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Student Feedback: A Missing Link in Education Reform

Why aren't we asking students themselves how to make our schools work better? Is it ridiculous to think that student feedback could actually play a significant role in shaping education reform?
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With Joel Klein's resignation as New York City schools chief, close on the heels of Michelle Rhee's departure from Washington, DC, there is no shortage of controversy in today's education community. Disagreements abound over everything from teacher accountability to Waiting for "Superman" to funding of hot lunch programs.

But amidst all this rancor, I find myself oddly encouraged by the passion and intensity of this public conversation. Acrimony aside, we're at least fighting about solutions. However, one obvious and significant perspective that is missing from the conversation is the voices of students themselves.

Algebra teacher Karl Fisch (known for his thought provoking video-gone-viral "Shift Happens"), wrote recently about the importance of talking with students. I agree with many of his points but would take it a step further.

Why aren't we asking students themselves how to make our schools work better? What about the experts or "consumers" on the other side of the textbook? Is it ridiculous to think that student feedback could actually play a significant role in shaping education reform?

Three years ago, I would have answered with uncertainty. But 86 schools and 21,000 high school student surveys later, the potential blows my mind.

In 2008, I began working on YouthTruth, a nationwide effort to gather comparative feedback from the "beneficiaries" of education funders -- in this case high school students - about what's working and not working in their schools. An initiative of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, YouthTruth shares the data it collects with teachers, school administrators, district and network leaders, and education funders so that they can make better and more informed decisions to improve their schools.

I'll admit, at first our work is often met with skepticism, and often the biggest doubters are the students themselves. Students have become understandably wary about providing time-consuming input because they typically never see, or benefit from, the results of their feedback. All too often youth are tested, studied, and evaluated like lab rats, without ever being told what was learned or concluded.

But it doesn't have to be that way. As one student said to me early on, "You don't need gimmicks. All I need to know is that you are going to listen and take my feedback seriously."

At Youth Truth, we do just that. Our survey gathers student perceptions across five major themes, including:

  • Relationships with teachers: whether students feel that they are personally and academically supported by their teachers.
  • School cultures and attitudes: the degree to which students experience a fair and respectful culture.
  • Future goals and aspirations: students' goals and the activities they engage in to support these goals.
  • Life outside of high school: how barriers outside of school impact students' school work and future plans.
  • Rigor of classes and instruction: the degree to which students feel challenged to work hard, think critically and believe their teachers understand the subjects they are teaching.

Schools that participate in YouthTruth are able to see how student perceptions compare to both 'peer schools' in their district or charter network, and to our growing national sample. YouthTruth also helps participants make sense of the data. We present the results back in digestible formats, offer comparative analysis with other schools and districts, and build in focused time for reflection and planning.

This includes bringing schools from common networks together to compare their results, identify best practices, and brainstorm strategies for sharing data back with their school community. These meetings are a rare opportunity for over-burdened school staff to get input from their peers on tangible steps they can implement once they get back to campus.

Finally, participating schools share their results with students before the end of the school year -- an expectation we set for everyone early on. This demonstrates a commitment to improving the student experience, and inspires students to identify what they can do to make their school better. The average response rate for the YouthTruth survey historically has been 80 percent across participating schools.

Most exciting is that we are seeing schools use this data to drive change. In response to YouthTruth, many schools have created more rigorous and relevant lesson plans, or rethought approaches to discipline that increase student input and fairness. Other schools have created stronger advisory programs--linking students with teachers as confidants and mentors--or created new professional development programs for teachers.

A recent independent evaluation of YouthTruth found that 99 percent of school administrators agree the strategy has been helpful in planning specific changes in their schools. What's more, 100 percent of participating principals say they would recommend YouthTruth to another school. Having seen this model work in dozens of schools now, I've come to realize that when given the forum and the opportunity, students provide feedback that is dead-on for how to improve their experience.

As one school principal said, "The YouthTruth data provides a very powerful resource to start conversations and motivate change." This year we will be surveying 130 additional schools and roughly 80,000 more students in cities nationwide.

While I am in no position to argue about the efficacy of specific reform efforts underway in districts all over the country, it is alarming that more education leaders are not accessing the full breadth of feedback loops available to them. We need to listen more closely to the kids we're all trying to serve, plain and simple.

What would your students say needs to change? We'd love to help you find out.

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