Articles Reviews

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


  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


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Assessing the Conditions for Student Voice by Michael Fielding

This article was originally published as “Assessing the Conditions for Student Voice” and was written by Michael Fielding of the University of Sussex. It was originally published in FORUM Vol. 43, No. 2 in Summer 2001. It is included here with permission from author.

  • Who is allowed to speak?
  • To whom are they allowed to speak?
  • What are they allowed to speak about?
  • What language is encouraged / allowed?
  • Who decides the answer to these questions?
  • How are those decisions made?
  • How, when, where, to whom and how often are those decisions communicated?
  • Who is listening?
  • Why are they listening?
  • How are they listening?
  • Are the skills of dialogue encouraged and supported through training or other appropriate means?
  • Are those skills understood, developed and practised within the context of democratic values and dispositions?
  • Are those skills themselves transformed by those values and dispositions?
Attitudes & Dispositions
  • How do those involved regard each other?
  • To what degree are the principle of equal value and the dispositions of care felt reciprocally and demonstrated through the reality of daily encounter?
  • How often does dialogue and encounter in which student voice is centrally important occur?
  • Who decides?
  • How do the systems enshrining the value and necessity of student voice mesh with or relate to other organisational arrangements (particularly those involving adults)?
Organisational Culture
  • Do the cultural norms and values of the school proclaim the centrality of student voice within the context of education as a shared responsibility and shared achievement?
  • Do the practices, traditions and routine daily encounters demonstrate values supportive of student voice?
  • Where are the public spaces (physical and metaphorical) in which these encounters might take place?
  • Who controls them?
  • What values shape their being and their use?
  • What action is taken?
  • Who feels responsible?
  • What happens if aspirations and good intentions are not realised?
The Future
  • Do we need new structures?
  • Do we need new ways of relating to each other?

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Review of In Our Own Words: Students’ Perspectives on School

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

Review of Shultz, J., Cook-Sather, A. (Eds). (2001) In Our Own Words: Students’ Perspectives On School. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

This book features the writing of eight student/adult teams, each sharing their feelings and perspectives of students about school. The teams consisted of middle school, high school, and college students who worked in collaboration with their classroom teachers and university researchers. The final chapter documents major issues encountered by teachers and researchers in co-publishing with student authors.

This publication was the first to engage students as coauthors throughout the process. The editors offer the voices of students as testimonies to the effects of education reform.

After an introductory chapter that explores the students’ writing from an adult perspective, the student authors explore important issues in school change, including:

  • Identity and diversity
  • Curricula
  • Rules
  • Skipping class
  • Real-world learning, and
  • The complexities of education reform.

The authors offer a final chapter about the process of engaging the students in critical reflection and education writing.

There are useful ideas presented throughout the book, however, while some are directly accessible to readers, others must be extrapolated from the writing. An example comes from the chapter, “Our World.” A student author wrote,

“There’s a lot of reasons to keep bilingual education. For example, people that don’t know any English, like my mom and dad, don’t expect to learn English on their own. They thought that they would have a teacher of their own to make their time easier. But it didn’t happen that way” (p37).

This book also embodies an uneasy tension involved in listening to
students: Is it the job of the adult to “interpret” students’ words in order to make students’ commentary more accessible to adults, or should the ideas, experiences, opinions and knowledge of students be unfettered?

The final student-written chapter of the book illustrates this tension. The students in a girls-only writing project wrote a chapter entitled, “Writing the Wrong.”

However, instead of letting the students’ writing speak for itself, their adult co-authors offered specific recommendations for improving schools, which they said were “embedded” in student freewriting (p163). The reader is left to decide the appropriateness of this approach.

As they reflected on the rewards of writing this book, the editors offered several benefits, which for the students included the opportunities to: Have their voices heard; see their names in print; realize they can have an impact on school practices, and; enjoy and learn from the collaborative writing process (p176).

The authors in this volume illustrate that issues of reassurance
and concrete support are central to including students in school change. This book demonstrates that by meaningfully involving students, educators can acknowledge the authority students have, and give credence to the contributions young people can make to school improvement.

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A Review of “Student Perspectives on School Improvement”

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

Review of “Student Perspectives on School Improvement,” by J. Beresford. A paper presented in 2000 at the British Educational Research Association Conference, Cardiff University, Sep. 7-10.

Student Perspectives traces the development of a survey that measures students’ ideas and concerns about particular learning activities in schools. Each activity is explored, combining a review of the literature and findings from empirical research from the survey.

