Two years ago, Zak Malamed and a few friends held their first Twitter chat for students who were feeling frustrated about how little say they had in the school reform debates going on all around them. At the time, Malamed and two other friends were still in high school, and one friend was in college. But when they formed Student Voice, the group that rose out of that first chat, they agreed that “Revolutionizing education through the voices and actions of students,” in whatever form that would take, would be their mission.
"Students want to achieve in school. They want to find purpose being in school." said Malamed. "They want to discover their talents. Without students having a voice, we cannot collectively ensure that this will all happen for every student."
The group has grown in numbers and visibility, recently moving from grassroots effort to official nonprofit. Their now-popular #StuVoice Twitter chats have included education heavyweights, like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. The group also hosted Student Voice Live, their recent all-student produced event in New York City, which gained sponsorship from Dell and Microsoft.
The event hosted 230 ninth through twelfth graders as well as the dozen-plus members of the Student Voice “executive staff,” and featured student-led panels like “Redesign: STEM Diversity,” and “Think Tank: The Power of Diverse Learners.” Big names headlined, like Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World, and teen cancer researcher Jack Andraka. Malamed said that what began as a social media awareness campaign to promote the “philosophy of student voice in education” has become a way to connect students who long to be a part of the education process with the tools and organizations they need to get there.
Student Voice clearly has students’ attention - at least the ones who are interested in changing their schools - but trying to nail down what students really want is trickier, and varies from school to school. Malamed said that there will always be the kids who want to change things through student government, but his plans go beyond student council. “Student government represents an important vehicle,” Malamed said, “but there’s a certain kind of student who goes for student government. What about the underrepresented students who don’t necessarily sign up for student council?” He said that the traditional role of students coming to the institution saying, ‘this is what we want,’ should be flipped. According to Malamed, in a world where the student voice matters, the institution comes to students to say, ‘what can we do to improve this school?’
Asking Students What They Want
Professor Russell Quaglia, founder of the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations and author of Student Voice: Instrument of Change, says that the student voice in education is ‘the elephant in the room’ - the missing piece to the puzzle of how to reform schools. He has been studying and advocating for student voice for over 30 years - for much of that time feeling like the “the guy with the long hair who ranted” about how students needed to play a bigger role in their education. But now he sees, with the rise of groups like Student Voice and The Future Project, that students are taking notice and tides are beginning to turn.
“When I became a professor at the University of Maine, I kept on hearing that the kids were the problem, and we needed to fix them” said Quaglia. “I just got tired of hearing it. I wasn’t a great student, but I wasn’t broken! I flipped the whole thing on its head, and started looking at students as potential and not the problem.” He founded the institute to study how student voice affects both student achievement and schools.
Quaglia surveyed 66,314 sixth through twelfth-grade students across the country as well as conducted focus groups in order to put together the 2014 My Voice National Student Report, an in-depth look at what it takes for students to feel like they matter.
“When I look at the data [from the survey],” he said, “two things jump out at me: we’re missing about half our students. Half the students are engaged, have a sense of self-worth. The other half isn’t dropping out, but they don’t feel a part of anything, either.”
The other thing students told him in the survey is that they want teachers to value them as individuals and as a group, but also that teachers matter to them. “Students want adults to know, ‘You matter to me.’ You’re a hero, a role model, whether you want to be or not.”
Using students’ answers, Quaglia and his researchers created an odds analysis to try to predict school behaviors. “Here’s what the students told us: when they feel a sense of self-worth, they’re five times more likely to be academically motivated,” Quaglia said. According to the report, students who feel “engaged” are 16 times more likely to want to do well; “having a sense of purpose” makes them 18 times more likely to be academically motivated. For Quaglia, it’s clear: students who feel respected and have a sense of control and purpose over what they do at school have a much greater chance of doing well.
Yet Quaglia is beginning to understand one of the issues to bestowing self-worth and engagement on students - the teachers. “The more I talk about student voice, I realize the teachers need to have a voice as well,” he said. “If teachers have confidence that they’re being listened to, then student voice won’t become just another fad or cute idea.”
Applying Voices in the School
“When we first started, we didn’t have the clearest, widest vision of what we were looking for,” said Ari Sussman, founder of the Student Voice Collaborative (SVC), a progressively-minded project started by the New York City Department of Education five years ago to help students learn how to bring improvement to themselves and their schools. The initial project began as an experiment in five city high schools; it has since expanded into seventeen high schools across five school networks.
“We were just doing good projects in schools, trying to make an impact here or there. Over the last five years, in order to make real, sustainable change in schools, we go beyond projects, and are trying to find a way to systemize student voice in schools.”
The first thing high school kids who sign up for the voluntary, after school program are shown is how the system already works. Students’ first assignment is to interview school leaders, then make a one-page map showing how decisions get made in their school. The SVC then gives them the tools to navigate decision-makers with their ideas.
“Considering how little time and capacity schools have, the goal is, in order to make the most change, you make the little change,” said Sussman. “Rather than creating new groups, students see they don’t have to run around and flag people down each time they want to make a change.” Sussman wants to show students they can bring change by working within the existing system.
The Student Voice Collaborative consists of four parts. First, kids interview key officials in the Department of Education in order to see the landscape and how they fit into the bigger picture. Then, members of the SVC are invited along on ‘quality reviews’ - one of the two forms of school accountability for the city, where students get paired with a quality reviewer and see how schools are judged according to officials. Next, students conduct research and identify a challenge in their school, and come up with a student-led campaign to address that challenge. Finally, they’re asked to set a city-wide agenda - things that will benefit all students, not just the ones at their school. One group, Sussman said, came up with six recommendations for New York City schools and sent them in a letter to Carmen Fariña, the New York City Schools Chancellor.
But even if districts and schools don’t have the resources for an attempt at a system-wide overhaul like SVC, Malamed said they can take action with small steps. To that end, Malamed and his partner, Carnegie Mellon senior Adil Majid, created Student Voice in a Box, a series of posts and videos made for students and teachers to give them ideas on how to incorporate student voice into classrooms. Malamed said he thinks of the Box like “a student voice rubric.”
Ideas from Student Voice in Box include: detailed instructions on how to, and the benefits of, assigning the writing of policy papers for students; a class project in which students organize a conference; how to set up a student voice-friendly classroom environment; and even how to create a stand up comedy project, which Student Voice describes as a way to “deliver social commentary in an accessible manner.”
Sussman brought some of his students to Student Voice Live so they could get an up-close look at the work of Malamed and his partners. Sussman's students were able to see a college student like Malamed connect, network, and create important partnerships. “It was a really cool event - and I think it will only get better,” he said.