Student voice and equitable civic learning

February 26, 2018 Staff Writer

Establishing school cultures that elicit student voice and participation in school leadership tend to increase student motivation, engagement and educational outcomes.

By Jennifer Elemen

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law, a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 and improvement over the previous renewal, No Child Left Behind.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, ESSA:

  • Advances equity by upholding critical protections for America’s disadvantaged and high-need students.
  • Requires – for the first time – that all students in America be taught to high academic standards that will prepare them to succeed in college and careers.
  • Ensures that vital information is provided to educators, families, students and communities through annual statewide assessments that measure students’ progress toward those high standards.
  • Maintains an expectation that there will be accountability and action to effect positive change in our lowest-performing schools, where groups of students are not making progress, and where graduation rates are low over extended periods of time.

ESSA attempts to provide students with high quality educational services and still leaves school leadership practices pertaining to student voice inclusion at the discretion of local school leaders. Stakeholder groups, including students, are to be included in the Local Control and Accountability Plan process in California, yet it is clear that stakeholder and student participation varies widely.

Inequitable access to civic learning opportunities is referred to as the civic opportunity gap, which has been described by Joseph E. Kahne and Ellen Middaugh in James Youniss and Peter Levine’s “Engaging Young People in Civic Life” (2009) and by Michelle M. Herczog in “Leadership” (March-April, 2012).

In 2014 the California Task Force on Civic Learning released guidelines for addressing civic learning in the LCAP as a multi-benefit approach to supporting student achievement, school climate, student engagement, the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and reducing the dropout rate.

The research is clear: School leaders must open systems, model civic participation by emphasizing civic learning opportunities for students, while also advocating for broader policy changes to benefit all students.

The relationships and communication between school stakeholders collaborating to address collective goals could be better understood through the framework of Jong S. Jun and William Bruce Storm’s social design theory (1990). Social design theory is used to study public administration through the lens of critical theory and constructivism paradigms, which aim to give voice to the unheard, question the power hierarchy, and improve social justice for more equitable outcomes. This relies on the assertion that solutions to public problems can be effectively developed through engaging stakeholders in a democratic process.

Social design combines both rational design, the expertise and planning by trained and formal leaders, with incremental design, the input of stakeholders, including parents, students and community members; a process that is highly inclusive and creative.

The social design approach is generally practiced in the following way:

  • The process begins with consideration of the diversity of values of the participants as well as the people who will be affected by the outcome of deliberation or problem solving.
  • The ideas of different actors must be discussed, argued and evaluated. 3) Participation must go beyond interest-groups, whose politics are generally concerned with their own interests rather than the interest of the public.
  • The responsibility of administrators or policymakers is to design processes and facilitate interaction whereby multiple actors function together effectively. It is quite possible that the existing structure does not promote the participation of less-powerful groups or citizens.
  • Alternatives must be critically examined in terms of their political, economic, and social feasibility.
  • Policy design or decisions for the future require both analytical and social knowledge, but application of each must be critically examined through dialogue and discourse.
  • The voices of minority groups must be integrated into community problem solving (Jun, 1986).

Applying social design theory to educational leadership means engaging stakeholders, including students, in the school leadership dialogue, discourse, deliberation and decision-making process for the improvement of school policy and civic education opportunities it may provide to students.

Although students are those served by public schools, students may often feel oppressed by their lack of opportunities to engage meaningfully, act on their authentic experiences, and voice their concerns. The 2015 Gallup Student Poll results show that only 50 percent of students are engaged in school, decreasing from 75 percent in fifth grade to 32 percent in 11th grade. Students suffer from a depleted sense of agency in schools’ traditional structures and hegemonic, condescending cultures.

Scholars and researchers have indicated that school cultures promoting dialogue and student leadership tend to increase student achievement. Eric Banatao (2011) found a significant statistical correlation that exists between caring relationships and high expectations (school supports) along with meaningful school participation to student achievement by comparing published California Healthy Kids Survey school climate data to Academic Performance Index test scores for 1.5 million students in California.

