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Student Agency: Why Aren't We Asking Students To Do More?

This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won't be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we've got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Irvin Scott, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Graduate School of Education, will be guest-blogging.

Note: Today's guest blog is co-authored by Keith Frome, Co-Founder and CEO of College Summit.

Someone responded to my blog yesterday about teams by saying that I forgot students. Well, not too fast. I knew Thursday was coming! So, here we go.

In over a decade of teaching high school English, I have had the pleasure to lead many adolescents through the exploration of multiple, young literary characters who faced challenges somewhat similar to ones that my students faced as they came of age. Two of my most memorable, youthful, fictional characters are Denver, daughter of the complex and yearning character Sethe, in Toni Morrison's Beloved, and Leartes, the son of Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet. Each of these young characters come of age by facing their fears and eventually coming into full knowledge of the surrounding ills that face each of them as well as those they love. But, there is something else that enables Denver and Leartes to eventually move into the place of heroic literary figures: key adults around them step aside—involuntarily or deceptively—and allow these two characters to find their voice, take action, and help others come to the knowledge of the truth.

Students should be doing the work

Over the years, I have done many classroom observations. One of the most important things I look for when observing classrooms is what the students are doing, not just what the teacher is doing. What's the task students are working on? What are they saying? What questions are they asking? What emotions are they showing? The reason is simple: engaged learners learn more, and students engaging with their peers learn even more.

This educational truism holds one of the keys, we argue, for addressing our nation's achievement and post-secondary attainment gaps. There are approximately 1.1 million low-income 8th graders each year in our nation's public schools. Only 10% of them will finish a college degree. In 1970, that number was 6%; clearly, we have not made much progress in more than four decades. Why? These 8th graders will go to high schools with enormous guidance counselor to student ratios. In some of our urban secondary schools, the ratio is more than 700:1. And our guidance counselors are not just tasked with post-secondary support. They are also providing social and mental health remediation, conflict resolution sessions, and master scheduling services. In addition, the average class size in a public high school is approximately 27 students, according to the National Council for Education Statistics.

We just do not have enough trained adults in our nation's schools to personally support our most vulnerable young people to graduate from high school prepared to make it to and through college, still the gateway to prosperity in this country. But we do have a resource that flows through the hallways and corridors of every school in America: the students themselves.

"And a Child Shall Lead Them"

It is not easy to step aside, but in order to prepare students for their futures, rather than our pasts, we must find ways to engage students deeply in their own work and the work of their classmates. Finding ways to enable their agency to be structured with supportive scaffolding from knowledgeable, caring, and loving adults is the name of the game for the next phase of educational reform. 50 years of research in the social aspects of schooling demonstrates that positive peer influence significantly impacts academic success and post-secondary achievement. One study by Andrew Sokatch, for instance, showed that urban, minority youth were almost 30% more likely to graduate and attend college if their friends were planning to go to college and wished the same for them.

Faced with the prospect of more decades of lackluster national results, continuing the achievement gap should grip us with grave urgency. Happily, I am noticing that my colleagues are starting to wake up to the power of student agency. For instance, teachers and leaders are learning the power of hearing back from students on how teaching and learning is working for them and ways it can be improved through TRIPOD Surveys and other student survey instruments. Another example is the way that College Summit trains and deploys teams of high school juniors and seniors to take responsibility for and drive the post-secondary results of their high schools. The education field needs to begin to collect and evaluate the best practices in what some are starting to call "youth activation" and begin to train principals and teachers how to structure this magnificent power that is sitting, each day, right in front of them.

In closing, while Leartes' end is more tragic than Denver's, both characters find ways to come into their own and lead others—including adults—to the truths that surround them. Perhaps this is the ultimate form of learning there is. And, if that's the case, educators must look for opportunities to step aside and put students in charge of their own learning, both for themselves and their classmates. This type of agency is too important to be left to fictional characters.

—Irvin Scott & Keith Frome

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