The purpose of the survey was to:

  1. Develop a ‘user-friendly’ instrument to find out the views of students on the classrooms where they learned.
  2. Record students’ views on how schools were run.
  3. Testify to the validity of the student voice in providing information on how schools can improve.

The researcher explored six primary classroom ‘conditions’ that were contended to improve student learning:

  • Self-assessment
  • Independent learning
  • Affinity to teachers
  • Learning repertoire
  • Orientation to learning
  • Adjustment to school

Using data from 6,000 high school-age students in 40 schools across the United Kingdom, combined with a comprehensive literature review, the study presented 24 statements relating to specific teaching activities that are associated with the above classroom conditions. Next, these results were compared to previous studies that measured teachers’ perceptions of the same items.

Findings include:

  • Control is important to students, who frequently cite school attendance, good behavior and finding classroom equipment as primary examples of the things they control in school.
  • Students do not often reflect on school, and feel uncomfortable seeking help from teachers. In the absence of these key components students will find it difficult to assess with any accuracy how well they are doing, and how they can improve.
  • Teachers often have a limited teaching repertoire, and students find many lessons uninteresting and easy to disengage from.
  • Despite this, students generally show positive attitudes toward schoolwork and positive behavior.
  • In the seventh grade, students are generally enthusiastic about their schools. They take greatest care about what they report to parents, they find teachers more helpful than other years, they are extremely enthusiastic about their lessons, claim to work harder than other years and are happier with school rules.
  • Eighth grade boys seem most discontented with school. They appear to be the group least able to self-assess, the group with poorest relationships with teachers, and the group whose self-perception of their own behavior is poorest.
  • Of the girls, tenth graders seem the most discontented. They are the least reflective of their courses, they have the poorest relationships with their teachers and they have most complaints about school rules. Boys show similar traits in eleventh grade.

“Student Perspectives” suggests that the findings derived from the survey provide a useful focus for the dialogue between teachers and students, which is a critical factor in improving students’ learning.

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Review of “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education”

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

Review of “Authorizing Students’ Perspectives: Toward Trust, Dialogue, and Change in Education,” By A. Cook-Sather. Published in 2002 in Educational Researcher 31(4) pp 3-14.

After a hundred years of public schooling entrenched in authoritarianism, it comes as no surprise that the past twenty years of school reform efforts have been an adult-driven process that relies on adult ideas and conceptualizations about education.

Cook-Sather’s argument for authorizing student perspectives runs counter to these practices. In order to truly engage students in school reform, advocates for student inclusive school change must change the minds of adults and the structures of schools.

In the introduction to her paper Cook-Sather introduces the history and foundation of her concept of “authorizing” the perspectives of students. She writes,

“At the root of the terms that underlie the following discussion – authorize, authority, author, and authoritative – is power: the ability to take one’s place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one’s part matter” (p3).

Cook-Sather then provides a preliminary synopsis of research supporting her theory, and places this work in critical theory, couching the concept of “authorizing students perspective” in the work of writers Henry Giroux and Michelle Fine.

She then introduces a broad range of activities by researchers and educators and identifies the diverse backgrounds of those activities.

Cook-Sather examines the history of popular attitudes about young people, exploring early nineteenth century philosophy and mid-twentieth century psychology.

She then identifies a variety of attempts at engaging students in school change in the last fifty years, including the work of constructivist and critical education theorists.

Diversifying the palette of interest in student voice, Cook-Sather also explores interconnections with postmodern feminists and social critics, as well as recent developments in the medical and legal realms that offer social contexts for engaging participants in institutional transformation.

Cook-Sather believes that students should not just be listened to, but also be engaged in the work of school reform.

She notes research which showed that as well as being engaged in change work, it is essential for students to see themselves as change agents. Cook-Sather acknowledges several important nuances, including the importance of every educator asking their students what they think directly, rather than relying on studies and indirect surveys.

She discusses the challenges educators may face, including logistical, psychological, intellectual and personal barriers, and describes possibilities of overcoming these hurdles.

Finally, Cook-Sather proposes that student involvement advocates “go beyond what has already been accomplished.” She suggests that instead of simply rethinking where students can have power and authority in schools, actually create sustainable activities where that power takes form and purpose within schools.

Authorizing provides an important theoretical construct for educators to develop their own opportunities for Meaningful Student Involvement.

