“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 OF MEANINGFUL STUDENT INVOLVEMENT
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.
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
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:
- Involve students directly in an existing adult activity, such as a special task force, school site council, or instructional leadership team.
- 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 STUDENTS AS DECISION-MAKERS
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’S APPROACH
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.
- All students should have validating, sustainable, opportunities that they are interested in to make decisions about their own learning and education as a whole.
- Decision-making opportunities should engage students in solving genuine problems and making substantial decisions that will promote critical thinking skills.
- Students should possess the knowledge and ability needed to make informed decisions.
- Students and educators should be responsible and accountable for developing responsible, creative action plans to implement decisions.
- 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.
- Built into the District
- School District Partners
- Infusing Students Everywhere
- A Bright Star Among Peers
- Learning through Social Justice
- Students on Committees
- All-City Student Engagement
- Elementary Students Leading Action
- Recommending Improvements
- Life in Schools
- Student Voice in School Building Leadership
- Old School Practice and New School Thinking
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”.
- Meaningful Student Involvement Toolbox
- Students on School Boards Toolbox
- Barriers to School Transformation through Meaningful Student Involvement
- 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.
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