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Perspective | The importance of student voices

The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the January 2023 episode of Education Matters on the importance of student voice.

Oftentimes when we discuss education we hear from parents, educators, legislators, and advocates about what’s best for students. All of those groups undoubtedly bring something important to the conversation, but they cannot say it all. We must also bring in the perspective of students, and when we ask, they have much to say and offer to important discussions and decisions.

Last year, when students in New Hanover County developed a proposal to amplify the thoughts and concerns of themselves and their peers at school board meetings, they created the Student Voice Committee among other means of representation at the county level, and the proposal was passed unanimously. As our guests shared, this was a student-led effort, and it demonstrates that the passion is there, but it is the responsibility of the decision-makers to tap into that passion and listen.

One of the main goals of the New Hanover Student Voice Committee is to diversify perspectives on how rules and policies can affect students based on their backgrounds. It’s no secret that things like ethnicity, socioeconomic background, and lived experiences impact our world view and can leave us with blind spots we’re unaware of. According to a report from the Center for American Progress, increasing student voice is particularly important for historically marginalized populations, including students from Black, Latinx, Native American, and low-income communities, as well as students with disabilities. Despite intentions, unless students are given a platform to share their points of view, impacts on their daily lives can be easily overlooked.

According to social emotional learning experts, student choice in the classroom can better prepare students to make responsible decisions and advocate for themselves as well as help teachers better understand and therefore connect with students.

Uplifting student voices can also be an academic opportunity. According to the same CAP report, giving students, particularly older ones, more ownership of their education and therefore increasing engagement and interest in school may lead to better student outcomes. Additionally, providing students a place to participate in education policy gives schools another opportunity to prepare their students for life as engaged citizens. 

It is also important to note that taking student voices into consideration can take many different forms. The New Hanover students who were able to form a Student Voice Committee were able to achieve representation at a district level. This can also be done through student surveys. At a school or classroom level, implementing student government, student journalism, student-led conferences with teachers and parents, and democratic classroom practices are all ways to empower students to be directly engaged in their education.

Determining what’s best for schools can seem complicated. There are a lot of stakeholders in public education and no one wants to feel ignored. However, if we do not prioritize the voice of the school’s main stakeholders, their students, we’re missing the point. Education is about preparing students to meet their full potential, and when we express to them that their input is not required to do so, we risk stifling that potential. If we want to do what’s best for our kids, listening to them is a simple but essential step.

Thank you for taking time with us to learn and think about education. That’s all for today, and we’ll see you next week.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.