Student Voice Is NOT Democracy

Student voice is not democracy. 
Out of my decade-plus experience working in schools to promote student voice, a few lessons and experiences stand out. This article highlights one of those experiences, and is focused on one of those lessons.

During the 2006/07 and 2007/08 school years, I worked with almost 150 schools in seven BOCES across New York State in a project focused on Meaningful Student Involvement. Supporting the schools with a broad range of activities including school improvement sessions, keynote presentations, and individual school consultations, I learned a lot about educators’ assumptions about student voice. One of the early beliefs forwarded by participants from across the state was the idea that student voice was democracy in action. 
Working with those schools for those years, I repeatedly found lessons emerge in my practice. 
Lesson One: Schools Are Not Democracies

Being the autocratic, adultcentric environments that they are, schools are not democracies, and school leaders and educators routinely tell students that. That pronouncement alone equates student voice to something other than democratic. When I train about it, I emphasize that when engaged accordingly, student voice can be an avenue towards efficacy in teaching, learning, and leadership in education. 
I think the argument that student voice is democracy in action is flawed at its core. In my experience working with hundreds of schools across the US and Canada, I’ve found that, relatively speaking, students who are chosen to share their voices in school leadership are generally not representative of the majority of learners. They generally have privileges that others don’t, including the academic achievement and fiscal background needed to allow them to participate, and to ensure their successful experience sharing student voice.

These students are generally what I call “traditional student voice”; that is, their voices are generally predictable and acceptable to adults. Through gross over-exaggerations about schools and the inability of education to meet their needs, many student voice representatives today don’t even address the basic concerns of low-achieving students, students of color, or low-income students in schools today. To the chagrin of many of my compatriots in the student voice movement, I regularly see and admit that the majority of traditional student voice representatives merely toe the corporate education agenda sold by mainstream media and the vast majority of politicians (as do their parents).

While all students’ voices have value for improving schools and transforming education, when adults hold up one set of students’ voices and make them reflective or representative of the whole education system that it becomes problematic. That’s true of nontraditional student voice as well as traditional student voice. While some educators pedestal convenient student voice, there are nonprofit organization programs that do the same with inconvenient student voice. They routinely uplift the voices of students of color, low-income students, underachieving learners, and others, offering those students’ critiques as a singular focus for school improvement.

In reality, this isn’t democracy either, as both position one group of students above others. While I readily acknowledge that all student voice is not created equal, I believe that in democracy all people ARE created equal. That’s an essential distinction. 


Lesson Two: We Should Understand What Student Voice Actually Is

As I’ve explained before, student voice is any expression of any learned about any aspect of education. Leveled out like this, its suddenly obvious that the students fighting in the hallway are sharing student voice as much as the students speaking at school board meetings. Student choice, student involvement, student leadership, and student empowerment activities all embody some part of student voice, but no more so than the average history, science, business, or art class, and sometimes even less. Student voice is not the sole providence of student government, the homecoming dance planning committee, or afterschool programs.

That said, with regard to addressing student voice as democracy, I think most programs designed to engage student voice within school reform-focused activities merely uphold presumptions about schools as failing, students as inadequate learners, and teachers as underperforming. As many tokenistic, adult-driven agendas show, educators and school leaders frequently use students to shore up their arguments. These activities are generally not beneficial for students’ concerns, but rather, adults’ alone. Suggesting that student voice is democracy suggests that students are represented through democracy.

Seeing the disconnection between students’ desires and schools’ offerings, as well as their general treatment throughout society, I would challenge that seeing children and youth as a represented constituency in democratic society is an ineffectual posture. Just like undocumented immigrants and felons in the majority of states, all children and youth under 18 are not represented in the democratic process. That doesn’t mean that no one pays attention to their interests; rather, that since they cannot represent themselves, they cannot chose to have somebody represent them; ergo, they’re not represented.

In the same way, without the franchise and routinely denied avenues towards self-representation throughout society, young people who cannot vote are not represented in democratic activities. As such, they are not represented almost anywhere, unless by themselves. Even then, because of the pervasive nature of adultism, the ability of young people to self-represent can be largely questionable at times as well.

From my experience in New York alone, not to mention the other 300 schools I’ve worked with, I have found many educators and school leaders would rather not listen to the majority of student voice anyhow. This reality alone shows the reality facing student voice advocates today.

I honestly believe that positioning it as a means towards democratic representation is disingenuous at best. That doesn’t mean that student voice activities cannot be used to teach democracy, but that the ends shouldn’t be confused.

Lesson Three: Education Can Build Democracy
Student voice activities could be more effective if they balanced different students’ voices. Those don’t necessarily have to be along the lines of race, socio-economic status, or similar lines either: balancing student voice can mean achieving and non-achieving students; dropouts and graduates; non-college bound and college bound; etc. This avoids the pedestaling effects of so many student voice activities. 
In New York, I taught the schools concerned with democracy in education that the places they could most affect democracy were:
  • How their buildings framed student voice,
  • The ways educators frame it and,
  • Students’ understandings of student voice for themselves
Ultimately though, the only avenue towards engaging student voice in democracy isn’t through student voice at all. As a simply expression, student voice can never be democracy. Only through intentional engagement in a larger concept can student voice affect democracy, and that’s why I developed the frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. True engagement throughout the educational system is required for student voice to not be just another program in schools, and for students to experience democracy in education.

The problem I have with so many student voice projects is that they aren’t for students themselves – they’re for adults. They generally believe that students have the right to their opinions, and adults within the education system have a responsibility to engage those opinions. However, they don’t believe students have a right to share opinions adults don’t agree with. That isn’t democracy. This makes obvious the reality that adults generally don’t think all the way through what they’re doing with students. For lack of exposure, background research, or training, in their well-meaningness many adults actually do more harm to students through student voice activities than help them.

Student voice can be embraced within education systems towards the goal of building democracy, but not as democracy itself. As I frequently advocate for, it can be infused in educational leadership, integrated in classroom teaching and management, and acknowledged for its role in school culture. However, the simple act of student voice should never be confused for the complexity of democracy.

This particular problem allows adults to draw a lot of conclusions. Adults decide students are incapable of contributing meaningfully (e.g. how we want them to) towards school improvement. Actively engaging the diverse student voice and demonstrating that diversity in every activity can stop the belief that one student or group of students can or should represent all students. That’s closer to democracy.

Thanks to Jeroen G. Bron of the National Institute for Curriculum Development, SLO, The Netherlands; and John Loflin of the Black & Latino Policy Institute in Indianapolis for pushing my thinking in this area.


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