Student Feedback: The Missing Piece in Education Reform

We are in the midst of an unprecedented period of experimentation across the US education system. Check out any of the recent debates on proposed teacher assessment systems or commentary on the DC mayoral election, which many describe as a referendum on education reform, for evidence. In addition to significant government investment, foundations and individual philanthropists are instrumental in supporting these reform efforts, providing critical matching funds for programs like Race to the Top and advancing local community reform efforts. For example, just this past week, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook pledged $100 million to support the Newark school system. Across all these reform efforts, one point of view is almost invariably omitted: the perspective of the students themselves.

While I am in no position to argue about the efficacy of planned interventions, it concerns me that education leaders are not accessing the full breadth of feedback loops available to them and that they are making assumptions about what students find effective without asking the students directly. If you want to know whether a new program is achieving its intended impact, shouldn’t you be getting feedback from the students? Let’s not treat students as cogs or “inputs” into education reform, but rather recognize that it’s all about them.  Let’s respect their autonomy and responsibility in shaping their education experience.

In 2008, CEP launched the YouthTruth project — an initiative that gathers comparative feedback from the beneficiaries of education funders, in this case, high school students — about what’s working and not working in their schools. More than 21,000 students from 86 schools nationwide have participated in YouthTruth to date, with 100 schools slated for 2010-2011 participation. This project affirms that students have a lot to say about how their school experience could be improved and that their input — when harnessed effectively — can lead to real school improvements. Through YouthTruth, students assess whether they feel they are being challenged in their classes, whether they feel close to an adult at school, and the distractions that make it hard for them to do their best.

Participating school leaders are responding and making changes based on the feedback received through YouthTruth, as demonstrated by the testimonials below.

In the words of one faculty member, “we learned [through YouthTruth] that a lot of times we were taking into consideration the thoughts of the adults and not the students.”

Preliminary feedback from participants in YouthTruth has been extremely positive. A recent independent evaluation of YouthTruth found that ninety nine percent of principals agree that YouthTruth has been helpful in planning specific changes in their schools. One hundred percent of participating principals would recommend YouthTruth to another school.

Check out the videos below to see how YouthTruth is being implemented in schools and what students and staff have to say about YouthTruth.

While YouthTruth is still a young initiative, we are extremely excited about its potential to be a complementary indicator to other routinely collected assessment data like test scores and graduation rates. We’re eager to amplify student voices to inform efforts to improve the educational system at large. Stay tuned for other observations about YouthTruth later this week.

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