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Successful education requires a stronger student voice

Survey shows why some learners—and some teachers—don’t feel connected or cared for in K12
"You can’t be afraid of what you don’t know or we’re never going to move forward in education, particularly when it comes to student voice." — Russell Quaglia
"You can’t be afraid of what you don’t know or we’re never going to move forward in education, particularly when it comes to student voice." — Russell Quaglia

If you want to know what motivates students—and teachers and administrators, for that matter—Russell Quaglia says you have to go to the source.

Quaglia has spent years collecting information about “school voice”—that is, what these three groups think about their schools.

The latest incarnation of this work is the Student Voice Survey.

With different versions offered for grades 3 through 5 and 6 through 12, the survey measures the feelings of self-worth, engagement and purpose that impact students school experience. It also assesses students’ perceptions of their influence over their learning environment.

The survey results show time and again that these conditions can provide educators with a practical model that can be used to guide the development of educational experiences, from the individual classroom to the entire school building.

“There’s a real disconnect,” Quaglia says. “Kids are hungry for knowledge and education, but they don’t believe they’re getting it from their schools.”

You make the point that an abundance of data is out there, but not the data we need to make informed decisions. What kind of data specifically are you after?

We’ve been surveying students for almost 30 years now and one of the things I came to realize is that we’re coming up with solutions to deal with issues that students, seemingly, don’t think are their issues. I believe students have something to teach us, but are we ready and willing to listen and learn from them? My experience is, we’re not.

We’ve tried so many things with these kids. Again, what led me to this work is that I believe students have genuine insights that we think we have, but we don’t.

By that I mean, when I talk to administrators and teachers, they’re constantly referring to their past or even their present. I remind them, our past is not our students’ present and our present is not our students’ future. So who better to ask their opinions on things that matter than the students themselves?

How does the data break down demographically?

What we’re finding is that it doesn’t matter if I’m a white rural kid or an inner-city African American or Hispanic kid. I’ve got the same issues—“I don’t think my teachers care if I’m there.” “I’m bored in school.” “The longer I’m in school, the less engaged I am.”

This survey involved the entire state of Montana, but when we disaggregated data, we found that in places like Atlanta and Los Angeles, and in pockets of the Northeast, things were lining up the same way. The consistencies of what students’ issues were around belonging and sense of purpose were pretty profound actually.

To your point that students don’t think the school cares about them, your charts show that, soon after grade 6, attitudes begin to change. Why do you think that is?

It’s a structural issue. We’ve got K through 8 schools that are structured that way—grades 6, 7 and 8 look a lot like grades 3, 4 and 5. That’s great. They’re in a nurturing environment.

But if we put them into middle school these kids start to lose a sense of who they are. I argue that’s when they need the greatest sense of really understanding who they are.

They’ve gone from one or two teachers in their younger years, to six different teachers who are dealing with maybe 150 students each day, so individuals get lost.

Sixth-graders don’t do badly. They still feel connected, they feel valued, they understand why we learn and what they’re learning. But the longer they’re in school, the more disenfranchised they become. It’s going from nurturing to survival, and this is where I see some big issues.

There was a real difference in perception between teachers and students in some areas—99 percent of teachers say they respect their students, 58 percent of students say teachers don’t respect them.

Yeah, there are some crazy discrepancies and we need to find out why. Why are you enjoying teaching so much and these kids aren’t seeing it? It’s also clear that the feelings of not being heard and appreciated are shared between teachers and students.

The report says students don’t feel their education gives them the information they really need, especially in the upper grades.

They’re looking at education through a different lens. As a matter of fact, it’s almost a different camera. Kids understand why they’re learning what they’re learning, but what they tell us is, “You’re giving me information in school that I can look up on my iPhone in about 20 seconds.”

The job of the teacher and the administrator is now providing an environment where, yes, the information is one thing, but getting them excited or making connections with that information and their lives in the future is a whole different thing. That’s where this report clearly tells me we need to go.

The only way we’re going to get to that understanding is by having conversations with these kids around their hopes and dreams.

And that problem is systemic.

Right. When we ask students, “Does your teacher know your hopes and dreams,” their answers are pretty dismal.

But the same is true with the teachers. We ask, “Does your administration know your hopes and dreams?” Then we ask administrators, “Does central office know your hopes and dreams about your future?” The answer is always, “no.”

It seems to be this trickle-down effect of non-nurturing. I don’t mean nurturing in the sense that we’re all holding hands singing “Kumbaya,” but the idea that we’re all in this together—are we supporting and entrusting each other, or are we just surviving?

So how can we begin to change these attitudes?

We need to listen, but I want to be careful about how we define listening. I recently visited a big district that thinks it is doing all these things that tie into student voice because they have a quarterly meeting with a group of kids. It’s like checking off an item on a list.

But these kids—the president of the student council, the captain of the football team—certainly don’t truly represent the student body.

The reason administrators turn to those students is that they aren’t fearful of them. They get a group of students that seem to be what every top student would look like, both color-wise and attitude-wise and so on, but these kids are going to tell them things they either already know or things that aren’t going to threaten them.

A big part of the administrator’s challenge with student voice, frankly, is that they’re afraid of what they don’t know or don’t understand. You can’t be afraid of what you don’t know or we’re never going to move forward in education, particularly when it comes to student voice.

I imagine the same holds true for the dynamic between faculty and administration.

Right. Listening is not a passive activity. It’s not saying, “Talk to me. I’m going to listen and be quiet.” No, it’s about engagement. Administrators always say they have an open-door policy, but what does that matter if no one’s coming in?

How often do you go out among the teachers and students? You should be going out as much as possible because it’s an active process. You’ve got to go to the source. You’ve got to be open. Be free of what you don’t know and be ready to hear some of these things to change.

It sounds so cliché, but the difference that I see between the most successful administrators and those who are still kind of straggling is that they haven’t built the trust between themselves and the staff, and between themselves and the students. You build that trust by them getting to know who you are, rather than “the principal”’ or “the superintendent.”

Often, a superintendent will walk down the hallway, and the kids and teachers won’t even know who it is.

And it’s the simplest thing to fix. Just have a presence. Be real. That’s how you build trust. I’ve seen some less-than-stellar administrators who still have the trust and respect of teachers and students who think, “They’re not the best, but at least they care about us.”

And I think, well, that’s half of it. I can live with that for a while.