Elevating Youth Voice in Learner-Centered School Quality Systems

Student Engagement

Elevating Youth Voice in Learner-Centered School Quality Systems

from KnowledgeWorks

By Kyle Anderson and Ly Iris     Dec 11, 2023

Elevating Youth Voice in Learner-Centered School Quality Systems

As education leaders continue to engage in conversations on transforming assessment and accountability for our nation, they must prioritize elevating voices excluded from past education change efforts, including voices of young learners, especially those from communities of color and economically disadvantaged communities.

Too many young people have school experiences that leave them disengaged and ill-prepared for the future. In today’s system, there are limited opportunities for students’ interests, experiences, hopes, cultures and perspectives to be a part of their education. The current K-12 education system often minimizes identities and creates a homogeneous group of learners with identical needs and desires. Thus, the standards by which school quality and student achievement are defined serve as a significant barrier to more equitable and inclusive models and learner-centered systems.

Read the report here

In June 2023, KnowledgeWorks and a team of learner-centered partners from across the country hosted a convening aimed at reimagining today’s assessment and accountability systems. Youth played an integral role in this convening, serving as participants, activists and leaders of change. While there were a range of mindset shifts, strategies and roles needed for the youth-adult partnerships, the outcomes were invaluable. Recommendations outlined in the resulting report, Beyond the Horizon: Blazing a Trail to Learner-Centered School Quality Systems, were co-created with students, caregivers and educators as well as district, state and national leaders. Students not only had a seat at the table, they helped lead the discussion.

Left to Right: Ed.Extraordinary Manager for Youth Innovation Andy Lott and Big Picture Learning Director of Youth Voice Joshua Poyer give a playful pose with student panelists LaToya Beecham and Ly Iris at the Trailblazers Summit in June

Three Outcomes of Elevating Youth Voice in Assessment and Accountability

Including youth voices in efforts to change assessment and accountability systems allows education leaders to align school quality measures to student and community needs while fostering youth agency, youth engagement and community empowerment.

  1. Foster Agency: Elevating youth voice in assessment and accountability conversations creates opportunities for young people to demonstrate agency by applying their expertise in a high-impact setting. These opportunities are especially important for Black and Brown students so that they can serve as advocates, leaders and agents of change for their communities.
  2. Support Network Engagement: Authentically involving youth in education policy creates opportunities for students of color to establish a supportive structure of peers and young leaders. Creating a network of young change agents within communities of color fosters a positive sense of self, community, culture and purpose.
  3. Empower Communities: An assessment and accountability system that is inclusive of youth voices helps ensure that communities that are minoritized by the education system have the chance to challenge false narratives and assumptions. Young people are often the face of powerful movements as they have the potential to break the systemic barriers embedded in the traditional education system by distributing leadership to the community.

Youth Roles and Responsibilities

Today, the traditional school experience is largely dictated by an assessment and accountability system that does not meet the needs of historically marginalized yet resilient learners. However, when people closest to the classroom are put in positions of power, decisions are more likely to reflect their needs. Creating roles for students in education policy discussions can help ensure the system is serving the community's best interest. These roles can include:

  • Consultants: Youth can serve as consultants to education leaders. School, district or state leaders should consider creating space for young people to share perspectives and make contributions to the system.
  • Co-Creators & Collaborators: When youth support and co-design alongside adults, curricula and assessments become more relevant and impactful. The current assessment and accountability system limits what can and cannot be learned in school. The instructional approaches and content reflect standardized tests and rarely consider youth needs or interests. This can limit learning opportunities for students who are racially and culturally marginalized.
  • Community Experts: Students can serve as a bridge between schools and families or the larger community. Youth can help educate families and their communities in understanding school priorities and quality measures. Likewise, youth can help educate school, district and state leaders on community needs and wants.
  • Leaders: Without decision-making authority, youth engagement strategies can become superficial and performative. Youth leadership groups such as student councils and student governments can serve in a decision-making capacity beyond basic school culture domains. It is crucial to purposefully integrate youth serving in these roles into broader discussions on education policy.

Young people have an in-depth understanding of the 21st-century school experience, their communities and their desired futures. Education leaders are beginning to take notice. Empowering young leaders, especially those from racially and economically marginalized backgrounds, is imperative for effecting meaningful and enduring transformations in the education system.

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