In fact, teenagers have “islets of maturity,” according to Dr. Terri Apter, a psychologist at Cambridge and author of The Myth of Maturity: What Teenagers Need From Parents to Become Adults. High school students may appear highly rational in discussing an abstract issue but then revert to childish logic with a parent—say, complaining that something isn’t fair. Also, while adolescents can have as strong a grasp on probability and risk as any adult, their sensitivity to peer pressure can overpower their impartial faculties.
“Adults are so invested in our institutions,” believes Adam Fletcher, founder and director of Sound Out, an organization that promotes student involvement in education. “And we get very worried whenever we have to hand over any modicum of control to young people.” To claim that students are incapable of successfully engaging on school boards reflects a fear-driven perspective that “positions students as empty vessel of an adult-driven society. “If I’ve learned one thing in my work over the last decade, says Fletcher, “it’s that students are actively, passionately, and fully capable of transforming education.”
“Many teens are capable of complex budget discussions,” adds Dr. Apter. “Think of a school board proposing a budget cut. Those on the board should look at the overall well-being and functioning of the school.” However, it will be particularly difficult” for an adolescent to support a decision that disadvantages some of his or her classmates, even if it’s the best outcome for the school.
In general, there is a growing trend to take student input more seriously in educational reform, especially when it comes to their teachers. “There is strong research showing that student surveys can be very important tools and are quite predictive when it comes to teacher quality,” says Nancy Walser, editor of the Harvard Education Letter and author of The Essential School Board Book: Better Governance in the age of Accountability. For starters, the MET Project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found a strong correlation between students’ experience in a classroom, as reported on survey questionnaires, and a teacher’s overall effectiveness. Beginning in the 2014-1015 school year, districts in Massachusetts will formally start incorporating student feedback into their teacher evaluations.
The problem in Los Angeles, however, is that a single adolescent voice will likely be drowned by adult members and could easily under-represent the interests of the student body as a whole, warns Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor and author of the forthcoming book Inequality In The Promised Land: Race, Resources, and Suburban Schooling. School boards often pay disproportionate attention to families savvy enough to hoard educational opportunities among a narrow group. Conversely, those families impacted by homelessness and other social problems, says Dr. Lewis-McCoy, find it difficult to promote their—and their children’s—interests.
The debate over whether to include students in school decisions is an important one. But ultimately, putting one or two teenagers on a school board won’t make much of a difference if they don’t represent families traditionally left from the table in the first place.