Stepping Up Student Engagement

Topics: Student Engagement

Meaningfulness, in practical terms, requires educators to look beyond the lenses that once allowed them to see students only as the passive recipients of an adult-driven education system. Meaningfulness takes form when students and educators exist in equitable partnerships, jointly focused on individual efficacy and engagement.

The steps toward this are illustrated by SoundOut’s Ladder of Meaningful Student Involvement. There are three sections on the ladder, and each has three rungs. The first, Unmeaningful Involvement, includes rungs of Manipulation, when carrot and stick are used to force students to participate in activities; Decoration, when students are used to make educators look better; and Tokenism, when educators have students at the table just to say they have students at the table.

The second section of the ladder is called Involvement. It has rungs labeled Student- ​Centered, situations in which educators focus on student voice but don’t contextualize it in a larger frame that focuses on school improvement or sustainability; Student-Informed, in which students can get details but aren’t engaged further; and Student-​Consulted, in which student voice is engaged, but educators aren’t compelled to act on those suggestions.

Meaningfulness occurs in the top section of the ladder. When students experience the rung of Student/Adult Equality, their investment in education is fully acknowledged and treated as the same as that of educators, parents, and adults throughout schools. Completely Student-Driven involvement happens when learners lead with responsibility and authority, taking on burdens of the success and failure of their actions. The top rung is Student/Adult Equity, in which students and educators engage together to eliminate age-​oriented disparities and improve outcomes for all learners thoughtfully, responsibly, and sustainably.

Up the Ladder

Understanding what these sections and rungs look like in practice requires examining real-world activities. In my 2017 book, Student Voice Revolution: The Meaningful Student Involvement Handbook, I identified hundreds of examples of students who have been substantively involved in multiple aspects of K–8 education.

One of these examples came from a 1972 research project examining activities in which nontraditional student leaders in Buffalo, New York; Atlanta; and San Diego were paid stipends to work as members of the districts’ curriculum writing and review teams. These students participated fully in decision-making, evaluating, and advocating for what they saw was best in classes both in their own schools and in the rest of their districts. It exemplified the highest section of the ladder, Meaningful Involvement, since it positioned diverse students as paid contributors to systemic school improvement.

Meaningful student involvement is also embodied in the Kentucky Student Voice Team. For more than a decade, its members have been “co-creating more just, democratic Kentucky schools and communities as research, policy, and advocacy partners.” Focusing on “amplifying student voice” in matters regarding school climate, college affordability, school safety, and most recently, COVID–19, the team moved to further advance youth agency in 2021 by becoming an independent nonprofit. It is now leading a statewide study of students on race, ethnicity, and belonging. The organization is leading the way nationally, too, presenting at education conferences and demonstrating its principles of meaningfulness as a model for other campaigns.

At Jackson Elementary School in Salt Lake City, fifth-grade students advocating for a new school library reached their goal. They helped the school reconstruct its library by researching; brainstorming; fundraising; giving speeches; lobbying; writing proposals; and receiving local, state, and federal support. Their efforts led to brand-new facilities and classes, flexible scheduling that increased library use, and a comprehensive technology system, including a computer center and computers in every classroom. Reflected in The Kid’s Guide to Social Action, Jackson’s student advocates worked with educators to learn, make decisions, advocate, and reflect on their actions, achieving top-rung meaningfulness.

These projects imply that meaningfulness can be derived from the act of participating in specific activities. But some distinguishing features of these stories allude to higher-level outcomes that make them meaningful, including:

  • Students understand the greater educating processes they are involved in;
  • Students work in concert with adults as equitable partners and have the power to effect the changes they think are needed; and
  • Students learn through the process of involvement.

All of these factors allow, encourage, and empower students to feel more ownership over their education, more courage for self-advocacy, and ultimately more investment in their own learning. These are all important elements of student-adult equity.

Baby Steps

Not every example of meaningful student involvement reaches the top of the ladder, and student involvement can fluctuate significantly over time. In my own work with SoundOut, I have consulted with school districts across the country as they take steps toward meaningful student involvement. In an effort with the Michigan Association of School Boards, I helped inform a campaign to position students as members of district school boards statewide. Offering professional development for board members, creating a toolkit, and spreading the word through articles and podcasts, the initiative supported meaningful student involvement by reaching the Involvement section of the ladder.

Similarly, when students in Bear Valley, California, looked at the school improvement activities that might be most effective in their school in 1997, student researchers participated in a twice-weekly course that focused on their work and became the driving force in data collection and analysis. Students conceived the methods used and led the data collection work. In a report about the project, adult researchers found that “the lessons of this project occurred on two levels: what the students, staff, and parents learned from the data, and what we (adults) learned about engaging students as researchers in a topic that is relevant to them.”

These studies were focused on high school students, and their authors indicate that the students who were involved reflected the diversity of the student bodies in their given districts. Since students were ultimately consulted on transformation and not engaged as leaders, their activities reached the Involvement section of the ladder, too.

Meaningful student involvement isn’t just for older students, though; it’s fantastic for young students, too. It can also benefit learners who might lead their peers and others in nontraditional ways, and such youth leaders include students of color, learners who identify as LGBTQIA+, students with neurodiversity, students learning English, students from low-income households, children of incarcerated parents, and students in crisis.

Meaningful student involvement necessitates adult roles, too, adjusted for equitable power. In addition to classroom teachers, principals, district staff, building support staff, community partners, and parents can have important roles in creating and sustaining meaningful student involvement.

Informing Adults

In many instances when schools listen to student voice today, students act as informants for adult decision-​making. Earlier this year, 14 high school students in Pittsburgh Public Schools participated in allocating $357,400 in ESSER funding to student proposals. This reaches the Involvement section of the Ladder of Meaningful Student Involvement, because while it engages students in planning, it doesn’t give them the authority to make the actual decisions being implemented; it instead positions them to inform adult-led decisions.

The Unmeaningful section of the ladder is easy to find throughout education. In these circumstances, students are used to “dress up” adult actions, are presented as important to decision-making, or are otherwise used as props and decorations. This happens at school assemblies, in district press conferences, on state websites, and at every point in between. These activities are characterized by adult-driven student voice, adult-appointed roles, and typical student involvement, which largely includes anything traditional in public education.

While these activities are often seen as starting points for student involvement, they can often be wheel-spinning exercises that do nothing to advance student involvement or transform education substantively. Meaningful student involvement is the vital transformation called for by students today, who require more than what existed before.

The COVID-19 pandemic and a growing body of research demonstrate that student engagement is crucial for learning, teaching, and leadership. The Ladder of Meaningful Student Involvement can provide a clear, distinct, and necessary pathway toward fostering the belonging, purpose, and passion demanded in education today.

Adam F.C. Fletcher is executive director of SoundOut Education Consulting.