NYC Students Weave Student Voice into the Fabric of Their Schools

Barbara Cervone
September 13, 2012


The Student Voice Rubric has been released. Find the full document here (PDF) and watch this cool interactive infographic that explains how the rubric was designed and used:

September 12, 2012 -- The city’s Department of Education calls its approach to ranking public schools “hard-nosed accountability,” says Avaris, a senior at Vanguard High School in Manhattan. But to Avaris and her peers in the Student Voice Collaborative (SVC) the approach overlooks a crucial factor in the accountability equation: the experience of students themselves.

Like CEOs answering to their boards, public school principals in New York City rise and fall with the bottom line. Since 2007, the city has assigned each school a grade (A to F) based on its students’ test scores, graduation rates, and credits earned (in high schools). High grades bring rewards and low grades bring consequences, including possible school closure.Like CEOs answering to their boards, public school principals in New York City rise and fall with their bottom line: their students’ test scores, graduation rates, and in high school, how many credits their students accumulate. based on these numbers, and linked grades to rewards and consequences, including possible school closure.

In 2011, ten percent of the City’s schools earned a “D” or “F”; 109 met the City’s criteria for closure.

In addition to a letter grade, each school receives a “quality review” score based on a two- to three-day visit by an experienced educator. The external evaluator observes classrooms, talks with school leaders, and uses a ten-page rubric to evaluate how well the school is organized to support student achievement. Schools are ranked "well-developed," "proficient,” "developing" or "underdeveloped.”

Yet of the 30 sub-indicators on the city’s quality review rubric, only one addresses the role of students in improving teaching and learning. Student engagement and student voice “barely figure” in the equation, says Ben, a junior at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies.

“It’s crazy that the views of students barely figure,” Ben says. “Student engagement, isn’t that key to motivating students? And who better to evaluate how much a school gets behind its students than the students themselves. Tell me.”

A growing body of research supports that point. “Empowering youth to express their opinions and influence their educational experiences so that they feel they have a stake in the outcomes” is “one of the most powerful tools schools have to increase learning,” according to a recent white paper summarizing the research on student voice, engagement, and motivation. (Toshalis & Nakkula, 2012, Students at the Center)

Collaborating to raise student voice

As working members of the Student Voice Collaborative, Avaris and Ben themselves contribute to the research on accountability and student engagement. Along with students from half a dozen high schools around the city, they work to affect the changes they wish to see in their schools and to support one another along the way. Coordinated by Ari Sussman, the group started in one of the district’s “Children First Networks" that provide technical support to groups of schools. Two students and a staff liaison,who provides students with weekly support and guidance.

“When students feel heard, they feel more valued,” says Sussman. “And when they feel more valued, they become more motivated to participate in school. We talk about how student voice is the beginning of the process of democratizing schools—and teaching students about democracy. And we try to model that at SVC.”

The twelve students who make up this year’s SVC group met weekly and earned high school credit for their fieldwork, leadership, and action. They conducted comprehensive studies of their high schools, identified relevant challenges, and carried out student-led school improvement programs in partnership with staff and students. All serve in a school-based student leadership body, so as to build student allies within their schools.

When Ben and his SVC cohort surveyed classmates at the 700-student Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, extracurricular activities emerged as a leading issue. “The students wanted the sort of clubs—chess, basketball, soccer, glee club—that you find in larger schools,” Ben says. He and other student leaders recruited teachers and students to co-facilitate a range of afterschool offerings. They raised money from the PTA and publicized the activities. The soccer club quickly drew 50 participants, the chess club 30.

At Vanguard High School, which already valued student voice, SVC members decided to focus on student engagement and the percentage of seniors who graduate. They settled on a fresh, concrete strategy: having students serve as co-facilitators in classrooms. “First we presented the idea to a few teachers, then we pitched the idea to a full meeting of the principal and faculty,” explains Avaris. “The teachers basically said ‘It’s fine, it’s great.’”

These student facilitators reached out to teachers known for their success in engaging students as well as to those who, by their own account, were struggling with student voice. They initiated a feedback cycle, surveying students about what was and wasn’t working in that teacher’s class, soliciting ideas, and working with the teacher to incorporate some of them. “Every month, we had an action plan,” Avaris says. “Every week, we asked questions and listened.” SVC students are now working on a classroom observation rubric focused on student engagement, which will combine research-based frameworks with their own.

