Giving Youth a Voice

Official Department of Education Photo by Joshua Hoover

We can’t improve education if we don’t listen to students, Secretary Duncan often explains when he talks about the need for an ongoing conversation with students, teachers and parents. As part of that ongoing conversation, some of the Secretary’s top advisers met with a group of students from the National Campaign for Quality Education last month to discuss ideas on education reform and how we can increase student achievement throughout the country. The students highlighted their proposed legislation entitled the Youth SUCCESS Act, which calls for a student Bill of Rights, investment in job opportunities, and ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

The youth described how their personal experiences in their communities and classrooms have influenced their education, and they expressed a strong interest in continuing to work with ED to close our country’s achievement gap.

The meeting was the result of a request from a student during ED’s Voices in Action: National Youth Summit at Howard University in February. Following the meeting, hundreds of students from the National Campaign for Quality Education staged a rally on ED’s plaza and marched to the Department of Labor to continue their call for youth investment.

Read about the top five things we learned at the National Youth Summit, and continue the conversation by becoming a fan of ED Youth Voices on Facebook.

Robert Gomez is a Management and Program Analyst at the Department of Education

Top 5 Things We Heard at the National Youth Summit

More than 400 youth from over 30 states gathered on Feb. 26 for the National Youth Summit in Washington to discuss the issues that are most important to them. The Summit was a product of last year’s successful National Youth Listening Tour, which held roundtable discussions with youth in 13 cities across the country. During the Tour, Department of Education officials collected the top issues raised by the youth and those became the breakout discussions during the national summit. 

During one of the general Summit sessions, each attendee had the chance to vote with keypads to indicate their opinions on a range of issues, including the themes of the individual breakout discussions. The following are the top five observations from the Summit:

1. Young people are motivated to go to college to be role models for family members.

Nearly 9 in 10 students at the National Youth Summit agreed that being a role model motivated their college aspirations. During the Tour, many of the respondents said that they wanted to be the first in their families to graduate from college to encourage their younger siblings and even their parents to do the same.

2. Young people want to have their voice included in teacher evaluations.

Close to 94% of the students at the summit agreed that including student voice in teacher evaluations would be fair. Youth have opinions about the quality of the instruction that they receive, and they feel left out of the debate over teacher evaluations.

3. Contrary to what some may believe, young people yearn for more challenging classes and do not feel that enough college preparatory courses are available to them.

The voting results from the Summit reveal that 90% of the participating youths wanted more challenging coursework available in their schools, and many of the youth agreed that their school needs more challenging courses that prepare them for college and for the SAT or ACT.

4. Young people believe that school climate surveys are an important first step toward improving school safety, but they believe more needs to be done.

Youth at the Summit and on the Tour expressed that some of their schools have such a strong focus on discipline that it creates a prison-like atmosphere rather than an enriching, safe learning environment.

5. Young people wanted to see more collaboration between their high school and colleges.

Nearly 96% of the young people at the Summit agreed that they would like to see more colleges form partnerships with high schools to encourage students to visit the campus, assist with applications, and even to hold some classes on campus.

Holly Bullard is an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach at the Department of Education

Revolution of Rising Expectations: Youth at the National Youth Summit Raise their Voices

There are so many things I never asked you
There are so many things I still don’t know
There are so many things you never told me
And still so many things that I will never know
and why, cuz I went to City High (City High Anthem by City High)


After attending this weekend’s Voices in Action National Youth Summit at Howard University, I haven’t been able shake the 2001 “City High Anthem” lyrics.  Repeatedly throughout the event, I heard teens from 30 states call on our country’s schools to take them seriously and give them access to a quality education.

In a private conversation with Secretary Arne Duncan the day before the summit, ten teen leaders spoke passionately about the need for their voice in the educational discourse.  “I want future generations to have a better education than I do,” Stephanie told Arne.  Candace, a student member of the Alliance for Educational Justice, concurred.  “Education is a right,” she told the Secretary.  “Right now teachers are getting bored,” another explained, “so they can’t be creative and teach to their full potential.”

The emphasis of the February 26 summit was President Obama’s goal that by 2020, the country will once again lead the world in college completion.  Throughout the day this objective was emphasized, repeated, and even celebrated through speeches, discussions, and a rap video called “2020 Vision.”  But I couldn’t help but be disheartened by the number of times students testified about how their schools have let them down.

The complexity of their situation became especially clear to me during a “deep dive” breakout session for rural students, where 17 of 25 students placed themselves in a group whose counselors and teachers never talk to them about college.  Never. As a teacher who preaches from the college handbook on a daily basis, I was astounded.  How does this happen?  When I probed for answers from the students, one boy shrugged and said, “I guess they don’t think any of us are going.”  Sophia explained, “People see our (Kentucky) culture and they don’t see us.”

I think she’s right.  We have lowered expectation for many of our students.  As teachers, we nod to the idea that everyone can go to college, but in reality we don’t walk our talk.

Omari Scott Simmons, Associate Professor of Law at Wake Forest University School of Law and the Executive Director of the Simmons Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit organization promoting college access for vulnerable students makes this point in his Feb. 25 Huffington Post blog.   Simmons argues that low-income, minority, and first-generation students are less likely to go to college, but not for the reasons we think.  Usually we blame the gaps in their learning on the cost of college tuition, but the real culprit is a system made of counselors and teachers who don’t discuss college with these students.  They suffer from their school’s low expectations of them—expectations that students and this rally say they must fight against every day.

As Sophia told me, “We wanna prove them wrong.”

Laurie Calvert
Laurie Calvert is a Washington Teaching Ambassador Fellow on loan from Buncombe County Schools in North Carolina.

Voices in Action: National Youth Summit

President Obama has set a goal that by 2020 the United States lead the world in college completion.

Over the summer the U.S. Department of Education (ED) conducted a National Youth Listening Tour (NYLT) to engage youth in a conversation on what it will take to meet the President’s goal.  ED met with over 40 youth-serving institutions and over 1800 middle and high school students from across the country.

To close the tour, ED will host a Voices in Action: National Youth Summit, on Saturday, February 26, 2011 in Washington, D.C.

This is no ordinary conference. There will be DJs, spoken word artists, marching bands, and art. It’s going to be fun!  And there will be an opportunity for students to present their best ideas on meeting the President’s 2020 College Completion Goal with youth, partner organizations, and policymakers from across the country.

We want to galvanize youth to shape strategies and provide pathways for all students to be on track to achieve high school and postsecondary credentials. The summit will share what students have told ED to date, provide additional opportunity to give input, provide opportunities to communicate their views and ideas directly to senior administration officials, and allow students to plan ongoing youth-led, youth-directed efforts which will continue after the summit.

You can access further information about the summit at  Space is limited. Registration for the conference will become live on January 25th.

Also, make sure to post a comment on our Facebook page. To find us, search for “ED Youth Voices.”

If you have any questions or concerns, please email Robert Gomez at

You can provide us feedback now!
What are your thoughts about the summit?

What would you include in the summit to make it appealing to youth?

How would you make sure the event is engaging?