Beyond Prom Planning -- Engaging Student Voice and Shifting Power in Kentucky to Improve Academic Achievement and Education Equity

July 15, 2021

By Andrew Brennen and Sanaa Kahloon

Last fall, after a summer of protests and consciousness shifting concerning the role systemic racism continues to play in society as well as in our public schools, students in Kentucky expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of Black representation in their English and History courses. In response, high school senior Zoё Jenkins organized her peers to crowdsource a diversity and inclusion curriculum with the goal of helping their classmates “appreciate diversity, foster inclusion, and empower others to create equitable change.” The curriculum, which eventually evolved into an organization called Diversity, Inclusion, Cultural Competency, and Equity (DICCE) combined the contributors’ lived experiences with contemporary data and historical context to establish the foundation for a truly multicultural education. In Kentucky and around the country, Zoё and her classmates are far from the only education stakeholders reimagining the relationship between students and adults in their schools.

Students spend upwards of thirty-five hours a week in a classroom and yet, they are rarely consulted when it comes to improving our schools. For years, student councils -- the body supposedly representing student needs and interests -- have been relegated largely to party and event planning (senior prom) rather than being included in important discussions related to curriculum relevance, student engagement, education research, and school policy. However, this is changing as education stakeholders around the country tap into the power of student voice as a means both to bolster student achievement and to disrupt long-standing inequities.

Student voice as an education intervention showed significant promise prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before in-person schools closed for thousands of students, education experts were already considering the notion that students could be more than consumers of education and instead, exploring whether they could be active agents in co-creating it. To conduct education research designed to fully and accurately reflect the experiences students have in school, researchers were not only prioritizing feedback from students, but also engaging students themselves as researchers. Similarly, as advocates fought for policy change and policymakers struggled to understand the modern student experience, innovators in both groups had already begun to recognize that meaningful student partnerships stand to enhance their policy efforts to improve education for our nation’s youth. And, most importantly, educators who valued youth agency already were reimagining intergenerational relationships in the classroom to maximize student achievement.

Adapting frameworks utilized by student engagement experts Dana Mitra, as well as Eric Toshalis and Michael Nakkula, student voice presents in various forms along a spectrum, with tokenization by adults at one end and authentic youth-adult partnership at the other. To ground our discussion, we define student voice as the complete integration of youth into the systems that govern them, allowing the meaningful leadership of students in educational systems, encouraging student agency in defining their learning environments, and honoring the authentic experiences that define students as people.

Over the past year, as the boundaries between schools, communities, and home life were blurred by crisis after crisis, Kentucky students brought the value of student voice into even sharper focus and action. Through crowdsourced curriculum, participatory research, and policy advocacy, students across the Kentucky commonwealth underscored the fruitful relationship between student voice, academic achievement, and equitable education policy. In doing so, these students not only developed as citizens and scholars, by claiming agency and shifting power, they also changed the traditional relationship between adults and young people in school. Our experience with youth organizing enables us to connect our observations and experience with current research on student voice’s academic and systemic outcomes.

Ultimately, we argue that the impact of student voice is best viewed both through its impact on students as well as on the institutional and policy outcomes of the public education system.

Learning With, Not Just Teaching To

Like Zoё Jenkins and her classmates, students in other districts feel unseen in the classroom. Students in New York City advocated for curriculum change, protesting literature curriculum that failed to represent them, resulting in negative self-images and promoting stereotypes. For years, high school students have complained about the disconnect between their experiences in school and their realities within and beyond it. When Gallup asked teens in 2004 to select the top three words that describe how they feel in school from a list of 14 adjectives, “bored” was chosen most often, by half the students, and “tired” was second, at 42 percent. A later Gallup study found that less than a third of 11th graders felt engaged in high school. When students are bored, their academic performance, not to mention their interest in remaining in school, begins to slip. The engagement and boredom crisis is worse for students of color whose racial identities and life experiences are often at odds with their educators’. While the student population in U.S. public schools is majority Black and Brown, as of 2017 79 percent of educators are white.

Dr. Dana Mitra, an Associate Professor of Educational Theory at Penn State, argues that student voice allows typically disengaged or alienated students to think of themselves as valuable members of their education communities. Psychologists call the positive shift in one’s evaluation of their own importance within any system “buy-in” and “ownership” -- both of which lead to deeper engagement. Harvard Associate Professor and student engagement expert Jal Mehta has further reinforced this notion in his research: “We have to stop seeing boredom as a frilly side effect. It is a central issue. Engagement is a precondition for learning....No learning happens until students agree to become engaged with the material.”

