SoundOut is an
expert assistance program focused on promoting
Student Voice and Meaningful Student Involvement
We work with K-12
schools, districts, state and provincial education
agencies, and nonprofit education organizations
across the United States and Canada.
Broadening the Bounds of Involvement:
Transforming Schools With Student Voice
A group of
students gather to protest what they see as a racist school mascot. The
person at the front of the group is a high school-aged American Indian
woman, and she is wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt. Behind her there are
thirty students, each one carrying a picket sign or waving a handbill.
Some of the signs say “Racism out of our schools NOW!” or “Teach
Tolerance, Not Hatred.” At the back of the crowd a young person’s t-shirt
declares “Youth can be the leaders of tomorrow – if we procrastinate.”
the nation there is a call that is growing louder and more urgent
everyday. It is asking for meaningful civic engagement, for active
democracy, and for the power that accompanies leadership. It comes from
the youngest of our nation’s citizens, the students in our elementary and
secondary schools. While it hasn’t overwhelmed all schools yet with its
energy and passion, the clarion call of empowered voice for young people
is spreading across the nation, forming community youth councils and
youth-led activist organizations. When examined for their educational
value, these actions should challenge educators with three essential
questions: what is student voice, why is it important, and how can schools
engage students in meaningful ways throughout their educations? This
article will answer those questions.
In order to acknowledge “student
voice,” we must define it, which appears to be simple enough.
Student voice is formed of the unique perspective of the young people in
our schools. It is formed in the same ways that adult voice is; that
is, experience and education help students create opinions, ideas, and
beliefs to which they give their voice. This answers the question
“What is student voice?” in a simplistic way. However, it is not
enough to simply recognize that there is such a thing as student voice.
In order to truly empower students, educators must acknowledge, employ,
accentuate, and enforce student voice throughout schools. In many
schools this means students and adults forming partnerships to plan,
teach, evaluate, and lead schools.
are uniquely disadvantaged in schools, as their ability to voice their
concerns and attitudes isn’t guaranteed by the United States Constitution,
and subsequent court cases aren’t always held up in students’ favor. This
leaves educators in the powerful position to abuse, co-opt or corrupt
student voice in classrooms and school boardrooms. That is why merely
acknowledging student voice isn’t enough.
ENGAGE STUDENT VOICE?
student voice and meaningful involvement make intuitive sense, there are
several imperative reasons why student voice must be heard throughout
schools. Following are three such reasons:
Many business theories have recognized the essential
input of consumers, and some schools have adapted this perspective to
improve parental involvement, declaring the parents as the “clients” of
[i]. However, despite their role as the “end
consumer” in schools, students are routinely excluded from these
ambitious plans. Classroom involvement, decision-making, and evaluation
opportunities throughout the education system can be essential
opportunities for parents and students to collaborate in providing
authentic responses. Students’ vital perspective must not be neglected
in these attempts; rather, it should be fostered and engaged in every
Bridging the “Student Involvement
Several studies have shown that many
students yearn for deepened engagement throughout education (Patmor
1998, Wade & Putnam 1995, Kushman 1997). Increasing young peoples’
social awareness and community responsibilities have been the impetus of
many communities’ outreach for youths thought to be “at-risk” and
apathetic, and these programs have been highly successful in increasing
the skills of youth and the attitudes of adults (Cahill 1997, Mohamed &
Wheeler 2001, Zelding et al 2000). As educators move beyond viewing
traditional student involvement (i.e. students as hall monitors,
teacher’s helpers, student councils and A.S.B.s, etc.) as tantamount to
democracy, they will begin to see the potential of engaging ALL
students’ voices. There is dual benefit to this: while the school
environment becomes more accepting and thus safer, historically
disengaged and underachieving students become involved in engendering
school change. These “change agents” may serve on committees, lead
trainings and courses for their peers and adults, and initiate and share
decision-making throughout education. This educational approach views
student engagement as a central part of the learning process that helps
students develop a sense of responsibility, caring, feelings of
connection, and competence (Mohamed, et al, p15).
Several surveys have been released
in the past few years that indicate that our communities and schools are
failing to engage young people in their civic responsibilities.
One survey of 15-24 year-olds shows that a majority (57%) say
they are not at all likely to run for an elected leadership position
(32% in 1998); 53% say they are not at all likely to work for a
political party; 50% say they are not at all likely to join a political
club or organization; 46% say they are not at all likely to volunteer in
a political campaign; 44% say they are not at all likely to participate
in a political march or demonstration.
Another survey of 18-34 year-olds indicates that this age
group is the least active in all age categories in youth and charity
groups, civil rights groups, political groups, attendance of political
meetings and rallies, participation in demonstrations, religious service
attendance, likelihood to conserve water and electricity. These are
disturbing trends that point at a bleak future for young people and
their communities. While
many municipalities around the nation are attempting to
engage young people with exciting new initiatives, their after-school,
weekend and summer programs can only peripherally affect students’
views. There is no current measurement that indicates how many students
are currently involved in their schools, or in what ways. However, it
is easy to assume that the momentum provided for any student by an
education highlighted by meaningful student involvement will empower a
lifetime of active civic engagement. This is invaluable and essential
to the health of American democracy.
