What can we learn from the many places already practicing student-powered improvement? Adults and students whose voices shaped this resource offer this set of critical guiding principles for successful planning and implementation. The seven working principles intersect with each other; you have to consider each of them, how they relate to one another, and how they connect to your context. Keep in mind that none of us has “arrived” at best practice. Rather, our student-powered improvement journeys are always a work in progress. We must attend to the tension of enacting student-powered improvement while recognizing the potential harm of not attending to these principles. That includes reflecting on whether you are meaningfully partnering with and listening to students, or checking a box that is performative or tokenizing.

Guiding Principle

Defer to students as experts

Student-powered improvement requires an unwavering belief that students are the experts of their educational experiences. Adults and students alike must embrace and defer to the brilliance, strength, and unique identities of each and every student and believe in their capacity and wisdom.






Guiding Principle

Shift the mindsets, power and privilege of adults

Adults must purposely work to dismantle systemic adultism, or the beliefs and attitudes that adults are better than young people and entitled to act without their permission. Adults must also critically reflect on power and privilege (both personal and systemic) and work to shift the accompanying biases and mindsets. One example of bias adults must reckon with is adultification, which is a form of racial prejudice that leads adults to perceive and treat females of color (most notably black girls) as more mature than they actually are (Blake and Epstein, 2019). This form of bias can lead to disproportionate discipline, inappropriate standards, and lack of empathy from adults.

 

Quotes

“Often, what adults think is shared decision-making isn’t really shared decision-making. To create a culture that is with students, not for students, we need to push those beliefs”

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“Students want to be heard, but sometimes adults don’t know what they don’t know.”

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“Adults need to continue to do identity work around power and relationships -- centering race and interrogating race.”

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Case Studies


Guiding Principle

Invite and center historically and currently marginalized students

The most important consideration is often not how many students—but which students— are included in improvement efforts. Who are the students who have historically been excluded, ignored, or marginalized by school systems? Which students hold marginalized social, cultural, and political identities such as race, sexuality, class, gender, or ability? Attending consciously to who is invited to participate and who is not is central to disrupting and reimagining more equitable systems. Student participation should be voluntary.

 

 


Guiding Principle

Create spaces of trust, care, and truth

To be with students in improvement, we must create spaces where students can share their stories and lived experiences without fear, retaliation, or harm. Adults and students should collaboratively build an environment where students can show up and be their most empowered selves. Relationships anchored in trust, care, and honesty are essential to develop this sacred truth space (Irizarry, 2017). Are adults vulnerable and willing to share their experiences while also honoring the truths shared by students? Is there recognition of power and privilege at play in the space? Are there opportunities for joy and play? Creating spaces of trust, care, and truth requires time and prioritizing relationships.

 


Guiding Principle

Scaffold and differentiate supports for students and adults

Education policies and practices can be full of jargon and complicated systems. Intentionally exposing the what, why, and how of policies and practices can provide both students and adults with critical information to interrogate and improve systems. This is also true for the language and tools of continuous improvement, which can often overwhelm both adults and students. Design experiences that use a common language. Lead with mindsets and processes, rather than terms and tools. In other words, create the conditions where everyone can play because they know the game. Students and adults may also benefit from specific skill-building as part of their work. For example, some networks offer skill-building workshops for students in areas such as communication strategies, teaming and collaborative processes, advocacy skills, and leadership development. Adults often need specific skill-building to engage in continuous improvement, develop inclusive teams, and understand power and privilege, especially when partnering with students.


Guiding Principle

Ensure student involvement is ongoing and multi-faceted

Student-powered improvement means that students are continuously centered in multiple, meaningful ways. It means consistent vigilance to not tokenize students: the tendency to use students to validate adult views, actions, or ideas rather than for students to have purpose and power. One-time listening sessions or a single round of empathy interviews are not student-powered improvement. Rather, meaningful student-powered improvement efforts are described with words like ongoing, regular, multi-faceted, always, routine, and systemic.

 

Quotes

“So many times, adults make student partnerships a one-time only student voice event. We want to build a practice of continuous muscle, continuously hearing from students.”

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“It isn’t a one-time thing to talk to a student. It needs to be a continuous process of checking in.”

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Case Studies


Guiding Principle

Partner with the whole family

Imagine family-powered improvement. While this resource focuses on students, the ultimate goal of any improvement effort should be for change to be driven by the entire school community. Involving families also honors that they are part of the students’ identity. Who are the families who have historically been and are presently excluded, ignored, silenced, or marginalized by school systems? How might their voices and perspectives not only be heard, but amplified as partners in change? 

 

Case Studies