Student Voice: How Young People Can Shape the Future of Education

Educators, community members, and policy-makers across the state are working tirelessly to find the best path forward for schools. They debate what policies will have the biggest impact on student outcomes and what practices will help reduce the achievement gap. They come together to discuss new ideas to improve education. But all too often these conversations are missing a crucial perspective: students themselves.

Over the past year we’ve seen young people become increasingly more involved in public activism, leading the National Student Walkout and voting at higher rates in the mid-term elections than we’ve seen in 25 years. Yet when it comes to education, students are rarely given a seat at the table where decisions are being made. Students are both the most affected by and most informed about our education system and their voices would provide valuable insight and ideas—if only we would listen.

That’s why this year’s Condition of Education in the Commonwealth Action Guide is focused on the power of elevating student voice. Enhancing the role students play in shaping the future of education means helping them develop leadership skills, allowing them to practice those skills, and giving them opportunities to use their voice in the community.

This all starts in the classroom. A supportive classroom environment helps students build the skills and confidence to speak up on behalf of their needs and interests. That means involving young people in conversations that directly impact their learning, while ensuring they are prepared to grapple with issues and participate in conversations related to the broader education system.

Many schools across the Commonwealth are doing this. Generation Citizen, for example, works with 10 Massachusetts districts to bring action civics to underserved public schools where students often lack chances to participate in project-based or experiential learning opportunities. Through Generation Citizen, students exercise their voice in a meaningful way, while learning how to tackle a community issue through collaboration, communication, and creativity.  

“In my Generation Citizen class, learning itself was so different than my other classes.  We were the leaders of the class and given an actual voice to make decisions from start to finish. It was up to us and the work we were doing was real—we had to go out and advocate for real change,” said Carla Duran Capellan, a recent Lowell High School graduate who spoke at our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth event. “Through the Generation Citizen program, I realized that being an immigrant didn’t have to stop me from having a voice. That I, too, could make a change in my community. That an ELL student who once had trouble understanding her teachers in class, could advocate for policy changes within her school and community and make it a better place for her peers.”

Once students learn these skills in the classroom, schools can help them amplify their voice. Students with direct experience of school practices can play a vital role in proposing changes that better address their interests and needs. And when school leaders are looking for information on how a new initiative is progressing, student input is a critical—but often overlooked—source of information.

A good example of how to do this is Monomoy Regional School District, where students are brought into the process of school improvement through formal leadership roles, including student membership on district-wide steering committees.

Community-based organizations offer a supportive setting for students to apply the civic and leadership skills they develop in the classroom and practice in school. Engagement with local institutions helps orient students to a world beyond the school walls where their voice is still welcomed and valued. It also lays the groundwork for students to be civically engaged throughout their lives. 

Boston-based organization Youth on Board, for example, addresses community-based issues through youth-led activism. Their Boston Student Advisory Council is a citywide body of elected student leaders that acts as the district’s student union.

There are some examples of this at the state level as well. Massachusetts is one of only a few states to include students as voting members on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and Board of Higher Education.

"Student voice is integral to the progression of education in our classrooms. Empowering students, whether in the classroom, school, or community, opens a whole new realm of learning. And it is my hope that someday students will feel like they have control over their elementary and secondary education, the power to change the path and pursue another. It is through stories, hardline civics, and activism that we can accomplish this,” said Maya Mathews, a Newton North High School senior and student member of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education who spoke at our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth event.

Promising work to elevate the voices of students is happening in classroom, schools, and communities across the Commonwealth. But how can these ideas be scaled to benefit more students?

At the district level, leaders should integrate student voice into a range of decisions related to policy and practice, offer trainings for educators to ensure that student opinions are respected and valued, and facilitate community-wide conversations on how to invest in student empowerment. At the state level, leaders should share highlights from school climate surveys with students and parents, make the accountability system more culturally responsive by including measures of equity and effectiveness, and link data and support systems across agencies so educators and community leaders can provide more seamless learning opportunities.

Now is the time to harness the power of student voice. Let’s help students learn the skills they need to advocate for themselves and their communities, and give them a seat at the table to do so. This will help today’s leaders tackle the persistent challenges facing our schools and help students become the strong leaders we need for tomorrow.