Editor’s note: The following piece was written by Brian Barhaugh and Cristian Mendoza Espinosa. Barhaugh is executive director of Project VOYCE. Mendoza Espinoza is a junior at Denver’s George Washington High School and a member of Project VOYCE.
There’s a missing link in our efforts to use achievement data to drive school reform. From Colorado’s extensive Race to the Top (R2T) planning efforts to national school performance standards, the focus on achievement results keeps relying on blunt instruments.
Achievement data tells us where we are, but misses the essential question of how we got there or, more importantly, how to improve.
We will continue relying on blunt instruments if we don’t bring student voice into the game.
A recent case in point is the Bruce Randolph School teacher who, in one semester, went from being considered by students as one of their worst teachers to being named by those same students as the school’s first Teacher of the Month. When asked why she thought she received the award, she described her new class structure. When the students were asked how this teacher went from worst to best, they weren’t aware of a new class structure. They said she did it by constantly requesting and using their feedback. Now she’s even more excited about working with her students.
The basic business practice of asking your customers for feedback to improve your product is tragically lacking in America’s most vital industry — education. Colorado has a rare opportunity to take a leadership role in breaking out of this rut in Race to the Top (R2T). But the forces pulling us back into the old familiar tracks are persistent.
Eighteen students from 14 different metro-area high schools have been deeply engaged with the state’s R2T Work Groups. They were hired and trained by Project VOYCE (Voices of Youth Changing Education) over the summer to find ways to make a difference in education in their schools and in Colorado. While their contributions were widely praised by the lieutenant governor and numerous R2T co-chairs, and photos of their involvement in R2T were featured in the New York Times and Education Week, the recently released summary of Colorado’s proposal has them concerned.
As Cristian Mendoza Espinosa (a George Washington High School Junior) recently wrote of his R2T experience, “At every meeting I attended, I felt welcome. Everyone listened to my ideas and appreciated my comments… That said, I was confused when I did not see any explicit mention of student voice in The Race to the Top proposal.”
An education official from the governor’s office has responded that while student voice was not mentioned in the recently released proposal summary, “We, too, are committed to student engagement. When we are ready to share the details of the proposal, you will see that this commitment will stay strong throughout the implementation of Race to the Top.”
This statement is encouraging. At the same time we know that educators with the best of intentions often miss a crucial distinction between student engagement and student voice. As Cristian wrote, “The educational system has been working for (as opposed to with) students, like myself, for too long…I learn a lot more in classes where teachers work with me; they ask for my input, and actually apply it, making material easier to learn.”
Lt. Governor Barbara O’Brien has been supportive of student voice in R2T since the first meeting in April. Last week O’Brien was named one of the top 10 education reformers to watch nationally for “leading the most extensive Race to the Top outreach effort in the country.” What better way to offer proof that O’Brien’s outreach efforts truly went beyond the usual circles than by highlighting how student voice is being used in Colorado to sharpen the tools that are needed to improve student achievement?
Tapping the full power of student voice in Colorado’s R2T proposal involves these key elements:
Standards and Assessments – Make them relevant to students’ lives.
- Involve students in standards support, formative assessment development and interim benchmark development.
Data – Go beyond student engagement data (attendance, etc.) to real student voice.
- Utilize student-led outreach to capture feedback from disengaged students.
- Disseminate data on impact of student voice best practices statewide.
Great Teachers and Leaders – Put students in the center of the learning community
- Go beyond formative assessments to “Fast, Frequent Feedback” systems to accelerate improvements in teacher effectiveness.
- Develop a state-wide internet-based student voice network to share best practices in student voice and student/teacher partnerships.
- Build student/teacher partnership training into professional development and pre-service training.
- Include students in teacher/leader recruitment and hiring.
Support Struggling Schools – As Arne Duncan said, “The students know what’s working and not working in schools before anyone else.
- Identify best practices to utilize student feedback to determine school strengths and weaknesses and to select best intervention/turnaround strategies.
- Provide training to build school leadership culture based on student/adult partnerships.
O’Brien and Work Group Co-chairs Monte Moses and Jesus Salazar have clearly stated the importance of student-centered strategies in R2T. If we are to meet Arne Duncan’s challenge to go beyond incremental systems change to continuous improvement and innovation, then let’s be bold and not just include these strategies, but shine a light on them.
As Cristian said in his recent letter, “… by working with their students, teachers become better connected to their students and do their best to help their students succeed.”
Popularity: 4% [?]