“They don’t listen to us. Even when we fill out surveys and ask for changes, nothing ever does,” a middle school student told me when I asked him if he believed he could affect change in his school. We were discussing education as a civil rights issue and whether or not students could be change agents. His comments resonated with me not only because of his desire to be part of something bigger than himself, but because it was a reminder that the reform movement rarely dedicates any effort to listen and respond to students.

More often than not, education reformers focus on collecting data on students, instead of talking to and engaging with students about how we can collectively improve schools. And most of the dialogue about students and schooling is focused on what adults believe students need — including school choice, high expectations, and integrated schools — without giving much thought to how students feel about, or are affected by, these solutions. It’s not surprising, then, when students are disengaged or disillusioned with the education system.

Image by Sela Lewis

Student voice matters because it can have large-reaching effects. Take, for example, the Boston Student Advisory Council (BSAC), which is made up of student leaders from Boston Public High Schools who weigh in on pertinent student issues within the district. Recently, BSAC reviewed district discipline policies and determined that there should be alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. Now, BSAC sits on the District Code of Conduct Advisory Committee and works with Dignity in Schools, a national organization that promotes alternatives to zero-tolerance discipline policies.

This type of collaboration also requires a different way of thinking for educators and advocates who don’t often consider students as partners in educational decision-making. Adults can encourage this by appointing a district student representative or inviting students to participate in school planning and policy decisions. In truth, many of these types of things occur on a superficial, token basis. But for real change to occur, we must engage students regularly and consistently, and feedback should come from a diverse population of students.

One way for districts to engage students is to provide a venue for voicing their concerns about district initiatives. This could include student leaders and superintendents (or other school officials) who come together for centralized trainings, meetings, or annual conferences to discuss policy issues within the district. These sessions not only give students the chance to discuss district-level policies, but they also provide district-level officials the opportunity to hear from their students. There are many other ways to include students as partners, but the essential element is always authentic, two-way engagement on issues and ideas.

Student voice in education research, reform, and practice is not a magical solution. But listening to students is a critical step in advocating for them.