Centering Student Voice in K-12 Education Must Be Part of the Path Forward

Allan Golston
Blog Post


“I know these times are unprecedented, and no one really has known what to do, but the lack of change gives me, the student, an impression that you have given up on us.” “PLEASE LISTEN TO US!”

              --Students Weigh In, Part III, Youth Truth Survey


tudents have the biggest stake in our K-12 education system, yet their voices are often left unheard, especially Black and Latino voices and those of students experiencing poverty. While K-12 systems have their hands full addressing the myriad impacts of the pandemic on student health and wellness, operations, and teaching and learning, leaving student voices out of their approaches and interventions is a missed opportunity.

The path forward must engage students first instead of as an afterthought or effort to confirm decisions that have already been made. Centering student voice means making students active co-designers in their education, and we are energized by the work of K-12 grantees YouthTruth, BUILD Youth Advisory Panel, and RIDE, among other grantees, who are leading the way in elevating and utilizing student voice.

YouthTruth took the critical step of documenting student experiences during the pandemic in a three-part series called “Students Weigh In.” One finding worth noting in Students Weigh In Part 2 is the fact that students’ sense of belonging suffered in spring 2020, when schools quickly switched to distance learning. At that time, 30 percent of students said they felt like a part of their school’s community, compared to 43 percent in fall 2019. But later that year in fall 2020 as students and schools adjusted to remote and hybrid learning environments, students’ sense of belonging increased to 49 percent.

This work is an example of elevating student voice and it provides valuable insights for educators who can use it as a tool at the very beginning of the design process or in re-evaluating initiatives in light of the pandemic.

Also of note is that 72 percent of students reported experiencing obstacles to learning in fall 2020, which is on par with the 70 percent who experienced obstacles last spring. But Black, Latino, and multiracial students said they faced more obstacles on average than did white or Asian students. In terms of the specific obstacles they identified, 46 percent of students reported feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious—which moved from second to the top most frequently cited obstacle, while 44 percent reported distractions at home and family responsibilities.

Our K-12 systems not only need to hear from students and understand their experiences but act on them in ways that engage students directly, ensure they feel heard and respected, and propel them toward success.

BUILD Youth Advisory Panel utilizes a human-centered design process that positions students as equal partners and strategists co-designing programs and other interventions. Most recently, the foundation leveraged this panel to better understand how students relate to math concepts, and here is what they heard: While students struggled to draw immediate connections to math, many were better able to engage when math was applied to real-life financial skills, such as running a family business, calculating sale percentages when grocery shopping, home maintenance, and sending money to family in other countries.

At the foundation, we’re using those student perspectives and others gathered through various projects to test student engagement models and design effective math teaching practices for and with young people. 

For example, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) -- one of the winners of the foundation’s first-ever Algebra I Grand Challenge -- has co-developed an Algebra Readiness Course with and for students. Algebra I is one of the most important on-track indicators of students’ future success. This work engaged students in solutions that better prepare multilingual learners in middle school.

RIDE’s Algebra Readiness Course used students' voices to incorporate real-world examples and strengthen students’ pre-algebra skills while promoting their social-emotional growth. Their early data show that students who were previously behind in math have doubled their learning gains through this approach.

Based on student input, RIDE plans to expand the course to a full academic semester, improve the curriculum to be more culturally responsive, and provide in-depth professional development and coaching to help teachers build their skills to better support multilingual learners.

“I think that one of the most important things that RIDE should keep in mind is to make sure that each decision or suggestion that is brought up should be as inclusive and helpful, and student-led as possible for all students, especially multi-lingual learners.”

--Student Ambassador Reflections on the Process, Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) & Young Voices

K-12 school systems should consider the critical role student voice can and must play in developing and evolving policies, programs, and interventions. Our students have the most to gain or lose from our education system, and their voices must be centered in building better learning experiences for them.

We envision a public education system that expands opportunity for all students—but particularly for Black and Latino students and students in low-income communities who have historically had inequitable access to qualified math teachers, advanced coursework, high-quality curriculum, tutoring, and other supports necessary to serve the potential of every student—and allows them to gain the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in the workplace.

That requires us to interrogate our strategies and processes and center student voice upfront, much like YouthTruth, BUILD, and RIDE. By intentionally and actively centering student voice, we can all ensure students are co-creators in their learning experiences and in determining their future success.