Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in Schools

Meaningful Student Involvement relies on justice, equity, diversity and inclusion throughout education. Focused on engaging every student in every grade in every school everywhere, all of the time, students of color, low-income students, LGBTTQQI students, low-achieving, under-resourced and all historically disengaged learners should have opportunities for meaningful involvement.

Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, or JEDI, is the framework for how SoundOut builds schools, cultivate educational leaders, and makes education a force for good. In all of our practices, SoundOut stands against all forms of oppression, including racism, transphobia, classism, sexism, and xenophobia.

Our JEDI framework is based on work by the University of North Carolina, as well as the work of Paulo Freire, bell hooks, and others.

“To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce; to discourse on humanism and to negate people is a lie.”

― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

You Might Like…


Students as Learning Evaluators

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement can feature roles for students as learning evaluators. Following is an introduction to these opportunities, including details, stories and resources.

SoundOut's Adam Fletcher facilitates students in planning student voice.
SoundOut’s Adam Fletcher facilitates students in planning student voice activities.


On one level, teachers are always listening to students’ opinions, checking for comprehension, and whether they have accomplished a task. Another level is reflected in the barrage of student surveys conducted, and the myriad education books that tokenize students’ opinions with quotes from students on their covers.

The Difference of Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement calls for something more, something that is deliberate, empowering, far-reaching and sustainable. Engaging students as evaluators calls for educators to develop practical, applicable feedback opportunities where students are encouraged to be honest, open and solution-oriented. Students find particular investment in evaluation when they can see tangible outcomes, and have some measure of accountability from the systems, educators, or situations they are evaluating.

Over the course of a school year, teachers might want a variety of evaluations from students. These may include:

  • An occasional large-scale forum where the opinions of students in one or all grade levels are canvassed;
  • Creating a regular pattern of evaluative feedback in lessons; or,
  • Facilitating a series of one-to-one or small group discussions, how members of a particular sub-group of students (the disengaged, high-achievers, young women, young men, or students not from the majority culture in the surrounding community, for example) are feeling about their learning experiences; or shaping a new initiative in the classroom or school.

By involving students as evaluators, schools can develop purposeful, impacting, and authentic assessments of classes, schools, teachers, and enact accountability and ownership for all participants in the learning process. Effective evaluations may include student evaluations of classes and schools; student evaluations of teachers; student evaluations of self, and; student-led parent-teacher conferences, where students present their learning as partners with teachers and parents, instead of as passive recipients of teaching done “to” them.

Learning through Self-Examination

Experience shows that student voice is best understood through the personal experience of all students in all schools, everywhere. We have discovered that critical self-examination leads to deeper perspectives about Meaningful Student Involvement, which allows the evolution of action to be responsive to ever-transforming student populations in schools. We have also found that research-based tools can successfully guide practice in Meaningful Student Involvement, and engaging students in evaluation can help develop those tools.

When this kind of evaluation is new to a school, teachers may feel apprehensive about talking with students in a way that changes traditional power relationships within the school. Teachers may feel challenged by empowering students for many reasons, including feeling disempowered to make decisions in their own classrooms. In response to what is perceived as some schools’ inadequate understanding of the experiences and opinions of students, community groups and education organizations across the nation are engaging students as evaluators. Adults work with students in these programs to design evaluations, conduct surveys, analyze data and create reports to share with fellow students and educators.

Meaningful Student Involvement is tantamount to putting mutual respect and communication in motion between students and educators in schools. Meaningful Student Involvement also requires the investment from educators and students. Many student voice programs have simply thrown the job of sounding out at students, without showing students the degrees of possibility for the input and action of young people. Some neglect the necessity of two-way dialogue, of collaborative student/teacher problem solving, and of truly student inclusive, interdependent school change.

Meaningful Student Involvement in education evaluation gives students and educators the impetus to establish constructive, critical dialogues that place common purpose and interdependence at the center of the discussion. When dissent is encountered, appropriate avenues for resolution can be identified. When inconsistencies and prejudice are revealed, intentional exposure and practical understanding is sought. When educators strive to engage the hope students have for schools, they can foster students’ growth as effective evaluators who actually impact the processes of learning, teaching and leading. In turn, students will offer vital lessons for educators and the education system as a whole.

Purposeful Assessments

Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as evaluators delivering purposeful assessments of their classes, teachers, and whole school. Students can also evaluate themselves or facilitate student-led parent-teacher conferences, where students present their learning as partners with teachers and parents, instead of as passive recipients of teaching done “to” them.

When this kind of evaluation is new to a school, teachers may feel apprehensive about talking with students in a way that changes traditional power relationships within the school. Teachers may feel challenged by empowering students for many reasons, including feeling disempowered to make decisions in their own classrooms. In response to what is perceived as some schools’ inadequate understanding of the experiences and opinions of students, community groups and education organizations across the nation are engaging students as evaluators. Adults work with students in these programs to design evaluations, conduct surveys, analyze data and create reports to share with fellow students and educators.


