Youth aren’t props – they need an actual seat at the policy table
by Andre Perry
Just one-third of students rate their school culture positively, according to data released this week by the San Francisco-based nonprofit YouthTruth Student.
The stat wouldn’t make for a good consumer report, but it’s amazing what we can learn when we consider youths’ perspectives.
“Students are the experts on their own experience,” said Sonya Heisters of YouthTruth, adding, “It’s important that education decision makers, from principals to superintendents, and from education funders to the education secretary, listen to this feedback.”
A positive school climate has been shown to boost academic achievement. So why aren’t there more of these studies?
Unfortunately, school leaders would rather not make any data available than share how students feel they’re treated.
Here’s a common practice: Organizers and policymakers meet for weeks planning an event or piece of legislation that is dedicated to improving the lives of youth and students. In the final hour before the policy or project’s release, someone realizes they need youth present at the press conference and asks, “Does anyone have a connection with one of the youth-serving programs in the city?”
Making youth policy without youth is like making a car without the driver in mind.
Minus young people, school and youth policies might as well be categorized as adult policies. And so-called data-driven decision-making should be considered an exercise in adults living out their policy dreams and fantasies.
Believe it or not, children can express how policy decisions impact their lives. Youth even have ideas as to how they should be governed.
Last week, I moderated a discussion in New Orleans titled “Supporting Young People on their Journey to Self-Actualization,” as part of the City of New Orleans’ fourth annual Youth Violence Prevention Summit. The panel of youth-serving organizations discussed ways to incorporate and institutionalize students’ thoughts and perspectives in the policies that directly impact their lives.
From the court system, policing, transportation and housing to education, youth’s perspectives can enhance how we construct policy.
One way that school leaders can integrate the youth in schooling is to conduct climate studies in schools and make those results public. Academic trends have to be placed in a context. Student and family satisfaction contextualizes how they are perceived and treated.
Charlotte Dial, the teacher at a Success Academy charter school caught on video yelling at a first grader for making a mistake on a math problem, may have been evaluated highly if performance was rigidly based on test scores (and low student self-esteem).
If there is a good that came out of that viral video, it’s that we can see why student and teacher performance can’t be rigidly weighted on test scores and why Dial should not be considered a good teacher.
Clearly, there are many developmentally, culturally and ethically inappropriate ways to boost academic achievement. And we would know this if we asked students their opinion.
A voice of reason from Washington
Kudos to Secretary of Education John King for calling for an end to corporal punishment. Schools in the South are just meaner to black kids. The Brookings Institution found that seven states – Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Oklahoma – comprised 80 percent of in-school corporal punishment in the U.S.
Black children are twice as likely as white children to be spanked in school. Hitting a child doesn’t speak well about the quality of teaching in a school.
It does say that schools will consider and include punishment as an effective means of teaching. Paddling is clearly an adult-centric practice that’s rooted in sociological and religious values.
These policies could stand a healthy hearing from students. King’s call to end corporate punishment is in line with the Education Department’s new, high-quality, adaptable ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS), which affirm a belief in students’ voices.
According to the YouthTruth Student Survey, “less than half of all students report that they feel discipline at their school is fair, and experiences vary widely by self-reported race/ethnicity.” Black students were the least likely to feel that discipline was fair.
Schools aren’t the only place youth voice is missing
Criminal justice, transportation, parks and recreation and other social services can use a boost. Some are taking steps to give youth some decision-making power in institutions. “In 2015, NYC Service, a city agency focused on increasing volunteerism and civic engagement, announced the goal of engaging 30,000 youth ages 14-21 on new youth leadership councils working in policy and practice or service by 2020.” But first adults have to rid themselves of some beliefs and practices.
Academics and policy experts too often confuse jargon with knowledge. Whizzes can do a much better job at not alienating youth, families and others with language. Also, include students on the front end of planning. If youth aren’t represented in the beginning, then they’re mere tokens if squeezed in at the end. But that means we have to have meetings during times and in places where youth can be involved.
Adults also have to believe civic participation is a value and an outcome that’s to be measured and rated. Remember that youth are part of the public.
Yes, there are developmental differences between a 6-, 16- and 21-year-old, but there are ways to garner their perspectives on the policies that impact their lives. Finally, avoid exploiting children’s adorableness. Pity isn’t empowering. When we treat youth as if they have value, we sincerely incorporate their opinion in what we do.
Youth will find a way to become a part of policymaking one way or the other. When a young John Lewis and his Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) colleagues engaged the civil rights movement and when high schoolers hit the streets in Ferguson, they changed the broader policy discussion.
However, there’s a much easier way to involve youth before they invariably engage with you – by listening to the entire public.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.
Click here to read Perry’s full article on the Hechinger Report.