Education Reform: Elevating Student and Family Voices

We all know that educational reform is complex. Whether addressing enrollment, teacher recruitment, college readiness, literacy, school choice or the dozens of other issues facing Baltimore’s students, any change involves many people with many ideas and considerations.

Typically, conversations about improving some aspect of education for Baltimore’s students include school district leaders and representatives from educational nonprofits. Sometimes, funders and influencers are invited to provide perspectives. But in most cases, important people are missing from these conversations: the students and families who are most effected by – and who are the intended beneficiaries of – any improvement.

Students’ and families’ perspectives should be a part of any discussion about what will affect them. They belong in the conversations. By not including their thoughts on how to make the educational experience better, we push ideas onto them rather than finding solutions with them. We need to develop a system that reflects not just what we want (no matter how well-meaning we are), but what students and parents want. And we can only know that by asking and listening to them.

This is not a new thought. Many in Baltimore, from local educational nonprofits to the district itself, are working to engage with the families, students and communities impacted by decisions about their education. At the Fund for Educational Excellence, we’re speaking with communities about school choice, grade level reading, CTE programs and college readiness. Our Bmore Ready website was created by students, with the information that they consider important. Our School Choice Guide was created based on family feedback and with significant input from a parent. And our Grade Level Reading parent resources were created with significant input from parents. We’re hearing their recommendations and giving them voice. But we, and all of us, need to do more.

We recognize that not every decision in an 80,000-student school system can include everyone’s participation. But how and when we include students and communities in discussions – and doing so with intentionality – matters. It leads to better and more relevant decisions, greater understanding of why changes are being made, and easier buy-in.

How can we do this? To be truly collaborative, students and families need to be asked for input before decisions are made. Better yet, they should be at the table, in the discussion during the decision making process. And further, we need to change who the “deciders” are so that students and families are actively part of setting policy and making decisions.

This requires boldness. Unfortunately, reform has been too often based only on asking “what have other cities done?” and “is there evidence to support this approach?”. If used alone, those relevant and helpful questions risk perpetuating the pattern of relying only on the past to determine the future. It’s time we acknowledge that students and families have unique insight and deep passion that can impact positive change – and that those insights should be combined with evidence-based approaches for an inclusive and thoughtful path forward.

We all can do better. Next time we’re at a table where a decision is being made that affects people, let’s make sure those people are represented in the conversation. Next time we connect with students or families impacted by our work, let’s make sure we hear and understand their perspective, and do more listening than talking. Next time we are hiring, convening a committee or recruiting board members, let’s consider whether the experiences and insight our candidates bring reflects all of our constituents.

In doing so, our educational community will grow closer, stronger, and faster towards a system where every student from every community receives a fantastic education.