Engaging Students as Education System Decision-Makers

The following continues my week-long expose on different types of Meaningful Student Involvement in school improvement.

“Schools are compulsory for about ten years of a person’s life. They are, perhaps, the only compulsory institutions for all citizens, although those with full membership in schools are not yet treated as full citizens of our society…” – Marie Brennan (1996)

Perhaps the irony to the above quote is that students recognize the situation immediately and consequently offer reluctance to Meaningful Student Involvement. When presented with opportunities to make significant decisions in their schools, students have been known to parrot educators, saying only what they think adults want to hear; students test educators by offering the most outlandish possibilities; and in the most dramatic cases, they simply refuse to make decisions that they have been taught to believe should be made for them (Kohn, 1993).
The challenges students pose in decision-making are coupled with oft-cited barriers in the form of systemic roadblocks in schools and the patronizing attitudes of adult educators. However, research has proven that when young people are able to make decisions about education and their experience, knowledge, ideas and opinions are empowered, motivation, reasoning skills, and confidence flourish (Zeldin, et al, 2000).
Meaningful Student Involvement engages students as decision-makers who partner with educators to make decisions throughout schools, in areas that affect their individual learning as well as the entire school community. It is the later of these areas that this section focuses on, including students as decision-makers in curricula selection, calendar year planning, school building design, and many broader school-focused issues. In addition to being involved on boards of education at the local, district, and state levels, students are engaged in education decision-making, such as grant-making, school assessment, and more. Students are also learning by establishing and enforcing codes of conduct, and making decisions about teacher and administrator hiring and firing.
John Dewey, the father of modern progressive education, delineated a course of learning that is easily adaptable for student involvement in education decision-making (1916). The following points are modified from Dewey’s original course.
  1. All students should have validating, sustainable, opportunities that they are interested in to make decisions about their own learning and education as a whole.
  2. Decision-making opportunities should engage students in solving genuine problems and making substantial decisions that will promote critical thinking skills.
  3. Students should possess the knowledge and ability needed to make informed decisions.
  4. Students and educators should be responsible and accountable for developing responsible, creative action plans to implement decisions.
  5. Students should apply these plans, reflect on the decisions and outcomes, and be charged with continually examining, applying, and challenging this learning.
The evidence that education systems across the United States are devoid of student involvement in decision-making is obvious to any young person or adult who considers themselves an ally of youth. As displayed above, the belief that students cannot make decisions for themselves is as much a hindrance as the belief that students cannot make decisions for schools at large.
There is evidence that the historic tide of adultism in schools may be receding. One of the respondents in the above series validated Meaningful Student Involvement, saying, “The student board member should be elected by the whole student body, with no interference from administrators, teachers, or others. This is the only way the board can really find out what is really happening in the schools and what students really want” (Joiner, 2003).
Coupled with the following quote from Wisconsin State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster, there may be new interest for Meaningful Student Involvement in education decision-making. “Including students as representatives on boards and committees takes classroom learning into the community and opens the door for many more students to become involved in the policies and practices that shape their schools.… Student board representatives play a valuable role in helping locally elected school boards understand how their decisions affect the [students] they serve and provide our young people with an opportunity to learn about the important debate and compromise that shape school policy.”
Given the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement in creating a positive future for schools, as well as the growing call from both students and educators for students to be included as decision-makers, schools must change. This change should begin in the earliest grades with the youngest students, evolving and changing as students grow in their ability, and as educators grow in their capacity to engage young people.
This was adapted from Stories of Meaningful Student Involvement (2005) Adam Fletcher. All rights reserved.

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