A key piece of our Condition of Education in the Commonwealth report, the Action Guide provides research-informed recommendations for statewide actions—policies, investments, and expansion of best practices—that have potential to address performance gaps and contribute to broad improvement in student outcomes. In our recent Condition of Education Action Guides, we've called on the Commonwealth to consider education more holistically, noting that each child’s education encompasses more than academic learning.
This year's report examines the role students play in shaping our education system. As educators and leaders look to improve schools for students, students themselves are rarely given a seat at the table while decisions about their education are being made. The report offers recommendations for elevating the voice of students in classrooms, schools, and communities.
A Time for Change
This year’s report comes at an auspicious moment, as young people react to the current social and political environment with increasing public activism. Evidence indicates that today’s youth are part of an unusually energized, politically engaged generation. Especially in the aftermath of the devastating school shooting in Parkland, student leaders have channeled their outrage and disillusionment into action.
Young people today have more ways to share their voice than ever before. Social media offers a potent tool for broadcasting messages and organizing collective action, culminating in mass movements. Yet when it comes to their education, students often have limited opportunities to share their opinions and experiences, even though students are, in many ways, the most informed when it comes to how the education system is functioning. This year’s Action Guide reexamines the current way of doing business, looking at how we can incorporate student voice into decision-making to help all learners construct a pathway to success in college, careers, and life.
Cultivating Student Voice in the Classroom
The classroom is the epicenter for the development and application of student voice. A supportive classroom environment helps students build the skills and confidence to speak up on behalf of their needs and interests in a variety of settings. They can also see their lived experiences acknowledged as critical components of the learning process, strengthening their personal identity and outlook. Elevating student voice at the classroom level means involving young people in conversations that directly impact their learning, while ensuring that they are prepared to grapple with issues and participate in conversations related to the broader education system.
What this looks like:
- Applied learning activities
- Development of non-cognitive competencies
- Deconstructing adult-student power dynamics
Local Spotlight: Generation Citizen
Generation Citizen is a national organization working 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 have the opportunity to exercise their voice in a meaningful way, while learning how to tackle a community issue through action steps that involve collaboration, communication, and creativity. Classes collectively determine a topic of focus, then research the issue to understand the context and identify a specific, local policy goal. Students work in small groups to generate and implement an action plan to build support for a proposed policy change. Generation Citizen places a heavy emphasis on building teachers’ capacity to support student voice and youth development.
Elevating Student Voice in Schools
When schools take intentional measures to create a climate where student voice is valued and build pathways for students to exercise voice in school-level decisions and functions, they become ideal settings for students to apply skills that they have developed in the classroom. 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.
What this looks like:
- Positive, inclusive school climate
- Institutionalized channels for students to exercise voice
- Opportunities for student leadership
Local Spotlight: Andover Public Schools and Monomoy Regional School District
Andover Public Schools and Monomoy Regional School District see social-emotional learning (SEL) and student voice as intertwined—and mutually reinforcing—pillars of improvement within schools. Andover schools have intentionally approached the work of SEL and student leadership, including the establishment of inclusive communities that support students’ connections to each other and to school. Monomoy Regional School District has brought students into the process of school improvement through multiple formal leadership roles, including student membership on district-wide steering committees.
Amplifying Student Voice in the Community
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, active contributors to democratic society throughout their lives.
What this looks like:
- Experiential learning
- Cultural competency and responsiveness
- Reciprocal dialogue
Local Spotlight: Socieded Latina & Youth on Board
Student participants in both Sociedad Latina and Youth on Board have multiple ways to exercise their voice in settings that offer valuable experiential learning opportunities. Sociedad Latina works in partnership with Boston youth and families to create the next generation of Latino leaders. Sociedad Latina’s Youth Community Organizers participate in decision-making processes that particularly affect themselves, their peers, and Boston’s Latino community. Youth on Board addresses community-based issues through youth-led activism, including the Boston Student Advisory Council, a citywide body of elected student leaders that acts as the district’s student union.
Create authentic opportunities for students to exercise their voice in school and district decision making. District leaders should seek to integrate student voice into a range of decisions related to practice and policy.
Offer training for educators on reciprocal and respectful dialogue. Districts should provide educators with tools, resources, and training to ensure that student opinions (and students themselves) are respected and valued.
Facilitate community-wide conversations to ensure a cohesive approach to student support. Districts should convene a cross-section of community partners to discuss how to invest holistically in student empowerment.
Share survey results on school and district climate. State leaders should consider ways to communicate the highlights from school climate surveys with students and parents.
Make the accountability system more culturally responsive by considering measures of equity and effectiveness. By allowing districts to pilot the use of innovative measures, Massachusetts can study various indicators that address how well districts are meeting the 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 that educators and community leaders can provide more seamless learning opportunities.
New Ways to Track Progress in Massachusetts: The Future of Our Data Dashboard
The Rennie Center’s Data Dashboard provides an in-depth look at school performance by compiling 25 state-level indicators that illuminate areas of success and areas for continued improvement. The current indicators—such as high-quality early education and chronic absenteeism—provide a starting point to investigate disparities in student experience, as well as the equity and effectiveness of our education system. Over the next year, the Rennie Center will be digging deeper into how we can use data to create a more holistic picture of student experience within the Commonwealth. Our aim is to roll out an updated Data Dashboard in 2020 that allows users to analyze the diverse inputs and outcomes that contribute to inequity in students’ learning experiences.
In the meantime, our current data dashboard allows users to monitor general trends in data over time and disaggregate results based on a range of student characteristics including race and income.