Following are some of activities that engage students as evaluators.

  • Classrooms: Students assess themselves, their peers, teachers, curricula, and classes, recommending changes and acknowledging expectations on teachers and administrators.
  • Administration: Students are engaged with administrators in evaluating the effects and outcomes of meaningfully involving students throughout school decision-making.
  • Culture: Students compare student/teacher relationships and perspectives of respect throughout school.
Stories of Students as Evaluators

Following are examples of students evaluating each others, evaluating themselves, evaluating teachers, curriculum, school cultures, and more.

Considerations for Students as Evaluators

Engaging students as evaluators should not mean replacing any other evaluations. Instead, it should be seen as an additional information source. This is true whether students are evaluating themselves, their peers, classroom curricula, school climate, or their teachers directly. Student evaluations should not replace teacher evaluations. This is an important reality to consider.

Another important consideration is that students in all of the stories above where not simply thrown evaluations and expected to do wonderful things. Instead, they were partnered meaningfully with adults, taught about what they were evaluating, and facilitated through the entire process. This is essential for honoring student learning as well as whatever is being evaluated.

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

You Might Like

Elsewhere Online


  • Campbell, P., Edgar, S., Halsted, A. (1994). “Students as evaluators: A model for program evaluation,” Phi Delta Kappan 76(2): 160-165.
  • Chappuis, Stephen & Stiggins, Richard J.(2002). “Classroom Assessment for Learning,” Educational Leadership 60 (1): 40-43.
  • Hackman, D. (1997). Student-led conferences at the middle level. Champagne, IL: ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction No ED407171).
  • McCall, D. (2000). Selected case studies of youth involvement in public decision making. Vancouver, BC: Centre on Community and School Health.
  • REAL HARD. (2003). Student voices count: A student-led evaluation of high schools in Oakland. Oakland, CA.: Kids First.
  • Scriven, M. (1995). Student ratings offer useful input to teacher evaluations. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Assessment and Evaluation. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED398240).


Your FREE copies of the Meaningful Student Involvement series are online at
Articles Strategies

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!

You Might Like…

Examples Strategies

Responsive Student Voices

Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington
Students at the SoundOut Student Voice Summer Camp in Seattle, Washington

SoundOut defines student voice as any expression of any learner about anything, any where, anytime related to learning, schools or education.

Responsive student voices challenge adults to listen in new ways for what’s happening among and within students RIGHT NOW. It offers critical, assertive and direct expressions of learners about what is current and essential in their experience. This article explores what it looks like in practice.

Understanding Student Responsiveness

Exploring what a situation, example, tradition or outcome means to them, responsive student voice positions young people as substantial contributors and partners in the school improvement process. Their visions are honored; their experiences are centralized, and; their wisdom, knowledge, ideas, opinions and values are respected.

Although on first glance it might look the same, responsive student voice is different from typical student voice in several ways. SoundOut has found it is distinguished by immediacy, relevance, intensity and response.

Adults often don’t understand or immediately dismiss the hyper-intense expressions of students in schools. Labelled as distractions or viewed as “inconvenient,” here I introduce “responsive student voice” as a new way of contextualizing spastic-appearing but still essential wisdom, knowledge, actions and ideas from students.

Examples of Responsive Student Voice

This is an example of student voice graffiti
Student voice expressed through graffiti can take a lot of different forms.

Responsive student voice can have a lot of different appearances and expressions. They can include:

  • Student Speakout—At this event, student or adult facilitators can create space for students to speak their piece about what’s happening within a school. Focused on creating a safe and supportive environment for student voice, these events can respond to the most urgent issues at hand.
  • Fighting—Appearing as bullying or unchecked expression, fighting can be a powerful form of responsive student voice that tells educators a school feels unsafe, students feel vulnerable, and communication has broken down, along with many other lessons. Students make themselves heard; adults often simply respond with punishment. Fighting result in intentional community-building and much more.
  • Letters to the Editor—Writing about specific, critical and urgent situations with realistic suggestions for substantive action can be a direct way for student voice to be heard.
  • Graffiti—In spaces where learners cannot address adults, educators, administrators and others directly, strategic graffiti can provide students with an obvious, impactful voice that is otherwise stifled. When the art reflects current issues students face in schools, this can be a very impactful avenue for responsive student voice.
  • Learning Projects—Educators can create spaces for students to express themselves while learning through active, expressive learning projects within classrooms. Its essential for these projects to grant credit and for educators to acknowledge that sharing student voice about education is a valid way to learn.

