The Sad State of Student Voice in Schools

I have seen several sad things happen when adults start talking about listening to student voice and engaging students in schools. I say “sad” because of the feeling of sorrow, abandonment, and subtle resignation that settles in when I meditate on the following scenarios, which have really happened in the last few years.

* After a long training a school improvement coach is ready to “hit a home run” with student voice in her district. She’s going to “bring these kids in” to “knock the socks off” her district superintendent. That’s exactly what she did, spending several hours talking about students about what pissed them off in schools. The coach got an audience for the students with the superintendent, who told them he had 1/2 hour. The crew came in, presented their list of grievances, ranging from too much homework to outdated tech in their classrooms. The supe listened, then thanked them. The coach felt as if her work was done, despite having neglected the necessity of actually doing something with student voice. My judgement of this scenario? Sad.

* Coming out of teacher college at a large university a year before, a HS English teacher in a rural Western city called me with a problem: She’d spent two weeks telling her students about her activism in college, asked them to write papers about what they would do to change the world, and got nothing better in return than “a bunch of kids talking about being basketball players, soldiers, and housewives.” Judgement? Sad.

* At the invite of the principal, I spent the better part of four days in a small high school working with a group of students to faciltate forums for the whole school to share their hopes and concerns about their learning, their school, and the education system as a whole. After sorting through the findings, the student facilitators presented their findings to the principal, who I saw give the students her whole-hearted approval. However, when the students presented their findings to at the staff meeting later, the staff smiled, and the students left the room. Soon after I was slayed with spiteful indignation from all corners. I had set the students up, I had “made” them angry, I was bad for the culture of their school. The principal got up and announced her agreement with the staff, and I was hung out to dry. You already know what I think about that.

The sad state of student voice in schools today is that there is a growing conversation among educators about how to use student voice to meet their goals. That is inherently skewed, as the simply reality of student voice is that in order to reach their supposed goal of actually engaging students in schools, student voice must be heard, validated, and authorized to take action on its own accord. Adults must be there to support, sustain, and even collaborate with students. However, anytime an educator does something to students, student voice will simply not be a successful method for school improvement.

Perhaps that is the real agenda here: After presenting “student voice” as a popular avenue for school reform, the mass of schools will have miserably horrible failures in engaging it, thereby allowing them to dismiss and abandon it as a tool for growth. It turn this will simply allow for the continued repression of student voice, effectively damning students worse than they were to begin with.

The assupmtion behind SoundOut is that by presenting high-quality student voice as the only alternative for engaging students in school improvement, educators can effectively ensure the authenticity and efficacy of student voice. Unfortunately, many schools, organizations, and educators are actively countering our models with distilled versions of action. I guess that’s another struggle for tomorrow…

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