My School, My Voice

The education system that was designed for a different time is no longer relevant or effective for current students, and those students should have a say on how the system is taken apart and reformed.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

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By Grace Louie

In the complex world of education where policies, curricula, and institutional norms regulate growth and improvement, there exists a concerning silence—the absence of student voices. The education system fails to engage those at the heart of schools: students. Consequently, young perspectives and needs are left unheard and unmet. This educational institution, built on inequality and practically unchanged for 150 years, neglects the views of students and thus exacerbates the disparities in education while failing to foster equality, learning, and development. 

The current education system heavily relies on standardized testing and a Common Core curriculum to assess student learning, hold school faculty accountable, and ensure consistency in education throughout schools. Standardized testing was first introduced to American schools in the mid-1800s, and while it began with the intention of replacing oral exams and educating masses of students, these methods soon became a way to measure all school-related performances. Schools today also utilize the Common Core State Curriculum, a curriculum with standards that millions of teachers across the nation find challenging to meet due to a lack of preparation in school systems and immense pressure. Instead of advocating to fund equal and high-quality education, the Common Core state curriculum operates on the basis that if all students can meet a national standard, then they have received an adequate education, an idea that is both unattainable and incorrect. A one-size-fits-all approach to education with rigid tests and syllabi leaves behind unique students who don’t fit into the box. Standardized testing to measure academic achievement transforms students into statistics where their personal circumstances, talents, and characters are not taken into account. In turn, education becomes a factory, pumping out “conventional” students year after year. 

To combat educational gaps and inequalities, the Department of Education (DOE) has attempted to issue bills, including the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. Enacted by former President George W. Bush, the NCLB aimed to provide higher-quality education to all students with a specific focus on certain demographics, such as students living in poverty, students of color, and other minority groups. Under the NCLB, schools were evaluated based on Adequate Yearly Progress to help every student reach grade-level reading and math standards by 2014. The NCLB’s policies, such as annual state assessments, didn’t take into account whether or not a student was four years behind or if one group of students was above proficiency while another was below; by 2011, it was estimated that 82 percent of schools would fail to meet Adequate Yearly Progress standards. While the NCLB resulted in higher graduation rates—the graduation rate for students with learning disabilities increased by 11 percent from 2002 to 2011—it also left millions of students behind. School administrators were threatened with budget cuts if they didn’t reach an unrealistic goal, and thus, the curricula became narrowed: “failing” schools were stigmatized, and standardized testing was overemphasized. While attempting to save the nation’s education system by implementing standards without solutions, the NCLB attempted to reform the system without addressing the underlying issue, which is that the model of the education system demands change. Students completing proficiency exams on the information they learned from textbooks, as well as applying arithmetic and literacy skills, was considered ideal in the 19th century to train youth for the industrial workforce, but it currently does not address the prevalent issues of education gaps and student success rates. 

In addition to the NCLB, which is generally regarded as a failure, former President Barack Obama’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 also attempted to reform education without repairing the issues of the system. The lack of student voices, rigid curricula, and overemphasis on testing remained despite this “improved” act. While the overall average student achievement has increased over the last 50 years, there is a racial distinction: for example, reading scores in the last 50 years have grown by 28 percent for Asian students and only 19 and 13 percent for Black and Hispanic students, respectively. Therefore, a rise in the average testing scores does not equate to increased educational equality. Educational quality comes from desegregating schools, altering strict late or missing work policies based on student circumstances, and creating a safe school environment regardless of home life situations. While the ESSA did lead to a more lenient and state-based policy-making system, the standardization of examinations and subjects increased school-related anxiety, mental health issues, and frustrations. In the end, even the ESSA was a band-aid solution to the flawed system. 

Though the rising overall test scores were enough to satisfy the DOE, post-pandemic education remains a reminder that the education system is in desperate need of reform. Middle-grade students are exhibiting a decline in the National Assessment of Educational Progress, and the disparities in education between students of different minority groups and economic classes are only increasing due to the impacts of remote learning. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in major staff shortages, mental health challenges, and a decline in instructional time. Schools briefly lost connection with the heart of the education system—students and staff—to the global pandemic, resulting in lower test scores and a major gap in assessment reports between schools located in low-poverty areas and high-poverty areas. During the pandemic, not only did many students not have access to the technology necessary to complete online coursework, but students were also disconnected from educational environments. Despite these numerous challenges, the federal government continued to rely on systematized testing and declared problems without expanding on solutions. 

The reason the DOE struggles to provide concrete solutions to the multitude of problems is that the current standardized system cannot raise testing scores or skyrocket student achievements. Altering the curricula to fit every unique student is impossible, and comparing a student who is several years behind to an economically advantaged student years ahead only creates impossible expectations of instructional staff. These procedures only employ statistics and data to measure effectiveness without including the discretion of students and teachers personally affected by the reforms. A system cannot change to better fit the needs of students if the voices of students are not involved. Students need a seat at the table in the DOE; IntegrateNYC and other organizations are working towards appointing an official student chancellor or representative of the students in K-12 schools. Students need to be given an audience, such as the DOE, and an opportunity to write their own curriculum with the guidance of adults. They need the chance to input their opinions into creating new educational policies such as later start times or even the decreased emphasis on strictly English and math testing in lower-grade schools. New curricula should be more flexible and more accommodating to all learning styles. 

 The much-needed radical change begins in schools, where student unions should sit in on faculty meetings and help structure curricula. School administrators need to realize that in order to do what’s best for their students, they must acknowledge their opinions. Students need to advocate for their needs and desires not only in their everyday classrooms but also on state and federal levels with large organizations such as the DOE. Students and adults need to work and listen to each other, ensuring that reforms to curricula are both beneficial and reasonable. At Stuyvesant, where the students are typically highly respected and recognized for their abilities, students need to convince adults to acknowledge the faults within our education. Every passive complaint about Stuyvesant’s curriculum, structure, or teaching method stems from the issue of a nationally flawed school system that demands change. Stuyvesant’s Student Union should be able to advocate for the desires of the general student body in board meetings, students should be able to voice their concerns about certain decisions made, and faculty members should listen and take into consideration the opinions of students. Stuyvesant specifically should work towards shifting their test-based, rigidly structured lessons to more projects and assignments, allowing students to explore their interests rather than simply completing a task. Schools need to figure out how to better engage their students, and the best way to do so is to ask them. 

British author and advocate for education Sir Ken Robinson once stated that the task of schools is to educate the whole being of students so that they can face the future when adults and policymakers may not be able to. The education system as it is removes individuality, incorrectly determines what is acceptable and what we should strive to be, and doesn’t teach subjects and topics in ways that students can find value in. The current system cannot be reformed by replacing old parts with new ones; we need to invent a new system that better fits the needs of students in the 21st century. This begins with trusting students to know their needs and values and letting them take control of their education to help fix an old system.