Student-Driven Ed Reform Achieved Through Democracy
by Chris Grouchy
One thing is certain in almost every education jurisdiction in North America: macro decisions are made by adults that have been elected. They have the final say in the decisions that will impact thousands of students. These are not menial decisions we’re talking about either—allocating funds through billion-dollar budgets, long-term strategic plans, approving of curriculum design all fall under the portfolio of responsibilities. Having leaders disconnected from the needs at the classroom level intuitively begins to frame the problem with the education system.
The ‘system’ currently relies on the work of internal staff to report on the issues and needs of schools, and how the solutions to these issues can be funded and implemented. While this system seems rigid and sustainable, it was built on scarcity. This hasn’t changed – and building a safe and cost-effective model in a time when the rate of innovation (in technology) was low, and when labour markets were predictable, stable, and abundant with opportunity was acceptable. We educated for certification – not for skill. Over time, this has created intense risk aversion and a lack of understanding of the true potential of both feedback in policy and technology. Why? The needs of the world have fundamentally changed.
The liberalization of knowledge through widespread access to rich information has enabled anyone to become a learner. The barriers to learning how to take a derivative of a natural logarithm are low – we can pull up Khan Academy and have Sal Khan himself, tell us how to do it. We know longer have to wait until first year calculus to teach us these things. We can learn to program and become designers without having to step into a classroom. These are all good things. Yet, we’ve failed to experiment with these tools in the common classroom. We’re too risk averse for our own good. As a result, policymakers are preparing students for a world that no longer exists.
The disconnection between policymakers and students is at the heart of student disengagement. How can we solve this problem? Put students at the table with the key decision makers on the district and board level. Next, institute a foundation that allows these students to reach out to as many of their peers as possible within the geographical confines of the school board or district.
Make students the authors, or co-authors, of their education. Students are the products and consumers of education. The outcomes that are created at the board/district level impact their learnings at school. ‘Student trustees’, a term used to describe the elected students to represent their peers in education decision-making, improve the educational decision-making process by providing a uniquely practical perspective, permitting school boards to make decisions with the realities of student needs in mind. Scarce resources can be better allocated, saving time, money, and improving educational outcomes through student engagement and satisfaction.
It should be without surprise that voter turnout among young people has been in decline for years; as Elections Canada concludes, “not only are young people participating less than their elders, their willingness to participate appears to be declining over time.”Youth grow up in communities where disconnection between them and the people charged with making decisions on their behalf have become the norm. We advertise that youth are “the future” and that their place in decision-making will inevitably arrive once the intersection of a desired level of education and experience in the world has been achieved.
Welcoming students into these conversations at an early-age combats the issues that threaten our democracy. Students who participate in the affairs of the board will likely predispose them to vote at a federal or provincial level when they are eligible. Programs such as our own Student Vote also recognize the necessity to get students thinking about policy by augmenting elections within schools, allowing youth to develop an opinion on political party platforms. The student trustee model puts these opinions into practice by making Trustees the audience of students and not the reverse.
It’s time to integrate students into the decision-making process. So what’s happening in your school or district? Is this already happening? Has it been tried and, for some reasons, failed? Is there resistance to the idea? Let us know in the comments. Would love to hear your experience.
Chris Grouchy is the Executive Director of Student Voice Initiative, an education consultancy that works with school boards to advance their student leadership policies. He was formerly the CEO of the Ontario Student Trustees’ Association.
 http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=med&dir=youth/forum&document=survey&lang=e; image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations