Trusting Student Voices

Sonya Heisters

As foundations with K-12 education strategies modify their approaches to support COVID-19 recovery efforts, funders would be wise to gather expert advice. And, frankly, there exists no better expert on what works and does not work in education than a student.

So, what do students have to say about their learning and well-being under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic? And, more importantly, what recommendations do students have for adults regarding which impact areas to prioritize in the new academic year?

These are the central questions that our team at YouthTruth sought to answer through our third and final report on U.S. students’ experiences throughout the pandemic: Students Weigh In – Part III: Learning & Well-Being During COVID-19. In order to offer timely insights from student experts, we analyzed survey data collected January through May 2021 from more than 200,000 3rd to 12th grade students from over 500 schools across 19 states.

Here’s what we learned:

  1. While students’ perceptions of learning returned to pre-pandemic levels during spring 2021, there remains cause for concern about students’ social and emotional well-being. Students offered insights on how technology can help or hinder learning.
  2. The overall number of obstacles to students learning is down. However, inequitable experiences and compounding barriers persist, especially for Black and Latinx learners.
  3. Students felt more respect from adults during the pandemic as well as increased academic support from teachers. However, respect and teacher support are experienced unevenly across student groups.
  4. Fewer students plan to go to college. Students offered ideas for making access to higher education more equitable.

Surely, no two students have experienced the pandemic the exact same way, and yet the report finds trends across racial and gender identity lines that illustrate the ever-present inequities that have plagued school systems since long before SARS-CoV-2 hit playgrounds.

Students’ written comments offer ideas about how adults can better work in partnership with students to address these systemic shortcomings. For example, analysis of open-ended sentiments from Black or African American high school students uncovered three recommendations about what their schools could do to improve learning and well-being conditions: provide inclusive curricula, adopt anti-racist policies, and treat students fairly.

What does this mean for the year ahead?

We learn in the report that students still face formidable challenges, and the data presents urgent opportunities for philanthropy to help. Removing hurdles for emotional and mental health services, culturally responsive teaching, and/or supporting efforts to help school systems gather their own local student feedback are all strategies that could help address any number of the areas students identified for improvement.  

Take, for example, the Barr Foundation, which supported student voice initiatives across a diverse set of high schools throughout New England. The foundation’s findings echo YouthTruth’s national report. In their summary of findings, The Barr Foundation Education program reminds us in What Do Students Have to Say about Learning and School During COVID-19: “a return to in-person school should not default to a status quo system that was not working for many students.” And there is reason to believe in the prospect that change is possible: “Regularly soliciting and acting on stakeholder feedback is one key step in improving the school experience and post-secondary outcomes for all students.”

The new academic year presents an opportunity to reflect on real-time student feedback concerning the challenges and silver linings from the past 17 months, and to use these reflections to help prioritize efforts for recovery. With the launch of the Students Weigh In, Part III report, it is my hope that we adults will lean in with curiosity, actively listening and strategizing with student insights in mind. We need to be willing to change based on what we hear. These findings are an invitation to both educators and education funders to leverage insights from the true experts – actual students – to create a more equitable and resilient year ahead.

Sonya Heisters is deputy director of YouthTruth. Follow Sonya on Twitter at @SonyaHeisters and follow YouthTruth at @Youth_Truth.

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