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What Should We Teach Students About Their Role in the World?

Note: Rick is taking a hiatus while he's off talking about his new book, The Cage-Busting Teacher. Meanwhile, this week's guest posts will be written by members of Panorama Education, a Boston-based startup that uses data analytics to help teachers and administrators improve their schools. More than 200 districts across the country use Panorama to survey students, parents, and teachers; measure social emotional learning; and analyze their data. CEO and co-founder Aaron Feuer (@aaronfeuer) is guest posting today.

Eight years ago, when I was a high school sophomore in the Los Angeles Unified School District, I got the most important lesson of my education.

Our teachers confided in us that our campus had just been labeled a failing school by a No Child Left Behind calculation. As a result, the district was going to remove our principal.

There was an uproar on campus. Most students and teachers believed our principal was an extraordinary school leader. We appreciated his unabashed focus on doing what he believed was best for students. With more than 5,000 kids at our school, it was not an easy assignment. (Once, when a non­student snuck on campus with a machete, our principal tackled the guy himself.)

Hundreds of students and faculty decided to take action. We staged a large protest after school one day, standing in front of our campus with signs like "Don't You Dare Take Our Principal."

Feuer 1.1Hundreds of students and faculty at North Hollywood High held an after-school protest in support of the school's principal.

Then something incredible happened: the district reversed itself and we kept our principal. I never learned the full story, but for my fellow students and me, it was a transformative experience. Sure, our school had bars on the windows and armed police on campus. But ­for the first time, at that moment, ­­we mattered. We had a say. We had agency. We as youth weren't just passive victims of an education system; rather, we were now a part of it. Hundreds of students left April 2007 feeling empowered.

Unfortunately, for me that feeling was short-lived. Fast forward two years: My friend Delia and I found ourselves at LAUSD's headquarters getting admonished by the school board president and chief counsel.

Earlier that year, we had heard through the California Association of Student Councils (the state-chartered organization that's charged with fomenting student leadership in schools) about Education Code 35010-35012. This section of state law establishes local school boards and describes how they function. It includes an important provision: every school board must include a student member if five hundred students sign a petition requesting the position. (The student member is entitled to cast a vote before the adult members, though the vote does not officially count.) Although our district had previously rejected a number of other proposals for student voice, when we heard about that section of state law, we thought we had finally found an opportunity to bring about visible, tangible student participation.

In the months before that central office meeting, a large group of students across the district had started gathering signatures. The five hundred signature minimum felt wimpy. Instead, we launched a massive organizing campaign and collected more than 10,000 signatures, from the San Fernando Valley to Boyle Heights to San Pedro.

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Student teams, like this one at North Hollywood High (left), gathered thousands of signatures across more than ten campuses.

So there we were, March 2009, in a formal meeting with some of the most powerful adults in our school system, presenting the petition. We received a simple response: "No." The president and counsel respectfully informed us that our district would be choosing to ignore the law in this situation. We could choose to sue if we wished to effect action. (We didn't.)

In hindsight, I understand we put them in a tough position, and a student on the school board might not have been as meaningful as we thought at the time. But wow! That week, ten thousand LAUSD students were left wondering why they couldn't have a voice. More pointedly, we looked around the country and saw student board members in Boston and Berkeley and Glendale and Montgomery County and Compton. Did our district have so little faith in the education we were getting that it didn't believe we were capable of contributing meaningfully?

--

For many years, educators have been wrestling with this question of what role students should play in school. This spring is the 75th anniversary of an important early conversation on the subject: the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) devoted its March 1940 Bulletin issue to student leadership and empowerment. One essay, drawn from a large survey of principals, presented the top five "Purposes of Pupil Participation in School Control":

  1. To develop student responsibility, initiative, leadership, and school pride
  2. To promote worthy citizenship training
  3. To provide for pupil expression
  4. To provide a working model of a governmental unit under which students will live
  5. To promote welfare of the school through proper student-faculty relationship

Today, these outcomes are important as ever. The opportunities I had to participate in school (and the failures, too) became critical parts of my education. I learned leadership, self-confidence, and tenacity. Most importantly, somewhere inside of me a switch flipped, and I figured out that I could make a difference and shape the world around me.

I'm grateful for the teachers and principal who understand what education really meant, and who made sure that my classes never got in the way of my learning. Ray Cortines is one of the biggest supporters of student leadership I knew and I'm thrilled to see him back in L.A. Unified.

Of course, most students don't dream of sitting in school board meetings, but almost every child has a desire to matter and to mean something, a desire that schools should embrace. In Panorama's work with hundreds of districts across the country, I've been energized to see examples of student leadership at its best. In Reading, Mass., students run the technology help desk. The Boston Student Advisory Council—with support and funding from the district—is an important advisory group and rabble-rousing force.

Still, I see many of our schools struggling with the same tension I felt at LAUSD headquarters. How do we balance giving students meaningful opportunities for leadership with making sure students get the curricular learning they need? (One of our schools is currently debating a "silent lunch" where students can earn the right to speak as a special privilege. They've discovered that it's an effective tool for creating order in the classroom, and as a result students can learn more of the state curriculum, but at what cost?)

Right now, we measure educational outcomes in terms of facts and skills, and that's how we set goals and align incentives. No doubt that's important. But I want students to dream and to love learning. I want third graders to see a universe of limitless possibilities. I want every child to graduate believing, "I am somebody" and "I can contribute to my community." Virtually every other educator I know feels the same way. Let's be sure we keep those hopes close at hand in this age of accountability.

--Aaron Feuer

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