Across the country, young people are anxiously awaiting and excitedly receiving letters and emails from our institutions of higher education telling them that they have been accepted for enrollment and giving them a glimpse of what the future holds. I remember this time during my own senior year and have shared this time repeatedly with the young people I have worked with over the years. It is a remarkable moment in a lifetime.
The problem is that many students never glimpse this future vision and never arrive at this seminal moment. These students are typically low-income (rural and urban). These students are disproportionately students of color. These students come from already failing schools and live in communities that too often lack opportunities for them as well. These students are immigrants and children of immigrants. These young people are caught in a dangerous cycle.
Now, some of you might already be thinking it, and I have heard more times than I can handle, that “all students are not college material.” I agree. But why in 2010 do we accept using such a euphemism to rationalize the exclusion of low-income students and students of color from a pathway to higher education? From a pathway out of poverty? Perhaps it is worth recalling that in 1960 some students were not considered lunch counter material. Shouldn’t all students have a right to educational choice? To determine their own futures and their own pathways with equitable and accurate information and adequate support? To define their own pursuit of happiness?
I worked with students from two low-income, urban comprehensive high schools who in 2004 wanted the answer to these questions. So, they asked more than 400 of their friends and classmates in these two high schools if they actually wanted to go to college. The result was that 91% of students said YES, they did want to go to college. Candidly, I was shocked at this level of aspiration and so were they. Even as these youth and I were pushing against it, we had to some degree internalized the false notion that “these students” had lower aspirations than their peers in other schools. Painfully, we then took a look at the college-going rates and found that only 1 out of 10 entering freshmen would actually make it to post-secondary. This is a stunning and a perfectly horrifying inversion from 90% aspiration to 10% attainment. That’s us failing our students, not our students failing.
Now, this data seems a little dated (and makes me feel a little old), so let’s look at a couple of more recent examples. Another survey for students and by students was just completed by the Mayor’s Youth Council here in Nashville. It surveyed almost 1100 students across every public high school, comprehensive and magnet, alternative learning centers, academies, and a few private schools. 86% of the respondents said that they wanted to attain some sort of 2 or 4 year college degree or professional degree. And, while I obviously don’t have the numbers as to how many of these students will make it across so many different schools, these same students did report that only 23% of them had actually gotten support from a guidance counselor to get there (despite also reporting that they wanted and needed help in the research, application, and financial aid processes). College-going data from around the country tells us that, if they are low-income (which was not asked) and/or students of color (about 60% of the respondents), these aspirations will go unsupported and unachieved.
This is not a Nashville issue alone, nor is it purely urban. I had the opportunity to do some work with a consortium of rural counties in West Tennessee comprising the STEP (Southwest Tennessee Educational Pathways) Initiative. A colleague and I did some research and work with this group to write a brief gap analysis (they already knew the gaps and they were almost everywhere) and to develop a multi-county college access strategy that would legitimately work for such a broad and under-resourced geographic area. Part of the research included a student survey to better understand their level of aspiration, access and understanding. Of 1399 students surveyed across 9 rural West Tennessee schools, 93% reported that they wanted to go to college. We know the reality from other local efforts that the number actually making it to college is closer to perhaps 20-30%. Again, the statistics suggest we are working counter to our students’ aspiration, not capturing it and building on it.
It should be noted that the guidance counselors are not solely to blame here. They are highly trained staff who spend too much of their time counting tests. If you talk to most of them you know they are often as frustrated as the students. They are frustrated they cannot “do their job”. For what they are actually asked to do, “guidance” and “counselor” are too often unfortunate misnomers.
With that being said, we must understand and admit that to do the work and provide the support for many of our students to make it to college, and to do so with equitable choices, requires a full-time staff commitment of college counselors. It is not a percentage of another staff. It is not something we can do when/if we have time around testing and coordinating tests. That won’t cut it.
We also must understand that the “boot-straps” stories that percolate this time of year, while certainly worth celebrating, are stories of young people who have succeeded despite the system, not because of it. We need to celebrate these young people, but not be blinded to the real problem by their individual herculean efforts.
The fact is that, despite many successful programs around the country, the system for supporting low-income, first-generation students to access post-secondary education is broken…on second thought, it is non-existent. And, to make matters worse, the students know it. This gap is a recipe for hopelessness, a crushed vision for the future, a lack of purpose for high school, and a pretty good impetus for dropping out of school.
College access is more than credentialing. It’s about a sense of self, of identity, a sense of purpose, of hope, a pathway out of poverty, and a reason to make good choices along the way. These should be part of the system, not counter to it. These should be opportunities for every student.
