Should a student in school be seen and not heard? An examination of student participation in U.S schools.

Author:O'Brien, Edward L.

    The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most important international document pertaining to rights of children. Article 12 is seen by many to be the lynchpin of the Convention especially in its call for participation of young people. Section 1 of that Article provides that:

    'State Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.'

    Jean Zermatten has asserted that this is much more than a simple statement of rights since it calls for the participation of the child in society. He characterizes it as 'the great innovation in the end of the 20t century' (Zermatten, 2003:16). He goes on to say that 'the CRC gives children the right to speak and obligates that adults listen' (2003:16). The United States, with Somalia, differs from much of the world as one of only two countries that has not ratified the CRC. Even so, there are many innovations presently going on in U.S schools regarding student voice. in the U.S there is a legal basis for student participation in the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution. The relevant provision reads:

    'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances' (U.S. Constitution, Amendment I).

    The First Amendment is very important to the issue of 'student voice' because the five freedoms listed within it--religion, speech, press, assembly and association--all pertain to the elements that facilitate the articulation of student voices. These freedoms also correspond to provisions of the CRC including; Article 12 (right of the children to express their views on matters that affect them), Article 13 (freedom of expression), Article 14 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), Article 15 (freedom of association and assembly), and Article 17 (right of access to information from the mass media and elsewhere). Though i will refer to the CRC, the best way to look at student voice in U.S schools is through the lens of the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution. My argument is that the First Amendment provides students with a legal basis for a claim to the right to participation.

    But before undertaking a discussion on the importance of student voice, i will provide a working definition of the term as used in this article. For purposes of this article, i define student voice as a process that allow youths to state opinions and being heard, resulting in meaningful participation in decisions which concern them. The concept of student voice is not a new phenomenon in the U.S education system. For as long as schools had students, it is likely that there were always some students who attempted to influence school decision-making. However, American schools have generally been authoritarian by nature, based on the premise that adults know better than children. In the 1960s and 70s there were student power movements mostly on university campuses, but also some in schools. These movements advocated for the right of students to participate in decision-making in classrooms as well as general matters relating to the school environment. However, their existence was short live as they largely vanished in the middle half of the 1970s (Mitra 2004: 652). Perhaps this was because the U.S became increasingly more conservative in the 1980s, and rights were often seen as not properly balanced with responsibilities.

    It is interesting to note, however, that the more recent resurgence of student voice in a number of schools in the last decade has not placed much emphasis to the notion of ' rights.' This appears to be out of favour as a result of a backlash to the demand for rights made in the 1960s by many groups including African-Americans, women, the disabled, students and others. This led to many court cases and a feeling that many of these cases were a burden on the defendants, who were frequently the school administrators, and went too far in awarding 'rights.' To some, rights began to be seen as 'license', whilst to other school administrators and teachers, rights also began to be seen as a threat to maintaining control.

    indeed, schools are the most important institutions in which to promote student voice. This is because they have the capacity and mandate to reach virtually every young person, making them a key contributor to the development of social norms (Billig 2004:8). it is plausible to say, therefore, that if students are given effective voice in school, they are more likely to exercise an effective voice in their post-school lives. The issue of student voice involves a tension between those who want to protect the child and those who want the child to participate. Those who want protection point out the dangers of turning decisions over to those who are too young or immature to make them. Those in favour of participation say students are mature enough to make decisions and that the experience of decision-making will help them grow in maturity.


    In order to better appreciate student decision-making in the U.S, I have selected a school reform project centered on the concept of vibrant student voice. This project, the First Amendment Schools, was a joint initiative of two Washington area based NGos, the First Amendment Centre of the Freedom Forum and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which is now the sole home for the project. The project was begun 9 years ago and the name comes from the First Amendment to the U.S Constitution. Given its emphasis on student voice, i have selected the FAS project to examine how student voice is being implemented in some schools in the U.S. FAS grew to over 100 schools and at one point included over 70,000 students. The goals of FAS was to create and sustain First Amendment principles in schools, establish schools in every region of the country, encourage curriculum reforms that deepen these principles and educate school leaders, teachers and others about the significance of the First Amendment (First Amendment Schools). These schools have a shared commitment that:

  3. students and all members of the school community are given meaningful opportunities to practice democracy;

  4. students learn how to exercise their individual rights with responsibility, and experience what it feels like to serve the public good;

  5. families, students and educators work together to shape the school culture; and

  6. civic education is translated into civic engagement through service learning and problem solving (McCloskey and Chaplain 2004:38).

    Student voice is being implemented in FAS and based on my interactions with the FAS principals, teachers and students, indications are that it is a principle supported across the spectrum of its participants. Six schools were selected through consultation with FAS co-director Sam Chaplain who provided me with a list of ten schools where he believed a substantial amount of student voice was being exercised. They varied from small schools (e.g. 200 students), to larger schools (e.g. 1000). Some schools had been in the program for five years; all had been in at least two. The selected schools are geographically diverse, ranging from the East (Massachusetts) to the West (California) to the South (South Carolina) to the Mid-west (Wisconsin) to the Southwest (Utah and Texas).

    Throughout this article i will reflect the views of the principals and students i interviewed at the six FAS schools. Rather than use names of either the school or the person interviewed, I will identify each person as follows: principal, California or student, Massachusetts. Before looking at how students manifest voice, it is helpful to examine how U.S law either expands or restricts student voice.


    The United States Supreme Court, in a series of landmark decisions, has set standards for schools to follow in such areas as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, religion and assembly, all of which are relevant to my exploration of student voice. We will now examine look at speech, press and assembly.


    Throughout modern U.S history most schools have been and continue to be basically authoritarian institutions. The principal has the final say on all policy matters that are not the province of the local school board or the state board of education. A good principal, like any good manager, reaches out for advice from teachers and parents, but the reality is that many principals rarely ask advice from students. The opportunity for student voice has been suppressed under the umbrella of arguments such as immaturity, lack of competence and a general one, which is frequently expressed in the phrase 'a school is not a democracy.' While it is true that a school is not a democracy, U.S Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas remarked in a case that 'it can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate'(Tinker v Des Moines 1969: 503). Tinker is one of the most relevant cases to student voice because it established the standard for free speech by students in schools. The facts in this case were that several students had planned to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam war. School officials quickly adopted a no armband rule and suspended Mary Beth Tinker when she came to school with one on. The U.S Supreme Court recognized the First Amendment right to free expression in school unless school officials could reasonably forecast that the speech will cause 'a material and substantial disruption of school activities, or collide with the rights of...

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