The background information provides ample justification for action, while Cook-Sather’s experience encourages readers to take action on their own.

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Review: The Question of the Student in Educational Reform

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

Review of “The question of the student in educational reform,” by DP Ericson & FS Ellett. Published in 2002 in Education Policy Analysis Archives 10(31).

By recognizing that students are “casually central” to education reform, Ericson and Ellett provide vital rationale for student inclusion in school success.

This paper thoroughly explores the role of the student in schools currently, exposing how students may actually undercut the intent of education reform, and further, how current reform efforts might actually be promoting mediocrity rather than excellence in schools.

The authors then identify a variety of pathways for student inclusive school reform, challenging the conceptual framework of the current educational reform movement.

“In pursuing the goals of educational reform over the past several decades, educational policy makers have focused on teachers, administrators, and school structures as keys to higher educational achievement. Yet… students are as causally central as educators in bringing about higher educational achievement” (p1).

Ericson and Ellett pull no punches in this comprehensive exploration of the role of students in schools today. By providing a thorough examination of current reform efforts and intentions, the authors place the necessity of student inclusive school change in the center of any movement for education excellence.

“It is the students – their goals, motivations, and conceptions of the good life – that may well prove to be the undoing of the educational reform movement” (p2).

After questioning the reasons that students can interact with adults in schools, the authors provide a seemingly radical formula for educational reform: abandon all attempts at rewarding students (grades, degrees, diplomas, etc.)(p21).

The authors offer a detailed philosophical analysis of current students roles that pivotally recognizes their central role in school change.

As Rubin (2003) noted, “Ericson and Ellett aptly describe the need to bridge the effort of reformers with the experiences of students.”

This is especially important to meaningful student involvement in school change, and the concept is deeply indebted to this particular article.

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Review: The Roles of Youth in Society; A Reconceptualization

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

Review of “The roles of youth in society: A reconceptualization” By R. Kurth-Schai. Published in 1988 in The Educational Forum 52(2) pp 113-133.

The Roles of Youth is a uniquely succinct, powerful and poignant offering to the student voice field.

Kurth-Schai offers an eloquent argument that proposes a major realignment of the purpose of schooling, and consequently, the roles of students in schools. She explores the current perceptions of young people according to educational practices; a variety of literature; and the ways that society’s perception of children and youth are changing today.

This document climaxes in an exciting exploration of potential roles for all young people in schools.

In 1988 very few education experts were considering the potential of student involvement as a lever in school change, let alone engaging students in meaningful activities and powerful relationships that would actually renegotiate the purpose and possibilities of the modern school. In an a literary environment that focused on dissecting national reports about school failure and student apathy, Kurth-Schai created a powerful proposal that continues to impact schools today.

This article summarizes her vision, and provides significant research to support it. The proposition that students can be powerful contributors to schools and society is relentlessly justified throughout this piece.

Every paragraph reconsiders the necessity, the rationale, or the possibilities of Meaningful Student Involvement. Kurth-Schai proposed that reconceptualizing the roles of young people in society has powerful implications on schools. She offered three parallel processes for that action:

  • Reconceptualizing the role of youth in the classroom. Where perceiving students as “receptacles of knowledge” was appropriate in a past workforce that relied on standardization and specialization, today it is not. To achieve the flexibility and innovation that today’s marketplace values, students should be engaged as creators, disseminators, and implementers of knowledge. Specific roles should reflect the need for the educator-child, a student who learns the responsibility of designing, selecting, and implementing curriculum, evaluation procedures, and motivational strategies for the purpose of learning about teaching, and for successfully teaching their peers.
  • Reconceptualizing areas of curricular emphasis. Subject matter and instructional methods should be selected to emphasize
    1. Student-directed learning experiences
    2. Cross-generational learning experiences
    3. Exploratory learning experiences
    4. Integrative learning experiences
    5. Cooperative learning experiences, and
    6. Action-oriented learning experiences.

Kurth-Schai also writes that students should also have the opportunity to A) determine the areas of freedom, responsibility, and service in which they would like to participate; B) assume primary control of administrative processes, and; C) receive recognition and/or compensation for the services they provide.

  • Reconceptualizing the role of the school in society. Similar to the vibrant George Counts’ challenge that dare the schools build a new social order, this article proposes schools must reassert their meaning for themselves. If schools are going to support young people as they exercise higher levels of personal freedom and social responsibility, schools cannot continue to move towards the academic “right.”