At a recent meeting of school administrators from across Wisconsin, we had the opportunity to reflect on and consider the opportunities and challenges related to involving students in their schools. We based this work on the Continuum of Youth Involvement (pdf). We considered the range of involvement from student participation to voice to leadership to engagement. We sought to understand the distinctions and to have candid conversations about where we had worked, where we were willing to work, and where we had the support to work along that continuum. One key clarification from the conversation is that where student voice has never been considered, we will struggle to dive into conversations and practices around youth engagement – at least systemically. We can always have the brave and creative outlier who manages to engage students deeply despite his/her broader school environment. But, this is not our goal. Our goal is the systemic inclusion and engagement of young people in their own lives and their own education.
Mirroring this discussion about students, we asked the group of administrators to consider the same Continuum of Involvement, but to do so with the teacher in mind – teacher participation, voice, leadership, and engagement. What does this look like in schools? What are the barriers and opportunities? Supports? What have their experiences been? The two conversations were very similar.
Involvement along the continuum for both teachers and students is about power and power sharing, both in the classroom and in the broader school community.
Reality Check: Teachers without power cannot share power with students.
And the logic continues that principals without power cannot share power with teachers and so on.
Those of us who advocate for student involvement at any level (whether in schools or elsewhere) would be well served to consider advocating similarly for the adults closest to and supporting our youth. Student/youth engagement is about a cultural shift in schools and communities, not about a program or the implementation of a distinct practice or new pedagogy. It is about a system of relationships.
I’ve been thinking a lot about language lately while reading about “critical consciousness” and the importance of “critical literacy” for youth, particularly in marginalized communities and communities of color. I have also been inspired by the example being set by young people involved with Special Olympics as they advocate for the end of the “r-word”. These young leaders know all too well that words have full and rich lives and dynamic capacity beyond letters and sounds. Young people with intellectual disabilities know what the r-word feels like – this word is not heard, it’s felt. One young woman with intellectual disabilities who I met last year actually has begun passing out cards when she hears the under-the-breath use, or even the overt use, of the r-word toward her. Her cards say “words hurt like fists.”
But, language is often much more subtle.
With all of this in mind, I began reflecting on some of the language we use working with young people, with communities and around social justice. And, while I will not go as far as to advocate the eradication of these terms, I do suggest we pause to reflect on their implied meanings (and compare with our intentions) before we decide if we wish to continue their use. I believe the language we have chosen in the examples below unfortunately frames our ultimate ineffectiveness in engaging our young people and building our communities.
“Youth are our future ... Youth are the leaders of tomorrow”
I know many adults use this language with the best of intentions, to demonstrate the optimism (or react to pessimism) for the future given the current state of things with youth. It is also used to validate our investment in young people today. But, why tomorrow? Why the future? Why would we even need to validate investment in our youth? With effective, ethical leadership and a breadth of transferable leadership skills fundamental to healthy individual development and critical for positive economic, social and cultural development, why would we wait to cultivate or to engage our youth and defer their leadership to some nebulous future? As I consider our most marginalized young people for whom opportunities to lead could be most transformative; for whom the empowerment of true leadership may be a positive feeling or a source of identity that can be found nowhere else in their lives; perhaps for whom an 18th birthday is celebrated as the realization of a future they never dreamed they would see, I cannot conceive of appealing to them to wait. I cannot conceive of informing them that the future (that they may not even imagine or believe they will actually live to see) will be their time to lead. Just wait ... When I hear this language and these appeals, I am haunted by Langston Hughes’ timeless question: “What happens to a dream deferred?”
“Pass the torch”
This one builds on the whole “leaders-of-tomorrow” discussion above. The passing of the torch has somehow become synonymous with the attempt to light and link the gap between generations. And yet, when I work with adults, particularly those who are at an age most likely to be reflecting on work/life in a way to think about the torch, they also have repeatedly said “I am not ready to go out to pasture either!” In spite of the transactional language, adults don’t typically want to hand off the torch as much as bring new, younger folks into their work -- a demonstration of their understanding that systemic change is generational in its timeline. However, in attempting to pass the torch, adults have failed to realize that it is too often still about “their work” and still about the tools they used for “their work.” Instead of genuinely inviting young people into the work to build the work, to expand the toolsets, to update the language, the invitation feels more like (read in your best James Earl Jones voice) “come in young man and finish what I started, but be sure and do it how I did it.” In communities and in social change work there is a place for all people with all levels of experience and all with something to add. We don’t need to pass the torch; we need to expand the flame and, with it, ignite new flames.
