Students’ voice missing from ed funding debate

Young people have valuable perspective and insights to share

THE DEBATE ON education funding currently swirling inside and outside the State House focuses on what the state is putting into education and how those dollars can support the best possible outcomes for all students. Much of the discussion has focused on helping schools or districts “give our kids the education they deserve,” as Gov. Baker said at a State House press conference. But like so many other policy debates, these conversations depict students as passive participants in school improvement, waiting for their future success to be decided by adults. In reality, though, success is not something that happens to students. Students must participate actively in their own learning for any change, no matter how well-designed, to generate positive outcomes.

Year after year, Massachusetts faces challenges in preparing all students for lifelong success, with substantial disparities in opportunities and outcomes based on race, ethnicity, and income. The persistence of these disparities points to the need to look deeply at root causes of ineffectiveness and inequity. It is impossible to fully understand the challenges of the educational system if we’re not hearing from those most affected by it. What experiences do students value most about their education? How do they measure their success in school and real-world settings? Students’ ideas on these issues, so core to any debate over improving education, are not always part of the conversation.

The current policy debate over education comes at an auspicious moment. Today’s youth are part of an unusually energized, politically engaged generation. Especially in the aftermath of the devastating school shooting in Parkland, Florida, student leaders have channeled their outrage and disillusionment into action. Young people aged 18-24 were three times more likely to attend a demonstration or march in 2018 than in 2016. Youth participation in the 2018 midterm elections was estimated to be the highest of the last 25 years, with nearly one-third of eligible voters turning out to vote. Moreover, young people today have more ways to share their voice than ever before. Social media offers a potent tool for broadcasting messages and organizing collective action, culminating in mass movements like the National Student Walkout in April that called for new forms of gun control. Yet when it comes to their education, students often have limited opportunities to share their thoughts and opinions.

Research indicates that student voice—that is, student participation and decision making in the structures and practices that shape their educational experiences—is an effective method of promoting students’ investment in their long-term success and advancing values like participation and leadership. It can bridge the divide between students’ experiences inside and outside of school, helping them see how education is relevant to their daily lives.

Student voice can also help produce transformational change that leads to a more equitable and effective education system. Students provide valuable insight into the strengths and weaknesses, successes and ongoing challenges of an initiative or approach. And by sharing their lived experiences and diverse individual needs, students can help cultivate learning cultures within schools and communities that are culturally responsive and allow for meaningful engagement with peers and adults.

Given the benefits of student voice to students themselves and to the educational system, how can leaders incorporate student voice as part of the debate over funding or reform proposals? To start, there should be authentic opportunities for students to exercise their voice in the decision-making process. Although Massachusetts is one of just five states to include a voting student member on its state board of education, the Foundation Budget Review Commission did not include a student representative. We cannot miss this opportunity again. As discussions around the future of school funding progress, there should be an intentional effort to hear from a diverse range of students around what approaches to learning are most valuable.

Moreover, whether or not they are prompted by new statewide laws or regulations, schools and districts should consider how to cultivate students as advocates for their own education and leaders within their communities. Student voice is not something that can be taught from a book or shared in a lecture. Instead, nurturing student voice requires applied learning activities that ask students to co-design and lead their own approaches to learning. In fact, some of the most meaningful ways to foster student voice don’t take place within the classroom at all, but rather through internships, apprenticeships, service learning projects, and involvement with community-based organizations.

Meet the Author

The Commonwealth faces a powerful opportunity for change. As momentum builds behind a proposal to funnel critical new resources into schools and classrooms, leaders should consider how elevating student voice and harnessing student leadership can help develop and improve education opportunities that address the needs, abilities, and interests of all young people.

Chad d’Entremont is executive director of the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, which recently released a report on the impact of student voice called “The Condition of Education in the Commonwealth – Student Voice: How Young People Can Shape the Future of Education.”