Because of the confrontational appearance of some responsive student voice, it is important to understand that responsive student voice is often not intended for adults to hear; instead, its meant for students to speak out to each other. However, as responsible educators we have an obligation to listen between the words and make sense of what might seem senseless.

Listen for responsive student voice and respond to this article in the comments section below.

You Might Like…


SoundOut Student Engagement Rubric

Students, educators and advocates constantly search for ways to evaluate the efficacy of their efforts to engage students. After more than 15 years of experience, the following rubric was developed by Adam Fletcher for to serve as a personal status check to recognize whether or not student engagement is successful.

This is the SoundOut Student Engagement Rubric by Adam Fletcher for It shows the challenges and rewards for different ways students are engaged in schools.
This is the SoundOut Student Engagement Rubric by Adam Fletcher for It shows the challenges and rewards for different ways students are engaged in schools.

When coupled with the SoundOut Ladder of Student Involvement, a powerful 1-2 system for evaluation emerges. Student voice is shown as a moveable object that we can all learn from, engage with, and grow through everyday, all of the time.

For more information including workshops to support student engagement, contact us!

You Might Like…


Experiential Education and Meaningful Student Involvement

Since it is one of the things that can make student involvement meaningful, experiential education is a at the center of Meaningful Student Involvement. Experiential education is any learning that happens through direct experience, whether it has intentionally stated learning goals or whether learning remains nebulous, interpretive or unspoken. Students create knowledge, skills and values from active, hands-on activities both inside and outside classrooms.



The key idea in experiential education is engaging student voice in action in order to foster learning. Both through teacher-facilitated activities and student-led action, students experience real situations with real outcomes. Meaningful Student Involvement encourages students and educators to see each other as learning partners, refusing to put either role in an inferior position. Instead of seeing learning as a passive, receptive activity, experiential education can encourage students and educators to see learning as interactive and limitless.


Roles for Students

When learning moves from focusing on rote memorization and desk time (time-on-task) towards interactivity, engagement and solving real-world problems, students have to begin seeing it in different ways. They quickly assume ownership of learning, teaching and leadership. Becoming immeshed in activities, they can learn to see education as a non-linear, lifelong activity they’re capable of initiating, building, sustaining and critically examining. Through Meaningful Student Involvement, they can become education researchers, school planners, classroom teachers, learning evaluators, systemic decision-makers, and education advocates.

These roles, and many others, allow students to see knowledge as an active, engaged process they can invest in. Active learning can also move students into the broader community outside the walls of schools. Students interact with the surrounding area, whether in the geographic features, natural spaces, built environment, social gatherings, political and government, or other activities and places. Interacting with adults in dynamic, new roles, they can actually transform adult perspectives of students and alter expectations for learning and the school in the larger community. Experiencing increasingly independent and self-directed learning, experiential learning can also lead to extensive use of technology, different and more collaborative relationships between students and adults, and several other features. (Schroeder, 2005)

Whether learning through life or lifelike situations, in experiential education opportunities, students can develop views of educators as facilitators or co-learners and views of themselves as owners and facilitators of their own learning. This is a key outcome of Meaningful Student Involvement.


Roles for Teachers

In order to effectively facilitate experiential education, the roles of teachers have to transform, too. Without the ability to predict direct outcomes from chosen learning activities, teachers have to become nimble facilitators and co-learners. Working alongside students, teachers reflect with students and respond to outcomes throughout learning activities. Instead of being mechanistic curriculum deliverers, teachers respond to students’ diverse engagement styles by adapting their approaches, activities and expectations.

In experiential education, educators also move from being traditional knowledge transmitters towards becoming learning coaches. Acting as student learning support specialists, experiential education can allow educators to see the entirety of students. This is one reason why its key to Meaningful Student Involvement.

Ultimately, teachers may need different supports in order to meet the demands of experiential education. Sizer (1984) suggested they include, “altered teaching loads, new student activities, diplomas based on achievement, and curriculum simplification”.


Experiential Education Activities

Depending on the situation, teachers using experiential education approaches can use a variety of activities, such as:


Types of Experiential Education

Experiential education can include many different learning approaches that can also make student involvement meaningful. They can include:

Related Content

Elsewhere Online




Students as Education Advocates

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement can infuse roles for students as education advocates throughout learning, teaching and leadership. Following is an introduction to this practice, as well as some details, stories and resources.


Student advocacy has a long history going back to at least the 1930s, when a youth-led group called the American Youth Congress presented a list of grievances to the US Congress including public education. Through the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s to the free expression movement of the 1960s to the resurgence in student voice in the 2000s, student education advocacy is alive in the US today.

