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Dear Decisionmakers: Listen to What Students Have to Say!

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This post is by Monica Alatorre, Senior Communications Manager at Envision Education.

Over the next few weeks, Congress will consider the nomination of Betsy DeVos to be the nation's next Secretary of Education, as well as the nominations of the rest of her team. We will no doubt be treated to a myriad of debates and arguments about what public education needs at this moment in history. Hopefully, the conversations will include questions like the ones schools around the country are grappling with:

  • What are the most effective ways to prepare students for college, career, and life?
  • What makes a difference for students between rote learning and meaningful engagement?
  • What can happen if all kids, regardless of background, are truly engaged in relevant, rigorous learning?
  • Who is being left out of the conversation and how can we bring their ideas to the table?

The Deeper Learning movement is also thinking about these questions, and about how to involve more and more educators in the national, state, local, and dinner table conversations centered on teaching and learning. Like many of our colleagues, we at Envision Education talk daily about the most effective teaching practices, the best ways to measure what students know and can do, and why meaningful classroom engagement matters so much, especially for low income students and students of color. As we work together to improve outcomes for all young people, we must not forget to include students' own voices in the conversation. What do students think about education, and about how to best reach them, engage them, and motivate them?  

Recently, we had an opportunity to ask two of our students for their input. Our three Bay Area schools require students to complete a Workplace Learning Experience--an internship in which students work in a professional environment for an extended period of time and complete a real impact project for their workplace. This year, Miles and Greg joined our training division, Envision Learning Partners, for their internships. For their WLE project, they helped document Envision's Benchmark Portfolio process and capture how this 10th grade requirement supports students in their growth and development. We also asked them to think about why education is important to them, and how their school, Envision Academy, has supported them and shaped them. Their responses provide insights that educators, and those who are making decisions about education in our country, would do well to keep in mind.

Greg, an Oakland 11th grader, on how learning is making a difference for him:

"At my school, there is a team of learning specialists who are always ready to help any student, like me, who feels that they are in need of it, or who are struggling due to some factor (ADD, ADHD, etc.). Going to the Learning Center allows me to complete difficult work, take tests with little or no distraction, or catch up on classwork or homework. The Center also allows students to study after school. All of this support allows me to earn As and Bs, when I could be getting Cs and NCs. The faculty in the Learning Center is giving me a chance to get into a good college. When I go to the LC and I let them know what I'm struggling with, they help me learn what I can do to improve next time. I've learned that there are always people willing to help and that if you try your best at anything, there is always a way to succeed."

What can we learn from Greg?  For starters, we can remind ourselves that students want to improve. Students are looking for teachers who can help them learn how to help themselves. Extra support, such as learning specialists and learning centers, will empower students who might otherwise fall through the cracks to be persistent, search out resources when necessary, and leverage their abilities to achieve success. "Extra" support is actually critical, essential support. Are we giving students across the country these kinds of teachers and resources? Are we helping teachers, via professional learning and sustainable workloads, give students the best chances for success?

Miles, an Oakland 11th grader, on how leadership and values have shaped his education:

"My school has taught me about leadership, and about the importance of collaborating productively, communicating powerfully, and thinking critically. Because I am learning these skills early in life, by the time I am ready to work, I will have had practice in these skills and will be prepared. Communicating powerfully has always been especially relevant in my life. I try to speak professionally and with a great amount of respect, and sometimes adults are surprised by the way I speak. I have learned that the way you speak to others has a direct correlation to how they will view you and treat you. This will be useful in the workplace but also in my whole life. My school has also taught me about core values. At EA, our Core Values are: Respect, Discipline, Growth, Community, and Justice. Of these, the value I most identify with is growth. Throughout my life my main goal has been to grow and be a better person. This was especially true during my transition between middle and high school. I told myself that summer, 'I need to step it up, I need to take these next four years seriously.' I knew that I needed to grow. At my school, I am gaining what I'll need later on: presentation skills, core values, and most of all, confidence in my abilities to live in college and the professional world."

What can we learn from Miles? Miles reminds us to keep core values in the forefront of our schools and classrooms. Core values provide guideposts to students, a way to situate their learning in the larger context of the world and their place in it. Students already come to school knowing what is important to them: when schools are also grounded in core values, students learn to make values-aligned decisions about their education. Miles also reminds us that students know what they need, and they understand the connection between leadership skills, academic skills, and future success. What are the core values we are communicating to students in the public schools available to them? Are these values that will support them as they grow into young adults? How are we preparing students to step confidently into and succeed in leadership opportunities?     

As an organization that values persistent learning and ongoing improvement, we hope the questions continue, and that more and more people join the conversation and shape our nation's answers. We invite decision makers and others to keep students at the center and to seek ways to include students voices and perspectives. This is how, together, we will deliver on the promise of public education.

 

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