There are pitfalls to avoid in engaging
student voice. Countless barriers must be addressed, including those
erected by systems, educators, parents, and students themselves.
Educators should avoid viewing student involvement as a privilege. All
students’ and adults’ leadership should be absent noblesse oblige,
or the sense of obligation to promote student voice to benefit “lowly”
students. And the list goes on. However, these concerns shouldn’t
be viewed as insurmountable; rather, they are challenges through which the
school’s newly established learning environment can grow and evolve.
HOW IT HAPPENS
vivaciousness of student voice has waxed and waned as trends of activism
and community empowerment have swept across the nation; however, its
vitality has not. In the 1930s a group of young people read the Declaration of the Rights of American Youth to
United States Congress. Among many other things, these young people
stated they “have the right to full educational opportunities… We graduate
from schools and colleges, equipped for careers and professions, but there
are no jobs.”
fictitious example from the top of the article provides an example of what
may have happened at a student-led protest in Seattle on June 6, 2002. On
that day a group of high school students were locked out of a Seattle
school board meeting, despite
a rule making all meetings open to the public. Given this fleeting
empowerment, many educators wonder how long the current call will last.
that through a deliberate course of change, schools will become an
infinite source of release and input for student voice. Engaging student
voice is not a quick-fix or fly-by-night program. All stakeholders in the
school must be intentional and deliberate, and allow the process the time
and patience it requires to succeed. While there is no formula through
which to best engage student voice, I offer
the following tips to assist schools in
embracing student voice:
Provide student voice
training. Provide student voice training for educators,
school board members, administrators, school personnel and students to
provide opportunities to develop awareness and build skills, and to
provide information and resources.
Review and revise
policies and practices.
Develop concise policies and practices to promote student voice for all
students throughout their education. Involve all stakeholders in this
process, including students, educators, administrators, parents, and other
members of the community. Delineate clear and specific expectations and
actions to promote student voice through empowerment and involvement.
Ensure that all stakeholders are aware of these policies and practices,
and that they are employed throughout the student’s education.
student involvement into the curriculum. Support the integration of community-centered, project-based, democratic
experiences throughout courses with training opportunities and resource
libraries. Engage students in designing curricula.
infusion of youth voice throughout the local community. Local
schools should encourage local youth voice initiatives by non-profit
organizations, government, businesses and other groups. Promote and
support curricular connections with these opportunities as students become
further engaged and in need of deeper knowledge to accomplish their goals.
voice. Foster the development and documentation of promising
practices among educators and administrators in the local school,
district, statewide and nationally. Conduct participatory action research,
develop documentation and share information with other educators and
administrators in order to promote student voice.
Democracy is a journey that must start anew
for each generation. Rather than just a buzzword, democracy must be an
action. If our democracy is to be active, then it must be taught,
experienced and lived. By engaging student voice throughout schools,
today’s educators, administrators, parents and communities can lay the
foundation upon which the future of the United States will be built. In
closing, I offer
the words of Robert J. Kennedy:
“Our answer is the world’s hope: it
is to rely on youth… This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time
of life, but a state of mind, a temper of will, a quality of imagination,
a predominance of courage over timidity, or the appetite for adventure
over the love of ease.”
Cahill, M. (1997). Youth Development and
Community Development: Promises and Challenges of Convergence.
Community & Youth Development Series, Volume 2. Takoma Park, MD: The
Forum for Youth Investment, International Youth Foundation.
Kushman, J. (Ed.). (1997). Look Who’s
Talking Now: Student Views of Learning in Restructuring Schools.
Portland, OR: Northwest Educational Regional Laboratory.
Mohamed, I. & Wheeler, W. (2001).
Broadening the Bounds of Youth Development: Youth as Engaged Citizens.
Chevy Chase, MD: The Innovation Center and the Ford Foundation.
Patmor, G. (1998). Student and School
Council Member Views of Student Involvement in Decision Making In Kentucky
High Schools. (Ed.D. Southern Illinois University).
Wade R., & Putnam, K. (1995, December).
Tomorrow’s Leaders? Gifted Students’ Opinions of Leadership and Service
Activities. Roeper Review, 18, 150-153.
Zeldin, S., Kusgen McDaniel, A., Topitzes,
D., Calvert, M. (2000). Youth in Decision-Making: A Study on the
Impacts of Youth on Adults and Organizations. Madison: National 4-H
The 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act contains the
first-ever Department of Education language promoting parental
http://www.k12.wa.us/ESEA/ for more information. Several
consulting companies offer total quality management courses for
From the Young Citizen Survey, including 1500 young people aged
15-25. Retrieved 8/16/02 from
From The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, including almost
30,000 people. Retrieved 8/16/02 from
There are many examples of community youth involvement at The
Freechild Project’s Survey of International Youth Involvement,
Retrieved 8/16/02 from
Retrieved 6/15/02 from
Partially adapted from the Partners Against Hate booklet, Helping
Youth Become Change Agents in Their Schools and Communities, retrieved
Retrieved 6/1/02 from
SoundOut has worked in more than 100 K-12 schools and districts
across the United States and around the world. Learn more
and for more information