Shadows on school quality reviews

As Ari Sussman and his student team looked for ways to bring student voice to a larger stage, they began studying the NYC Department of Education’s Quality Review (QR) process . They scanned its long, detailed rubric to understand better how the system defined a high-quality school. The DOE’s School Quality Team readily granted their request to observe QR visits to schools within their network—though such “shadows” are typically teachers or DOE staff members.

Avaris described shadowing a QR visit at a grades 6-12 school across town from her own. “It was definitely a good experience—and a good school,” Avaris says. The external reviewer, a former principal and seasoned educator, welcomed her and encouraged her to speak up, and they compared notes all along the way.

Most teachers she observed on her visit went out of their way to care for students, Avaris noted. One excused herself from a meeting to help when a student texted that her mother had been rushed to the hospital. “Wow,” Avaris says, impressed.

But she also saw interactions that troubled her. In one math class, the teacher had set up a system where students earned “play” money for good behavior and performance. At the end of the week, students who failed to earn a minimum amount received detention.

“The focus was on the negative, not the positive, and you could see how students felt dismissed. ‘If I don’t know the answer, I don’t raise my hand. And if I don’t raise my hand, I don’t get money. And if I don’t have money, I go to detention.’”

Observing this class taught her that students participate when they feel safe and valued, not threatened, Avaris told DOE officials at a presentation later.

Ben shadowed a quality reviewer visiting a middle school, who encouraged him to seek out and speak directly with teachers rather than simply sit in on scheduled meetings. He spoke with one English teacher who, at her students’ suggestion, had incorporated planting a garden into a cross-disciplinary unit. The resulting planning and teamwork traveled back into the classroom, she told Ben.

He also gave a physical education teacher credit for knowing his students well, building strong relationships, and encouraging student initiative. “This was really amazing,” Ben says. “Everyone at the school wanted a new playground, but it was going nowhere. The PE teacher and his students decided that they would take it on, design the playground and a budget. The result: a big, new beautiful playground.” These sorts of accomplishments do not show up on a standardized test, Ben notes. “But what can be more empowering? And think of all the computations involved!”

Deepening and sustaining student voice

Like the academics whose research they read, these youth return again and again to the questions, “What is student voice? Why does it matter? Why don’t we see more of it?”

Hoping to answer these questions and to weave student voice into the fabric of city schools, SVC recently produced a detailed 55-page handbook ,Student-Led School Improvement: Work, Findings, and Next Steps. It includes their research gathered from five perspectives: their own (through journal writing); their peers (through interviews and focus groups); teachers (through surveys); researchers (by interviews and reading); and the district’s system (by shadowing Quality Review visits).

Those same perspectives are informing a soon-to-be-releaased Student Voice Rubric. And SVC has also convinced the DOE’s School Quality Team to expand its 2012-2013 rubric to include (in the one sub-indicator already mentioning student voice) new language saying that student voice should help “initiate,” “guide,” and “lead” school improvement efforts.

With so much research showing the importance of student voices to school quality, why do they not influence more public schools—across New York City and nationwide?

Avaris and Ben have their hunches. Projects that often arise from student voice and engagement do not fit a standardized curriculum, they note. “And when students come into school not knowing how to read or write, teachers feel an urgent need to teach these basic skills,” Avaris says.

Traditional attitudes about the roles of student and teacher also stand in the way. “Most teachers think that students should just sit down, do the work, don't complain and make good grades,” Ben says. “When people start thinking about student voice, they think, ‘Wow, so you're saying that the student's actually going to tell me what he wants or what they want to see?’ No. They don't like that, especially, in my experience, the older teachers. That’s not how they were trained.”

Finally, “hard-nosed” accountability most often identifies, rewards, and punishes results that can be quantified. What’s most easily counted is what gets measured most, these students agree.

Despite these challenges, they are optimistic that their voices and those of other students across New York City’s public schools will gain ground—as the nation’s largest school district struggles to raise its own quality review score from “developing” to “proficient.”

“I believe in the power of the idea,” Ben concludes. “Student voice is something that needs to be listened to, to be paid close attention, something that can lift students and their schools.”

NOTE: To learn more about the SVC's soon-to-be-released Student Voice Rubric and see a draft, please contact ASussman at

This article was originally published by What Kids Can Do, and is reprinted here with permission.