In the eight years I’ve been writing about education, my best sources have been students. An 11th grader in Washington, D.C., named Allante Rhodes told me that, while it was nice his high school offered a Microsoft Word class, only six of the campus’ 14 computers worked; he often spent his computer class reading a handout given to him by the teacher. That was good for me to know.
Meanwhile, Andrew Brennen, a 12th-grader who had moved five times as a teenager, told me that his grades depended on his zip code. In Georgia, he was at the top of his class; in Maryland, the very next year, his grades plummeted and he had to retake Spanish altogether. In Kentucky, he did fine in science but struggled with math. And that’s why he thought adopting the Common Core State Standards made sense. "Honestly," he told me, "you spend 35 hours a week in a classroom, you know what kind of things work and don’t work."
Students are the most valuable and least consulted education-policy experts in America. Before they graduate, they spend roughly 2,300 days contemplating their situation, considering how their schools and neighborhoods could be better—or worse. And unlike many journalists, teachers, principals, and school-board members, most couldn’t care less about politics.
Jack Jacobson, the president of Washington, D.C.’s Board of Education, serves alongside two student representatives. "They are honest brokers. They have no hidden agenda," he said. "Time after time, our student representatives ask the most intelligent questions, and they frankly have a better sense of what is happening in schools than traditional elected board members."
In fact, school systems that routinely solicit written feedback from students regarding lessons, teachers, or resources tend to be higher-performing and more equitable places, according to a 2012 OECD analysis of 65 countries. About 59 percent of U.S. high-school students are in schools where this happens, which is slightly below average for the developed world. The comparable figure in Finland, which according to some studies is one of the world’s smartest countries, is 74 percent. If you ask students intelligent questions about their classrooms, as it turns out, their answers are more reliable than any other known measure—including expert observations and student test-score growth.
So why aren’t more students invited to the big-kids’ table in the country’s school districts? Fourteen states have laws that explicitly prohibit them from serving on district school boards, according to SoundOut, a nonprofit that advocates for greater student input on public policy. In 19 states, school boards do have student representatives, but many of these members aren’t allowed to vote. Some school boards invite students to brief adult members on matters such as Homecoming dances and fundraisers, and then send them home to do their homework. A handful of school districts—including several in California and those in Boston and Montgomery County, Maryland—have formal, meaningful roles for students. But they are exceptions.