An Introduction to the Student Voice Movement

Adam Fletcher Student Voice Speech Graphic Recording by Kathryn Gentner

Welcome!

Around the world right now, there is a lot happening in education. There are struggles over accountability, challenges over funding, attempts to improve equity, fights against racial discrimination, and much more. However, when the question of student voice enters the picture, education advocate Michael Fullan may have said it best:

“When adults think of students, they think of them as potential beneficiaries of change… they rarely think of students as participants in a process of school change and organizational life.”

The student voice movement is an international wave that’s sweeping throughout education right now. There are more individuals, organizations, classrooms, school buildings, education leaders, and parents committed to student voice than ever before. This movement largely intends to challenge what Fullan observed, and it is working.

Like never before, teachers and students are forming student/adult partnerships within classrooms that are vital for success. They are understanding that when students are engaged as learners and leaders throughout education systems, schools become successful.

Driven By Ideas & Actions

More districts, state and provincial agencies, and federal governments are infusing student voice into decision-making and policy developments. Building leaders have also recognized the importance of student voice by actively engaging students as partners in formal and informal efforts to improve schools.

While all that action is underway, the profiles of individual student leaders are rising in the mainstream media as they sound out about school reform and educational transformation. Nonprofit organizations and consulting firms have sprung up globally to support all this action, and even politicians and education publishers are starting to get on the bandwagon.

Where is Student Voice? by SoundOut

Here’s a breakdown of student voice throughout education.

  • Roles Affected By Student VoiceStudents, Teachers, Parents, Building Leaders District Administrators, District Leaders, School Board Members State/Provincial Administrators, State/Provincial Leaders Federal Administrators Researchers, Advocates/Activists, Independent Consultants, Trainers Education-Focused Nonprofit Staff, Other Nonprofit Staff, and Others.
  • Places Affected By Student VoiceClassrooms, hallways, extracurricular spaces, building leadership, whole schools District administration, district boards of education, district leadership, Provincial/state leadership, Provincial/state administration Federal administration, Federal leadership United Nations, Local/national/international education-related nonprofits, and homes of students and adults in education.
  • Activities Affected By Student VoiceLearning, Education reform, Classroom teaching, School evaluation, Testing and assessment, Policy-making, Research, Curriculum, Classroom management, Dropouts, and much more!

Student voice happens all over the place, all the time. Focused on education-oriented topics, Student voice includes conversations related to Student engagement, Student participation, Meaningful Student Involvement, Student activism, Student-led organizing, Student-driven education transformation Student/adult partnerships, Students as allies, Students as partners, and Adult allies in schools.

There are threats to this movement. As Michael O’Loughlin wrote,

“Teachers must resist the temptation to glamorize student voices, and recognize that the multiple voices that students bring to the classroom, while potentially possessing some elements of resistance and transformation, are likely to be imbued with status quo values.”

Building off O’Loughlin’s sentiment, along with other practitioners and my own work, I have identified a series of threats facing this movement, too, simply labeling them as whitewashing, showboating, pedestaling, heroism, lowballing, and sockpuppetry. These are all present, all the time, and are rearing themselves more as student voice increases in its vibrancy, vitality, and visibility.

What It Looks Like

Student voice begins in schools and throughout the education system. While it often seems opposite, there are many K-12 schools around the world that actively, proactively and positively engage student voice in their operations. Long ago, educational innovators like Leo Tolstoy and A.S. Neill put student voice at the forefront of their efforts.

Efforts Within Schools

In more modern times, teachers are engaging student voice in their classrooms. By understanding various methods and strategies, they are programs like Kentucky’s kid FRIENDly and Generation YES are teaching teachers the skills, attitudes and activities to infuse student voice in classroom learning. Sometimes, principals are hosting their own student advisory committees. Whole schools are making strides at taking systemic approaches to infusing student voice, also, with places like Park Forest Elementary in Pennsylvania, NOVA Project High School in Seattle, and Federal Hocking High School in Ohio among several that have are outstanding models.

There is a body of work happening throughout the education system, too. In Hawai’i, students elect representatives through the Hawai’i State Student Council to sit on the state’s Board of Education. Other programs include Washington State’s former Student2Student program, the Oakland Unified School District Student Engagement OfficeBoston’s Student Advisory Council and many others. Many school boards across the U.S. are engaging student voice in a variety of ways, with Maryland and California hosting full-voting student members on their state school boards, while places like Denver, San Francisco and other districts taking innovative approaches, too.

In Canada, Alberta’s SpeakOut project and Ontario’s Student Voice Initiative are on the very cutting edge of systems change in the nation. Other provinces have efforts as well, including New Brunswick’s work to integrate student members on each one of its school boards, and the British Columbia Principals and Vice Principals Association’s longtime student voice program. There is also a robust picture of student voice in Canadian education agencies, too.

Efforts Outside Schools

There are many organizations involved in this movement. Roger Holdsworth started Connect magazine in 1979 to promote student participation in Australia. The University of Cambridge Economic and Social Research Council started a program on consulting pupils about teaching and learning in the mid-1990s that’s now defunct. Here in the United States, I founded SoundOut in 2002 to promote a vision for student voice throughout education that I call Meaningful Student Involvement. Youth On Board started working deeply with across the Boston Public Schools around the same period, and research started to pick up then. Work by Michael FieldingAlison Cook-Sather, Dana Mitra and others has pushed the movement forward by leaps and bounds.

For more than 100 years before these efforts, students have been organizing and leading school improvement activities across the United States and beyond. The New York City Student Union was a predecessor of actions today in Philadelphia, Providence and Portland. A wide array of student-led organizations including Chicago Youth United, Baltimore Algebra Project, Rethinkers, and Inner-City Struggle are working in their communities to affect wide-scale and deep transformations in education.

In the last decade, organizations have risen across the North America, the UK, Australia, and elsewhere focused on student voice too, including the UK-based Student Voice, r.u.MAD, Imagining Learning, Student Voice Live, and the Student Voice Initiative. The California Association of Student Councils also operates important programs for the state’s education system, including the Student Advisory Board on Education (SABE) and Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education (SABLE). The Kentucky Prichard Committee for Educational Excellence hosts a powerful Student Voice Team, while students in  In Vermont, the unique UP for Learning (including YATST) does powerful work to build the capacity of students and schools for improvement.

The Future of the Movement

The future of these efforts is grand and wonderful, and calls for connectivity like never before. There are collections of information from the Huffington Post and The Nation, as well as the important Student Voice Research and Practice group on Facebook. Several social media sites have important collections too, such as Bethan Morgan’s Scoop page. As mentioned earlier, Roger Holdsworth continues publishing his vibrant Connect magazine, and I continue to blog about student voice as well.

I would love to hear about the work YOU are doing to promote the student voice movement- please share in the comments section! Also, share this article with your networks and let’s GROW THE MOVEMENT further!

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