There are many faces to this effort that aren’t as predictable as many adults assume. Rather than fighting against a specific expulsion of one of their friends, students today are working to change the discipline policy that expelled him in the first place. Instead of badgering a teacher or mentally checking-out of class, students today are redesigning curricula and classroom topics. Students have powerful ideas, knowledge and’ opinions about topics like the achievement gap, charter schools, privatization, rural education, violence and safety, and year-around schools. They’re rallying outside state capitals, speaking in school board meetings, and demanding change specifically from students’ perspectives. There are dozens of cases of students advocating for policy change, procedural modifications, and cultural transformation within education.


I have found that advocacy activities already exist throughout education that engage students in school improvement. However, these are not inherently meaningful, and students are frequently discouraged from sharing their authentic perspectives about learning, teaching, or leadership in schools. Instead, they are manipulated and used as decorations throughout this advocacy. Research has shown that all students have the capability to learn about building, maintaining, and sustaining school improvement activities. I have also found that Meaningful Student Involvement presents a logical avenue to engage students as educational advocates.

Moving students from being passive recipients of teaching to active drivers of learning is the goal of more educators today than ever before. What happens when students cross the bridge from self-motivated activities that are inherently “okay” to leading efforts that aren’t okay with teachers or administrators? Meaningful Student Involvement may push those boundaries by exploring new roles for students by infusing them as advocates for their own learning as well as the future of education, affecting their friends, their siblings, and generations of young people beyond them. It is important for adults to check their assumptions about your own ability to allow students to experience Meaningful Student Involvement through education advocacy.

Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as education advocates to work within the education system and throughout the community to change schools. Many students participate in committees, on special panels, and in functions that help raise awareness or interest in education issues.

Across the country there is a growing movement being led by students who are working with adults from their communities and schools to contribute to school improvement by calling for social, economic, racial, and environmental justice in schools. These student-led activist organizations use sophisticated analysis, appropriate action, and creative partnerships to challenge the education systems to become responsive to student voice.

Places for Students as Advocates

Places in schools that can engage students as education advocates include:

  • Classrooms: Student interests and identities are engaged throughout the process of curriculum decisions.
  • Administration: Non-traditionally engaged students are encouraged to participate throughout the school environment with deliberate steps towards meaningful involvement.
  • Culture: Creating “safe spaces” and promoting adults’ reception of self- and group-advocacy are fostered throughout the learning environment by school leadership on all levels.

The failure of many traditional attempts by schools to engage students as partners in education leadership or “democratic education” lies in the mixed messages of many communities’ agendas for public education. When educators have asked students to represent their peers, they often seek out the most academically gifted or popular, thereby narrowing the validity and ability of students to be valid democratic representatives. When schools offer courses to teach leadership, they can be steeped in traditional leadership models and teaching styles that alienates many students and limits important connections. Ironically, these classes are often offered at the expense of creating courses that could teach students about their own culture and heritage, which effectively negates the potential influence student leaders can have on everyday community life. Meaningful Student Involvement embraces every student as their own self, but also as the son or daughter of a family; as a member of a larger community; and as a partner in transforming schools. Understanding power, an essential component of Meaningful Student Involvement, begins in discovering and acknowledging who students are, and what education means.

Advocating Across Issues

Students can be powerful advocates for student involvement, as well as for other changes that students want in policy or governance. It makes a big difference for a student to say what students think; adults tend to listen to student advocates in a different way than we listen to each other. Student advocates can attend School Committee meetings and make presentations or proposals about their ideas.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once presented us with the challenge of advocacy by saying, “An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Meaningful Student Involvement in education advocacy happens when students are engaged as advocates for the schools they learn in; for the education system the next generation will inherit; and for the needs of the larger community surrounding the school. Students can be engaged in many ways: as members of committees, demonstrators in protests, on special panels, and in functions that help raise awareness or interest in education issues.

Stories of Students as Advocates

All of the roles delineated in previous chapters of this book are essentially different forms of students advocating for education. However, the following examples stand apart as uniquely specific models of students as education advocates.

Considerations for Students as Advocates

A report on student activism for education equity stated, “Whatever the risks, there is no shortage of reasons for teachers and others to support young peoples’ education advocacy work.” (Tolman, 2003) It may be uncomfortable when students begin to speak when not spoken to, but their voices are too powerful, and their words too true, to be silenced for long. This book underlines the necessity of not only listening to students, not only engaging students, but actually giving students the platform to create, inform, and advocate for positive school transformation. Meaningful Student Involvement is not a complete process without this important focus on advocacy.

You Might Like…


  • Cervone, B. & Cushman, K. (2002). “Moving youth participation into the classroom: Students as allies.” New Directions for Youth Development (96): 83-100.
  • HoSang, D. (2002). “Youth and community organizing today,” Occasional Papers Series on Youth Organizing 2.
  • Kunst, K. (2003). “Hope for schools thru student activism: Stories of success.” Olympia, WA: SoundOut.
  • Lewis, B. (1998) The Kids Guide to Social Action. Minnesota: Free Spirit Publishing.
  • Tolman, J. (2003). If not us, then who? Young people on the frontlines of educational equity. Unpublished paper.



