The power in listening to student voice

In the current season of testing and budget negotiations, the voice of reason often seems to get lost in the din of passionate appeals from opposing forces. There are debates on classroom conditions, instructional and assessment practice, and general structure or design of the schooling experience. As is typically my bias,  I believe that the root of many of these problems is how far outside of the classroom we are seeking solutions.

I try to focus my attention on finding solutions that will have the greatest impact, which is always in my classroom.  This year in particular, I have worked to provide authentic assessments of my students’ abilities with the new Colorado Academic standards. To that end, earlier this semester, my sophomores wrote and delivered persuasive speeches on an idea, person, event or institution that was or needs to be revolutionary. Turns out one of my students felt like education was the institution to focus on.

Monica is a 10th grader in my world studies class. She gave her speech on two areas that she felt needed change in our current educational system: school start times and class sizes. Proving that those who are in the classroom every day have much to say, her arguments are simple…but important for policymakers to hear.

Structure of the school day

In 2002, when I was a graduate student earning my teaching degree, I read research that discussed the need for morning sleep among teenage students. This puzzled me as I compared the start time of most high schools to that of other grades. It was always earlier. Monica’s research showed me that you don’t need to take graduate classes to recognize this issue. According to Monica:

“School start time varies everywhere, some schools start at 9:00 a.m. while others start at as early as 7:00 a.m. The students that have to wake up earlier do not get enough sleep to focus on their classes the next day. Starting the school day later will boost their academic achievement. It will improve test scores in reading by one percent and in math by two percent. Researchers have reported a negative correlation between self-reported hours of sleep and grades with middle and high school students. Late start associates with reduced television viewing, increased time spent on homework, and fewer absences. Higher age means higher test scores, 11 year olds improved by 1.2% and 14 years old by 3.7% in math and in reading, 12 year olds improved by .2% and 14 year olds by 2.8%. When kids go through puberty, two factors can make adjustments difficult like the increased amount of sleep needed, and the change in natural timing of sleep cycle. When I was in middle school, we started at 8:20 which is a whole hour and ten minutes later than we start now, in high school. I know from personal experience, that my grades were a lot better in middle school than they have been in high school.”

Monica’s personal experience is compelling. Later start times had very real implications for her success. So too, do class sizes.

Class size

As an English teacher, I often consider how much stronger my feedback and personalized instruction could be in a smaller class. Apparently, my students notice and feel this struggle as well. As Monica states:

“The wisdom of parents, teachers and administration is that the smaller the class size, the more improvement students will have with their learning and overall outcome. The lower grade levels are the most affected. In 1986, kindergarten students were randomly placed in classes of 15-17 students or 22-25 students. They found that the smaller class sizes performed significantly better than their peers in the larger class sizes. At least 24 states have mandated class size reduction in recent decades. Due to all the budget cuts that have been happening, the class sizes are getting larger and larger each year. This year, for every three classes of 20, they are now putting 30 students in two classes. Conventional wisdom states that the smaller the class, the better education because the teacher has more time to focus on each individual. The biggest issue is students not getting the education they deserve because of the lack of individual instruction. Having a class of 40-50 students makes it stressful on the teachers because it’s harder for them to control the students and guide their learning, rather than having a class of 20-30. This not only bothers teachers, but also the students because the classes are increasing so rapidly, there are not enough seats for each student so they have to stand, says a senior high school student.”

At our school, the average class size on paper is 19. In reality, there are very few classes that have fewer than 30. With budget cuts and economic hardships abounding, choices have to be made as to which classes can absorb higher numbers. Monica’s experiences show how dire this situation has become:

“While the content of the class may be easy for some students, it could be a lot harder for others making those individuals unfit for that particular class. Sometimes the teacher doesn’t realize how far a student is falling behind until it’s too late; which is why they need to notice it ahead of time. Studies have found that if at the beginning of the year, the teacher gives out a test of the content they’ll be learning, they can see who is fit for the class and who may need a little more attention. Again, going back to the large class sizes, teachers do not have enough time to keep re-teaching or going over the same thing all the time just to help one kid out of their big class.”

Listening to all stakeholders

Monica lives the reality of what she’s writing about every day. Our school starts every day at 7:15; she is one of 50 students in my blocked/integrated World Studies class and she is not the kid who likes to call attention to herself on a daily basis, though she may occasionally need that extra attention.

Her piece reminds me that our students are as essential to include in conversations as any other stakeholder groups. They, along with teachers, are on the receiving end of educational policy everyday and have many ideas on what could/should be done to make the system as a whole more efficient and effective. Her final call to action asks for all of us to engage in thoughtful dialogue and thinking so that her revolution can begin.

“Do you want your son or daughter to experience any of these things again, or even for the first time? Education is not fair for students, teachers or parents. Not enough thought is being put into it anymore, and the economy does not help the situation either. However, with the help of parents and teachers, education could get the revolution it needs to help the students become more successful.”

I couldn’t agree more…and hope that you will hear her words (or those of the thousands of students going to school each day) and join her cause, so that we can help make this system better for each of them.

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