May 15, 2016

Kentucky Students can be More than Passive Consumers

By Eliza Jane Schaeffer

Students are the frontline of education. We see our peers who secretly celebrate when they’re suspended, the students who aren’t challenged by a certain curriculum change, and the students who are bullied in the bathroom. We are experts on the population on which the success of the entire school system depends.

This month, the Student Voice Team will release an evaluation of the state of student voice in Kentucky’s schools. Specifically, the report explores the extent to which schools embrace student voice and feedback as a tool for school improvement.

We surveyed public high school principals and district superintendents in Kentucky asking: [1] if students serve on Site Based Decision Making Councils or district School Boards, [2] whether they would support adding a student member to that body, and [3] if there are any other platforms for student voice in their school or district, such as a student feedback forum or an advisory council.

After examining the responses of 189 schools and 89 school districts that replied to our survey, we found that just about 8% of Site-Based Decision-Making Councils and 9% of school boards have student members. Additionally, just 43% of schools provide students with a meaningful outlet for student voice that allows them to play a substantive role in the decision-making process. The Commonwealth has room to improve, especially compared to states like Maryland and California, where students serve on nearly every Board of Education in the state.

But Kentucky schools appear open to change. Of those who responded to our survey, 53% of the principals and 46% of the superintendents said they would welcome the addition of a student member to SBDMs or district school boards.

This is a chance for Kentucky, as a nationally-recognized leader in education, to reaffirm its position at the forefront of reform.

At Federal Hocking High School in Ohio, students serve as full members on school councils, which are similar to SBDMs. In this predominantly low-income school, 95% of students graduate, 70% go to college and earn an average of B+ in college classes, and former students are active members of their communities through volunteering and voting. Principal George Wood attributes this success to student voice, asserting “change has to begin with the perceived needs of those to whom the change is going to happen.” 

Closer to home, students in elementary, middle, and high school participate as full, voting members on the SBDMs of Eminence Independent, a District of Innovation that has petitioned for an exemption from the Kentucky Department of Education’s SBDM alternative model   membership regulation.

Superintendent Buddy Berry told us that student inclusion has led to adult-student compromise, collaboration, and “rich dialogue on curriculum, purchases, and hiring.” His district has never had a problem with confidentiality or maturity, and the student members have always been wholly dedicated to the school’s improvement. “The kids have nothing [political] to gain from their position,” he said. “The adults do.”

Not only does supporting students to serve on school governance bodies make sense, it also increases academic achievement.

According to prominent psychologists Alfred Bandura and Mary Gist, buy-in is a prerequisite for high performance. A student will not perform well if he or she does not believe in the importance of performing well or, more importantly, in the importance of school. Many students feel alienated or disengaged, putting them at a higher risk of dropping out. Buy-in and achievement are associated with internal locus of control, or a feeling of control over a situation. But many students feel exactly the opposite—they feel unable to influence decisions that directly affect them.

Furthermore, Murray State researcher, Dr. George Patmor asserts that allowing students to serve as full members on school governance bodies furthers the Kentucky Education Reform Act’s stated goal of teaching students the information and soft skills we need to thrive in civic and professional life. We will learn how to respectfully, strategically, and professionally convey our frustrations while applying the information we learn in civics and history classes.

In light of Kentucky’s history of leadership in education reform and our research, it’s time the Commonwealth moves to integrate students as full partners on the decision-making bodies of Kentucky schools. We can be so much more than passive consumers of our education.

This op-ed ran as part of a package with several other Student Voice Team op-eds in the Courier Journal.

Eliza Jane Schaeffer

Eliza Jane Schaeffer

Eliza Jane is a Yoda Corps Advisor of KSVT and former member. She was previously the Chair of the School Governance Committee and founding Editor-In-Chief of the Student Voice Forum. Eliza Jane graduated from Henry Clay High School in 2016 and Dartmouth University in 2020.