No one spends more time in public school classrooms than students, yet students’ voices are rarely part of the nation’s pitched education debates.
Andrew Brennen, 19, is one of a growing number of young people determined to change that, arguing that policymakers must listen to students if they want to help schools get better faster.
Brennen has spent three years building a movement to engage and amplify students’ voices in his home state of Kentucky, organizing young people to advocate for more education funding and for a voice in selecting superintendents. His efforts have won national attention: Last month he spoke at a Gates Foundation forum in Seattle, and on Tuesday he is scheduled to be in Washington to present at a White House summit on the future of high school.
“Our goal in 10 years is to see student voice recognized as a necessary part of school improvement efforts, just like teacher voice, just like parent voice,” said Brennen, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We think that it is, in many ways, a missing key in trying to figure out how we can really start moving schools forward.”
Brennen plans to take a sabbatical next year to travel the country, collecting input from thousands of students on how to improve schools. The tour is a project of Student Voice, a national nonprofit founded by University of Maryland senior Zak Malamed.
“There hasn’t really been an organized national movement” to ensure that policymakers are paying attention to students, Malamed said. “But now you’re really starting to see that happen.”
Student Voice started three years ago as a weekly Twitter chat that allowed students from New Mexico to New Hampshire to compare notes. Malamed said that common frustrations have included standardized testing, lack of school funding, segregation and lack of diversity.
Now the organization has created a student “bill of rights” outlining what young people should be able to expect from their schools in a dozen categories, from safety and technology to fair assessment and free expression.
And the organization wants to start certifying schools that can show that they’re incorporating students’ ideas and feedback. “Any group that claims to be pushing for school improvement and isn’t talking to students is doing it wrong and is probably part of the problem,” Brennen said.
Brennen grew up moving frequently from state to state, following his father’s career as a law professor. His family landed in Lexington, Ky., when he was in eighth grade. A few years later, he responded to a call put out by the Prichard Committee, an education advocacy group, for student input into state school policies.
“I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in my own education at the time,” Brennen said. “I loved my teachers but wanted more out of life, and more out of what I was doing with my time.”
He helped found the Prichard Committee’s Student Voice Team, which has grown to include more than 75 students in middle school through college.
Team members have held roundtables with hundreds of students throughout the state. They have written op-eds, testified before state legislators and written reports, including a recent paper on the issues and problems that keep low-income students from graduating from college.
The team recently conducted its first student-voice audit, interviewing dozens of people at a Kentucky middle school. They found a telling disconnect between students’ and teachers’ perceptions. More than 200 students identified bullying as a major problem at the school, for example, but no teachers said as much.
“Undoubtedly, students know something that adults in schools don’t,” Brennen said. “They’re spending 35 hours a week in the classroom, and they have a perspective that’s extremely different from anyone else in the school.”
Brennen said that his work as a student voice activist is a full-time job, taking more than 30 hours each week. He’s cut back on classes in order to devote the time, but he said it’s worth it: Advocating in the real world has been the most challenging and fulfilling education experience of his life, he said.
He was reminded of how little the world hears students, when some at South Carolina’s Spring Valley High School walked out of class after a white police officer threw a black student across a classroom. The students walked out to support the officer, who was fired because of the incident.
“That was very surprising to me. I would never have imagined that students had that kind of perspective, and it just goes to show the variance that exists among students,” Brennen said. “They’re as diverse as adults.”
He said he read two news articles about the student protest. Neither quoted a student. “Students are not seen as voices that can contribute to their education or to the conversation,” he said. “They’re just kind of talked about.”