Oftentimes, well-meaning but poorly informed educators tokenize students. They inadvertently work against the best interests of students by using them to boost adults’ ideas and opinions about what needs to happen in schools and throughout education. However, student tokenism doesn’t have to exist. Learning about tokenizing students and being honest about situations that students and adults are doing is essential. Earnestly taking steps forward to make corrections can be important, too.
Choose different students who have a range of diverse experiences and opinions.
Don’t limit student voice to single issues at convenient times by creating numerous activities to engage broad numbers of students that are infused throughout schools.
Engage as many students as possible in every possible circumstance.
Treat and tell students they are experts in their own experience in schools and do activities that reinforce their expertise right now.
Train students and adults on student voice, and don’t assume that simply because they work with or are students they understand student voice or can speak on all issues in education.
Avoid any representative activities that position students as officials on their peer group, instead concentrating on that specific student as a person.
Throughout the education system, promote equitable and full transparency between students and adults.
Reach out individually to disengaged students who aren’t traditionally heard in schools, not only to students you personally know and like.
Don’t just create special and unique student voice opportunities; instead, infuse student voice everyday through regular classroom activities, extracurricular activities, and things students already do.
Practice mutual accountability with students through student-led evaluations of you and your work, whether you’re a teacher, program director, or student leader.
Invite students to form student/adult partnerships by working together with adults in class, education program, organization, or conference. Get them active early in the planning cycle.
Engage students and use a broad array of activities, programs, organizations, and conferences that have fun built into them, but aren’t focused solely on having fun.
Teach students about education, the schoolsystem, how it functions, what its roles are, and what its significance is within a democratic society.
Provide opportunities for students to connect with each other outside traditionally adult-exclusive education activities so they can see that they’re not the only students in the room, and that they have things in common past their age-based identities.
When sharing student voice on a specific topic, provide a variety of perspectives and not just ones you agree with from the easiest students you could listen to.
Make space for each student as an individual who has their own stories, perspectives, ideas, and knowledge.
Build the capacity of students to lead their own activities and participate as equitable partners with adults throughout the education system.
Remember that all issues throughout the education system are student issues, because in the education system, all issues affect students.
After learning what the choices are, allow students to decide which issues are important for them to share their voice in.
When appropriate, explain to students that not everything they suggest will be acted on, but may inform decisions going forward.
When students are made out to be uniquely important and inscrutably right by sharing student voice, they are being tokenized. When adults brag about students’ presence and words without letting them say or do anything to change schools or the education system, they are tokenizing students. Student tokenism happens in many ways.
Student voice is seen and treated like a special activity that only fits in a certain place at a certain time.
One particular student is asked over and over to participate in adult activities.
Adults discuss student voice without talking to students.
Students are treated favorably for sharing student voice in a way that adults approve of, while students who share student voice in disagreeable ways get in trouble at school.
Adults consistently ask specific students to speak about being a student in school meetings or at education conferences.
Student voice is only listened to for fixing specific issues in schools, instead of addressing everything in education.
A school club will do programs to specific students, without letting those specific students do programs for themselves.
Adults hold a celebration dinner for the school and invite a few students to join 1,000 adults.
Students are only asked about things that affect them directly, rather than the entire school body or education as a whole.
Students are not taught about issues, actions, or outcomes that might inform their perspectives activities.
Adults tell students they have a voice and give them the way they are expected to express it.
Student voice is sought on issues seen as student-isolated challenges like school colors, dance themes, bullying, and technology.
Adults install specific students in traditionally adult positions without the authority, ability, or background knowledge adults receive in those same positions.
Adults constantly tell students about their experiences when they were students.
A single student’s busiest times of year revolve around adult agendas reflected by the education calendar—outside regular student activities—because they’re attending conferences, meetings, summits, and other education activities that require adults to invite them.
Adults don’t tell students directly the purpose of their involvement in school committees or education conferences, except to say that they are The Student Voice.
Students are told that sharing their voice is as good as it gets.
Adults control who hears, sees, or communicates student voice.
When students walk into a meeting, every adult knows there are students attending without knowing their names, where they’re from, or what school they attend.
During a meeting adults expect one student or a small group of students to represent all students.
Students or adults perceive that students are being tokenized, don’t do anything about it, and thereby undermine students.