The traditional classroom model relies on individual, often white, educators creating lessons for, instead of with, their students. For too many students, particularly students of color, this model leads to boring classes that are disconnected from their lived experiences and routinely fail to achieve the meaningful engagement that is a prerequisite to learning. But there is hope. Students in Kentucky, as well as around the country, are pointing to an alternative model that prioritizes co-creating curriculum, lessons, and activities with students -- leveraging their lived experiences as assets to be embraced rather than ignored. Such an approach shifts power in the classroom and stands to bolster student achievement. Youth-led initiatives like Diversify Your Narrative are connecting local efforts, developing inclusive curriculum, and forming intergenerational coalitions aimed at growing student influence over classroom and learning management. Diversify Your Narrative has created lesson plans aligned with national education standards, reading lists, and other resources for educators, including toolkits for diversifying U.S. history curriculum and equitable mathematics instruction.

Researching Alongside, Not Just On

Student voice also shows promise for changing norms in the world of education research. The traditional view of education research still positions professors and professional researchers as the driving force behind inquiry, studying and analyzing student behavior with passive to non-existent involvement of students themselves. This approach often overlooks the wealth of information possessed by students that could guide more authentic inquiry and closes the door to participant buy-in and member-checks, which is essential to thorough and accurate data collection.

However, recent innovations in education research have yielded several research frameworks, such as Design Thinking and the Open Systems approach, that aim to flip this dynamic on its head. The Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) model, in which youth collaborate with established research professionals to drive informed, student-minded inquiry, is one such approach. This marriage of youth experience and adult expertise centers the principle of youth power. This model has generated a range of research projects nationwide, from student-led school climate audits to a broad analysis of the out-of-school learning sector.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team’s Coping with COVID-19 Student to Student research project leveraged this approach to assess how students were confronting the impact of Covid-19. The intergenerational research team, led by one of this article’s co-authors, conducted Institutional Review Board-approved quantitative and qualitative data collection and analysis of Kentucky student experiences during COVID. This project, which is in the peer-review process of publication, showcases untapped potential for student research and demonstrates how, with capable, youth-centered mentorship, students are able to discern problems in the education sector all too often unseen and untreated.

In the short term, student engagement in education research targeting their own population as subjects can increase the quality of the research conducted by leveraging the lived experiences of students to inform the most efficient and effective study design. In the long term, not only does student research create opportunities for students to develop and demonstrate critical thinking and analysis, it also enhances sociopolitical development and paves the way for further academic and civic involvement in their later years.

Advocating With, Not Just For

Student voice realizes its full potential when used to inform policy, extending student perspectives into halls of power where decisions are made. When youth hold meaningful roles in the education policy-making process, they bring more than their voices -- they bring years of firsthand experience with the education landscape in real time, a broader base of empathy, reduced conflicts of interest, and diversity -- to political spaces dominated by the nation’s white and American-born upper middle class adults.

During the pandemic, Kentucky’s State Board of Education gained a student representative, Solyana Mesfin, whose seat was recently challenged by the state legislature but successfully defended by an intergenerational statewide coalition of partners in education. This political battle revealed the efficacy that Solyana, and student members as a whole, bring to education policy-making. Solyana’s fellow board members lauded her for her focus on minority students and her attention to details that slipped past even the most seasoned professionals. Solyana’s example serves to demonstrate the necessity of meaningful diversity in all political spaces, but most importantly, the democratization of the systems that govern youth.

Equally important to note are the students attempting to influence policy that have not yet been granted that power. Organized by the Grassroots Law Project, students across the country have been advocating for the removal of police officers in schools. The Kentucky branch of this operation, Counselors Not Cops, led by a high-school-aged woman of color, has been particularly effective in working to further a purpose that is intuitive to them and backed by research. Their strategies, which have included op-eds and school board testimony, though representative of traditional grassroots activism, are made more effective by youth-led execution, illustrating the transformation of youth passion into youth power. Cultivating a broader sense of civic engagement is a traditional goal of the American school system and can be realized by supporting students’ efforts to engage with their communities directly, even (if not especially) if their advocacy runs counter to the status quo. Though potentially uncomfortable for school leaders, school policies are more responsive and effective if student advocacy is properly taken into account, which in turn increases student engagement in their own learning.

Systemic re-development is needed to strengthen our public schools and to achieve education justice. Authentic youth voice in curriculum design, education research, and public education policymaking is a powerful lever for change that can move our education system past entrenched inequities to serve the essential democratic purpose of public education and engage the interest and passion of students in all communities. While only scratching the surface, students, educators, and researchers in Kentucky are exploring what’s possible with promising results.


About the Authors:


Andrew Brennen (UNC Chapel Hill ’19, Harvard Graduate School of Education Ed.M ’22) is an education policy entrepreneur based in Lexington, Kentucky. As a National Geographic 2020 Education Fellow and Co-Founder of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, Brennen supports youth-led movements and organizations around the world. In 2021, Brennen was selected as a Forbes 30 Under 30 fellow in the category of education.


Sanaa Kahloon (Harvard College ’25) is an education justice advocate based in Lexington, Kentucky. She served as the Kentucky Student Voice Team’s Research Director for two years, coordinating research projects that underscored the value of students as partners in education research. She now serves as a member of the organization’s Board of Directors.

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