District leaders understandably feel a sense of urgency to do something about “learning loss” in the pandemic. But if leaders really want to address the academic and social impact from disrupted schooling, their urgency needs to focus on improving students’ experience in school. And that means leaders must talk—and really listen—to their students, particularly students of color who are being left behind.
I’m not talking about asking students to check boxes on a one-and-done school climate survey. I’m talking about having honest dialogue with the students whose leaders know their system isn’t serving them well. We should be seeing a lot more district leaders deeply engaging with students right now to craft student-centered plans for school reopening. But we’re not.
As the head of a group that works with school and district leaders, I too often hear of leaders’ eagerness to talk with students but rarely see this intention turn into a thoughtful and sustained approach. And that has me worried that we may miss a once-in-a-generation chance to remake the school experience so schooling works for all students.
To be clear, student experience shapes academic achievement as well as outcomes like identity development, social and emotional competencies, and a sense of purpose. In our own work talking with K-12 students around the country, students consistently say they want to feel happy and proud at school. They want to be known, seen, heard, and valued. They want a sense of belonging. They want a sense of accomplishment.
Learning only gets harder when these things are absent, research increasingly suggests. So when district leaders stop to understand what their students experience at school, it helps put students where they belong—back at the center of district planning.
Joseph S. Davis, the superintendent of the 11,000-student Ferguson-Florissant district outside St. Louis, recently held webinars and listening tours with middle and high schoolers to explicitly ask what their “hopes and dreams” are for their return to school this spring. Black students (who represent some 60 percent of the student body) said they want to see more of themselves in the curricula and connect more with teachers. Davis realized that to improve students’ experience in school, the system needs to amplify student voice and ensure their views inform all manner of policy and practice. Students now are helping to design and lead school reopening orientations for 7th and 9th graders, drafting a re-entry student handbook, and working on districtwide anti-racist standards.
In Washington state’s agricultural Yakima Valley, when leaders in the 3,700-student Grandview district talked with their English-learners, they heard students say they often feel anxious and excluded in school. And when they don’t feel connected to teachers, they feel even more so. For Jose Rivera, the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, the district action plan for reopening is clear: “My charge is to work with principals to ensure that each student has a genuine connection with their teachers.”
Grandview leaders now know they want more informal peer mentoring and tutoring to reinforce student belonging—because their students told them that helps. And leaders in both Grandview and Ferguson-Florissant plan to make the conversation with students ongoing, as routine as a cabinet or budget meeting.
Without belonging and a sense of accomplishment, learning only gets harder.
Talking with students about their school experience is fundamental to creating equitable or “just” schools. A “just” school produces experiences that help all students feel happy and proud. Academic outcomes are integral to that student experience. But as leaders dig into accelerating learning after the pandemic, we need to consider how we get to those outcomes—and ensure students of color also are afforded a rich, meaningful school experience.
History shows what can happen when leaders rush to intervene in the name of closing achievement gaps. While well-intended, remediation efforts are often pursued quickly, top-down, without thinking through the impact on students’ day-to-day school experience. (And therefore, perversely, without thinking through the impact on their learning and outcomes.) Students get batched for testing and sorted to remedy deficits. This can lead to stripped-down curricula that emphasize rote learning over the.
To avoid a repeat of that unfortunate history, leaders need to stop doing “to” students and start doing “with” them. That means engaging students in the design of their own school experience.
So far in this pandemic, we don’t seem to be doing a great job of it, with districts like Ferguson-Florissant and Grandview the exception to the rule. Last spring, students in national surveys said they wanted a voice in how remote learning works but were rarely asked. A recent analysis suggests it’s the same story this year, with just a handful of districts having sought student input on their learning experiences.
We need to do better as we plan for reopening. And Grandview Superintendent Henry Strom knows it.
“Our principals know about student achievement, we have data points on achievement,” Strom says. “But we don’t have data points to know how students are feeling.” That means leaders don’t yet know what students need their school experiences to look like after months of remote learning that has left many overwhelmed, anxious, and isolated. Yes, understanding where students are academically is critical. But to engage students academically, Strom understands he first needs to know more from students.
Fundamentally, schooling is for and about students. And students are the experts of their own experience. In this moment, with so much at stake, leaders need to stop and listen to the experts.
A version of this article appeared in the March 24, 2021 edition of Education Week as Tackling Learning Loss? First, Listen to Your Students