“Give back to your community”
I really hope I never “give back” to my community, and I cringe when people offer that term in acknowledgment of my work. For me, the whole language of “giving back” too often implies my having transcended or moved beyond my community; or, at a minimum, that I owe my community something in return for something it provided me. Regardless, the concept of giving back implies a sort of transactional relationship (like the torch conversation) with community – an arbitrary system of debits and credits and finite means. Community is a function of relationships, not of this sort of transaction. Do I “give back” to my spouse, or my brother, or my mom, or my friends? That would seem odd and strangely mechanistic for a personal relationship. But, I also have a personal relationship with my community, which is comprised of potentially infinite other personal relationships. As such, an investment in my community is inherently an investment in myself. Shouldn’t giving and receiving, sharing, serving and investing be core to the actual definition of a community? If I am an individual member of a true community, aren’t I a part of this constant process? Let’s not focus on “giving back” to our communities; let’s just be part of them.
“A seat at the table”
In social change work, sometimes a “seat at the table” is given, sometimes it is won. In either case, if I get a seat I am likely pulling it up to a table still owned and ruled by someone else. If I am “given” the seat, aren’t I there at the table’s behest? If I “win” the seat, aren’t I there despite the table? Isn’t what I really want the re-creation of the very table itself? I don’t question the power or purpose of garnering a seat at the table as an incremental step toward change. This sort of inclusion, whether given or won, is a critical first step and we need to keep pushing for more seats for more people at more tables. I do wonder, however, in the 21st century, if the idea of getting a seat has actually lowered our standards, or anesthetized us against the real need for a systemic shift in the concept and purpose of the table itself. We can and should keep fighting for “a seat” but we must remain committed to building a new kind of table – our table.
These are just a few examples of the language I hear in conversations almost daily and to which we typically give no thought. We all just nod in familiarity without truly listening or understanding our words.
Perhaps we and our youth and our communities could borrow a strategy from my friend at Special Olympics and begin to pass out our own cards when we hear this and other language that just doesn’t work for us. If we really paid attention to language, what might our cards say?
Recent discussions and outright alarm about the consequences of bullying in our schools has spurred some larger questions about student rights and responsibilities in schools and our daily attention to detail in this regard. In other words, I guess recent tragedies have left me wondering: how did it get so bad for these young people without some awareness or intervention or support by either peers or adults?
On October 30, the American Civil Liberties Union in Nashville is hosting a Students Rights Conference for “high school students to talk and learn about student rights in schools and in the community.” The topics listed on their flyer include:
Freedom of Expression: Students’ rights related to speech, press, dress, the internet and texting.
Street Law: Students’ rights and responsibilities related to the police, the courts, and racial profiling.
Plus: experts on LGBT issues, privacy rights and religious freedom in schools.
Building this level of student awareness and capacity around their rights is core to the creation of more student-centered schools. And yet, I wonder how much schools themselves, specifically at the building level, know about student rights. For that matter, how much do parents and communities know about student rights? As someone who works for a youth organization, how much do I know about student rights? (Not much for my part I’m afraid.)
Perhaps even more critically, what are their rights beyond those explicitly defined by the Constitution? What about those rights more akin to concepts like dignity, respect, and the like? These are often the most nebulous of concepts and yet most of us agree they are most critical to healthy development and safe school environments.
Assuming we all agree that dignity and respect have their place in schools, how do we articulate what they mean as rights and how in the world do we enforce them as a practice? For that matter, how are student rights like dignity systematically communicated, trained, and made a part of the school operations and climate? Whose job is it to enforce and advocate and be a watchdog for the human and constitutional rights of students every day and in every school? What, if any, are the real consequences if student rights (particularly those that are not explicitly Constitutional) are violated?
I sincerely don’t know the answers to these questions, and I struggle to be an effective advocate for and with young people due to this lack of clarity.
For instance, have my rights been violated if:
I simply do not know where the line between bad practice and a violation of rights resides. I believe we need to clarify that line.
With no clear student rights, there can be no accountability. With no accountability, there is no way to build the collective and there is no target for positive change. If we are as a nation looking toward a new day and age in public education, where is this discussion (with students) of student rights in our national campaign to reform our schools?
Importantly, with defined rights also comes responsibility. So, on the flip side, where is the discussion (again with students) of student responsibilities in schools? What are the explicit, active roles students play in creating a positive school environment (and “staying out of trouble” and “passing” classes are not sufficient)? Are there any? Do they know it? Have they been trained and prepared with the skills and processes to carry them out effectively?
