Beware Stagnant Student Voice

Over the last decade, I’ve seen a lot of student voice programs come and go. There have been special grants and interesting projects, meaningful attempts and passionate movements. All the while, student voice has grown in stature on the education reform radar while remaining on the back burner of the national conversation.

After researching and writing about Meaningful Student Involvement in the early 2000s, I went about conducting a series of projects across Washington, New York, Colorado, and in Florida. More than 10,000 students and adults in 100 K-12 schools have participated in SoundOut activities. I rested on those laurels for a while, believing that I was influencing change from the stories and outcomes I heard in many places. 

This month I’ve been scanning the research databases again. Looking across the field, I’m witnessing a compelling picture of emergence: The student voice movement is growing. More than ever, new programs, organizations, and campaigns are emerging designed to engage students in schools in creative, empowering ways. People are using language around student voice, student engagement, student leadership, Meaningful Student Involvement, and student empowerment. It is exciting to see. 
However, in my scan I’m also seeing a kind of stagnation set in as more people dabble and drive into this work. It’s happening as more folks settle on common definitions, “best practices”, and frequently-implemented approaches to engaging student voice. My research on Meaningful Student Involvement actually revealed this back in 2003, and I tried to call it out. I warned that practitioners were, in their well-meaning but poorly informed practices, positioning students as tokens in school improvement efforts. The frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement that I wrote were designed to challenge simplistic, convenient student voice activities by calling educators and students to a higher bar.

The activities get too comfortable, the reports look too familiar, and the participants act too similarly. The danger in stagnate student voice is that it becomes predictable and easy for adults. When this stagnation happens, it’s neither authentic student voice or effective student engagement. This is true because of the nature of young people in our society: They constantly change. Because of the varying dynamics of their realities, schools must always change, too. That requires deliberately engaging students as active, dynamic partners throughout their educations, which shows the necessity of Meaningful Student Involvement.

Today, I want to re-assert the bar offered through my research. However, this time instead of telling, telling, telling folks how to do it, I’m going to show through action. Stay tuned, and we’ll all go higher together.

Stop the stagnation! 

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