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Meet Your New Boss

Ever asked students to weigh in on how their teachers are doing? Find out how these schools incorporate student opinions into key decisions, and why this can make a school stronger and better.

If you want to teach at San Diego's High Tech High, you not only need the approval of the administration-you also need to impress the students, because they interview candidates. And once you're on staff, you might get feedback from those same students, who are encouraged to review videos of you teaching.

Students are honored to be asked for their input and often pose questions that make the hiring committee think about a candidate in a different way, says chief operating officer Ben Daley, who has been at High Tech High since its inception in 2000 as a single charter school (there are now nine in the network).

"We want teachers who are strong academically, passionate about teaching and content, and also connect well with kids. And being able to connect well... [students] are more attuned to that than we are," says Daley. "We take what they say incredibly seriously."

Why not ask students for their input on hiring, curriculum, scheduling, discipline, budgets, and activities? After all, they have expertise as the ultimate consumers of their education.

Administrators can elicit feedback through surveys, focus groups, inviting students to meetings, or putting student representatives on committees. However, if you choose to tap into student voice, experts say it's vital to really listen and be prepared to consider their suggestions and make changes. When principals do this, students often feel better about their school, have closer relationships with their teachers, and are more engaged in learning.

Banish Irrelevant Arguments
Drawing on student ideas to improve education makes sense, yet the concept hasn't taken off in the United States, as it has in places like Sweden and England.

"We take less time to get opinions of students and parents because we are more focused on test scores and the bottom line," says Dana Mitra, associate professor of education at Penn State University. "This is different compared to [some other countries], where youth voice is huge." In the 1990s there was some momentum around student voice in the school reform movement, but that eroded when the push for accountability and efficiency took center stage.

Embracing students as consultants goes against the traditional notion that knowledge about teaching is generated by researchers at colleges and passed down to teachers. "People just don't think of asking students," says Alison Cook-Sather, professor of education at Bryn Mawr College. "You have to find the time, listen, and be willing to change what you are doing. All of those things are very slow and messy."

Reaching out to students also makes administrators vulnerable, adds Daley. "It comes down to power and who has it. There are assumptions about who has knowledge and who does not." Student views are often overlooked, yet Daley says school leaders who think kids are naturally inquisitive and want to learn can gain a lot from their perspective.

Welcome a "Kick in the Gut"
Youthtruth, a nonprofit project of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has worked with 164 high schools since 2008, polling students on everything from their take on fair discipline to the value of rigorous courses to the importance of caring teachers. The annual results let administrators track their progress and compare their district to other schools.

"Our data suggest that students can be thoughtful," says Valerie Threlfall, vice president of the center and director of YouthTruth, adding that the response rate is high for completing the 20-
minute online survey, which includes open-ended and multiple-choice questions. "Students don't want fancy gimmicks. They just want people to listen. They want to make their school experience better," she says.

Each year the YouthTruth survey has been given at South Atlanta School of Law and Social Justice, Principal Peter McKnight says he's learned something from students that has prompted action.

In year one, ninth graders were more negative about the school than other students and concerned about being treated fairly. In response, McKnight convened a discipline team to examine policies to make them less ambiguous and to convey expectations more clearly. The second year, the school "got hammered" by the students, which McKnight attributed to some staffing issues. Changes were made and this year the school moved from the bottom in the district to the top, with students commenting that teachers were more accessible.

McKnight says the survey gives a more complete picture about the school, one that goes beyond test scores. "It's the biggest opportunity to get a huge kick in the gut. It's really difficult to take, but you have to get your head out of the sand," he says, adding that it's better to find out how students feel than to guess. "There's a risk if you don't do it that you'll miss something."

Break the Real Barrier-Adults
Listening to students is not enough. Experts encourage schools to literally give students a seat at the table in decision-making. For instance, in small groups, students can delve into deeper questions about the school environment or the effectiveness of various teaching approaches.

"We are not talking about replacing adults. It's about bringing in students' voices," says Cook-Sather. "It's about sharing perspectives." When students are consulted, rather than subjected to edicts, they are often more cooperative.

Teachers at High Tech High who need certification go through a nine-week training course once a week in the evening, and students are part of the faculty. In small groups, kids give new teachers feedback on their teaching and offer suggestions for improvement. "They know so much about what makes good teaching," says Daley of High Tech High. "I have my theories; they experience it for seven hours a day."

Students at Eagle Rock School in Estes Park, Colorado, are included in staff meetings and help determine curriculum. "It's more than window dressing. They're the fabric of how the school operates," says Daniel Condon, associate director of professional development, who has been at the school since it opened 19 years ago as a philanthropic effort of Honda Motor Company to give a second chance to high schoolers who didn't have success at traditional schools.

Student representatives are elected from each of the school's six residential houses to attend staff meetings and bring up student issues. "They show up like anyone else and report back to the house. We want to be transparent," says Condon.

In his first year as a student at Eagle Rock, Taber Lantrop was a staff meeting representative and said he liked the leadership experience. "I think I'm being well prepared for the real world," says Lantrop, 19, who entered his final year at Eagle Rock this fall.

Instead of teachers telling students what to think, students at Eagle Rock engage in discussions about ideas, which he says helps him create a deeper relationship with his teachers. "They are actually interested in what I have to say," says Lantrop, who says he's found teachers to confide in and that those connections motivate him to do well in the classroom and strengthen the respect he's developed for them.

