School Climate & Safety

Student Insights Guiding Districts on Policy and Practice

By Evie Blad — June 02, 2015 6 min read
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When leaders of the 63,000-student Washoe County school district in Reno, Nev., sought to bring down a high dropout rate, they found limits in relying solely on research and strategies used in other school systems.

What was missing, they determined, were real, unvarnished insights of their own students who’d faced challenges with finishing high school. So they went straight to the source for answers, and what they got was an honest, student-produced video that featured a series of interviews with students who had dropped out and later returned to school.

“I think you should try to understand your students more than trying to control them,” a sophomore girl advised Washoe County teachers in the video. “Really sit down, talk to your students, get to know them one-on-one. Even if there’s a lot of students, you could at least try.”

Done well, efforts to tap into students’ experiences and opinions—the Washoe video is one example—yield numerous benefits for all participants, researchers say.

For students, participation leads to increased engagement and a chance to build social and emotional skills like self-advocacy.

Benefits of Student Voice

Well-executed, focused efforts to listen to students and use their insights can have benefits for all parties, researchers say.

For Teachers, Administrators

  • Ideas for improvement
  • Details about why some programs aren’t working
  • Insights into the lives and needs of overlooked students

For Students

  • A feeling of being heard, which leads to increased engagement
  • A boost in skills like self-advocacy, self-awareness, and relationship building
  • Chances to contribute to stronger, more effective school programs and policies

Shared Benefits

  • Heightened trust
  • Improved school climate

For school leaders, student voice projects contribute to a healthy school climate and build mutual trust among students and teachers, and they provide constructive input to help school improvement efforts be more effective.

It’s clear that students want to be heard, researchers and advocacy groups say, pointing to student-led advocacy efforts like lobbying for a new school discipline law in Illinois and a recent walk-out held to protest administrators’ decisions on how to improve public schools in Newark, N.J.

Involving students in school decisions “doesn’t only empower them in that one situation. It makes them lifelong advocates,” said Dawnya Johnson, 18, a graduating Baltimore senior who has worked with Student Voice, a youth-led organization that empowers students to speak up at school.

But to be effective, measures taken by school district leaders to listen to students’ viewpoints must extend beyond giving the student council president a non-voting, largely ornamental seat on the school board, researchers say.

“I think a lot of times students are kind of used as token measures to verify what adults already want to do,” said Dana Mitra, an associate professor of education at Penn State University who studies the impact of student voice on schools.

Effective student voice efforts also seek input from often overlooked and at-risk student populations, Ms. Mitra said. “If you ask kids for whom the system has failed ... they have a very different perspective, and they are also braver about calling out issues of equity and sort of the elephant in the room,” she said.

‘Inside-Outside Fishbowl’

Examples of Projects

When the Washoe County school district in Nevada decided to improve its student voice efforts, leaders worked with WestEd to design three strategies. All three require training of both participating adults and students.

»ASK (Analyzing Surveys with Kids): Students interpret surveys and produce suggestions for school improvement.

»Inside-Outside Fishbowl: Students and teachers trade roles as speakers and listeners during a facilitated discussion of a school-related topic or problem, and work together to create a plan to address it.

»S4 (Students Studying Students’ Stories): Students produce and analyze videotaped interviews of other students about a school-related topic or problem and then host forums with educators to suggest improvements.


Participants in Washoe County’s video project weren’t afraid to draw a clear picture of that elephant, detailing how mental health issues, pregnancy, and family stress made it hard for them to focus on school.

The 15-minute video was produced by students at an alternative high school who conducted the interviews and analyzed the results. The student producers help present the video and lead discussions at district meetings, and it has helped color teachers’ perceptions of how and why their students are struggling, said Jennifer Harris, a program evaluator for Washoe County schools.

The video was one of three student voice strategies the district’s leaders developed with WestEd, the regional educational laboratory, as part of an intentional effort to engage more directly with students in schoolwide plans.

The district has also tapped students to analyze data, including annual school climate surveys and data about the need for college remediation among the district’s graduates, to help generate suggestions for school improvement efforts.

And educators there are also using a method called “inside-outside fishbowl,” in which students and adults sit in concentric circles of chairs facing each other, and trade off speaking and listening roles to answer questions about issues.

The fishbowl method has gotten so popular that teachers now use it in class discussions, and it’s a go-to strategy for some principals to hash out schoolwide issues, like bullying, Ms. Harris said.

In all three methods, district leaders actively seek out students’ viewpoints on specific issues, with a clear plan on the front end for how they will use the results. They train both students and staff about how to participate.

“We’re not just eliciting student voice for the sake of it ... We’re being intentional around showing that this is leading to something,” Ms. Harris said.

That inquiry-based approach to student voice yields the most benefits for all parties, Ms. Mitra said. And it ensures that the end goal is actually hearing students and using their ideas, rather than just giving them the impression that they’ve been heard, she said.

Student voice isn’t a new idea, but it’s experiencing a resurgence in policy discussions as students continue to express interest in organizing and being involved in the decisions that affect their education. And school leaders and policymakers see it as a valuable tool as they increasingly recognize the connections between interpersonal skills, student engagement, and academic achievement.

Making a Difference

In some Tennessee school districts, leaders have used student input as a factor in teacher evaluations. Elsewhere, leaders use student observations about school climate, teaching styles, and cafeteria food to drive decisions.

When students are involved in schoolwide discussions, they “begin to feel agency, they begin to feel effective in their ability to make a difference at school,” said Antwan Wilson, the superintendent of the 47,000-student Oakland Unified district in California, where teachers’ professional development includes discussions about seeking input from students.

Mr. Wilson says students are a key driver behind the district’s work to overhaul its discipline policies to drive down disproportionately high suspension rates for African-American students.

In a 2014 report, Gallup Education estimated that about half of U.S. students are “engaged” in school. Gallup used results from an online survey of 600,000 students, measuring engagement by tabulating their responses to questions like “I have a best friend in school,” and “My teacher makes me feel like my schoolwork is important.”

What better way to improve those factors than to turn to the students for insight, Mr. Wilson said. “In order for them to learn, our students are saying, ‘We need to know you care about us,’ ” he said.

In Washoe County, student voice efforts have seeped into the districtwide culture, Ms. Harris said.

The district held a “student voice summit” this month, inviting students, staff, and families to learn about what it is doing to meaningfully involve students in decisionmaking.

The district has also involved students in new ways, inviting them to a summit each year where they can learn about all the factors that drive district decisions, including data about discipline, graduation rates, and students who are on-track to graduate in 9th grade.

“If our students are really going to engage in student voice experiences, and if we want them to be leaders, they also have to be exposed to that level of information,” Ms. Harris said. “We think that’s foundational to them being able to participate and to have a voice.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Districts Use Student Insights to Guide Policy, Practice


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