Involving Students in School Improvement

How can educators enfranchise student voices for school improvement? A free toolkit—Speak Out, Listen Up!—offers some try-tomorrow strategies.


A few years ago, I had lunch with a group of middle school students in their cafeteria. After I went to the salad bar, I warned my dining companions to be careful, as the floor under the metal serving area was wet. They all nodded. “I told the teachers about that before,” said one seventh-grader, “but they never listen to us about anything.”

Students spend almost as much time in schools as teachers and administrators, but they are not typically involved in efforts to make schools better places. The Institute of Education Sciences offers a free toolkit to help educators actively enfranchise student voices for school improvement. The kit, originally developed by the Nevada Education Research Alliance, is called Speak Out, Listen Up! It collects three tools that have been used and validated in school contexts. The tools are straightforward, with clear instructions and worksheets easily adaptable for different circumstances.

  • Analyzing Surveys With Kids (ASK). The ASK tool is designed to engage students in analyzing and interpreting surveys and other data related to school improvement. For example, if your school has surveyed students about their perceptions of school climate, the ASK tool will help you to engage students in interpreting the data. While the tool begins with simple data analysis, it proceeds to group activities—including structured speculation about causes, effects and solutions—in which students generate explanations and make recommendations based on patterns they see in data.

  • Inside-Outside Fishbowl. This tool helps students and educators engage in structured dialogue about school-related issues. For example, a group might discuss how to improve after-school or academic-support programs. The process begins with students sharing their perceptions, ideas and experiences about a topic. Then, educators share their viewpoints. The process ends with collaborative prioritization of action strategies.

  • Students Studying Students' Stories (S4). The S4 tool involves students as researchers. Of the three tools, it may take the deepest approach, but it also may be the most rewarding. Students identify an issue and conduct structured interviews of other students. They compile their findings into a digital story. Educators and students view the video together and identify recommendations to support students struggling with the issue in question.

Is your school’s anti-bullying program working? Have you created an environment that is genuinely inclusive of LGBT youth? Do your academic-support programs give students the resources they need to succeed and thrive? These are questions that you can ask your students, and Speak Out, Listen Up! can provide an effective framework to do just that and put students’ contributions toward school improvement.

Students have valuable knowledge about their lives, social contexts and schools. When educators make more time to listen to and involve students in the process of making schools better places, then more progress can be made in making schools safe places for exceptional learning—and more empowering environments for students.

Shuster is an independent education researcher and evaluator who has worked on multiple studies assessing curricular and co-curricular reforms. 

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