Russ Quaglia is known for his unwavering dedication to student voice and aspirations. His innovative work is evidenced by an extensive library of research-based publications, prominent international speaking appearances, and a successfully growing list of aspirations ventures. Among these ventures, Dr. Quaglia authored the School Voice suite of surveys, including Student Voice, Teacher Voice, Parent Voice, and iKnow My Class. His publications include:
- Student Voice: The Instrument of Change
- Student Voice: Turn Up the Volume K-8 Activity Book
- Student Voice: Turn Up the Volume 6-12 Activity Book
- Teacher Voice: Amplifying Success
- Principal Voice: Listen, Learn, Lead
- Aspire High: Imagining Tomorrow’s School Today
We sat down with Russ to learn more about how important it is to listen to the various voices in our schools.
1. Where did your student voice journey start? What inspired you to devote your life to student voice?
Without knowing it at the time, I believe it started during my very first year in school. At the end of each year throughout elementary school, I found myself in the principal’s office—in trouble, with my parents at my side. The meeting was always about the same thing – the one grade that stood out among all the others: my D in “conduct.” I was told I needed to pay better attention and stop disturbing the class. I remember wondering why I needed to pay better attention when I was getting all A’s (aside from that D!). I knew then that I was bored in class, and figured that’s why I was disturbing others. But I also remember feeling a little scared and afraid to speak up in front of both the principal and my father. So I just nodded my head and agreed to work on my conduct. Looking back, I know that I had something important to say, but I was pretty confident no one was going to listen. At the time, I felt like it would have been considered disrespectful to speak up. The turning point, and what led me to my commitment to fostering student voice was when I had children of my own and quickly realized they had something to teach me if I was willing to listen.
2. What have you seen change—or stay the same!—in the last 30 years of researching student voice in schools?
The one thing that has remained the most consistent is that students have always wanted to be heard, valued, and engaged. They want to be active participants in their learning and they want learning to be meaningful to their lives. What has changed significantly, unfortunately, is students’ attitude about school and their expectations of school. Both have trended in a negative direction. We must recognize that when students’ voices are not heard and valued, their engagement, investment, and expectations diminish.
I have also seen the world outside of education change in regard to what is expected from students. And while I actually think that what students want and what the world needs and expects are quite similar, it does not align with how schools function. Students are motivated by a system of trust and responsibility, and they value engagement and creativity; potential employers seek those characteristics in our ever-changing world. Sadly, the underpinnings of our educational system remain stuck in the past, in a system that is driven by testing and accountability. Our past is not our children’s future. It is time for the system of education to catch up and serve the needs of today’s students in today’s world.
3. What does “School Voice” mean? Why did you decide to branch out to include Teacher Voice, Principal Voice, and Parent Voice?
Voice is about expressing your views, ideas, and feelings in a meaningful way, in an environment that is ready and willing to listen. An environment where everyone’s voice is respected, valued, and learned from. I believe that School Voice is a way of being, not a “program” to be implemented, or an item on a checklist to be completed out of obligation. It is commitment to all stakeholders that they have a meaningful voice in the way their school operates. As our work with Student Voice evolved, it became clear that it was not just the students who felt unheard and undervalued—teachers and principals felt the same way.
If schools are to improve, everyone invested in the school must first—and continually—learn to listen to one another. Students, teachers, and principals have something to teach each other, but they must be willing to listen, learn, and lead together! I have not yet figured out the best fit for parent voice in this mix, but I know it belongs. And I am currently practicing what I preach in order to figure it out! I am listening to and learning from parents as I write a Parent Voice book, to help determine how Parent Voice can help lead schools.
4. Can you share a story of how one school was impacted by incorporating Student Voice and/or School Voice?
We have worked in a number of different schools in a variety of settings, from extremely rural to inner city, from the Middle East to Western Europe, and we have seen incredible improvements—not only in academics, but with discipline issues, absences, and tardiness. There is one particular school in London that had declining enrollment, poor test scores, low SES … you name it, and they were challenged by it. Within a few years of committing to fostering voice, that school became one of the top achieving schools in the country. When you walk into that school now, even the posture of the students and staff is different. They walk with their heads high and their shoulders back. Why? Because the students and teachers now truly believe they matter, and their expectations of themselves and each other have been raised. Their voices are heard and valued on a daily basis. That is not to say that all challenges have disappeared. Every school has its own challenges. But staff and students are prepared to address them together. They are proud of who they are and the progress they have made at their school.
When I share such stories, I am frequently asked, “Well, what did you do?” Many assume we brought in a prescribed program that can be “copied and pasted” into another school. Nothing could be further from the truth. What we do is commit to making sure that everyone in a school knows they matter. With that as a foundation, we acknowledge that the individuals at the school are the experts on the unique nature of their school. We work with them as partners on their journey, and commit to fostering EVERY voice—students, support staff, teachers, administrators. When all stakeholders recognize the value of the working as partners in learning, they can raise expectations together.
5. How does School Voice tie in with the new Every Student Succeeds Act?
ESSA broadens the scope of what matters regarding school quality or student success. ESSA moves beyond metrics of academic achievement and testing. This is important progress, because students are so much more than a score on a standardized test! Student engagement is an important area that is addressed in ESSA. I believe the best and most efficient way to get students meaningfully engaged in school is to listen to their voices and learn their personal hopes and dreams. A critical part of engagement is talking with students to find out what motivates them as learners, and talking with teachers to find out what motivates them to teach. Maybe I am just being hopeful, but I believe ESSA is trying to personalize the learning environment in a way that creates meaning for all participants, including parents. They do this under the term engagement, but to me they are really talking about the importance of Voice. Whether ESSA is going to promote the voices of all those involved in the education system remains to be seen. What I do know is that when students have a voice in their learning, they are 7 times more academically motivated to learn, and when they are engaged and have a sense of purpose in schools, they are 18 times more likely to be motivated to learn. Any state or district wanting to improve school quality and student success would do well to listen to the voices of students, teachers, and parents. Schools must be willing to listen and learn what they have to say, and lead with them to make positive differences in their current school system.
6. What’s your favorite part of the work that you do in schools?
The variety of experiences I have while working on something of global importance in education. I am able to travel the world fostering School Voice and meeting amazing and inspiring people of all ages. I love travelling across the U.S. and learning from the diverse schools and settings in this country. I love visiting different countries and learning about their educational systems, cultures, and traditions. I get bored fairly easily, so I am not a fan of sit-down meetings, but I am a HUGE fan of talking to diverse groups of people who challenge my thinking. I am a foodie, so of course, if I do have a sit-down meeting, my preference is that we do that over a meal! I have had conversations with students in the cafeteria and world-renowned educators in fancier settings. The experience for my taste buds may vary, but my heart, mind, and soul are always well fed!
7. If you could boil it down, what’s your dream for education?
I want education to be something students are running toward, not running from. I want our schools to be built on a foundation of trust, respect, responsibility, and high expectations. I want schools where the voices of all are consistently heard, valued, and incorporated. I want every individual in every school to have a real sense of purpose, and to know they truly matter. Every school should not only promote curiosity and creativity, but practice it every day, in everything they do. I dream of a system where the teacher and learner become one and the same, and they always have a spirit of adventure. When done right, the connection between learning and life is seamless: Education is meaningful to students and teachers, classroom walls do not limit learning, and what is being learned is informed by and applicable to every day life. Ultimately, the dream is that schools do not just engage students and teachers in “formal” learning, but they engage them in life and inspire them to be lifelong learners. I know that when ALL voices are valued, our hopes and dreams for our schools are well within our reach… we just need to make sure all stakeholders are ready, willing, and able to listen, learn, and lead together.