Students’ Voices Must Be Central to the Way School is Reimagined

With schools gone virtual and in-person feedback from students no longer possible, listening to students can feel harder than ever. There is always an inherent challenge for teachers and administrators in authentically listening to their students, given the power dynamics at play in a school environment. But now, with challenges of physical distance and an increased potential for lines of communication to fracture, it is all the more crucial to ensure that students’ voices are heard.

That’s why the nonprofit I lead, YouthTruth, just launched a free, national survey to gather insights from secondary students about their learning experiences, social and emotional development, and well-being while their school sites have been closed. Our survey fills a gap in the data, which—understandably so—has mostly focused on access and logistics so far.

“Students Weigh In: Learning & Well-Being During COVID-19” is an anonymous survey in English and Spanish that is easy to administer and takes 10 to 15 minutes to complete. Participating school systems can gather their students’ feedback through June 19. The anonymous responses will be aggregated into an interactive national report available online which will highlight students’ experiences overall, as well as differences across student demographic subgroups including grade level, race/ethnicity and gender identity, among others.  

We believe that students’ insights, when quickly made available, have the power to help educators and their partners adapt their approaches to schooling and target resources where they are needed most.

I, alongside my colleagues, have been thinking a lot about how listening to young people has manifested itself in the U.S. K-12 education sector during this time of crisis. Over the last decade, YouthTruth has partnered with hundreds of school systems, state departments of education and education funders on the firm belief that hearing directly from students about their school experiences—and incorporating what is learned into decision-making—improves the effectiveness of school systems, which in turn strengthens our nation’s schools for the benefit of those students.

Now, of course, the context is different. With an estimated 50 million students whose schools have closed this spring, what does it mean to hear directly from students today?

Education in the U.S., as across the globe, has seen a drastic disruption as schools have closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As educators shift to emergency distance learning, questions of access, equity and student well-being have been brought to the fore as technology becomes the dominant medium for student learning and personal connection. 

And yet, in this moment of rapid response and significant change in how students experience school and learning, there is little data available about how the pandemic is affecting the lived experiences of students. Individual schools and school systems are reaching out to their students and communities, but early efforts have, understandably, tended to focus on access and logistics. Meanwhile, national feedback efforts have tended to focus on asking parents and guardians or teachers and school staff about their experiences and perspectives.

There is no doubt that those perspectives matter. Families and educators alike are navigating uncharted waters. At the same time, of course, their perspectives are not the same as—nor are they a stand-in for—the perspectives of students.

There are so many vital questions right now that the student perspective can help answer, which in turn can help educators best serve students in this challenging time.

  • What is uniquely challenging about learning in the age of COVID-19?
  • How are the ways in which students are connecting with their teachers and peers working, and where are they falling short?
  • What are students’ days like in the absence of the traditional structures of the school day?
  • In what ways are students unexpectedly thriving? Which groups of students are thriving?
  • What types of additional support do students need? Which groups of students need which types of supports?

It is all too easy to guess how students might be experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic and hypothesize about the ways it might be transforming their education and lives. To find meaningful answers to these questions, we must ask students directly. After all, students are the experts on their own experience.

At some point, schools will reopen. We don’t know exactly when, and we don’t know exactly what the blend of in-person and virtual learning will look like. There are many uncertainties, but we do know that students’ voices must be central to the way school is reimagined. 

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