Students Need Respect, Not Admiration.

Adults admire students who stand up to have their voices heard. Reformers share their stories and news outlets report on the integration of student voice. But [pullquote position="right"]being admired is not the same as being heard. Instead of giving these students constructive criticism or including them in substantive discussion, reformers often resort to the tried and true response when young people get involved. We say, “You’re way further along than I was at your age!” Remembering my own efforts at reform in high school, I can’t tell you how many times I heard that when I raised my voice. Adults mean it as a compliment. But imagine if a superintendent said that to a veteran teacher? Or an outspoken principal? Or an impassioned parent? This is what it can feel like to be a student in education reform today. Even if their voices are included, they are not often respected. But, admittedly, I’ve also come to realize just how easy the admiration impulse can be for adults. I know because I was recently a culprit of the problem.

Biting My Tongue

I recently interviewed 18-year-old education activist Nidalis Burgos, who has been active in Chicago education politics since her freshman year. In some ways, she reminded me of myself at that age. Yet I was conflicted while I interviewed her. I admired and identified with her drive for student voice, but I increasingly disagreed with her solutions as our interview progressed. She said, “Charter schools are privately owned but publicly funded. They take…our funding…but then again they’re privately owned to do whatever they may with whatever money they get.” I have a different view of charter schools. And I should have pushed back. As someone who knows how it feels to receive the nodding-head treatment, I owed her a response. Instead, I resigned myself to the same impulse that had frustrated me in the past. I can’t go back in time. But I feel the need to take my own advice even if it’s only in retrospect. I feel this need because [pullquote position="left"]spirited debate is the only way reform happens. And I know Nidalis would have pushed back against me. So here are two questions I should have asked.

The Charter Question

First, charter schools are the laboratories of America’s education system. Some experiments will succeed, others will fail. I should have asked Nidalis how she thinks traditional public schools can learn from these successes and failures. Second, there are systems of accountability for charter schools. But sometimes they don’t work. Illinois’ charter authorizing bodies, for example, received a 14 out of 33 from the National Association of Charter Schools Authorizers (NACSA). I should have asked Nidalis whether she believed charter schools are actually ineffective, or if it's the way we hold them accountable. I should have asked these questions because just as I believe my questions would have made her think, I know her responses would have made me pause too.

Respect Is Debate

I’ve realized just how easy admiration is having been on both sides of the reform table. But I’ve also realized just how much of a disservice we do to our students and to ourselves when we give into this impulse. If we value their opinions, we owe them more than a pat on the back. If we truly want to engage them the same way we do teachers and parents,
we owe them thoughtful responses.
We ultimately respect students when we pose them challenging questions. I hope more students like Nidalis raise their voices and force us to pause because we need to not just admire those who do speak up. Students like her need more than our admiration; they also need our willingness to engage them in healthy debate.
Photo of Arne Duncan and student courtesy of Matt Fulle.