How Can Student Voices Be Heard?

NOTE:  See a summary of this discussion.

“Students’ voices are not being heard. Policymakers should get to know each student by visiting schools, creating programs and clubs, and holding meetings. Students can stage plays to make administrators and policymakers really see the inequalities in education.”

— Written statement from students at Manual Arts High School in South Central Los Angeles who are members of Los Angeles youth group The Council of Youth Research.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) is due for renewal by Congress-through a process known as “reauthorization.” Originally enacted in 1965, this federal law governing K-12 education has had, and will have, a significant impact on the learning experiences of millions of young people in schools across the country. Although this is the case, too often students are not consulted or involved in discussions of education policy.

  • How do you think students can be more involved in the federal policy decisions that affect their education?
  • What do policymakers need to know about young people in order to ensure that education laws fit students’ needs?

The Council of Youth Research and Antero, Edit, Jemal, Jeff, Katie, Laurie, Leah, Linda, Lisa, Nick, Pam, Patrick, Tracey, Stephanie and Steve
Teaching Ambassador Fellows


  1. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments about the necessity of valuing and including student voice in policy decisions. It is essential that young people be involved in the dialogue and decision making about how to best meet their needs.

    On November 21st, Secretary Duncan spoke on the phone with 24 student members of various state boards of education about issues in education and school reform. Click here to read more:

    With hope,
    Teacher Ambassador Fellow

  2. I think that it is critical that student voices be heard when it comes to education reform. Education is about preparing this nation’s youth for their future as American citizens. How can we expect them to be engaged citizens in the future if we do not allow them to participate in the discussion about policies that most affect them today? Education reform can not be fully effective if we do not learn what needs to be fixed from those that are impacted on a daily basis. No one knows better what is wrong with our education system than the students who live it. Lawmakers need to hold forums with students to get their perspectives and make the conversation is held with them, just not about them. Allowing students to be a part of the reform process is a great way to make them feel that the education system is working for them, which is what it should be doing.

  3. I was recently a participant in a Public Policy Forum discussion/lesson with Teaching Ambassador Fellow Ms.Lisa Coates. Ms.Coates presented to our civics class about her role with the US Department of Education and the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship. She talked to us about the opportunities available for studnets to get involved with their own edcuation experience. We were able to ask a lot of questions about the US Department of Education,her role, and how we can make a difference. It felt really good to have her listen to what we had to say!


  5. Schools teach students about the government and lawmaking, but do they even know how the city runs? As a student, I know most of my peers don’t. Including a part of the city in the government class curriculum will furthermore help future voters understand the positions the candidates need to fulfill.

  6. Maybe schools need to include these policies in the curriculum: government class. And maybe include a
    Questionaire to get their input and incorporate this into the clubs-not just SGA.

  7. Bravo! This is such a forward step, and I really hope it pays off and affects how education reforms are developed and implemented. I think it’s entirely necessary to have a student voice in education. Too long have the conversations gone on around the youth, and not to and from the youth. It’s great to see students not only actively caring about their education, but actively trying to create their education to fit their needs and the needs of those who come after them.

  8. Hi, my name is Alex and I am currently the only youth in the country simultaneously advising the Nation’s two largest youth service organizations and Youth Service America. I also have been recently selected to serve on the State Farm Youth Advisory Board overseeing a 5 million dollar a year service learning grants program and have been working with the Forum For Youth Investment and the America’s Youth Councils Network. Locally, I serve as the President of my school’s student council and Chair of the Mayor’s Youth Advisory Board.
    I think the statement above is completely accurate. Policy makers at the national level are not actively listening to youth and reflecting youth interests in their policy decisions. One member of the America’s Youth Council’s network made the comment that on any other pressing issue, the people whom the issue involves are brought into the decision making process. Yet, when it comes to youth we are left out of the picture. In my opinion this must change, and I am glad the Department of Education is finally asking how it can be done. So here’s how.
    The Department of Education needs to form a youth council to bring the opinions of youth to D.C. so that they can run ideas, programs, and policy by youth before they implement and advocate for them. A youth council would allow the Department of Ed to keep youth with different perspectives from all across the country involved in the policy process instead of staffers having to travel across the country seeking youth input. Youth Council members could also serve as representatives for the Department of Education in their own regions and actively seek out the opinions of other youth bringing an understanding that no staffer based out of D.C. will ever get. This would be the most cost effective for the Department of Ed as it would only involve hosting a youth council retreat once or twice a year for youth who would volunteer for the position by the thousands (State Farm had 600 applicants for 15 spots alone) instead of paying staffers to try and find out what youth are actually thinking.
    Serving on three out of the four largest youth councils in the nation and working with youth locally, I have seen the power that youth can have, and the expertise and knowledge they bring to government. The Department of Ed needs to start making serious steps to engaging youth and a well-run correctly implemented youth council is the perfect answer!

