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Thursday / September 21

Student Voice and Engagement in ESSA

A reporter asked me recently if there are examples of student voice or student voice support within the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). I had to say, “Not directly and it depends.”

Not directly. The term “Student Voice” does not appear in the law. There is no suggestion that students should be surveyed, polled, interviewed, or asked for input. There are, however, references to student engagement and to school climate and safety.

Many have already pointed out that ESSA broadens the scope of what counts as an indicator of school quality or school success beyond metrics of academic achievement as measured by tests in language arts, mathematics, and various other disciplines. This positive development appears in Title I, Part A, Section 1005 (which amends sec. 1111 of the previous law), subsection (c)(4)(B)(v). I kid you not. Student engagement, as one of the options for measuring school quality or student success in this broadened approach, is one more indent away at (III), as is “school climate and safety” at (VII).

In common sense terms, ESSA says that States may measure student engagement or school climate and safety as an indicator of what they must measure—school quality or student success—as part of statewide accountability systems designed to help schools improve.

It would seem logical to conclude that if a State chooses to measure student engagement or school climate, they need to take a further step, not prescribed by ESSA, of seeking student voice in order to listen and learn from students whether they are engaged or not or what their experience of the school’s climate is. Adult perceptions of whether or not students are engaged or experiencing school climate positively may or may not be accurate. In our Quaglia School Voice surveys, we often see large gaps in perception between students’ and teachers’ views of these same phenomena.

In addition to listening and learning from students, we would go even further to say students should help lead improvement, not just be the beneficiaries of whatever improvements adults might make based on student voice. Nationally, we know that only 43% of students believe they have a voice in school. We also know that students who believe they have a voice are 7 times more likely to be academically motivated than students who do not have a voice. Think of the impact on school simply taking seriously the voice of all students would have! If we work with students to improve their engagement, they become 18 times more likely to be academically motivated than students who are not engaged!

So student voice makes an appearance in ESSA, but not directly, as States have to take the further step of agreeing that student engagement and school climate are worth measuring and best measured by taking account of student voice. Nor does ESSA say States should get students involved as partners in the change process.

And it depends. One of the other highly regarded aspects of ESSA is the return to the States of a large part of decision-making related to school improvement. States must include a measure of school quality or student success as part of their accountability systems, but they have options besides student engagement and school climate. Educator engagement is also an option (so is teacher voice), as are three other alternatives: student access to and completion of advanced course work, post-secondary readiness, and “any other indicator the State chooses that meets the requirements of this clause.”

So the two indirect openings for student voice in ESSA depend upon one of them being selected from among the six suggested as the “not less than one indicator” of school quality or student success. While the “any other indicator” is up for grabs, certainly access to and completion of advanced course work, and post-secondary readiness can be measured without student voice. I might also pessimistically point out they are more easily measured, and involve potentially less messy consequences, than opening the student voice box. While I am being pessimistic, I must ask: How likely is it that a State will choose more than one indicator from this category?

I am, in fact, an optimist. I want to believe that the States, unlike the crafters of ESSA (who get points for opening the door a crack), will take this as an opportunity to directly and interdependently involve student voice in their school improvement accountability systems and plans. Many schools and districts have already taken these steps. They are paving the way for their States and for our country to reimagine school and move beyond the inherited, industrial model in which ESSA still seems slightly entangled. At the Quaglia Institute, we have seen time and again, the effectiveness of listening to, learning from, and leading with students. Student engagement improves, educator engagement improves, school climate becomes healthier, students experience more success, and the overall quality of the school increases dramatically.

Any State wanting to measure school quality or student success and also actually make positive change would do well to involve students directly in the process and depend on them to make a difference.
School Voice (2)

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Michael J. Corso, Ph.D., former high school teacher turned adjunct professor of education and administrator, has been the Chief Academic Officer for the Quaglia Institute for Student Aspirations (QISA) for 15 years. In that role he provided professional development and training in Aspirations and Student Voice theories and frameworks to thousands of educators and students in hundreds of schools. Out of those experiences he co-authored numerous books and articles on the subject of School Voice, including Student Voice: The Instrument of Change (Corwin 2014) and Aspire High: Imagining Tomorrow’s School Today (Corwin 2016). While he is still connected to QISA as a special consultant, he has decided to return full-time to the high school classroom. While many in education move from practice to theory or policy, Mickey has chosen to move from consulting back to the classroom. This blog is a weekly window into his journey of trying to practice himself what he has preached to others for over two decades as a researcher and PD provider.

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