Much of the struggle behind promoting more student voice in schools comes down to perceptions and relationships, says Adam Fletcher, founder of SoundOut, a nonprofit program in Olympia, Washington, that promotes meaningful student involvement in education. Fletcher puts on workshops around the country to encourage new policies and curriculum around student voice. While the idea is being embraced, it's not a sustainable movement, so Fletcher is shifting his focus.

"We can change all the rules we want, but back here in reality land, until the hearts and minds of people leading the system-teachers or principals or district administrators or state superintendents-are [changed], those policies and rules don't really matter," says Fletcher. The real barrier is the attitude of adults.

"They are inherently threatened by the capacity of young people to lead their own education." Yet, integrating student feedback throughout the school can lead to some of the best results in engagement and learning. "There is no place throughout the education system that young people cannot have deep and effective levels of impact that adults can't have," says Fletcher. "Everything can be better because of student voice."

The Downside of Not Listening
To encourage teacher-student dialogue, Bryn Mawr's Cook-Sather developed a program in which her student teachers were paired with high school students for weekly exchanges. At first, the student teachers were skeptical. "They would say, ‘What can students possibly teach me?' What was most amazing to me was how much of a gap there is between what the students are thinking is going on and what teachers are thinking. And it's not hard to bridge that gap," she says.

Tuning in to students' voices involves a shift in mind-set, and it is most effective if it's an ongoing process of engagement and reflection, adds Cook-Sather.

There are "puzzling gaps" between students' and teachers' perceptions of a school, agrees Helen Beattie, a school psychologist and educational consultant in East Hardwick, Vermont. To understand and effect change, she encourages collaborative discussions of what she calls the four Rs: rigor, relevance, relationships, and shared responsibility. For example, students often say they want what's covered in class to be more relevant to their lives. Teachers may feel they are approachable, but surveys reveal students don't always feel the same relationship exists.

Determining who blames whom for poor performance in schools offers a great lesson in accountability when considering the responses of students and teachers. Often, adults were more likely to blame low performance on students being immature or lazy and families not taking education seriously, says Makeba Jones, a project research scientist with the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment, and Teaching Excellence at the University of California, San Diego, who has held focus groups with both students and teachers in at-risk high schools. Interestingly, students were quick to blame themselves for not taking responsibility but also expressed an interest in better classroom engagement. "They wanted teachers to go beyond the stand-and-deliver [style of] instruction," says Jones. "It's so basic. Don't just lecture and have students fill out a worksheet. Be more creative."

It was disappointing to Jones when only a handful of principals used the data from her research to make meaningful changes. "There was just a lot of uncertainty and fear" around the testing pressures in the school, she says. "They knew the value of student voice, but they didn't have the tools to make it work."

There is a risk, cautions Penn State's Mitra, if you ask for youths' opinion and fail to act on it. "It can be more detrimental and create some alienation," she says. "If you are going to do this work, it has to be an authentic experience."

The Payoff
Schools that do include students in decisions often see a transformation in the individual and in the school. "Students develop a great awareness of what it takes to be a better learner and are more appreciative of diverse learning styles," says Cook-Sather. "It builds maturity, confidence, and commitment."

While research hasn't shown direct links between student voice and academic performance, Mitra notes that studies confirm students contributing to decisions greatly increases a feeling of belonging. And attachment has been positively correlated with test scores.

When teachers realize what students think about their school experience, it often changes their approach in the classroom, says Beattie. It might prompt them to do more formative assessments and check in more often with students individually. At the same time, students who have been involved in the hiring process of teachers and have given feedback on new curriculum often feel more invested in the school. "We see it turn around academic performance and behavior," adds Beattie.

Still, for the concept to take hold, Beattie advises, there needs to be more awareness and research about the positive impact of student voice and structures put in place for school leaders to get ongoing feedback from students.

It can be a tough sell for time-strapped administrators. "It's one of those ironies. People get so caught up in the seemingly safer way of doing things, such as teaching to the test," says Cook-Sather. "The long-term benefit of including students as partners in working toward achievement far outweighs the amount of time and complexity."

INTERNATIONAL: Student Voices 
Young people across the globe speak out on improving their communities and their educational experience.

United Kingdom
In the past five years, there has been a growing move to listen to the perspectives of young people, and students are increasingly involved in decisions related to their school experiences, including decisions about teaching and learning. In many primary and secondary schools, pupils are now actively involved in school councils, democratic meetings, and policy meetings, school governing bodies, staff appointments, and in planning and evaluating teaching and learning activities.

Up to 25 percent of teachers don't show up in Indian schools daily, and only half of those who do show up actually teach. Further, there is no formal system for providing substitute teachers. A youth organization has trained young people to speak up on the issue of teacher absenteeism and children's rights. Students have led campaigns, handing out leaflets and painting murals on walls to call attention to the issues.

Community service is not a strong part of the culture here, but 400 young people took to the streets of Budapest in 2009 to change attitudes. They went to malls and train stations to ask people what it meant to be a good citizen and if they had ever volunteered, and they displayed the results on large kiosks throughout the city. Their efforts to spread the word about the value of citizenship made the evening television news and national headlines.

Children's rights (based on the UN conventions) are part of the managerial documents in the national school system. Since the mid-1990s, schools have emphasized the importance of students' voices and experiences as a starting point in educational settings, in terms of crafting the curriculum as well as classroom activities. Schools cite research showing increased levels of student achievement and civic responsibility when letting the students influence their own education.

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