If we ever want to stop bullying, for example, it will only be through the power of students to take on this issue with a clear understanding of their rights and responsibilities. As long as student safety, for instance, is someone else’s (an adult’s) responsibility, students will not see or understand their role as a solution to a problem that they very clearly know exists. There simply will never be enough adult leaders with enough ubiquity to match the reach and impact of peer-to-peer relationships among students. To secure the true dignity and respect of all students in schools (and all adults for that matter), we need to articulate what this means and share the responsibility for living it every day.
Students need to understand their rights and responsibilities. The entire education community needs to understand student rights and responsibilities. Together, we need to hold each other accountable for these rights and responsibilities.
If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? If no one is watching and no one is listening to the rights of students, do they exist?
No matter how long I work with folks or how much I believe we are on the same page, I occasionally still get caught off guard by a fundamental question about youth/student power. It dawned on me recently that I have had a number of these questions come directly back, or filter back circuitously, to me over the years, many times deep into a relationship. Co-workers, colleagues, partners, educators and even just friends have on occasion finally asked that ultimate question, or perhaps even offered it more as an assertion: “I know you talk a lot about the power of students, Anderson, but…I mean…they really don’t have power…(do they?)”
So, here we are; the fundamental question. And, to be clear, I want to thank, not criticize, those who are willing to voice their uncertainty; I just wish many times that they would do so earlier in our work together. Addressing this question together is the only way we can move forward effectively around youth and student engagement.
In response to this very legitimate question, I offer a few scenarios:
What would happen (and does happen) if the students in your community decided they had had enough of the over-suspension of black males in their school? 600 students decide to walk out and refuse to go to class until new policies are put into place. The school is effectively shut down.
Do these students have power?
What if students decided that they were sick and tired of their futures and their education boiling down to standardized test scores? They all decide to sit in on the test but not answer any questions. The school gets near a 100% failure rate as a result. The school, its faculty, staff and the central administration are now in academic crisis.
Do these students have power?
What if students decided that they had seen enough bullying of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and trans-gender youth in their schools by students and faculty alike and took their cause to the school board? They manage to get the district to add GLBT language into their school safety and anti-bullying policies. They establish a process and recourse for complaints and the implementation of new teacher training. They shift the climate of the school.
Do these students have power?
It’s hard to argue that these scenarios don’t present powerful students. What we see in these scenarios is student power organized and exercised and aimed at a clear target for change.
But, now the question is: in the absence of this level of student organizing (which admittedly is not as common as I believe it should be given the state of many of our schools), do students still have power?
To answer this question, it is important first to understand that latent power is still power. Fuel un-ignited is still fuel. But are student organizing and advocacy like these scenarios the only way students ignite power? Or, are we just ignoring the more ad hoc power they exercise every day that impacts our communities, the educational system and really every one of our lives in some way or another?
We spend billions of dollars every year and have rung the bell of a national epidemic to address the dropout crisis and to understand the failure of our urban schools. And yet, in our strategies for change and improvement, we don’t talk much about student power in this crisis (thus obviously failing to leverage it).
Students are choosing to walk away from our schools. That’s power. Students are choosing not to engage in boring and irrelevant curriculum. That’s power. Students are refusing relationships with teachers and staff that don’t respect their lives or understand where they come from. That’s power. Students are choosing to join gangs rather than after-school or extracurricular programs. That’s power. On the other hand, there are even more students every day who are choosing to stay in school, to study, to engage and to do myriad positive things in their communities, for their families and with their friends. That’s also power.
Choice is power. The fact is that students are making choices every day and their decisions impact nothing less than the direction of this country and its educational system. And, in regard to the exercise of student power, whether we adults accept, validate, lament or otherwise punish these choices is effectively immaterial. Power is power, and we’re not engaging it.
We cannot choose for our students to stay in school. They have to choose it. We can only co-create with students the spaces, the relationships and the opportunities for effective and informed choices. If this is not co-created, but solely adult-driven, it becomes coercive at best and compulsory at worst.
Our efforts to improve our schools and rebuild our communities must genuinely acknowledge and understand the power of our students without obscuring that power through our adult value judgments. Power has no innate value. Without this level of understanding, inclusion, and leveraging of collective power with students, we will never find the means to co-create change, but will continue merely to impose change that students will ultimately decide if they agree with or not. As we have heard a thousand times, they will “vote with their feet.” Students, in fact, will ultimately decide whether all of our efforts achieve success or are all for naught. They have the power.