Age is Not a Prerequisite for Insight

When I joined CEP in 2008, YouthTruth was simply an idea on a piece of paper. Our goal was to bring new voices, those of the beneficiary, to bear on the decision-making of school leaders, those who manage schools, and, perhaps most importantly, those who fund schools.

I came to this project as a generalist. I was good at writing business plans and had experience helping organizations take an idea and bring it to fruition. However, I quickly saw that we were doing something different and delivering to students and schools a differentiated, unique opportunity to drive school change.

I remember walking awkwardly into our first YouthTruth assembly in a small town in North Carolina — feeling very old as I heard girls talking about their boyfriend troubles or their latest fight with their best girl friend. “Can you believe she said…”  “and then he …” All the good memories — and moreover the hard feelings — of high school came washing over me. But then, kids started talking during the YouthTruth kick-off assembly. One girl stood up to speak about one of her teachers. She said that her teacher really knew her subject but frankly wasn’t good at explaining things and would get frustrated with students when they didn’t seem to understand her. Another student talked about how he had had three math teachers that year — how was he expected to learn, he described, when he had such turnover in the teacher role?

I was honestly blown away by the thoughtfulness and candor that these students brought forward when we gave them the opportunity to participate in the improvement of their school experience and felt encouraged to redouble our efforts to make this project a success.

Since that assembly, we have seen countless students respond in equally thoughtful and powerful ways through the YouthTruth survey. We have collected quantitative ratings from more than 21,000 students and have coded and categorized qualitative comments from an equally large number of students. Here’s some comments as illustration:

“The curriculum that I am experiencing right now is one that forces me to do things for myself. The classes I take are challenging. They force me to come out of my comfort zone, so I learn more.”

Contrast that with:

“There are some teachers that don’t explain the work and don’t teach us what we need to know for tests and quizzes. All they do is assign homework and expect us to learn it ourselves. Well, some students cannot learn like that, some people actually have to be taught things and shown how to do things. Not everyone does well by having to learn things on their own.”

I was not an “education person” when I joined this project. However, I have come to realize that when given the forum and the opportunity, students provide feedback that is dead-on for how to improve their experience. As we twist our education system up into a formative pretzel, I continue to be baffled that so few are gathering feedback from kids — those who we claim we are trying to serve — about whether our reform efforts actually make sense and whether they’ll achieve what we want them to achieve. Don’t discount the voices of these kids simply because they are younger. They see and experience what we don’t see day to day and deserve to be heard.

Check out the video below to hear from students about how they feel YouthTruth is helping them provide input into their school improvement efforts.

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