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A Student Asks: ‘Are Decision Makers Finally Going to Listen to Us?’

First appeared as a blog post on TNTP, an organization dedicated to end the injustice of educational inequality by providing excellent teachers to the students who need them most and by advancing policies and practices that ensure effective teaching in every classroom.

With the surge of student activism after the Parkland, Florida mass shooting, such as the March 14th student walkouts, students have entered a critical moment: are decision makers finally going to listen to us? I have watched as students have been given a platform on the national stage to influence change. I have also observed as decision makers have tokenized students and belittled their viewpoints. In Oregon, students hoping to change our K-12 system face similar experiences.

I am a member of Oregon Student Voice and we, as students, strive to influence education reforms. I have found that decision makers often use the term “student voice” to justify policies. I’ve heard phrases like: “This task force must prioritize student voices;” or “Student voice is core to education reform.” Despite these positive statements, the result is that decision makers talk to a few nervous students, hear the stories that align with their ideas, slap the sticker “STUDENT VOICE” on recommendations, and lobby these into policy.

I believe the term “student voice” is misunderstood and tokenized. Student voice has been commodified into a widely used and admired term, but an inauthentic and incomplete practice. Oftentimes, student voice is thought to merely consist of conducting student panels, focus groups, or surveys. The problem is that these student stories are funneled through adult decision makers, who are far too removed from schools to truly grasp students’ experiences.

To me, real student voice occurs when students are present, active, and an equal member in the decision-making processes. Current or recently graduated students are better equipped to understand and advocate for their peers’ experiences than adults. For education reform to truly happen, I believe students need to have an authentic seat at the decision-making table. While we are far from reaching this goal, we are making progress.

Currently, two new education committees are striving to authentically engage student voices. Deputy superintendent’s advisory committee on safe and effective schools for all students has invited high school students to serve alongside adult stakeholders. These students will fully participate in committee activities and offer insights into how recommendations will directly affect current students. The Joint Committee on Student Success will also be engaging students to construct policy recommendations for the 2019 legislative session. They will be holding private listening sessions and public hearings with students to understand their experiences. While this is not authentic student voice per se, students are being engaged at the same level as adult stakeholders, which is a positive step forward.

Students will be watching these education committees closely to ensure that student voices are authentically represented. I, along with many Oregon students, am tired of being tokenized by an education system that is supposed to serve my learning needs, so I ask decision makers: are you finally going to listen to us?

David Goncharuk is a senior at David Douglas High School and a member of Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in education decision making. Read OSV’s State of Our Schools report now:

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