All Student Voice Is NOT Created Equal

We must abandon completely the naive faith that education automatically liberates the mind and serves the cause of human progress; in fact we know it may serve any cause. It may serve tyranny as well as freedom, ignorance as well as enlightenment, falsehood as well as truth. It may lead men and women to think they are free even as it rivets them in chains of bondage… In the course of history, education has served every purpose and doctrine contrived by man; if it is to serve the cause of human freedom, it must be explicitly designed for that purpose. – George Counts in Education and the Foundations of Human Freedom (1963)

Not all actions to change education are created equal. Since Horace Mann and Booker T. Washington seeded schools across America in the 19th century, lots of people have tried to change schools again and again. It’s obvious that all these changes aren’t the same.

Yet, there are those in today’s progressive education movement who would lump everything together. I am one of them. Almost singularly concerned about the roles of students throughout education since 2000, my first project focused on engaging students in formal school improvement activities lumped all student voice as the same in data aggregation activities. It was an opportunistic activity that reflected the first decade of my work. There simply weren’t that many student voice activities to count. Examples, research, and tools focused on student voice were few and far between, and I attempted to pile them all together in order to promote Meaningful Student Involvement


Examining activities that students called meaningful, I tried to put parameters on my efforts by defining the practices as, “…the process of engaging students in every facet of the educational process for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community and democracy.” That emerged from another project I facilitated that focused on equity in education. Testing it while facilitating a statewide student engagement initiative in New York, I found reception among educators who’d written off “democratic education” in their classrooms.

Unfortunately, at best I was perpetuating the very problems I thought I was combating. I tried to become the monster in order to seduce it to be less monstrous. Recently, I discovered I might have been growing little monsters instead.

Emerging from among those few examples has come nothing short of a nascent movement. There are now hundreds, if not thousands, of student voice programs across the US and Canada. Some of these I’m directly responsible for, and others have come together as a response to my writing, while others are completely independent of my influence.

Somewhere along the way, my goal of created a democratically-oriented, socially just conception of school transformation focused on engaging students as partners was distilled towards the essence of student voice. Then, that was manipulated to simplify it to the lowest common denominator for student involvement in schools, which is to say that in many cases student voice has become a simple shill for adults.

I can do better. Acknowledging past inability to forthrightly declare the socially-oriented roots of Meaningful Student Involvement, I can ally with George Counts’ call for American schools to partner with social justice movements in order to foster social change by pointing out the youth-led education organizing efforts embedded within the student voice movement. Rather than gently nudging people towards acknowledgment of adult influence in student voice actions, I can be forthright. Recently, I tried the tact of reaching out directly to the student voice movement itself, with mixed reception. I will continue talking directly to adults about our attempts to engage student voice, and encourage them to move beyond simplicity.

It’s been my recent work in Miami and southeast Washington state that has really reinforced for me that all student voice is not created equal. Working with low-income students, English language learners, and students of color in the places I have has reinforced for me that there are many different politics, urgencies, and necessities that inform student voice in all it’s myriad forms. I will continue to emphasize different locations for Meaningful Student Involvement, and different ways to integrate student/adult partnerships throughout schools. But it’s time to be done with student voice, if only because many of us are getting it all wrong.

Learn more about my work in schools on the SoundOut website, and follow my blog here.

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