Students as Decision-Makers

Meaningful Student Involvement highlights roles for students as systemic decision-makers. Following is an introduction to these roles, some details, stories and resources.


“Schools are compulsory for about ten years of a person’s life. They are, perhaps, the only compulsory institutions for all citizens, although those with full membership in schools are not yet treated as full citizens of our society…” (Brennan, 1996)

Maybe it is only ironic that students recognize that situation immediately and consequently offer resistance to Meaningful Student Involvement. When presented with opportunities to make significant decisions in their schools, students almost always test adults through parroting teachers and others; saying only what they think adults want to hear; and testing adults by offering the most outlandish possibilities. In the most dramatic form of resistance, students simply refuse to do things they have been taught to believe should be done for them. (Kohn, 1993)

Pushing paper across tables and going through the motions of decision making without practical applications is no one’s idea of a good time, or good learning. Yet many schools actively promote this approach in their student governments, allowing students to choose the themes for school dances year or the colors on this year’s yearbook cover, but not giving them any say in decisions that have more serious implications. School curriculum, policy, and climate are more meaningful leadership areas for students. In addition to making decisions that affect themselves and their immediate peers, students can participate in boards of education, grant making, and school assessment at the district and state levels.

The Difference

The purpose and practice of engaging students as decision-makers throughout education is made obvious through Meaningful Student Involvement. In our practice, students identify multiple spheres where decision-making occurs in schools every day. Then they explore the intention and meaning of those activities. They examine common practices in decision-making, and analyze the impacts of those practices. To cap the process, students explore some of the most frequently identified skills needed to successfully participate in decision-making in schools.

Working with students as partners throughout the education system, I have uncovered how Meaningful Student Involvement in decision-making can occur throughout education, affecting individuals, schools, and the entire system every day. Research has shown how students are uniquely positioned in their personal development to be attentive to the ethical implications of educational decision-making. The other essential consideration of this practice is that leadership skill development cannot be the exclusive domain of traditional student leaders.

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

Democracy in Action

Embedded in Meaningful Student Involvement is the assumption that all education decision-making should be democratic in its nature. It should not merely be an exercise, but a reality that engages, challenges, and expands students’ understanding of democracy in their education and throughout their lives.

Scheduling, project choices, lunchtime options… many adults maintain that students today are inundated with decision-making opportunities in schools. However, there these types of choices provide little opportunity for students to learn about the real effects of decision-making on other people. Unfortunately, many schools approach student decision-making with a disregard for the responsibility our democracy gives every individual to become active, effective decision-makers. It is as if giving the car keys to a 16-year-old were enough for them to learn to drive—but we know it’s not. Similarly, giving menial decision-making opportunities to students is not enough to teach them to make good decisions.

Traditional student leadership opportunities have proven to not be well-situated to provide powerful opportunities for learning. While these activities do already exist in many schools, the teachable moments implicit in these activities are generally lost to the insignificance of the decisions that are to be made. Students should analyze those activities, as well as identifying new opportunities for engaging students as partners in education decision-making. Educators should critically reflect on their own decision-making practices as well, whether those affect a classroom, a grade level, a school, or a community. In order to support students as partners educators must examine the decision-making opportunities within their own spheres of responsibility. When reflecting, facilitators might consider what decisions students were asked to make when they attended elementary, junior or middle, and high school. They might think about which decisions are left to students now, which are the exclusive domain of adults, and what is actually done in partnership with students? In their own practice today, educators should consider how they work with students to make decisions. By exploring one’s own assumptions about decision-making, educators can more effectively challenge students to do the same.

Systems of Decision-Making

This graphic shows some of the decisions students make individually and as groups in schools.
This graphic shows some of the decisions students make individually and as groups in schools.

Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as systemic decision-makers. There are many levels of decision-making that happen in schools. They include decision-making in individual classrooms, whole schools, citywide and regional districts, state education agencies, and the nationwide education system.

Students can also be meaningfully involved through personal decision-making. These decisions are ones that are made by individual students that affect themselves. More than simply choosing classes or whether they do their homework, Meaningful Student Involvement acknowledges that personal decision-making in schools includes choosing whether to attend school; whether to behave successfully; and whether to maintain a growth mindset.

There are a number of local schools where student involvement in decision-making is becoming the norm. Many districts have had policies that support student involvement for decades, although few are deliberately enforced. Almost half of all states have some form of student involvement in their decision-making, while there are few opportunities for students to be directly involved in federal education decision-making.