Students are treated as if or told it is a favor for them to participate in decision-making.
On a panel, on the Internet, or in a meeting, students are given little or no opportunity to formulate their own opinions before speaking.
Students are not taught about the democratic purpose of student voice.
Adults invite students to share their knowledge, ideas, opinions, and more, and then ignore what they say.
One student speaker is invited to talk at an education conference, at a school board meeting, or in an Internet space like Twitter or a Facebook group.
Students who attend an education rally are singled out for their attendance.
Adults only invite students who are not likely to assert themselves, make demands, or complain, to adult education meetings and activities.
Student voice is treated as unique, infallible, or is otherwise put on a pedestal by adults.
Adults take students away from regular classes without giving students any recognition in the form of credit for their learning in education activities.
Adults choose articulate, charming students to join education activities.
Students are given representative roles that are not equal to adult roles in education activities.
Adult/student power imbalances are regularly observed and not addressed in classrooms and schools, while student voice banners and programs happen in other times.
Adults are not accountable to students in education activities.
Adults refuse to acknowledge the validity of student voice they disagree with.
Students are punished when student voice activities don’t meet adult expectations.
Schools use student voice for some issues, and ignore it regarding others.
Adults in schools take pictures and videos of students without listening to what they have to say.
Adults seek out one, two, or ten students as the most popular in their school to represent student voice.
Students are not given the right to raise issues, vote, or share their unfettered opinions.
Student-led school research is used to back up adult problem-solving without engaging students in problem-solving.
Nobody explains to students how they they were selected for an activity.
Adults allow students to talk on their school’s facebook page or twitter account and not at school committee or district school board meetings.
Adults interpret student voice into language, acronyms, purposes, and outcomes that adults use.
Students become burned out from participating in too many traditionally adult-exclusive education activities.
Students are not seen or treated as partners in the education system by adults.
Students think its obvious they have a lack of authority or power or that their authority is undermined by adults.
Adults don’t know, state, or otherwise support the purpose of engaging student voice in the public education systems of democratic societies.
Students are limited to sharing their voice on issues at the local building level, not in district, state, or federal activities.
Students don’t understand which students they are supposed to represent.
Students are asked to create a representation of student voice that never leaves the classroom or education program they’re in.
However, these activities are each able to be corrected. No student tokenism cannot be made right, no matter how long it has been done or who has been involved.
Students are on district and state school boards across the United States. This article summarizes their involvement and explores some resources for this to happen more.
As much as 92% of any individual school building population in the U.S. is comprised of students, with adults accounting for only 8% of the total humans in any given school. There is a growing concern for the vastly underutilized majority here as we struggle with how to make schools more effective for all students.
As part of our work in SoundOut, we provide technical assistance and training to districts that are interested in systematically engaging students in education policy-making. We have researched more than 40 years of involving students as school board members, and follow national trends carefully.
This article is a report and analysis focused on the growing interest in the practice of engaging students through boards of education, both at the state and local levels, across the U.S.
Different Types of Involvement
There are several types of practices that involve students with school boards. 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. Both of these are generally seen as non-meaningful forms of involvement, as they do not require students have an active role in the process of decision-making beyond that of “informant”.
Students Informing the School Board
Higher up the ladder is the practice of having student advisory boards that inform regular school board decision-making. This is the case in Boston, Massachusetts, where the Boston Student Advisory Council is a citywide body of student leaders representing their respective high schools. BSAC, which is coordinated by the administered by the district office in partnership with a nonprofit called Youth on Board, offers student perspectives on high school renewal efforts and inform their respective schools about relevant citywide school issues. In addition to personal skill development and knowledge building activities for their 20-plus members, BSAC students have strongly influenced district policy-making about cell phone usage, truancy, and reducing the drop out rate. They also have regular dialogues with the district superintendent and school board members.
A Student Board of Education
The Denver, Colorado, Student Board of Education is a group of 30 students who represent the15 high schools in the city. They are charged to serve as leaders in their schools and represent all students at the district level. Students create projects that affect their local schools and report back on them to the district. They have also created a curriculum that is used in several high school leadership classes. However, these students have to ask permission to speak to their regular board, and that does not happen frequently. According to a recent local newspaper article, the district has trepidations about giving students a regular voice in school policy-making. A school district attorney was quoted saying, “The law does not provide for a means by which to create a student position on the board, whether it’s a voting position or not.”
