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Q&A: How student voice translates to student success

Student voice is a hot topic in schools these days.

On its face, the idea is simple: empower students by giving them an opportunity to provide feedback about their educational experience. When students are engaged, the thinking goes, they’re more likely to be successful in school.

But there’s a difference between paying students’ lip service and giving students a real say in how learning goes down in schools.

As states continue to roll out new accountability measures under the Every Student Succeeds Act, school district leaders have an opportunity to amplify student voice in those reforms.

But how?

In a recent webinar, Voice of the student: The link between student engagement and student success, Dr. Michael Daria, superintendent at Tuscaloosa City Schools (TCS) in Alabama, described how his district used student feedback to make program enhancements—and what educators learned in the process.

Surveys can help identify gaps

Facing challenges in student performance and engagement, Daria and his team decided the best way to set students up for success was to ask questions.

“We’re adults making decisions for our children,” Daria said. “And what we found most important was we had a missing voice at the table. We represent students, but we don’t necessarily have their voice at the table.”

Daria and his team conducted a district-wide student engagement survey to understand students’ perceptions of their schools.

Results were divided along two broad spectrums.

Cognitive engagement results showed that students wanted more vibrant classroom discussions and the chance to be more creative in schools. Social and emotional engagement results showed low participation rates in extra-curricular activities.

Armed with student insights, Dr. Daria and his team drafted specific action plans for improving school culture and outlined a set of basic metrics to measure future progress.

Want more on student voice from Dr. Daria? Watch the full webinar below.

At the conclusion of the webinar, Dr. Daria entertained questions from educators in the audience. What follows is an edited excerpt from his Q&A session.

Q: Looking across school levels as you were doing this survey, did you see a difference in the results of cognitive engagement and social-emotional engagement?

Dr. Daria: We saw a couple of places where we questioned that, but nothing became actionable for us as a priority. And, really, the reason we didn’t get that deep into it was because, on the surface level, there were so many things that we needed to put into place just to get off the ground. Our goal is, as we do this again in February, to really look at year-over-year and dig deeper into our data.

Q: You talked about the need to use this data to make change. What’s that process actually look like from the time you get the data to enacting reforms?

Dr. Daria: Part of getting ready to make change in our school system is creating the readiness for that change. As much as anything, these results help paint that picture of why we need to make some really bold changes for our students.

I would say that’s probably the best thing that can come out of this—it gives us the closest thing to a consumer report of how we’re doing.

A lot of what we have to do right now is make some pretty drastic changes to the school system. Addressing our culture as a district and using student engagement as a piece of that is probably the most important thing we can do.

Q: Do you ever have an instance where you learn something from students that actually forces you to change your strategic plan?

Dr. Daria: The greatest example to answer your question is really on the high-level things in our report of what is actionable. There’s some of those results—especially in those weak areas—that we had to change what we were doing immediately.

As we all know, you do something over time because it’s what we’ve always done. These results caused us to ask “Why are we doing that when our students are telling us that’s not relevant anymore?”

There have been absolute changes. We’ve changed the way we do our teacher and leader effectiveness, not just because of student engagement, but student engagement certainly causes us to ask a lot questions within the district.

Q: How did you work with the public to help them understand your survey findings?

Dr. Daria: We want to be as transparent as possible with all of our data.

It goes back to creating readiness for change. We want our entire community to know where we are with students’ outcomes and their connectivity to our schools. We believe the more that information is out there, the more it creates this readiness for positive change in our community and in our school district.

For more on giving students a strong voice in schools, don’t forget to bookmark our section on student engagement.