Two Approaches to Students in Decision-Making

I have identified two main approaches to student involvement in education decision-making:

  1. Involve students directly in an existing adult activity, such as a special task force, school site council, or instructional leadership team.
  2. Set up an activity just for students, such as a student advisory board or a peer mediation group.

In some cases, both approaches are incorporated. For example, having students on an adult task force and having a student action forum where students identify important issues the school should address. Remember that there is no “right” approach; each situation will always be different.

Places for Student Decision-Making in Schools

Places in schools that can engage students as systemic decision-makers include:

  • Classrooms – Students participate in classroom management and resource allocation. They are taught consensus skills and encouraged to participate in decisions affecting themselves, their peers, their families and their communities.
  • Administration – Positions are created for students to participate as full members of all school committees; training and cultural awareness activities are taught to all new students and adults in the school; there are committees for students only to make decisions, as well.
  • Culture – Students are authorized to mediate decisions; spaces are created for student decision-making; student forums are facilitated by and for students throughout the school environment.

John Dewey and Decision-Making

John Dewey, the father of modern progressive education, delineated a course of learning that is easily adaptable for student involvement in education decision-making. (Dewey, 1948) The following Pathway for Meaningful Student Involvement in Decision-Making is modified from Dewey’s original course.

  1. All students should have validating, sustainable, opportunities that they are interested in to make decisions about their own learning and education as a whole.
  2. Decision-making opportunities should engage students in solving genuine problems and making substantial decisions that will promote critical thinking skills.
  3. Students should possess the knowledge and ability needed to make informed decisions.
  4. Students and educators should be responsible and accountable for developing responsible, creative action plans to implement decisions.
  5. Students should apply these plans, reflect on the decisions and outcomes, and be charged with continually examining, applying, and challenging this learning.

Stories of Students as Decision-Makers

Rather than belaboring the necessity of engaging students in education decision-making, the following vignettes start with exemplary models, and are followed by research summaries from across the United States. These stories offer a glimpse into the increasingly well-defined role of students as school decision-makers.

Considerations for Students as Decision-Makers

Answering the question of how students can be effectively involved in district and state decision-making is one that has been grappled with by educators, administrators, and policy-makers across the country for decades. Over the last decade, as part of my work through SoundOut, I have provided technical assistance and training to districts nationwide that are interested in systematically engaging students in education decision-making. I have researched more than 40 years of involving students on school boards (Place, 1973; Kleeman, 1972; Towler, 1975), and I continue to follow national trends carefully. Indeed, the practice of involving students in school decision-making is spreading, and even though it’s not widespread yet, there have been important strides made. One of my recent books, The Future of School Boards: Involving Students as Education Policy-Makers, studies this practice in-depth, identifying where it happens, what laws permit it, and more. (Fletcher, 2014)

On the Ladder of Student Involvement, involving students in decision-making practices covers many rungs. The lowest bar is simply and occasionally 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. Generally viewed as non-meaningful forms of involvement, neither of these practices require students have an active role in the process of decision-making beyond that of “informant”.

You Might Like…


  • Critchley, S. (2003). The nature and extent of student involvement in educational policy-making in canadian school systems. Educational Management & Administration 31 (1): 97-106.
  • Kaba, M. (2000). “They listen to me… but they don’t act on it: contradictory consciousness in decision-making,” High School Journal, (84)2, 21-35.
  • Marques, E. (1999). Youth involvement in policy-making: lessons from ontario school boards, Policy Brief (5). Ottawa, ON: Institute on Governance.
  • Patmor, George L. (1998). Student and school council member views of student involvement in decision-making in Kentucky high schools. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
  • Webb, Z. (2002). Meeting Kentucky’s educational needs: proficiency, achievement gaps, and the potential of student involvement. Kentucky Education Department: Lexington, KY.
  • Zeldin, S., Kusgen-McDaniel, A., Topitzes, D. and Calvert, M. (2000) Youth in decision-making: A study on the impacts of youth on adults and organizations. University of Wisconsin: National 4-H Council, University of Wisconsin Extension.


Your FREE copies of the Meaningful Student Involvement series are online at

Students as Teachers

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement should engage students as teachers. Following is an introduction to these roles, some details, stories and resources.


“There is, in fact, no teaching without learning.”

– Paulo Freire, 1998

This is as true for students as it is for adult educators. However, since teaching is not the exclusive domain of adults, we know that not only wise people or graduates from higher education capable of learning things this way. Neither are computers or video games the only places where young people teach each other.

Everyday classrooms everywhere are lit up with the frenetic energy of students teaching one another to say words, understand concepts, and learn formulas. Meaningful Student Involvement embraces that energy by guiding students through a process of learning about learning, learning about teaching, and teaching each other.

History of Students Teaching

SoundOut for Teachers
Students and adults in a Meaningful Student Involvement workshop in São Paulo, Brazil.

