- While most schools guide students into the courses they think are best for students, Quaker Valley High School near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania is letting students have a greater say in the direction of their own education, the Washington Post reports.
- The school, which has fewer than 700 students, allows special education students to try Advanced Placement (AP) courses if they wish, allows students to take up to 20 AP exams, waive prerequisites, choose their own teachers and has eliminated the “gifted” label.
- Listening to what students want has worked well for the school so far, but primarily because the district is comparatively small and isolated, has an “enlightened” school board, and a history of visionary leaders who have challenged teachers and students to think creatively, according to the article.
SoundOut, an organization created to promote “meaningful student involvement, student voice and student engagement,” defines student voice as the “the individual and collective perspective and actions of young people within the context of learning and education.” In their Student Voice Toolbox, a summary of research on the topic, author Adam Fletcher states, “Engaging student voice may be the most powerful lever available to improve student learning in schools.” Part of the reason is that increasing student voice in the classroom and in school encourages independence, collaboration, and a more personalized learning environment.
School leaders and teachers are increasingly looking for ways to increase student engagement. One way is through technology, which allows students to have more input than before, even if shyness is a factor. However, students can also help shape their learning environment and school culture, if schools are willing to leave some decisions up to students. This can be accomplished through an inclusive student council that represents more than one point of view, through peer-to-peer mentoring programs, and by involving students in discussions of disciplinary policies. Some school districts are now even allowing a student voice on school boards.
School leaders, however have to find the right balance between allowing students to have more of a voice in their own educational decisions — especially in high school — and know when the decisions should rest with the adults. As Brian Field, a history teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, wrote in this commentary, teachers cannot abdicate their role as the one in charge and must guide students in the making of choices. “Teachers cannot expect that increasing student choice and freedom will automatically improve student learning," he wrote. "Unfortunately, unlimited choice can set students up to fail. Teachers must help their students develop the appropriate skills for how to approach a problem and evaluate success and failure so that students can make more of their own effective choices in the classroom."