In just a few short pages, “Roles of Youth” can offer a comprehensive outline to people looking for more substantive theoretical information to support Meaningful Student Involvement in their classroom and throughout their schools.

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Review: Look Who’s Talking Now; Student Views of Restructuring Schools

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

Review of Look Who’s Talking Now: Student Views of Restructuring Schools. By J. Kushman & J. Shanessey. Published in 1997 in Portland, OR by Northwest Regional Educational Lab.

Look Who’s Talking Now is the story of a collaborative project that included researchers, teachers, administrators, students, university professors and parents who explored how to find out what students think about school.

Seven case studies were conducted that represented the views of more than 1,000 students from across the nation. The findings offer a broad palette of information for school reformers, and include suggestions about including students’ experiences, ideas, and opinions in school change.

This collection of research studies from across the nation offers a compelling backdrop to current school reform practices. Researchers found that listening to students can achieve important goals: Saving time for school leaders by gaining early student commitment and focusing restructuring work in the right places; Providing valuable lenses for educators to see whether their reform efforts are successful; Challenging adults to examine their own assumptions about student learning through the eyes of students, and; Treating students as responsible agents of change rather than products of change.

Data-gathering methods focused singularly on students, and included focus groups, written surveys, individual interviews, small group interviews, interviews anchored by classroom observation, videotaping, audiotaping, and note taking.

A few cases engaged students as researchers. The following conclusions were drawn from the data gathered in the studies:

  • Students are articulate and aware. They generally give thoughtful, honest answers to questions about their learning experiences and they are conscious of the restructuring and reform processes going on in their schools.
  • Listening to students and acting on what they say is not the norm. Though teachers and staff were open to hearing what students had to say, schools were often at a loss about what to do with the data.
  • There are many ways to find out what students think. There are also many ways to involve students and faculty in the research and inquiry process, and to integrate the inquiry results into the school improvement process.

There is also a section on what researchers learned, organized into the following topical areas:

  • Conducting student-led group interviews
  • Strategies for recording interviews
  • Maintaining quality research
  • Involving all stakeholders in data analysis
  • Knowing how and what to ask students, and
  • Sharing the results.

These chapters conclude with an outline of methods that schools can use to gather data from students in a short time frame.

The authors also review planning and preparation, focusing and designing the research, designing interview methods, collecting and analyzing data, developing feedback, and using student data for school improvement.

Look Who’s Talking Now provides necessary support for the inclusion of students in education reform efforts by detailing a variety of research practices across the country.

As a result, the stories of listening to students detailed here illustrate that student-inclusive school change can be a successful, powerful process for all who are involved.

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Review: Putting Students at the Centre in Education Reform

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

“Putting students at the centre in education reform” By B. Levin. Published in 1999 in International Journal of Educational Change.

Putting Students argues that in order for school reform to be effective, students need to participate in the school improvement process. A foundation and framework are explored that engage students in defining, shaping, managing and implementing school improvement practices.

This paper offers a concise, detailed exploration of the principles and rationale that support student involvement from a practical perspective that focuses on progressive activities. After exploring the recent history of student involvement, the author provides the following arguments for increasing student involvement:

  • Effective implementation of change requires participation and buy-in from all those involved; students no less than teachers;
  • Students have unique knowledge and perspectives that can make reform efforts more successful and improve implementation;
  • Students’ views can help mobilize staff and parent opinion in favor of meaningful reform;
  • Constructivist learning, which is increasingly important to high standards reforms, requires a more active student role in schooling;
  • Students are the producers of school outcomes, so their involvement is fundamental to all improvement (p3).

Levin explains that the first three are related to organizational health; the last two have to do specifically with how learning occurs. He then continues to carefully detail the diverse literature supporting his arguments by including specific sources from the areas of education, psychology, sociology and business.

In a section exploring the role of the student in school improvement, Levin provides three steps schools should consider:

  1. Involve several students in formal management processes;
  2. Provide training and support students, and;
  3. Ask students to organize their own parallel process of discussion of change that could bring many more students into the deliberative process.

Levin makes a special note that educators should engage students in all grade levels in these efforts and not limit participation to high school students.

Putting Students provides a concise, deliberate rationale for meaningful student involvement while offering broad resources and diverse thinking for school improvement. The author situates student voice as a key component among current education reform practices and literature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listening offers several important thoughts from students:

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

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

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

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