Moreover, according to Tony Wagner, Robert Kegan and others, school leaders should focus on establishing respectful relationships, rigorous core curricula, and relevant curricula through real-world applications. This should parallel the external school protective factors of Bonnie Benard’s resilience model: caring relationships, high expectations and meaningful school participation.

Australia, Sweden and the United Kingdom adhere to Articles 12 through 15 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (United Nations, 1989). They extend rights to students that include freedom of information, freedom of expression, and freedom to form collective organization.  These policies and additional standards elevate student voice as an essential feature of school leadership and civic learning.

Schools need to re-envision the working relationships between adults and students. Not only is this desirable, but necessary for adaptation to the cultural shift that has already occurred socially and technologically in today’s globalized world.

As the meanings of organizational relationships are socially constructed, students’ participation in meaning-making through organizational leadership dialogue and decision making with their adult leaders serves multiple purposes. A redescription and the inclusion of citizens into the dialogue on public education is needed, not only to share perspectives, but also for the shared community debate that is created and that transforms citizens and society, co-creating solutions that better meet stakeholders’ and students’ needs.

For example, school discipline reform toward a restorative justice model involved several stakeholders in the process to make schools more inclusive and considerate of student voice and experience.

By exhibiting alternatives as real and rational through the medium of discourse, this allows for emancipation, the acting out of the new descriptions by rejecting the dominant expected lifestyles and redefining roles and relationships. Affecting discourse and emancipation with a Freirean approach means working through advocacy for the disenfranchised to create liberation for all. This is enabled through increased student access to school organizational leadership dialogue and participative decision making. This process has the potential to increase student engagement in academic and civic learning, while simultaneously transforming educational leadership.

A social design approach to school leadership provides a necessary theoretical construct to initiate the change process with collective problem solving. With social design, a relevant, inclusive, collaborative dialogue, problem solving and implementation process is created. Social design, implemented within a distributed leadership model with a dedication to civic learning opportunities, allows for innovation and community building to occur while improving school structures and cultures.

James P. Spillane (2006) identified three essential elements to distributed leadership:

  • Leadership practice is the central and anchoring concern.
  • Leadership practice is generated in the interactions of leaders, followers and their situation; each element is essential for leadership practice.
  • The situation both defines leadership practice and is defined through leadership practice.

The characteristics of a distributed leadership model include: multiple player leadership philosophy, utilization of hidden leaders, expanded leadership roles, enhancement of human capacity, use of tools in decision making, two-way communication, and an environment of trust (Michelle Engel-Silva, 2009). Distributed leadership models call for stakeholders to take on leadership positions and complete tasks on teams to improve the school as an organization.

Stakeholders’ participation in school leadership and functioning assists administrators by providing feedback through the communication loop, increasing productivity, collective efficacy and student achievement.

While distributed leadership is a more democratic, participatory, sharing, collective and collaborative form of leadership than traditional authoritative, top-down models, it still requires the efforts and design of those holding the formal authority positions to allow such distributed leadership efforts to take place and to grant informal leaders the power to engage. In turn, engaged and empowered stakeholders help the organization better respond to outside environmental demands and increase school climate indicators.

A school culture that promotes distributed leadership is one in which many stakeholders – administrators, teachers, counselors, staff, parents, students, and community members – share in decision making, lead goals to completion for school improvement, and power is delegated to several stakeholders. The degree to which students are included in school leadership could be described as a feature of school culture as well as a practice of leadership.

In order to change organizational cultures, administrators need to find ways to incorporate new elements into prevalent ideologies and cultural forms. Providing students with opportunities to participate with adults, who model civic behavior in decision making and planning for school improvement is beneficial, as “human learning presupposes a specific social nature and a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (Lev Vygotsky, 1978) and is important for students to feel a sense of school cohesion.

Establishing school cultures that elicit student voice and participation in school leadership tend to increase student motivation, engagement and educational outcomes.

School leaders must design school systems that are constructive to communities of practice. All contributors to a school site should be involved in developing a shared vision of the school. Additionally, according to Robert J. Marzano in “Becoming a High Reliability School: The Next Step in School Reform” (2013), stakeholders having “formal ways to provide input regarding the optimal functioning of the school” is one of the leading indicators of a “safe and orderly environment that supports cooperation and collaboration” for making progress in “enhancing a school’s effectiveness.”

