How I Stumbled on the Real Power of Student Voice

Here’s a conundrum. The purpose of schools is to educate students. But students have little to no input in their education. Now, I actually did have a voice in my education. Attending a private school in Seattle, I was lucky to have teachers who encouraged me to make my own choices. This voice enabled me to explore my interests and test my limits. But the more I learned how many students lacked these same opportunities, the more passionate I became about education reform.

Getting Involved

I dove into the education world in my junior year of high school. And my first effort at change crystallized for me just how important student voice is in education and how impactful it can be in reform. I became a member of the City of Seattle’s Youth Commission. The Commissioners worked on various issues relevant to young people ranging from environmental policy to homelessness and education, advising the City Council on these issues and recommending solutions. By chance, a fellow commissioner asked me if I wanted to help him with a pilot program he was hoping to start at the public high school he attended to implement student surveys as a form of low-stakes teacher evaluation. We started work on the project immediately. However, our naive enthusiasm drove us face first into political reality. Right away, we ran into stiff resistance to this new type of teacher evaluation. We were just two students with an idea, one of whom didn’t even attend the school. [pullquote="right"]We had zero political leverage. So we had to get creative. We talked to the administration and found a way to assuage their concerns by sourcing the survey’s questions directly from the student body.

Embracing Opportunity

After receiving administrative approval, we quickly recruited a few teachers to participate in the pilot. We knew that part would be pretty easy—we were concerned the students wouldn't take the evaluation seriously. Well, we were wrong. The students embraced the survey, highlighting certain areas of concern that received less attention in off-the-shelf student surveys sold on the open market. The [pullquote position=“right”]students took the opportunity to ask difficult questions and provide substantive feedback for their teachers. And the teachers saw the survey as a genuine opportunity to improve the classroom experience. After this success, we reached out to outside organizations about expanding the program. At the start of my freshman year in college, the Seattle Public School District showed interest in starting a district-wide pilot program for low-stakes student surveys. My partner and I both had the chance to serve as members of the working group that selected the instrument for the district’s pilot survey.

Lessons Learned

I learned an important lesson from this multi-year project. If we had not opted to involve the student body of my friend’s school, we would have failed. We would have gone round after round with administrators and teachers who were resistant to change. And we never would have been able to contribute to the working group on a district level. This is the true power of student voice. It’s not just a barometer for a school’s learning environment. It changes the process of reform. Right now, education reform unfolds as a fight between political heavyweights. The process is often ugly and rarely lives up to the hopeful language that we use to describe our common goals. But my experience showed me that change does not need to be this way. We shouldn’t try to reform schools for students. We should reform schools with students. Student voice is more than just a missing component in the pursuit of progress. It is the key to building better, more equitable schools.
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 ...

Join the Movement