Dear Educators, Stop Being Jerks and Amplify Student Voice

By Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado
December 12, 2019

Sometimes educators can be jerks, particularly when youth are trying to teach decision-makers (school board members, school administrators, or lawmakers) about the lived experience of young people in schools. Decision-makers can be dismissive, calling youth “cute” or “cool.” They can also be downright rude and ignore student voice altogether. In fact, the more the voices of youth seek to disrupt social structures, challenge the status quo or rescript the dominant narrative, the more likely decision-makers are to react negatively.

In other cases, educators in the roles of coaches or mentors can let down youth. I’ve seen it happen where students put together an awesome youth participatory action research (YPAR) or action civics project. The project is well-conceived, the research is comprehensive, and the implications are compelling. Unfortunately, too little time was devoted to preparing for the public sharing of the results and the youth’s message falls flat or is lost entirely. In these incidents I blame the educator; the coach should have thought through the presentation, known their audience, helped the students to craft the argument and implications in a way that would be compelling and had the youth practice more so their passion for the topic shines. Unfortunately, when educators ignore student voice or fail to properly mentor youth, a tremendous opportunity is lost.

In the landscape of educational reform, where “educational experts” are called upon to dictate best practices, we are missing a crucial voice—that of students. Youth are the experts of their educational experience: they can teach educators and administrators what pedagogy best engage students, the policies that alienate and marginalize and where and how educational inequity exists within a school or district.

As a group of researchers committed to facilitating youth sociopolitical development and transformative student voice, pursuing a civics measurement grant and developing a youth presentation rubric did not immediately appeal to all members of our team (I am looking at you Shelley Zion). However, the idea of giving youth a resource to craft high-quality public policy presentations did seem consistent with the ideals of promoting student voice. I’ll be honest, I don’t like scoring rubrics. I think rubrics can zap creativity from a project; I think they can convey the message that there is only one right way to complete an assignment. We also worried that our tool would be used in conjunction with high stakes testing. It seemed contradictory for YPAR and action civics to become the object of educational standardization and testing. We did not want to turn youth policy arguments into an exercise of checking boxes on a rubric.

That being said, I am a realist: I entered higher education as a self-proclaimed radical Chicano, who was committed to disrupting social inequity, but knew that by entering the system I would have to sacrifice parts of this revolutionary zeal for what I felt was the greater good of helping to facilitate the sociopolitical development of youth. Yes, there would be risks in developing a youth presentation rubric and some might misuse the protocol, but if we could give students a tool to develop high-quality arguments that were more likely to be heard and acted on by adults, it would be worth it.

It was not easy to develop a youth policy protocol. We had to learn about measurement, research existing instruments, examine the philosophy of rhetoric, and speak to civic educators and youth organizers. The research team frequently disagreed. How do you objectively observe and rate social critique? What kinds of evidence will the audience find convincing? Should we even be creating the protocol in the first place? I was guilty of rushing the project at times, ignoring the concerns of my colleagues in order to ensure the instrument would be valid and reliable.

Another challenge was getting educators to give youth honest feedback. In piloting the instrument, educators were hesitant to rate students low—even when presentations were clearly lackluster. It was as if educators felt like that merely presenting a policy argument should earn youth a gold star for the day. What we had to convey to raters was that these students wanted to receive critical feedback, they wanted to make their presentation better, and be taken seriously by decision-makers.

The Measure of Youth Policy Arguments (MYPA) was developed, with support from the Spencer and Hewlett Foundations, to help youth engaged in YPAR and actions civics projects to develop high-quality policy presentations. The measure consists of six domains: presentation and delivery, collaboration, problem identification, research methods, policy proposal, and responsiveness to questions. MYPA includes 25 items, two open-ended questions, and 23 items rated from stronger to weaker. Sample items include “naming the problem” and “rationale for proposed policy” which assess the degree to which youth are able to identify a focal problem and develop a rationale for their proposed policy solution to said problem.

Though numerous tools exist for rating youth on public speaking or on classroom presentations, the existing tools typically focus on public speaking skills such as eye contact, good posture, and voice projection. MYPA goes further by calling on students to think about how they are researching their focal problem, developing an actionable policy, and using evidence to support their argument. What is more, MYPA is a valid and reliable protocol. We have spent the past three years researching the constructs, conducting focus groups with educators, and using MYPA to score youth policy presentations around the country. Uniformly educators endorse that MYPA provides a valid measure of quality youth policy presentations. We have also consistently demonstrated good inter-rater reliability (most recently obtaining a Fleiss Kappa of 0.49).

Along the way we have gone through multiple iterations of MYPA, most recently to ensure that items that promote critical thinking are present and that the protocol is user-friendly. We developed a website to help train youth and educators on how to use MYPA to develop high-quality policy presentations. We have also developed an awesome partnership with Denver Public Schools’ Student Voice and Leadership program who have adopted MYPA for their Challenge 5280 Student Voice summit.

Fortunately for educators and decision-makers, it is not too late. We can stop being jerks and amplify youth voice. All it takes is a willingness to mentor, listen, provide critical feedback, and be open to act on the insights provided.

Want to know more about what counselors and educators can do to amplify student voice? Read tthe team's research findings and key takeaways from their study on Critical Civic Inquiry.

Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in Counseling at the University of Colorado Denver. His research interests include training educators for cultural competence and the sociopolitical development of marginalized youth. He is currently researching the socio-emotional impact of action civics curriculum on youth and how to scale student voice programming in school districts. Email: Twitter: @DrCarlosHD

This blog is part of the Student-Centered Learning Research Collaborative Equity Series by JFF and KnowledgeWorks and created with support from its funders. Learn more about this work.

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