Several out-of-school youth-serving programs have engaged young people as teachers for more than 100 years. Organizations including 4-H, the Girl Scouts and the Boy Scouts have long relied on the merits of youth-led classes to teach young women and men of all ages significant life lessons and invaluable skills. This approach has been valued for generations, witnessed by the many indigenous communities who have entrusted young people with teaching their peers for thousands of years and been supplemented by the American colonists whose first schools employed young teachers, who in turn gave the responsibility of teaching to their younger charges. Famed pioneer teacher Laura Ingalls Wilder was 15 when she began teaching. While young people teaching generally ceased in schools with the advent of advanced teacher education in the early 1900s, pockets of activity continued. The 1960s “free school” movement recognized the value of students teaching students, and many instituted the practice as everyday experiences for young people. Throughout the past 30 years the concept of students as teachers has gained momentum as more professional educators are beginning to see its effects.

Research on Students as Teachers

There is a plethora of research supporting the effectiveness of engaging students as teachers. A variety of findings shows how teaching results in better learning than being taught in traditional methods. When students prepare to teach other students, learning suddenly involves active thinking about material, analysis and selection of main ideas, and processing the concepts into one’s own thoughts and words. (Morgan J. , 2011) Also, the superiority of student-led teaching is particularly marked for students below the median in ability.

Most importantly, moving students to the front of the classroom moves young people from being passive recipients to becoming active drivers of learning. We know that learning is a lifelong process that requires a variety of inputs; Meaningful Student Involvement effectively engages students as intentional drivers of that process. Engaged as partners, students can strengthen, expand, and deepen their learning through teaching. Teaching is equally mindset and ability: students must develop their capacity for teaching by believing in themselves and developing their skills.

Types of Student Teaching

While peer tutoring, cross-age tutoring, and student-driven conversations are popular in classrooms, it is rare for adult educators to actually turn classroom control over to students, or to share that control equally with students. Meaningful Student Involvement shows how courses which are co-taught with students can be powerfully engaging for peers, younger students, and adult learners. Engaging students as teachers can be a radical departure from the rigid norms of learning and teaching that many people, including adults and students, are accustomed to. Therefore, it is vital for adults to examine their own perspectives about this engaging students as partners in teaching before attempting to facilitate it with students.

Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as teachers as a way to strengthen students’ learning and teachers’ efficacy. Students can experience a variety of significant classroom teaching experiences, such as partnering with teachers or peers to deliver curriculum, teaching fellow students in lower grade levels, or teaching adults. They also participate in choosing the activities and content of their lesson plans.

Places Where Students Can Teach

Places in schools that can engage students as classroom teachers include:

  • Classrooms: Student/adult co-teaching teams are used; student-centered methods are integrated throughout a classroom; multiple intelligences are honored throughout the class.
  • Administration: Teachers participate in professional development focused on student voice and Meaningful Student Involvement, student-led training for teachers
  • Culture: Model student-driven learning throughout education and engage students as co-learners and co-facilitators of staff professional development activities.

Meaningful Student Involvement recognizes the importance of acknowledging the knowledge of students, and charges them with the responsibility of educating their peers, younger students or adults. Students teaching students is not meant to undermine the influence or ability of adult educators: instead, it uplifts the role of educators by making their knowledge and abilities accessible to more students. A growing body of practice and research from the education arena reinforces the seemingly radical belief that students can teach students effectively, given appropriate support from their adult teachers.

Examples of Students as Teachers

The following examples show students serving as teaching assistants, partnering with teachers or peers to deliver curriculum, teaching peers or students on their own, or teaching adults in a variety of settings. (Kirk, 2014)

Considerations for Students as Teachers

While a growing number of educators recognize the validity of students’ thoughts about schools, few see students actually being players in addressing those concerns.

Engaging students in teaching fills a three-fold gap in student learning:

  1. It develops empathy between students and teachers, making students more understanding of teachers’ jobs while making teachers more aware of students learning needs.
  2. It makes learning more tangible and relevant for students, particularly for students without the ability to access other “real-world” learning opportunities.
  3. It empowers students to approach the problems they identify in their classrooms through critical analysis and applicable solutions.

Engaging students as teachers is more than simply teaching new tricks to an old dog. It challenges the old dog to teach others, and to allow the younger pups to teach themselves.

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

You Might Like…


  • Cervone, B. (2001) “Making youth known: Moving to the head of the class: students who teach in summer programs learn, give back.” WKCD News Series 1(2). Providence, RI: What Kids Can Do.
  • Dean, L. & Murdock, S. (1992). “Effect Of voluntary service on adolescent attitudes toward learning,” Journal of Volunteer Administration 10(4): 5-10.
  • Gartner, A, & Riessman, F. (1993). Peer-tutoring: Toward a new model. ERIC Digest ED362506.
  • Lee, F. C. H., & Murdock, S. (2001). “Teenagers as teachers programs: Ten essential elements,” Journal of Extension 39(1).
  • Sarason, S. (1998). “Ch. 11: Students as teachers” in Teaching as a Performing Art. New York: Teachers College Press.