  9. I have to agree with Xian, youth should always be brought to the table before and not after decisions are being made, especially on issues that affects us the most. To offend adults and even policy makers don’t understand that the reason why we are not progressing as a country is because they continue to alienate a large potion of the population. Alienating us by not allowing us to be brought to the table of discussion when decisions about our future are being made.

    Just look at the education system, there is too large of a disconnect from the floor of the House to the classroom. With the youth population steady growing, one has to wonder why there hasn’t been a push for youth engagement, especially on the issues of education; the dropout rate is at an all time high, graduation rates and college attainment are decreasing and the classroom to prison pipeline is making our children into prisoners before they even finish 4th grade.

    MLK Jr. once said that “ A riot is the language of the unheard” well we have been unheard and silenced for too long. If we as a society ever look to overcome some of the issues facing our young people, then first we have to allow our young people to be heard.

  10. I think an excellent way to get students more involved in this kind of discussion is to teach civics earlier in their high school careers. At my high school in Indiana we did not have “Government” class until senior year. The students in my class barely understood what the three branches of government were, let alone the difference between State and Federal level government. I think it would help students understand Washington better if civics were taught progressively throughout high school.

    On the matter of what policy makers need to know about the student’s opinions, they need to start reworking the curriculum in general. Students do not care about Greek & Latin derivatives or 19th century Russian novelists, they need to have more classes on computer literacy and private finances. The kids need to learn to balance their check book before they start doing Calculus.

  11. As a high school teacher, I am not surprised by the interest and obvious abillity of the students in this group. It is a hopeful sign that education reform has been increasingly part of a national dialogue. However, it is frustrating that most of the people given a platform to be heard are not directly involved in education. For reform to work, teachers and students MUST be at the heart of the debate. I applaud this student group and hope more teachers will encourage their students to get involved. I know I will.

  12. I think that student voice at the table should be a prerequisite BEFORE any critical policy decisions are made.

    Often even when students are part of the policy discussions, there is a great deal of adultism or classism that keeps them from having front end, meaningful impact on the policy that affects them.

    It’s possible to meet two of the biggest challenges faces us in education at the same time–1) The disconnect between policy making and the classroom and 2) The disengagement of students from their own education–by getting students (especially from the most challenging/anti-education environments) engaged in policy study and creation.

    In Chicago, students are coordinating with other students across the country to draft a Student Bill of Rights to serve as a test for existing and future policy. This not only is helping them advocate for the educational supports they need, but they are learning the most important components of active, engaged citizenry directly.

    Also, they have studied the $6 billion Chicago Public Schools budget. This work has been the best possible economics and finance study imaginable while being completely relevant to their daily existence in a segregated, inequitable school system in which they are second-class citizens simply because they chose to attend their neighborhood schools.

  13. I think is fascinating to hear about the Council of Youth Research club. As me and my classmates make a change at MAHS college counselors (even though Leadership got the credits) I think the best way to let people know about youth voices is by getting lots of youth students, if people see students motivate it to make a change, I think they will listen to student’s need.

  14. I think it is a great thing that there is a Council of Youth Research club. Having graduated from Manual Arts High School, I find it extremely important that the students get their voices heard. We can spend many hours complaining about what’s wrong with the education system, yet complaining won’t get anything done. Staging plays seems like a genius way to go in order to get the attention this grave matter deserves. What we first need however, is to let the students know that we’re ready for their help. Many students decide not to act because they believe no one is willing to listen. “Why do things if people don’t care?” In order to actually make an impact in unplugging people’s ears we must first be willing to shout.

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