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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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).

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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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Youth United for Change is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

With the slogan, “Education is a right, not a privilege,” Youth United for Change is a youth-led, democratic organization made up of youth of color and working class communities, with the “people” and political power to hold school officials and government accountable to meeting the educational needs of Philadelphia public school students.

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Elementary students are often lost in the fray when it comes to substantive student voice. Not so at Park Forest Elementary School in State College, Pennsylvania.

Through her school’s work focused on Meaningful Student Involvement, a school leader in Pennsylvania has successfully engaged students as policy-makers who are molding school culture and driving positive Student/Adult Partnerships every day. Donnan Stoicovy, the lead learner at Park Forest Elementary School, created a student-led constitution process at her school in 2012.

That year, students from kindergarten through fifth grade attended eight all-school town hall meetings focused on their ideal schools. Working with adults who had a variety of jobs, over the following six months a schoolwide constitution was created.

Adults and students received training, were guided through the process and worked together to build the democratic environment of their school. (McGarry & Stoicovy, 2014)

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The Philadelphia Student Union has been working for more than a decade to promote a student-inclusive vision for school reform. PSU “exists to build the power of young people to demand a high quality education in the Philadelphia public school system”. Their work is powerful, effective, and deep.

A recent examination of the Philadelphia Student Union summarized one part of the need for students to take action to change schools, reporting,

“Student voice is critical not just because students have the greatest stake in schools and school systems and not just because their first-hand experiences can help us understand the real life consequences of policies and practice, but also because students are uniquely positioned to challenge neoliberal logic… [B]y flipping the script, establishing broad-based alliances, and demonstrating historical vigilance on issues that matter, the Philadelphia Student Union shows how students can take on critical leadership roles in the struggle for educational equity.” (Conner & Rosen, 2013)

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Here are facts about students on school boards in Pennsylvania.

  • In 1972, the Pennsylvania state department of education reported that they encouraged local school boards to consider roles for students on school boards.
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  • Selection methods vary, with appointments, selections and student council presidents being selected. Students cannot vote on the state school board.
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