Distributed leadership in schools needs to include information sharing, transparency and addressing collective goals. Providing opportunities for student participation in school leadership allows for student voice and co-optation, “the process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or policy-determining structure of an organization” (Philip Selznick, 1949).

Consequential leadership changes occur with real co-optation. This means that leadership will be broadened in the organization and change will be consequential for the character and role of the organization.

Schools, as training grounds for citizens, need to increase opportunities for students to demonstrate greater civic knowledge and develop their civic participation skills. In 2013, the National Council for the Social Studies published a civic education supplement to the Common Core State Standards – “The College, Career and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards” – with the purpose of guiding students’ inquiry to solve civic problems.

This calls for students to question and identify societal problems, investigate possible solutions and consequences by applying disciplinary concepts and tools, analyze and develop scholarly arguments with claims and evidence from evaluated sources, to communicate their conclusions, and take action based upon their knowledge.

The C3 Framework is also a component of the new History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools (2016) and the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning’s 2014 recommendations in “Revitalizing K-12 Civic Learning in California: A Blueprint for Action.” The Los Angeles County Office of Education provides additional free resources for implementing the C3 Framework.

The challenge for educators is beyond leading the four Cs of the Common Core: critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and imagination. The challenge now includes citizenship and character education, making it the six Cs (Fullan and Langworthy, “A Rich Seam: How New Pedagogies Find Deep Learning,” 2014).

The lack of minority outreach and empowerment within school leadership practices excludes certain groups of students from school, community, and civic participation. In my own dissertation research study, only 53 percent of students reported that the voices of minority groups were integrated into community problem solving for their high schools.

This inequity has lasting effects on students’ future achievements and civic participation, such as disparate rates of postsecondary educational attainment, employment, voting and community involvement. As civic learning and participation have been low and stagnant, it is more important than ever for educators to focus on equitable civic learning opportunities and community building for their students, families and society.

There are ways for educators to increase their abilities to influence such civic learning. For example, design thinking solutions, educators going out into students’ neighborhoods and for and with students to connect with and improve their community and environment.

The resulting increase in human capital promotes a more productive economy and a government more responsive to its citizens, who are better able to advocate for improved public policies. This “action civics” is a more engaging civic education than traditional civic learning and places students at the center of a participatory democratic learning process.

Furthermore, sharing the school leadership process with more students helps to increase their civic opportunities and future civic participation.  These opportunities should go beyond the classroom and be offered with guidance and support from education leaders.

Providing equitable student voice and civic learning opportunities includes prioritizing these within goals and action steps in school improvement plans, budgets and Local Control and Accountability Plans.

To assess the levels and qualities of student voice opportunities and to continue to increase and improve equitable access, school leaders may implement school climate and student voice surveys, focus groups, and student advisory councils that are representative and inclusive of the diversity of the student body.

The Quaglia Institute for School Voice and Aspirations ( provides additional “School Voice Surveys” for stakeholders, including student voice, teacher voice and parent voice. Analysis and response to this data with action is recommended in coordination with the Education Commission of the States’ “Guidebook: Six Proven Practices for Effective Civic Learning”:

1) instruction in history, government, law, and democracy;

2) discussion of current events;

3) community service;

4) extracurricular activities for young people to get involved in their schools and communities;

5) student participation in school governance; and

6) simulations of government processes and procedures.

School leaders may pursue: Positive Peer Culture (PPC) programs, student advisory councils, Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) programs, Youth Civic Engagement (YCE) councils, focus groups, AVID site teams, leadership groups, and internship programs with local government and community-based organizations.

Student voice and civic learning opportunities should not be limited to events and programs for certain students. They should be incorporated throughout grade levels and across content areas. Educators are called upon to collaborate with students and community members to continue to improve school culture and climate with student voice and equitable civic learning opportunities.

Jennifer Elemen, Ed.D., is an educational administrator of language and literacy at the Monterey County Office of Education, Region 5 representative on the History-Social Science Subcommittee of CISC/CCSESA, and president of the Bay Area Council for the Social Studies.

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