WATCH: Here's Why We Should Really Listen to Student Voices

  “If we really listened to student voices, we’d be shocked by what we heard.” What’s the goal of our school system? To educate the students, right? Yet students have the least input on how they get educated. It’s the adults who get to decide. Here’s how Arne Duncan, former secretary of education for the Obama administration and former CEO of Chicago Public Schools, describes it:
One of the best things I had when I led Chicago Public Schools was student advisory council. That group helped me think through so many things. When things are going well young people know it way before adults do. When things aren’t going well young people know before we, as adults, do. Why? Cause they’re living it.
This may be a no-brainer for those who work with students frequently. But many still think that students aren’t serious enough to have input. Well, meet Nidalis Burgos. She’s 18-years-old, and she just graduated from Lincoln Park High School in Chicago:
We are the ones as students that sit in a classroom all day long. We’re the ones who listen to our teachers, who understand our teachers, who have to take tests at the end of the day. Students have realized that the attack on education is hitting very close to home. It’s important to stand up because it affects everyone.
Students do understand what’s wrong with education. But student voice is more than just information for adults; it’s a way to engage students in their education on their own terms. Dirk Tillotson, an education blogger and activist in Oakland, California, makes this point:
Particularly with kids who are struggling, the key to their success is their engagement. The thing we always hear from kids who leave school is that they don’t care about me. Nobody knows me there. Nobody cares if I’m at school or not.
Some school leaders are listening to their students. Take Principal Sharif El-Mekki, for example. He used student input to help turn around a school that had struggled with violence.
Our school was the second most violent school in the state of Pennsylvania. There were bars on the principal’s windows. Students were suspended and expelled. The violence was tremendous. [Our students’] experiences really helped shape what we’re trying to do in the community. What makes them feel safe. What makes them enjoy coming to school. What would get them to school on days that they really didn’t feel like coming.
Student voice has the potential to drive change in our education system. So what could that change look like? Arne Duncan has ideas about this, as well:
Having students be part of a selection process—whether it’s around teachers, whether it’s around principals, parents and community members. Again, schools are—they serve the community.
Minnesota education activist and blogger Chris Stewart thinks student activism is increasing, and he thinks it's a good thing:
Right now I do see a lot of hope in students walking out, students starting to organize, starting to figure out they have power. It’s happening in Baltimore; it’s happening in Los Angeles; it’s happening in different cities.
Nidalis encourages students to find their own voice in this fight:
Whether your thing is going out on the street and rallying, or your thing is writing a letter to the mayor… Whatever it is, it’s important. Because it shows that we’re reaching out to save our own education.
So let’s stop believing the myths about student voice. The question is not whether it is important or valuable. The real question is how are we going to use it? Nidalis says it better:
There comes a time when students need to understand that it is our responsibility. We can’t leave this to other people because if we do the job won’t be done right. And that’s why student power is important.