College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan. - March 2010 > Student Voice: A Key Element of School Reform Efforts

Student Voice: A Key Element of School Reform Efforts

News release about Dana Mitra's research on youth-adult partnerships

by Joe Savrock (January 2010)

mitra.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – High school reform initiatives aimed at improving education typically result from the collaboration of administrators and other professionals. Increasingly, these professionals are tapping a fresh, insightful source—the students.

Student voice is steadily being accepted in the K–12 setting as a legitimate means of improving educational outcomes. A Penn State researcher says students can be a part of the solution, and that an ideal platform for students is school-based youth–adult partnerships.

Dana Mitra, assistant professor of educational theory and policy at Penn State, is an expert in the areas of student voice and high school reform. She notes that youth–adult partnerships give students a viable avenue for voicing their concerns. The feedback gives administrators a good inroad to the minds of students, who can be a valuable resource for improving school climate and academic quality.

In her book Student Voice in School Reform: Building Youth–Adult Partnerships That Strengthen Schools and Empower Youth (2008, SUNY Press), Mitra examines the emergence of student voice. It often yields meaningful discussions on ways to improve learning, bolster student confidence and sense of belonging, and foster an improved school climate. The students exhibit a unique perspective about their schools that the administrators find to be quite valuable. “Partnering with students to identify school problems and possible solutions reminds teachers and administrators that students possess unique knowledge and perspectives about their schools that adults cannot fully replicate,” says Mitra.

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Education, Mitra looked at the process of organizing youth–adult partnerships. She studied 13 initiatives in northern California. Mitra found that partnerships are difficult to build in a hierarchical school environment that features sharply divided levels: students, teachers, and administrators. A partnership is destined to succeed, she believes, only if a deliberate effort is put forth by both adults and youth.

Mitra recommends four conditions for establishing solid youth–adult partnerships:

•    Foster trust and respect among the group members as a means of knocking down hierarchical barriers.
•    Create meaningful roles for all members. The role expectations need not be equitable, but each member’s expertise should be valued.
•    Build the capacity for youth and adults to successfully fulfill their roles. More than half the partnerships in her study sought skill training for the youth from external sources.
•    Establish a group size that is neither too small nor too large. Ten to 15 members constitute an ideal size.