Elevating Student Voice in Education

By Meg Benner, Catherine Brown, and Ashley Jeffrey

Center for American Progress

Introduction and summary

Students have the greatest stake in their education but little to no say in how it is delivered. This lack of agency represents a lost opportunity to accelerate learning and prepare students for a world in which taking initiative and learning new skills are increasingly paramount to success.

When it comes to student engagement, there is a predictable and well-documented downward trajectory as students get older. According to a 2016 Gallup poll that measured student engagement, about three-quarters of fifth graders—an age at which students are full of joy and enthusiasm for school—report high engagement in school.1 By middle school, slightly more than one-half of students report being engaged.2 In high school, however, there is a precipitous drop in engagement, with just about one-third of students reporting being engaged.3 Similar to the drop in engagement, a recent poll from The New Teacher Project (TNTP) found that students see less value in their work and assignments with each subsequent year of school.

There are limited studies that show a direct connection between student engagement and students valuing their education and opportunities to make their voices heard. Many advocates and researchers encourage schools to create opportunities for students to participate in decisions about their education as a means of increasing student engagement and investing students in their education.

The authors of this report define “student voice” as student input in their education ranging from input into the instructional topics, the way students learn, the way schools are designed, and more. Increasing student voice is particularly important for historically marginalized populations, including students from Black, Latinx, Native American, and low-income communities as well as students with disabilities.

Given the assumption that student voice can increase student engagement, such efforts to give students more ownership of their education may be linked to improvements in student outcomes. 6 For example, a 2006 Civic Enterprises report, which surveyed a diverse group of 16- to 24-year-old adults who did not graduate high school, found that 47 percent of respondents indicated that “classes were not interesting” as the main reason they dropped out.7 Sixty-nine percent of participants said that they were not motivated to work hard.8 Interestingly, the percentage of students who did not feel inspired to work hard increased among students with lower GPAs; among high-, medium-, and low-GPA students, 56 percent, 74 percent, and 79 percent reported not feeling inspired to work hard, respectively. Surveyed students and focus groups emphasized the need for student voice in curricula development, improved instruction practices, and increased graduation rates.9

States, districts, schools, and teachers can solicit and incorporate student voice in many ways. Some of these strategies fundamentally change the way that schools and systems operate, and others are more marginal. This report provides an overview of eight approaches that teachers, school leaders, and district and state policymakers can use to incorporate student voice: student surveys; student perspectives on governing bodies such as school, local, state decision-makers; student government; student journalism; student-led conferences; democratic classroom practices; personalized learning; and youth participatory action research (YPAR).

Implementation of these strategies matters greatly. Efforts to incorporate student voice are stronger when they include the following elements: intentional efforts to incorporate multiple student voices, especially those that have been historically marginalized; a strong vision from educational leaders; clarity of purpose and areas of influence; time and structures for student-adult communication; and, most importantly, trust between students and educators.10 Policymakers and educators should also incorporate principles of universal design to ensure that these efforts are accessible to all students and recognize the voices of all students, including students with disabilities and students whose first language is not English.

This report concludes with policy recommendations for school, district, and state policymakers.

Youth activism has been in the spotlight of late due to several high-profile efforts, including the advocacy of youth who oppose the end of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program as well as the Parkland, Florida, students who galvanized around meaningful gun control.11 Youth have also crafted public opposition letters to education officials to protest policies that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate criminalization of Black and Latinx students, LGBTQ students, and students with disabilities.12 For instance, a group of youth activists called the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education were instrumental in driving the narrative and advocating for statewide change that resulted in the 2015 passage of SB 100 in Illinois, which addressed harsh, punitive discipline policies in school.13

This youth activism is remarkable and helps change the debate on key issues facing the United States. This report, however, focuses on incorporating student voice within existing educational institutions.

What is student voice?

 The authors of this report define student voice as authentic student input or leadership in instruction, school structures, or education policies that can promote meaningful change in education systems, practice, and/or policy by empowering students as change agents, often working in partnership with adult educators.14

Expert definitions of student voice

“At the simplest level, student voice can consist of young people sharing their opinions of school problems with administrators and facility. Student voice initiatives can also be more extensive, for instance, when young people collaborate with adults to address the problems in their schools—and in rare cases when youth assume leadership roles to change efforts.”15

–Dana Mitra, a Pennsylvania State University scholar on education policy and student voice

“[A] broad term describing a range of activities that can occur in and out of school. It can be understood as expression, performance, and creativity and as co-constructing the teaching/learning dynamic. It can also be understood as self-determined goal-setting or simply as agency.”16

­–Eric Toshalis, senior director of impact at KnowledgeWorks who focuses on student engagement and motivation

Experts on student voice, including Mitra and Toshalis, describe student voice as a spectrum or pyramid to illustrate that different forms of student engagement foster different levels of agency.17 On the one hand, adults gather and use student perspectives, feedback, and opinions to inform change. On the other hand, students participate in decision-making bodies that drive change.18 Student agency increases as students assume more leadership and have greater responsibility and accountability in instruction or policy changes.

All forms of student voice can be important and can meaningfully influence instruction, schools, and policies. But each approach has trade-offs, and one may be more appropriate to achieve certain goals than others. For example, schoolwide or districtwide surveys provide a snapshot in time with answers to a limited number of largely multiple-choice questions and often measure changes in the views of a large group of students over time. Student leadership through governing bodies or YPAR can allow for meaningful and extended conversations about complex topics and implementation; in most instances, however, this approach engages fewer students.


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