The Roots of Meaningful Student Involvement

“Meaningful student involvement” is my theory that when young people participate in equitable student/adult partnerships that are substantive and engaging for learners, the education system will more effectively meet its myriad goals. I first explored this concept in 2003 in my Meaningful Student Involvement Idea Guide for the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In 2005 I wrote the Meaningful Student Involvement Guide to Students as Partners in School Change at the request of the HumanLinks Foundation. In it I explained that, “Meaningful student involvement is the process of engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.” 

At the beginning of my work in 2000 it was difficult to identify a cohesive body of work around the roles of students in schools. Research on student engagement had been growing over the previous 20 years, and is still highlighted by the findings of Fred Newmann. He found that student engagement occurs when, “students make a psychological investment in learning. They try hard to learn what school offers. They take pride not simply in earning the formal indicators of success (grades), but in understanding the material and incorporating or internalizing it in their lives.” His 1992 book, Student Engagement and Achievement in American Secondary Schools examines several schools’ responses to the nature of student involvement and participation in classroom curriculum everyday. Later Newmann developed a set of standards based off this study he called “Authentic Instruction.” Check out the criteria he proposed:
  1. Students construct meaning and produce knowledge,
  2. Students use disciplined inquiry to construct meaning, and 
  3. Students aim their work toward production of discourse, products, and performances that have value or meaning beyond success in school.
I immediately found Newmann’s findings provided an essential contextualization for the question of why meaningful student involvement matters in school change efforts. At the same time I was studying critical pedagogy extensively while finishing my bachelor’s degree at The Evergreen State College, heavily influenced by the work of Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, bell hooks and Peter McLaren, among others. I was also footed in the pioneering work of organizations like Youth On Board and people like Wendy Lesko, as well as the experiences of the 1000s of students I’d worked with in schools and community settings across the country.
All this in mind, I began to apply Newmann’s criteria to the question of how students themselves views the different roles they occupy in schools, as well as how adults view those roles, their possibilities and their limitations. 
Examining other literature I began to identify emergent patterns in their findings about what students said about schools. My desk became covered with sticky notes as I gathered accounts of student involvement in schools across United States and around the world. These stories came from What Kids Can Do, the Youth Activism Project, and my own gathering activities where I culled items from newspapers, interviewed students and teachers across the country, and went to schools where I was told great things were happening. I was also working at the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction as their first Student Engagement Specialist, a position created for me to workshop with K-12 teachers and students focused on student voice and promote student involvement throughout school decision-making. Along the way I was head-checked on every wrong assumption I made, and grew exponentially from the exposure I had to administrators, teachers, and students reacting to the early implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act.
From all this I began to identify trends and patterns emerge. They grabbed me and urged me to call them out. First I saw Roger Hart’s Ladder of Children’s Participation echo inside schools. Then I identied my frameworks for meaningful student involvement: First the typology, then the Cycle of Engagement, and eventually enough emerged to write my Meaningful Student Involvement series. While reception of meaningful student involvement hasn’t led to a particularly exuberant national movement as I’d originally hoped for, since 1995 dozens of districts, local schools, independent school improvement organizations, and colleges of education have used my work to inform their school reform activities. Along with several state departments of education the U.S. Department of Education has used meaningful student involvement to promote school connectedness. This work has taken hold in several different places across the country. Additionally, I’ve connected with practitioners around the world, particularly in Australia and England.
These are the roots of meaningful student involvement. At some point in the near future I’ll explore some of the future growth I’m plotting, including some of the essential partners who are coming forward and some of the ideal situations I’d like to be positioned in the future.

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