trends carefully. This article is a report and analysis focused on the growing interest in the practice of engaging students through boards of education, both at the state and local levels, across the U.S.


There are several types of practices that involve students with school boards.

The lowest bar is simply and routinely asking students what they think about school board policy-making issues. This can be a formal process mandated through policy, conducted through online surveys or in-person student forums. Another practice is to require regular student attendance at school board meetings. Both of these are generally seen as non-meaningful forms of involvement, as they do not require students have an active role in the process of decision-making beyond that
of “informant”.

Higher up the ladder is the practice of having student advisory boards that inform regular school board decision-making. This is the case in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Boston Student Advisory Council is a citywide body of student leaders representing their respective high schools. BSAC, which is coordinated by the administered by the district office in partnership with a nonprofit called Youth on Board, offers student perspectives on high school renewal efforts and inform their respective schools about relevant citywide school issues. In addition to personal skill development and knowledge building activities for their 20-plus members, BSAC students have strongly influenced district policy-making about cell phone usage, truancy, and reducing the drop out rate. They also have regular dialogues with the district superintendent and school board members.

The Denver, Colorado, Student Board of Education is a group
of 30 students who represent the15 high schools in the city. They are charged to serve as leaders in their schools and represent all students at the district level. Students create projects that affect their local schools and report back on them to the district. They have also created a curriculum that is used in several high school leadership classes. However, these students have to ask permission to speak to their regular board, and that does not happen frequently. According to a recent local newspaper article, the district has trepidations about giving students a regular voice in school policy-making. An attorney with the Denver School District was quoted saying, “The law does not provide for a means by which to create a student position on the board, whether it’s a voting position or not.”

One of the main issues in student involvement in boards of education is whether students are legally allowed to sit on boards, and if they are allowed, whether they have a full vote akin to their adult peers. A 2002 study posted on SoundOut identifies laws regarding student involvement on state and local school boards in 39 states out of 50 states across the U.S. The results vary:

  • As many as 16 states have laws allowing students to sit on school boards at the state level, with no vote
  • 20 states allow the same at the district level
  • Six states disallow either entirely, while seven allow full student voting on the state and district levels

Despite being allowed otherwise in those seven states, only California and Maryland actually have full-voting members on their state boards of education. Both of those states have highly influential student organizations that openly lobby for student voice.

The California Association of Student Councils, founded in 1947, proudly proclaims that all their programs are student-led. One of their most powerful activities is the Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education, or SABLE. Each February, SABLE convenes in the state capital to set education priorities and share them with key decision-makers. They have a direct audience with the Senate Education Committee, and their influence helped form a position for a full-voting
student member of the California State Board of Education
, whose position was created in 1969. They gained full voting rights in 1983, including closed sessions.

The Maryland Association of Student Councils has similar impact in their state, with a student member serving in a regularly elected position annually.

As I have written before, I have more than a decade working with hundreds of schools across the U.S. and Canada to promote meaningful student involvement. Among the things I have found is an inherent dilemma in the type of special positioning students on school boards receive. The dilemma is that while an extremely limited number of students gets an opportunity to share their voices with adult decision-makers in the system, this type of “convenient student voice” is generally conducted at the adults’ convenience and with their approval.

In a growing number of states, the status quo of being excluded does not suit students themselves anymore. Currently, a disjointed but growing movement is seeking to increase the authority of students in school policy-making and decisions.

In Hawaii, there has been a nonvoting student representative on the state board of education for more than 20 years. However, a recent proposal would eliminate the position. A Facebook page sought to maintain that role.

In my home state of Washington, a group of independent students worked with the state’s Legislative Youth Advisory Council to lower the voting age for school board elections to 14, which, while not necessarily installing students on school boards, would give them a concrete say in education policy-making.

In Maryland, where students already have a role on the state board of education and in many district boards, in counties across the state there are active campaigns to increase the effect of student voice, with students calling for a full and regular vote in education policymaking. There is even an instance in Maryland where an 18-year-old named Edward Burroughs was elected to his local school board through regular office after running an effective campaign.

These examples allude to the process of what I refer to as engagement typification, where the roles of students are repositioned throughout the education system to allow Meaningful Student Involvement to become the standard treatment for all students, rather than something that is
exceptional. Consistently positioning students as in special positions doesn’t allow adults, including educators, administrators, or parents, to integrate students throughout the regular operations of the educational system. While seeing their peers as school board members is enticing to a number of students, most are disallowed them from seeing themselves as regular and full members of the leadership and ownership of education, or as trustees for their own well-being.

That is what differentiates Meaningful Student Involvement from other attempts at student engagement and student voice: Positioning students as full owners of what they learn. Involving students on school
boards is a step in the right direction; the next question is whether anywhere in the world is ready to go the full distance.

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