Opinion
Accountability Opinion

Give Adolescents a Place at the Reform Table

By Janet Eckerson — August 15, 2011 6 min read

School improvement is on the tip of everyone’s tongue in K-12 education; that is, everyone’s except students’. We do not talk with students about school improvement; we do not solicit their input; we do not involve them in our efforts. Why not? In my view, secondary school students are quite capable of contributing widely to school improvement activities, and their participation is both desirable and uniquely useful.

First, I must address the idea that adolescents, by virtue of their not-quite-adult status, are somehow incapable of understanding or participating constructively in conceptualizing school improvement. While they may not be adults legally or biologically, adolescents are involved in a wide variety of activities of adult seriousness: juggling academic demands, romantic and other peer relationships, economic activity, family responsibilities, and often robust, multifaceted participation in school and community activities. Secondary students do not lack the ability to contribute to school improvement; more often, they lack the necessary background knowledge and the opportunity. Both obstacles can be readily overcome.

Secondary students are experts on school; they have been attending it practically all their lives. Equipped with the necessary information and opportunity to put that expertise to use, they would be willing and able participants in the conversation about school improvement.

To illustrate with an anecdote: I teach the concept of a mock Congress in one of my courses, and I wrote a sample bill about performance pay for teachers to model the process. We read and discussed the now-infamous Los Angeles Times value-added study, and I explained how teachers are paid and evaluated in our district, information that is in the public record. The students discussed, researched, presented speeches, and raised exactly the same arguments heard in national conversations about the topic.

If students are indeed able to participate in school improvement, to what end do we seek their participation? I first believe that students have a right to be involved in the creation and implementation of school policies that directly influence the form and function of their school experience: What are these tests for? Why should I care? Given that I am assumed to have the agency to figure out how to do well on them, shouldn’t I also be presumed to have the agency to consider them?

Not only do school systems owe students good answers to these questions, but as the scholar Cynthia E. Coburn has written, real reform, or improvement, happens only when those affected by it have both ownership and depth of understanding. While that assessment referred to teachers’ work in implementing school reform, there is no reason not to extend her argument to students, the absolute bottom of the “bottom up” institutional structure. If school improvement aims to improve the performance of students, it stands to reason that invested, motivated, and involved students would better lead to the successful adoption of school improvement goals.

As required by law, my district administers a national norm-referenced test to high school sophomores, the scores from which are reported to the state and federal governments. Lamenting declining scores in a faculty meeting, some teachers suggested that students saw the assessment as irrelevant, and that this led students to put forth less than their best effort. When I brought this to the attention of my group of sophomores, they agreed that they had no idea that the test would be used by the state to evaluate the quality of their school and, indirectly, their teachers. The students were very reflective; they agreed that we have a good school system and weighed the reasons to take the tests seriously.

If school improvement aims to improve the performance of students, it stands to reason that invested, motivated, and involved students would better lead to the spread of school improvement goals."

Now, for a moment, could we imagine that these same students had been involved in interpreting the state mandate for a norm-referenced test, selecting a test, and then reflecting on the results? I can only expect that students would be eager to celebrate or lament, and offer suggestions as to what would, or could, affect the future performance of other students.

Thinking about school improvement more broadly, the potential and opportunities for student involvement in improving their local educational environments are great. Students are astute observers of problems in their schools, from curriculum and instruction to institutional policies and procedures.

If we chose to truly respect those opinions, they could be a valuable part of school “renewal.” Why do we not include students in textbook-selection committees, if they are the ultimate consumers of the material? Why do we not allow secondary students to tender evaluations of their instructors, as we permit postsecondary students? Why are student councils relegated to organizing dances and pep rallies, rather than substantively serving as a student voice in issues of school disciplinary policy?

The voice of a crucial stakeholder in education is virtually ignored by current institutional practices. I believe that students can offer unique perspectives in some cases, and community-building consensus in others.

A few years ago, the dress code at my school was changed to prohibit large-hooded sweatshirts, in which students were hiding their phones and texting one another under the cover of long sleeves and deep front pockets. Student backlash to the new code was substantial. After several months, student council members gave a presentation at a faculty meeting: If they could ensure that cellphone use would not be a problem, could they have the sweatshirts back? Faculty members agreed; the student council surveyed students and drafted a cellphone-use policy that was satisfactory to the student body and the administration. The final policy involved stricter sanctions for cellphone use in class, and hooded sweatshirts returned; incidences of cellphone use in class dropped precipitously. This illustrates that students can negotiate, hear the concerns of faculty members, and build student consensus and buy-in.

The importance of student participation in school improvement becomes all the more critical when we think about educational aims that extend beyond student performance as assessed by state accountability measures. If we purport to be educating students for future participation in a democratic society, do we not best educate for democracy by creating democratic structures within the school and opportunities for student participation within them? If John Dewey was right that we cannot separate what we learn from the way we learn it, we ought to teach participatory democracy through real, consequential democratic action in the arena most relevant to students, their own schooling. Student participation in school improvement offers an educational opportunity for students and a way to create a culture of schooling that mirrors the culture of participation and consensus-building that we want to encourage in our communities.

The mechanisms that would allow student involvement in school improvement processes could be various; I do not pretend to offer a model of student involvement. However, it does seem that student participation ought to be elicited, at the very least, in the existing institutional structures that deal with school policies. When my school principal convenes a committee to discuss homework policies at our high school, student voices ought to be in the mix. As the administrators meet to discuss departmental budget allocations, students should be involved. In fact, why not allow students to hold a seat on the local school board as well?

I am not suggesting a majority-rules logic (students would, obviously, hold the democratic majority in schools, if allowed to vote), but if we recognize the capacity and agency of students and we truly wish to make them participants in their education, school, and community, we have to make room for student involvement in school improvement. Schools don’t magically improve; they improve through the engagement of their stakeholders, students central among them.

A version of this article appeared in the August 24, 2011 edition of Education Week as Why Not Involve Adolescents in the Reform Conversation?

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