Your FREE copies of the Meaningful Student Involvement series are online at

Students as School Planners

SoundOut for Meaningful Student Involvement

Meaningful Student Involvement can include opportunities for students as school planners. Following is an introduction to these roles, some details, stories and resources.


Education planning happens in many different avenues, with several different considerations. Students can be partners in planning throughout education, whether selecting textbooks, determining classroom behavior guidelines, or participating in the physical design process for a new building. There are two forms of Meaningful Student Involvement in school planning.

Engaging students as partners in education planning illustrates how a variety of everyday school activities, including building design, curriculum development, personnel management, personal learning plans, can embody Meaningful Student Involvement. I am not talking about oft-told stories of students planning dances or fundraisers either. Instead, this chapter concentrates on students writing curricula, designing new school buildings, and developing programs affecting entire state education systems. That is how Meaningful Student Involvement improves education for all learners.

Effects on Education

Through my research and experience, I have learned that education planning can have global effects on students. Rather than just affecting them students who are directly involved, engaging students as partners in education planning can affect all students in the particular environment the planning affects. (Rigolon, 2011) Through education planning, every student in every school can have opportunities to positively participate in, gain from, and affect schools. Many educators and research studies have shown me that Meaningful Student Involvement in planning requires training and reflection in order to meaningfully validate and authorize students to create change. It also inherently requires the participation and investment of those most affected; this means that taking time to educate students about their involvement ensures successful planning.

One of the very realistic challenges to engaging students in school improvement is identifying their motivation for participating. Some students might be participating in education planning activities simply to earn credit or for other external factors. Whatever their reason for participating is, when activities meet the characteristics of Meaningful Student Involvement, any student can experience the benefits of meaningful involvement.

Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as education planners by ensuring that they know what, how, why, where, when, and how effectively they are learning. This includes students designing curriculum, planning the school day, co-creating new school designs, or other activities that build upon their experience, education, ideas and opinions.

Places for Students as Education Planners

Places in schools that can engage students as educational planners include:

  • Classrooms: Students co-design curriculum with teachers; create project-based learning opportunities for themselves and their peers; and set personal learning goals.
  • Administration: Students develop policy development or adjustment recommendations; students participate as full members in the formal school improvement process.
  • Culture: Teachers and students co-create classroom behavior standards; teachers participate in professional development settings to learn student/teacher partnership activities.

Stories of Students as Planners

Following are stories of students as planners throughout schools. They feature classroom settings, building-wide approaches, whole district activities and more.

Considerations for Students as Planners

As many schools grapple with the need for effective school transformation practices, few are actually asking their primary constituency: the students. Later in this book you can read about the closely related topic of Meaningful Student Involvement in education decision-making, including students on school boards and school site councils. However, the future of Meaningful Student Involvement in education planning includes student participation on school improvement teams and in state, district, and local school program planning processes. These opportunities will ensure the sustainable and effective influence of students in schools into the future by creating important avenues for students to impact the school classes, programs, and other activities that affect them the most.

Asked recently about Student/Adult Partnerships focused on improving the elementary school she leads, principal Donnan Stoicovy of State Park, Pennsylvania said this about students as planners:

“…[I]t should not be what we think they should know. It should be what the kids want to know. Besides that, teachers do not have all of the answers or knowledge. Together, as teachers and students, we accomplish so much more together. Having that openness to learning from each other and engaging in deliberation to solve problems is so important for the survival of a democracy. It is the gift we can give to our students and our future.” (Dzur, 2013)

Connecting student-led planning to democracy is the key to Meaningful Student Involvement.

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

You Might Like…


  • Evans, R. and Anthony, J. (1991 June). “Active learning: Students and the school budget process,” The Social Studies. 56-61.
  • Grace, M. (1999). “When students create the curriculum.” Educational Leadership, 57 (5) 71-74.
  • Gordon, R. (2003) “Want safe schools? Put the kids in charge!” Classroom Leadership 7(2): 6-7.
  • Knowles, T. and Brown, D. (2000). “Chapter 5: Student designed curriculum,” in What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know. Westerfield, OH: National Middle Level School Association. Kordalewski, J. (1999). Incorporating student voice into teaching practice. ED440049. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education.
  • Wehmeyer, M., Sands, D. (eds.) (1998). Making it happen: Student involvement in educational planning. Baltimore, MD: Paul H Brookes Pub Co.


Your FREE copies of the Meaningful Student Involvement series are online at