Full Voting Student School Board Members
Despite being allowed otherwise in those seven states, only California and Maryland actually have full-voting members on their state boards of education. Both of those states have highly influential student organizations that openly lobby for student voice. The California Association of Student Councils, founded in 1947, proudly proclaims that all their programs are student-led. One of their most powerful activities is the Student Advisory Board on Legislation in Education, or SABLE. Each February SABLE convenes in the state capital to set education priorities and share them with key decision-makers. They have a direct audience with the Senate Education Committee, and their influence helped form a position for a full-voting student member of the California State Board of Education, whose position was created in 1969. They gained full voting rights in 1983, including closed sessions. The Maryland Association of Student Councils has similar impact in their state, with a student member serving in a regularly elected position annually.
One of the main issues in student involvement in boards of education is whether students are legally allowed to sit on boards, and if they are allowed, whether they have a full vote akin to their adult peers. A 2002 study posted on the SoundOut website identifies laws regarding student involvement on state and local school boards in 39 states out of 50 states across the U.S. The results vary: As many as 16 states have laws allowing students to sit on school boards at the state level, with no vote. 20 states allow the same at the district level. Six states disallow either entirely, while seven allow full student voting on the state and district levels.
Challenging Mediocre Practices
Among the things we have found in our work is an inherent dilemma in the type of special positioning students on school boards receive. The dilemma is that while an extremely limited number of students gets an opportunity to share their voices with adult decision-makers in the system, this type of “convenient student voice” is generally conducted at the adults’ convenience and with their approval.
In a growing number of states, the status quo of being excluded does not suit students themselves anymore. Currently, a disjointed but growing movement is seeking to increase the authority of students in school policy-making and decisions.
Hawai’i: here has been a non-voting student representative on the state board of education for more than 20 years. However, a recent proposal would eliminate the position. A Facebook page seeks to maintain that role.
Maryland: where students already have a role on the state board of education and in many district boards, in counties across the state there are active campaigns to increase the effect of student voice, with students calling for a full and regular vote in education policy-making. There is even an instance in Maryland where an 18-year-old named Edward Burroughs was elected to his local school board through regular office after running an effective campaign.
These examples allude to the process of what we refer to as engagement typification, where the roles of students are repositioned throughout the education system to allow Meaningful Student Involvement to become the standard treatment for all students, rather than something that is exceptional.
Consistently positioning students as in special positions doesn’t allow adults, including educators, administrators, or parents, to integrate students throughout the regular operations of the educational system. While seeing their peers as school board members is enticing to a number of students, most are disallowed them from seeing themselves as regular and full members of the leadership and ownership of education, or as trustees for their own well-being.
That is what makes Meaningful Student Involvement different from other attempts at student engagement and student voice: It positions students as full owners of what they learn. Involving students on school boards is a step in the right direction; the next question is whether anywhere in the U.S. is ready to go the full distance.
Tokenism happens in school policy and through activities in education every day. It is so deep in schools that many students and adults never know they’re tokenizing student voice, and students don’t know when they’re being tokenized. Students often internalize tokenism, which takes away their ability to see it, and adults are very invested in it, which takes away their ability to stop it. It is important to teach students and adults about tokenism in schools and how it can affect them.
Understanding Student Tokenism
When adults appoint students to represent, share, or promote student voice, they are making a symbolic gesture towards young people. This step is generally meant to increase or demonstrate student engagement in topics adults think they need to be heard about. It can also be meant to appease student and adult advocates and stop people from complaining.
When students specifically seek to represent, share, or promote student voice, they are generally seeking a portion of control over their personal educational experience. In schools, this can look like joining student government, starting a student voice club, or holding a protest after school or at a school board meeting.
Unfortunately, these approaches to student voice actually reinforce adultism in schools. They do this by reinforcing adult power and highlighting the inability of students to actually change anything in education without adult permission.
Tokenism happens whenever students are in formal and informal roles only to say they have a voice, instead of purpose, power, and possibility. Without that substance, student voice is little more than loud whisper into a vacuum.Today, adults tokenize student voice and students tokenize student voice.