In response to comments made by individuals in a piece published by The Heartland Institute, I must argue against the oppression of student voices in reforming education. Two individuals, Shane Vander Hart, editor of the website Truth In American Education, and Leslie Beck, a member of Iowa RestorEd, expressed intense criticism for the state of Iowa’s use of students’ voices and opinions in Iowa’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan.
The ESSA was passed in 2015 by the Obama administration, replacing the previous education reform act, No Child Left Behind. The bill requires states to submit action plans for how they will address disparities and problems in schools within their state. Iowa has opted to include the Iowa Youth Survey as part of their plan, helping to determine the most prominent issues in schools, and the location of these schools. The survey asked students in grades 3-12 about topics listed under Safety, Engagement, and Environment. These questions range from what goes on in the classroom to school culture to issues surrounding suicide, depression, and drug and alcohol abuse.
Mr. Vander Hart and Ms. Beck argued that students’ opinions were not capable or trustworthy in addressing issues in school. However, this argument, used by adults for decades, is what has kept our country from progressing forward in education, and has been harmful to students across the nation. As long as adults continue to criticize and oppress student voices, our education system will never attain the reform that the country has been wanting for decades.
Vander Hart complained of teachers being judged based on students’ opinions.
“...subjective opinions about how the teacher is teaching from the student’s perspective aren’t going to help. Students are immature. They don’t always see things from the perspective of experience and understanding that goes on in preparing a lesson. How many kids are being honest on these questions, anyway?”
Here, adults showcase the age-old bias of distrusting students. Labeling students as “immature” and questioning their honesty is how adults have gotten away with the systematic oppression of student opinion. As a student who sits in a classroom every day for seven hours, five days a week, 180 days a year, I protest such generalizations. A majority of students are incredibly mature, and I think this rhetoric is terribly offensive. It is a shame that adults continue to push this narrative. Some students are immature. However, I know a lot of childish adults in my own life and those on television, social media, and in government.
If you think of school like you would a business, or Congress, (which, outside of this example, you should never do because we shouldn’t run schools like a business), the students are the customers. Companies conform to their customers’ demands, because that's how they become efficient and make money, and keep their customers loyal. So if students do not feel their teacher is doing a good job, that they are not teaching well, or are a poor role model in the classroom, should that employee, who is causing customer dissatisfaction, not be addressed? If students are consistently feeling disenfranchised or not helped by a particular teacher, something needs to happen with that teacher.
Students should play an integral role in grading teachers. They are the ones receiving an education from the teacher, meaning they have a first-hand account. So why would we not consult the people receiving instruction from the teacher to speak on the quality of the teacher? Currently, it is mainly up to the administration to evaluate teachers. However, administrators have so much on their plate; they are not able to be in the classroom, observing teachers enough to get a realistic sense of how they teach and how well it is working for their students. So how can we accurately measure the quality of teachers if they are evaluated by people who are never in their classroom? Not only do administrators not have time to be in the classroom, but when they do several times a year, the teacher is typically prepared in advance for the administrator, and are sure to be their best that day. Therefore, it is not an accurate representation of how that teacher operates on a day to day basis. Students may not always see things from a teacher’s standpoint, or what goes into making a lesson plan. But here is what we do know: we know what works and what doesn’t, what helps us learn and what is entirely unhelpful or irrelevant.
Vander Hart also said, “Nor are students’ mindsets and attitudes any of the government’s business.”
Actually, they are, because how else are we going to learn what needs to be done to improve our schools? If schools are not held accountable in some way, many will not improve what needs to be improved. If students continuously feel as though their school is terrible or of poor quality, and inform their school, yet their school does nothing, who else is going to do something if not the government?
Leslie Beck, an education activist and member of Iowa RestorEd, says many parents don’t want their children answering such personal questions.
“Most parents are not tracking these issues until the issue is actually affecting their child… There are four questions asking students about killing themselves... The survey has the potential to normalize these topics and desensitize students even more than they already are.”
The Iowa Youth Survey is not “normalizing” suicide or other sensitive topics. Instead, it is bringing them into the conversation and out into the limelight. Problems such as suicide and depression are rarely talked about in schools, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t issues that confront students. Utilizing the survey enables state to find out which schools need to step up their prevention and awareness campaigns. We’ve already lost too many students to suicide. After all, it is the leading cause of death amongst teens according to the Centers for Disease Control.
I would invite these two individuals to step into the world of student voice, and witness what it has done for thousands of students, who for the first time in their lives feel empowered. See what changes have been made in schools, and how much more efficient schools that incorporate student voice are. You are always welcome to attend an IowaSLI sponsored event and talk with students who are sharing their views.
In conclusion, student voice is incredibly important to improving the future of education. We sit in uniform desks, in identical classes, seven hours a day, five days a week, 180 days a year. I think it’s quite obvious we have some of the best first-hand knowledge about school currently. You can do all the studies in the world, compute all the calculations you please and come up with all the new theories. But, if you aren’t sitting in a classroom consistently, I would advise you to talk to people that are before making dismissive claims about students and their opinions. Thank you.