Does Your School, District or State Have a Student Advisory Team?

One of the highlights for me as a participant in Dell’s recent Teacher Effectiveness and Next Generation Learning Think Tank here in Raleigh was watching Sixto Cancel — a Dell Youth Ambassador and junior at Virginia Commonwealth University — challenge North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory on the role that student voices should play in educational policy and purchasing decisions.

What you’re describing might be great,” Cancel said after McCrory finished arguing for a future a future where students in schools all over the world conducted experiments in virtual chemistry labs and learned from recognized experts posting content online for free, “In fact, I might want to check those virtual labs out.  But how do you KNOW that it will resonate with kids?  What are you doing to get student input on the choices that you are making?


Sixto’s argument was powerfully simple:  You can’t just assume that bringing technology into the classroom is the key to engaging kids.  Instead, you have to actually ask students for input before — AND for feedback after — making choices about how to spend technology dollars.

He’s right, isn’t he?  All too often, we imagine learning spaces for today’s students without ever letting students be a part of the imagination process. 

Instead, we make million dollar investments and push our schools in new directions based on nothing more than our one-sided assumptions about “today’s kids”.  Seeing technology in every backpack and back pocket, we believe that change depends on buying EVERYTHING that Promethean and Pearson are peddling. The hitch is that we are looking at “solutions” through OUR eyes instead of asking for THEIR input.

The result:  We spend tons of taxpayer cabbage without changing a thing about our schools.  Kids sleeping in — and dropping out of — classrooms outfitted with Interactive Whiteboards and 3D data projectors after taking a hundred virtual field trips and dissecting a thousand digital frogs ain’t exactly progress, y’all.

Listening to Cancel — who is an articulate spokesman with experience in front of all kinds of audiences — left me convinced that schools, districts and states need to work to develop Student Advisory Teams.

What would a Student Advisory Team look like?

I’m thinking about a group of 10-15 students who accurately represent the demographics of a community — kids from different grade levels who cut across all social, racial, economic categories — that would meet with decision-makers on a regular basis to give feedback about IMPORTANT policies and purchases.

I’m NOT talking about the go-getters you already have planning Spirit Week and the Homecoming Parade.  And I’m NOT talking about the student council that you meet with once in awhile to talk about the tardy policy, lunchroom seating plans or the dress code.  Let’s be honest: Turning Senior Night or the annual charity car wash over to kids isn’t REALLY an honest effort to tap into student voices.  Neither is gathering feedback from “student leaders” about whether or not the soda machines should be turned on during lunch hour.


Instead, I’m talking about a group of trusted voices — kids who spend serious time learning to evaluate and analyze and advocate — that principals and superintendents can turn to for honest feedback about the choices that they are making.

At the school level, maybe participation on the Student Advisory Team could take place during an elective class.  The team could be charged with gathering feedback from peers, testing out digital solutions that schools are considering and crafting positions and presentations that could be shared with all stakeholders.  A supervising teacher could monitor student progress as well as develop advocacy skills in students.

At the district and/or state level, Student Advisory Teams could meet for regularly scheduled work days during the school year — coming together in a central location with an adult sponsor that could facilitate structured conversations designed to surface student voice and gather meaningful feedback about just what today’s classrooms need to look like.  Members could serve for multiple years, developing comfort with one another and learning to argue passionately on behalf of their peers.

Whaddya’ think?  Is this something you can make happen in your school and/or district?

Better question: Can you afford not to?


Related Radical Reads:

How Engaged ARE Your Students?

Engagement isn’t Something You Do TO Students

Digital Immigrants Unite

  • Shannon Cde baca


    Bravo Bill,

    great post and so well explained. Folks in education often have already fallen in love with a particular idea before they bring it up as a discussion idea. It is difficult for other adults to speak truth to power to get them to reconsider.  The key with your post is that we minimize the students. Heck we even marganilize them on decisions that directly impact them.

    I use digital labs and fell in love with one product. I used it for two years before really listening to my kids who told me what they truly thought of them. They hated them. These labs did everything I thought was cool, and they were expensive. What now occupies my online classes is a less fancy much more engaging program and a ton of “kitchen chemistry” labs the kids do and discuss as a learning group. If I had been paying attention I would not have wasted time and taxpayer “cabbage” on the other. Now every unit the kids have a chance to tell me what we can do differently to help them learn.

  • Lanelle Gordin

    The Question of Voice

    This is an outstanding post that touches on the key question of whose voices will be heard in decisions about educational policy and practices. In a day and age when the Common Core State Standards are being promoted with special emphasis on collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking, isn’t it time that all educators engage in these competencies rather than continuing to maintain the status quo? A student advisory committee encompasses all four “Cs” and invites us to become a 21st century institution. I’d love to see it happen. 

  • BillIvey

    Ah, hierarchies…

    I think the degree to which a school is hierarchical would be a major determining factor in whether or not such an initiative would be successful or even attempted. At my school, I see and push and pull between a “we’re the adults and we get to make the decisions” perspective and a “if we’re about student voice, we have to walk the talk” perspective. You can see resonance between people with each of those two points of view on other similar issues such as whether or not to have a valedictorian and/or an honor roll, assessment in general, and so on.

    I would dearly love to see such a thing as a student advisory group. The closest we come in my school is the occasional creation of special purpose student-faculty committees, e.g. a scheduling group I’m in now or an iPad policy group we put together earlier this year in the middle school. The iPad policy is brilliant, I might add, and the kids are contributing great ideas *and* listening well in the scheduling group (more so than one or two adults I could name, cough cough).

    On the other hand… When I heard Student Council was going to take a (long overdue, in my opinion and that of the Dean of Students) look at the dress code, I held a couple of meetings with the seventh graders when we discussed the whys and wherefores and implications of dress codes. You can see my blogs on the discussions here and here. Contrast that level of discussion (among the youngest students in my school!) to the eventual proposal that emerged, which boiled down to “Upper School students can dress down, but not too far down, during exam periods.” I was sooooo disappointed.

  • Shannoncdebaca

    Ahh Lip service

    Ahhh the lip service we give to student empowerment is evident in most of the stories shared. There is one school in Iowa where a new leader is bucking the trend and has lunch with an advisory group consisting of two teacher leaders, the principal and 7 amazing students. They are letting the kids determine the agendas. I was thinking the kids would choose softball issues but they dug into the validictorian issue and grades. They are arguing for pass fail grades in some levels to encourage kids to take more challenging classes without worrying that the class will impact their grade point average. This group wrote the bullying policy bones, designed a new lunch schedule, revised the tornado drill plans and they are digging into technology at other schools to guide a plan for better technology use in the classroom. This group digs into data and has outside meeting with other groups of students. They are the group who will decide which online providers are approved to offer courses for credit in their district.

    I will visit there this month and post more after I get to see what they are planning for next year. It is possible to get beyond the special projects and lip service but it takes some front end work to bring the kids up to speed on policy and other issues. Selection fo the students requires some out of the box thinking as the best leaders are often flying under normal school radar. But, the benefits are huge as the trivial issues slide into the background and important issues become the topics of student conversations throughout the school.


  • JasonParker

    Who will lead the charge?

    Makes perfect sense to me, Bill. Who will lead the charge in Raleigh/Wake County? Would 10-15 students be enough, or would there be value in elementary, middle and high school advisory teams?