Debunking the Myths of Student Voice

Jul 11, 2016 12:00:00 AM

by Matthew Fulle

Education activist Chris Stewart told me in a recent interview that “it’s almost like we’re putting people through a meatpacking plant and we’re trying to drop stuff in their brains.” In a lot of ways, Chris is right. We talk about our education system like it’s a business and our children are the customers. But what if students weren’t just consumers of a product? What if students were to have a say in their education? I’ve heard my fair share of skepticism. "Wait a minute," they usually say. "Students are children, after all. Decisions should be made by those with knowledge and the wisdom that comes from experience." This rationale makes sense. But only at first glance. Research over the past two decades show that efforts to engage students have the potential to improve education in unique ways. I’ve found that the status quo is built on two popular myths about student voice in education. It’s time that we debunk these persistent myths.

Myth #1: Students Aren’t Serious Enough to Have a Say in Their Classrooms

Teacher evaluation is the perennial hot button issue in education. In my experience, students aren’t taken seriously enough to have a substantive role in evaluating their teachers. This is one of the most popular myths about student voice in education. It has also been thoroughly refuted. The Gates Foundation’s mammoth Measures of Effective Teaching study touches on the importance of student perception surveys in our evaluation toolbox. One MET study report noted that the results of student surveys are more reliable than those of other measures:
When researchers compared multiple results on the same measure for the same teachers, the student surveys were more likely than achievement gain measures or observations to demonstrate consistency.
These findings shouldn’t be surprising. Observations made by administrators or principals happen less frequently than the continuous evaluations students make of their teachers. Intentionally or not, teachers can perform differently during these periods of observation. Students actually do take the opportunity to provide serious feedback. Moreover, the resulting measures of evaluation are more consistent than other evaluation tools. Well, doubters have said, it’s one thing to have student voice in the classroom. It’s another thing to have student input on decisions beyond the classroom. This is the second myth.

Myth #2: Student Voice Doesn’t Have a Place Outside the Classroom

I’ve crossed paths with reformers over the years who believe that a student’s experience does not equal expertise. They dismiss students because they believe kids don’t know enough about the broader issues to have productive input beyond their own classroom. The intention is well meaning—let adults do the hard work—but it is wrong. Studies show that student input beyond the classroom is not only valid, but offers immediate and long-term benefits. For one, it forces officials and reformers to answer tough questions. A 2005 article published in the Educational Administration Quarterly notes just how well-documented this benefit is:
Many researchers have noticed that by not involving students, and particularly those students who are failing subjects or rarely attending school, it is easy for school reformers to shift the blame for failure onto students rather than to look at problems in school culture and leadership that reinforce student failure.
Students force adults to confront uncomfortable realities. And I think we can all agree that we need more people who are willing speak truth to power. Furthermore, students have unique, grounded contributions to discourse. This is another one that may seem obvious to those who work with students on a regular basis. But I’ve heard some say that student perspectives are accounted for by adults’ accumulated wisdom. Studies dating back to 1997 have disproven this rationale, concluding that the perspectives of students really can’t be replicated by adults.

Changing our Mindset

We have built an education system that moves students in and out of schools on a conveyor belt. Efficiency reigns and power is concentrated. What should we do about it? It starts with dispelling the notion that student voice is not valuable in and out of the classroom. But it doesn’t stop there. Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently told me when I had the chance to speak with him in Chicago, “The goal for me is never just student voice. [While] that’s important, the goal is really [about] adult listening.” Secretary Duncan hits the nail on the head. The way forward should not be a pursuit of efficiency. The way forward should be through students. It will be on us to empower students to voice their concerns and, most importantly, to listen to them when they challenge business as usual.

Matthew Fulle

Matt Fulle is an intern at Education Post and an undergraduate at Northwestern University's School of Communication studying communication studies and legal studies. He has spent the last 5 years working to advance student voice in education reform. In high school, he helped to start a pilot program for student surveys as a form of teacher evaluation for the Seattle Public School District. In college, he was the external programming coordinator for Northwestern University's chapter of Students for Education Reform.

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