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A New Vision for School Reform: Where Are the Students?

In a recent article [link] Pedro Noguera, calls for a new vision of school reform stating: “change in education cannot be implemented on a piecemeal basis. The administration needs a new vision; one rooted in the recognition that schools must provide equal opportunity for all children to learn if the schools are to fulfill their vital role as the cornerstone of our democracy.”

Image: Where are the Students?
Well, here is a new vision built on this vital role of schools as the cornerstone of our democracy: how about we engage students (the end user of education) in education reform? After all, education reform is about them. We might ask ourselves as adults how committed and engaged we are in a process in which we have little or no control. If we want students to develop democratic knowledge, skills and dispositions lets engage them in deliberations and decision-making utilizing democratic principles.

What better way to teach democracy than through engagement in relevant issues, and what is more relevant to students than how schools are organized, how subjects are taught, how the school engages its communities, how quality/safe school climates are developed and sustained and how adults and students interact.

If we engage students in answering these questions we may feel they will suggest strategies that are inappropriate and focused on fun rather than quality; but in fact, in this is not the case.

For example, when Dr. Hank Bounds, former state superintendent in Mississippi, wanted to reduce the dropout rate in Mississippi he hosted an all day Youth Dropout Prevention Summit. Students from over 90% of the high schools in the state participated in discussions and deliberations that surfaced over 18,000 ideas and strategies for schools to employ to keep students in school.

Students actively engaged in strategic sessions and challenged themselves and each other to take their charge seriously and the final analysis surfaced several strategies (e.g., increased student engagement, more active pedagogies and more hands-on activities) that Dr. Bounds then employed in his K-12 education reform agenda.

In Hudson, Massachusetts Dr. Sheldon Berman, former superintendent of Hudson Schools, engaged students in the actual design of their new high school; resulting in buildings better organized for teachers’ professional development, cluster learning opportunities and a more inviting environment for all parents and the community.
Throughout our nation, many schools integrate service-learning into the curriculum. One of the standards of effective practice in quality service-learning is youth voice.

Again many teachers, administrators and policymakers believe that youth voice places too much control (power) in the hands of students, when in fact service-learning provides youth with a strong voice in planning, implementing, and evaluating service-learning experiences with guidance from adults rather than taking total responsibility for corresponding teaching, learning and serving opportunities. If education is not about creating power, then it is about creating powerlessness.

Several mayors sustain youth advisory committees and in fact Nashville mayor Karl Dean has appointed a task force to develop a Child and Youth Master Plan to address issues affecting the city’s youth. A youth serves as chair; youth are on every committee; and the Mayor’s Youth Council has been an integral part of the research and planning process. Mayor Dean believes that when youth thrive the city thrives.

Let’s use these examples of strategies policymakers and education leaders at all levels can use to engage students in identifying the reforms that education systems can consider to increase student academic, civic, social and career development. This strategy is consistent with the customer focus many successful organizations employ, isn’t time for us to consider students’ insights and strategies to restore education as a cornerstone of our democracy.

About the Author: Terry Pickeral received his undergraduate degree from the University of Hawaii and his graduate degree from the University of British Columbia (Canada). He serves on the following boards: Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning (CIRCLE); Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools (CMS); Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL); Organization of American States Inter-American Program on Education for Democratic Values and Practices and the Service Learning Panamerican Network. You can e-mail Terry at terry.pickeral@cascadeeducationalconsultants.com

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