On Thursday, January 24, the Rennie Center For Education Research & Policy hosted a release event for their annual report: Condition of Education in the Commonwealth. Although specifically focused on surveying the landscape of education within the state of Massachusetts, the Bay State’s reputation as one of the leading regions in the country for public education makes this yearly publication an important indication for where leading educators, policymakers, and administrators should be focusing in the coming year.
The 2019 report focuses on prioritizing the “student voice,” highlighting on how young people can (and should) shape the future of education:
“‘It’s all about the students.’ How often do we hear this sentiment—or something similar—in conversations on educational policy and practice? Yet one voice that’s usually missing in discussions about how best to support student outcomes is the one that arguably matters the most: students themselves. What experiences do they 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.”
Coming at a time in which youth are reacting to the current social and political environment with increasing public activism, the Rennie Center report explores the role of students play in shaping our education system and offers recommendations for elevating the voice of students in their classrooms, schools, and communitites.
The event itself featured a keynote from Aria Goodson (Chief Program Officer at the Pahara Institue) as well as presentations Chad D’Entremont (Executive Director at the Rennie Center) and James Peyser (Massachusetts Secretary of Education). Two students — Maya Mathews and Carla Duran Capellan — also shared their perspectives.
After attending the release event and digesting the full report, we have distilled our notes down to several key takeaways for educators, policymakers, and administrators to consider:
The student voice is often overlooked. We need to listen to the needs of our students and actively involve them in the conversation. Students in the public education system are often not represented in decision-making discussions; yet, shouldn’t they be shaping the very programs and policy changes that directly impact them?
(Note: the term “student voice” is defined in the report as: student participation and decision making in the structures anr practices that shape their educational experiences.)
When students have a say in their own learning, they are more likely to engage deeply in challenging academic work. Student voice in the decision-making process can help inspire and inform new approaches to teaching and learning. Authentic leadership experiences can bolster student voice by building students’ sense of efficacy. If students see and express themselves within a larger social environment, the exercise of student voice can develop creativity, communication, and collaboration skills.
The passing of education policy is inherently flawed. The process has traditionally been very top-down and, thus, falls short of supporting all students, especially those from marginalized communities. New legislation are something done to students versus done with them.
In the classroom, educators can provide support and facilitation to allow students to participate in developing their own learning experiences. Applied learning activities and deconstructing adult-student power dynamics represent two pathways to achieve this outcome. Generation Citizen, an organization currently partnering with ten districts across Massachusetts, serves as a perfect case study. Through the program, students are able to exercise their voice in a meaningful way while learning how to tackle a community issue through collaborative action steps.
Schools can also help to involve students in the process of identifying diverse and comprehensive learning opportunities. Cultivating a positive and inclusive school climate — in addition to carving out opportunities for student leadership — are two ways that districts can work to intentionally increase the ability for their students to contribute and be actively involved in their education.
Entire communities can work together to build a dynamic, culturally responsive education system that is better equipped to support, hear, and validate the needs of students. Experiential learning, personalized learning, and reciprocal dialogue all offer methods by community-based issues can be addressed by students, parents, educators, and community partners.
The report goes on to outline six recommendations designed to guide districts and state leaders through the process of placing student experience and leadership at the center of education conversations:
- Create authentic opportunities for students to exercise their voice in school and district decision-making. District leaders can and should integrate students into practive and policy decisions.
- Provide training for educators to develop their dialogue facilitation skills. Districts can provide educators with the tools they need to better invite student opinions in the classroom.
- Facilitate community-wide conversations to ensure a cohesive approach to student support. Districts can leverage community partners to elevate the level at which they are able to invest holistically in student empowerment.
- Share survey results on school and district climate. Leaders in any state can better communicate the key takeaways from school climate surveys with students, parents, and district leadership.
- Consider measures of equity and effectiveness to make the accountability system more culturally responsive. Innovative measures can lead to the better meeting of needs of historically marginalized students.
- Ensure that student outcomes and data systems support effective school-community partnerships. State leaders should explore ways to better link data and support systems across agencies so educators and community leaders can provide more seamless learning opportunities.