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Surveys Tap Into Student Voices to Improve High Schools

As schools look to improve everything from teaching to counseling to college and career readiness, students have a unique perspective—yet they are not always asked for their opinion.

A national survey project called YouthTruth is trying to address that often-missing piece in the reform puzzle by asking high school students for their feedback. Started in 2008 with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the project has surveyed 71,000 students in 164 high schools across the country. It is expanding and next week begins recruiting schools for participation in 2011-12. (The Gates foundation also has provided funding for Editorial Projects in Education, the parent of Education Week.)

"There is a need for very good data to make good decisions," says Valerie Threfall, director of the YouthTruth Initiative and vice president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy in Cambridge, Mass. "When you say to students you want to hear their voice, they want to make their school experience better, ... they take it seriously."

Students can take the 20-minute online survey during class over the period of a month. There are open-ended and multiple-choice questions about relationships with teachers, fairness of discipline, rigor of classes, and feelings of preparedness for the future. The response rate is about 77 percent.

The feedback is compiled into a report given to the district, along with comparative data from area schools so weaknesses and strengths can be reviewed in context with their peers, says Threfall. Most schools share the information with students and use the findings as an internal tool in their school improvement plans.

As a result of the student feedback on course rigor, one school revamped its grading and assignments to focus more on students' mastery and created capstone projects for seniors in core courses. It also helped corroborate other data about underperforming teachers, and the school moved them out.

Another school focused on improving its advisory program after student responses to the statement, "In my school, there is at least one adult who would help me with a personal problem," revealed a weakness in this area.

One school added a college and career center and worked on individual plans for students after graduation as a result of feedback on the YouthTruth survey.

Not only are students being asked, but schools are also listening.

In May, I wrote post about a project by Public Agenda for which college students were asked about their ideas to improve college completion.

Perhaps, there will be more efforts to reach out to students. They are, after all, the ultimate beneficiaries of education reform, so why not tap into their expertise?


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