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Student Voice Is an Integral Component of School Reform

Article about Dana Mitra's research on student voice in the schools\

by Joe Savrock (February 2008)

mitra.jpgThe students’ voices are being heard.

Student voice is increasingly being recognized as an important component of shared decision-making in secondary schools. More and more, high school administrators are reaching out to the students, inviting them to participate on formal committees and tapping their opinions in an effort to shape educational policies.

Dana Mitra, assistant professor of educational theory and policy at Penn State, has done extensive research on the concept of student voice and its impact on school reform. “Students want autonomy, relevant pedagogy, respect and collaboration, and greater responsibility in school decisions,” noted Mitra.

Mitra says that administrators are finding that the students are a valuable resource for improving school climate and academic quality. “The concept of increasing student voice in schools broadens the notion of distributed leadership to include considering young people themselves as capable and valuable members of a school community who can help initiate and implement educational change,” she stated.

Mitra added that “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. Students can raise tough issues that administrators and teachers might not highlight—including examining structural and cultural injustices within schools rather than blaming failing students for not succeeding in schools.”

Many youth feel a sense of disengagement with their schools, where they feel isolated and alienated. At the same time, society is quick to blame adolescents as being the root of the problems that challenge America’s schools.

But Mitra offers an imaginative question: “What might happen if we viewed youth as part of the solution, rather than as part of the problem?” She poses this question as the framework for her newly released book, Student Voice in School Reform (2008, SUNY Press).

In Student Voice, Mitra follows the evolution of a student-adult partnership at a northern California high school. “Whitman High School” (the school is real, but the name is fictitious) is located in an ethnic urban neighborhood occupied largely by first-generation immigrants. For about half the school’s children, English is a second language. Some 57% of the students entering ninth grade eventually drop out of school. Even the teachers don’t stick around: The annual teacher turnover rate is about one-third. Indeed, Whitman High School is beset with problems.

Through interviews and observations, Mitra focused on the activities of Student Forum, the school’s student voice initiative. Student Forum has evolved into a viable youth-adult school partnership. Students are invited to join with teachers and administrators to develop strategies that improve teaching and learning. Administrators acknowledge the students as purposeful and significant partners, taking the youths’ opinions under full advisement.

Student Forum is having a positive influence on the way of life at Whitman High School. “The student voice initiative led to many improvements in the school,” noted Mitra. “For example, curriculum and assessment development benefited in part by the instant feedback from the students during staff development sessions.”

Mitra points out that youth participation in faculty meetings can change the tenor of conversations. When youth attend Whitman’s staff meetings, the teachers exhibit a more professional demeanor. Overall school climate has improved. 

“Student voice at Whitman led to an increased youth attachment to school, which correlates with improved academic outcomes,” explained Mitra. “The students also stepped up their civic engagement, realizing that they can make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. The youth developed competencies crucial to becoming involved and productive citizens—including tolerance, getting along with others, respectfully and effectively questioning authority, and public speaking.”

The experience has enabled the youth to build their esteem in three areas: agency, belonging, and competence.

Agency is the condition by which the students recognize that they can exert influence and power. Agency instills a feeling of self-confidence and self-worth. One Whitman 12th grader, Rosalinda, stated that “Now I'm very confident in myself. I know that I can make changes. Sometimes I used to think that our lives were kind of pointless. And now, it’s like, you can make real changes. Now it's the school, and maybe in my career and my adult life I could actually do something, with a lot of determination and a lot of will.”

Belonging is the sense the students gain with their increased attachment and positive relationships with peers, teachers, school, and broader community. Sala, another 12th grader, said “I think that relationships between teacher and student throughout their high-school career are the most important thing.  . . Once you have that relationship, you can go to that teacher and you can say, ‘That's my friend.’”

Competencies are skills that are needed to serve on organized boards. The youth in the Student Forum sharpened their problem-solving and facilitation skills, engaged in public speaking, and experienced the art of working with people who might hold different views. “I learned how to bite my tongue, I learned how to hear out people a little bit more. I learned how to facilitate,” said Sala.

Mitra says that student voice is gaining attention as civic engagement increasingly becomes a focus for funders and researchers in the world of educational reform. “We’re starting to see an expansion of the concepts of professional community and of distributed leadership to include not only teachers, but students as well,” she said. “We’re also seeing greater connections made between the world of educational research and research from human development examining on youth-adult partnerships occurring in after-school and non-profit arenas.”