It’s rare when students get to inform education policy decisions, much less influence how our schools run. Many decisions are made for us, and asking what we think is often an afterthought. The new Student Bill of Rights is working to change that. The concept of a Student Bill of Rights is not new, but if student rights are to be truly authentic and learner-driven, those rights must come from students.
First and foremost, the Student Bill is a mechanism for empowering students in schools across the nation to voice their opinions and needs, driving holistic educational progress. A cornerstone of this undertaking is improving the learning that happens in our schools, which greater student autonomy and engagement has repeatedly proven to do. More fundamentally, students are people and people have rights, as the Supreme Court has ruled. If we want future generations of informed, engaged citizens, we should treat them that way from the start.
Student Voice, our student-run organization driving this initiative, can’t speak for every student in the nation, so we won’t try to. We’re shooting for baby steps, but lots of them together.
These 11 student-driven amendments will change the future of education by being grassroots building blocks for change:
- Free Expression. Want to know what schools are really like at the classroom level? Letting students speak out will give you far more insightful and detailed answers than relying solely on tests. Schools should be held accountable by their students, too. Students should be able to express their ideas and speak out about their experiences without fear or suppression.
- Safety and Wellbeing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent Youth Risk Behavior Survey, more students than ever before feel unsafe in school, and 19 percent report being bullied at school. The National Institute of Mental Health also reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth, and 11 percent of youth will fight depression by the time they turn 18. Students should be safe and supported in school, physically and mentally.
- Due Process. According the U.S. Department of Education, about 200,000 students faced corporal punishment in 2006; of those, 39,000 were students with disabilities. The vast majority of people who go into education do so for a love for helping children grow and succeed. Still, there remain pockets of abhorrent abuse, and we need to do more to end it. Students have a right to fair and just treatment, free of coercion and fear.
- Personal Learning. The national ratio of school counselors to students in this country is 478 to 1. What’s more, 1 in 5 high schools have no counselors at all. This lack of support is a significant burden for low-income students in particular, and as a result, many smart and capable students simply never pursue opportunities because no one told them they could or should, or was there to help them reach higher. Of course, personal learning is much broader than just guidance counselors, it’s about supporting students as individuals first. As Ken Robinson has said, “The answer is not to standardize education, but to personalize and customize it to the needs of each child and community. There is no alternative. There never was.”
- Institutional Agency. Any discussion about student rights needs to include students at the table. Students need to inform policy and contribute to decisions. The difference between experimenting and innovating in education is the difference between students as guinea pigs, and students being authentic partners of change. We must have the right to help shape our institutions and future.
- Information and Privacy. This is a two-way street. Data has always played a critical role in how teachers identify their students’ needs to help them learn and grow. In the digital age, we have to ensure that students have control over their information, and protect students from the possibilities of privacy intrusions or abuse.
- Employability. Among education’s loftier goals is the preservation and progress the republic. Part of that is maintaining an economy that provides every citizen with opportunities to find meaningful work that allows them to support themselves and their families. Education must be grounded in this goal before reaching higher. Students need to know that staying in school will prepare them for a job.
- Civic Participation. Duly noted, we’ve got a republic to preserve here, people! Want citizens who vote, know the issues, and give a general damn? Let them get started while they’re still in school. Students have a right to learn by improving their communities and society, we don’t need to wait until after graduation to make things better.
- Fair Assessment. Assessment helps ensure we deliver on the promise of public education; that truly no one gets left behind, despite the baggage that phrase carries. Current assessments can be inadequate, even detrimental, to that goal. For example, only half as many students with learning differences (such as dyslexia) score average or better on standard assessments than students without LDs, and it’s not because they’re more stupid. Assessment should lift us up, not put us down. Students should have the right to demonstrate mastery in a way that respects and supports them as unique learners.
- Technology. There isn’t space here to dismantle the “digital natives” argument, but just because we have smartphones and Instagram accounts doesn’t mean our generation is adequately prepared to lead the innovations of the century. We need high speed internet access, devices, and up-to-date software in our schools, and we need it today. The current administration has made tremendous strides to this end, and hopefully whomever is next will continue on.
- Diversity and Inclusivity. Our generation is riding a cultural and demographic wave that will redefine our nation. Our schools will see this change first, as they always have, and we must make sure that they are not worn down by the same racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and other vices that cling to our society. The classroom should be a place where everyone can come together to learn.
Ultimately, the Student Bill of Rights is not a hall-pass that permits students to participate in changing their schools and be heard. We are already doing that. Students like Dawnya Johnson are helping fellow Baltimore youth improve job opportunities and attend college, Niki Adeli is speaking out on changing standardized assessment, and Tess Harkin and Sam Parekh, student journalists who covered the national superintendents summit at the White House earlier this year to improve the state of technology in schools. Organizations like the Student Press Law Center have also provided unwavering leadership supporting student free speech, and Active Minds works with students to reduce stigmas around mental health at their schools.
What we need now is collective action. There are about 55 million K-12 students in this country, and about 20 million in degree-granting colleges. If students are treated as allies rather than subjects, imagine what could be achieved. We, the students, merely suggest these rights to ensure a more perfect education for all. Learn more or join the movement at StuVoice.org and read all 11 rights at StuRights.org.
For more on student voice, check out:
- What School Should Be: The Strength of Student Voice
- How Teachers Use Paper Blogging to Promote Student Voice