Critical issues and contexts of student voice in the United States

Stephanie Serriere, Dana Mitra

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

5 Scopus citations


The United States (U.S.) democracy, along with others, rests on the idea that participation is the fundamental right of citizenship (Ochoa-Becker et al. 2001). This chapter is an effort toward understanding the issues (politically, ideologically) that keep youth and children from fully participating in the workings of democracy, as well as the conditions that foster their participation in the U.S. context. Since participation is the assumption on which a democracy is built, it too should be the standard upon which a democracy is measured (Hart 1992). In the United States, students who are most at need of democratization are often the last to participate or be included. Disadvantaged students more often report that they do not feel their voice is valued in schools (Johnston and Nicholls 1995). Parents of low income students more often see authoritarian approaches to schooling as best for their child’s success. Thus, those student voice efforts therefore must not become a mechanism of re-privileging those who already feel most comfortable in schools, nor should young people living in poverty be expected to initiate projects for others when they are struggling for survival (Hart 1992). Instead, many U.S. policies work to inhibit the voices of young people. For example, although over 100 nations have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United States has yet to sign (UNCRC 1989). The articles of the Convention have significant implications for enhancing young people’s participation in society, including Article 12 that discusses ensuring that children can form and express their own views and Article 13 that preserves the right of expression. Within the United States, the degree to which children should have a voice in organizations, institu- tions, and the political process is a matter of strongly divergent opinions. For instance, many citizenship education programs in the United States see young people as citizens-to-be, learning skills only for the future. The Convention challenges this idea by reminding readers that young people are already citizens in their own right. Another policy decision hampering student voice is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act that was signed by former President George W. Bush in 2001 to begin a standards-based reform for schools. Today, an era of academic accountability still pervades U.S. primary and secondary public schools (K-12). Teachers are often expected to demonstrate “time on task�? and measurable outcomes, leaving the social and civic mission of schools on the “backburner�? (Boyle-Baise et al 2008; Houser 1995). A testing climate can work against democratizing schools in several ways. If teachers feel devoid of agency in their job, it is unlikely they will increase the freedom of their students. While pressure to focus on test scores may lead to the perception that schools do not have the time or resources for student voice activities, there is no evidence that student voice projects detract from academic performance. A large body of research has identified the importance of including students’ voices in academic planning and goal-setting in elementary (Battistich et al. 1995) and secondary (Jones and Yonezawa 2003; Mitra 2007; Rubin and Silva 2003) schooling experiences. Studies that examined academic performance demonstrate that students who are given voice in choosing the content and goals of their academic studies perform at (Schaps et al. 1986) or above their peers in standardized tests (Shultz 2007). Other studies, not using standardized tests as a measure, correlate other positive learning outcomes with giving students voice (Battistich et al. 1995; Daniels and Perry 2003; Vasquez 2004).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Routledge International Handbook of Teacher and School Development
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781136715976
ISBN (Print)9780415669702
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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