Review: “Student Voice in School Reform” and “Opening the Floodgates”

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

“Student voice in school reform: Reframing student-teacher relationships” by D. Mitra. Published in 2003 in the McGill Journal of Education 38(2) pp 289-304, and “Opening the floodgates: Giving students a voice in school reform.” by D. Mitra. Published in 2001 in Forum 43(2) pp 91–94

Both of these articles are based on the same study, conducted by Mitra in a California school district. Mitra’s research is from one of the few studies in the United States that explores the process by which students can be engaged in schools. In the first article, she draws upon a two-and-a-half year period in which she conducted hundreds of interviews and observations at one urban high school. In the second article, Mitra conducts a comparative analysis of two schools that employed “student voice” in school change efforts. Mitra identifies and examines the strategies – both successful and failed – that were used by the schools to listen to, understand, and actively engage students in school change.

In today’s schools, teachers – those most often in contact with students – are often the least informed about what students really think. This project sought to rectify that imbalance of information by realigning the roles of students in two schools that sought to engage students in change. In order to accomplish this, these schools conducted a variety of activities, including student focus groups, in-class discussions, and student involvement in staff training. Activities met various measures of success. In one school, teachers invited failing students to participate in a discussion to explore reasons for failure. A teacher present at these focus groups described the student responses as “very honest, very serious, their chance to contribute… They weren’t saying what we wanted them to say.” (2001, p91). At the other school, Mitra found students ready to invest a great deal of time engaging in teacher-focused activities, including participating in teacher research, assessment development, and textbook adoption (2003, p292).

Mitra found important benefits from having an ethnically and socially mixed group of students working together on projects designed to enhance student responsibility and status in school. “When the group first came together as a community of practice, they didn’t yet have the language to articulate who they were. And this contributed to their struggles to agree upon a joint enterprise… The students needed to get along with students different than them – students from different cliques, who speak different language, who are on different tracks in the school’s academic system” (Mitra, as quoted in Rudduck & Flutter 2004).

These two articles ultimately remind readers that school change does not happen in a vacuum. There are multiple supports and outcomes that must be considered in individual contexts. Most importantly, the articles reinforce the fact that meaningful student involvement is a growing practice that will significantly alter the dynamics of schools and improve teaching and learning.

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