What can a conception of power do? Theories and images of power in student voice work

*This is a pre-release of an article featured in the forthcoming Spring 2017 issue of the International Journal of Student Voice. 


  • This article brings together high school students, teachers, and researchers to think about the issue of power in student voice work.
  • Each author uses a metaphor or a theory to explain how they think about power in schools and in student voice work.
  • The authors, at times, have different ideas about power relations in student voice work.
  • We argue that the way we think about power has effects on what we see, feel and do in student voice work.

Keywords: student voice, power, theory, metaphor

IJSV_Mayes et al_2017

Resilient Families Community Movement

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 1, Number 1                                           IJSV                            October 2016

Video: Resilient Families Community Movement

Margaret May, Emily Fayram, Shelby Crespi, Misja Ilcisin, Elizabeth Sherwin, Julie Vaccaro, Kathyrn Franke, Cordelia Franklin, Shawna Richardson, Saron Goitom, Stephanie Dong, Molly Schuller and Barbara Burns, Ph.D

Santa Clara University

Citation: Chopra, C. H. (2016). Creating a shared ownership for learning: Instructionally focused partnerships. International Journal of Student Voice, 1 (1).

Abstract: We created this video to illustrate how student researchers at Santa Clara University apply the science of resilience to buffer the impact of poverty and stress for families in the Greater Washington Neighborhood of San Jose, California. The initiative was led by May and Fayram and all 12 student researchers and our faculty mentor collaborated on this video. We began by brainstorming a general outline; the outline proposed a problem, provided a solution, explained the science behind the solution, and called others to action. We delegated sections of the outline to individual student researchers, and the two project facilitators synthesized the script components into a clear and concise narrative.

Through this video, we seek to share the basic idea of the science of resilience with a broader audience, including other students who participate in similar, community-based research. The science of resilience has a practical application in communities, and our research is a testament to the readiness and enthusiasm of beneficiary communities to sustainably implement the Resilient Families Program (RFP). After developing, implementing, and conducting RFP workshops ourselves, we witnessed mothers who originally participated in our workshops lead the RFP program with new mothers within a promotoras model. (A promotora is a Hispanic/Latino community member who receives training to provide basic education in the community; this is similar to a community health care worker.) In choosing to volunteer to serve as liaisons between their community, social/human service professionals, and community-based research groups, the promotoras demonstrate that RFP is beneficiary, well-received, and sustainable. RFP continues to grow and expand in San Jose, and elsewhere. In Spring 2016 a team of us traveled to Louisville, KY with our faculty mentor and trained a group of community leaders on RFP. It is important to emphasize that we have found that educating others about the science of resilience is uniquely beneficial to both the program participants and to us, as college students. This two-fold advantage is evident in one student’s reflection: “While the intention of RFP is to strengthen communities and improve outcomes for families, it has just as significant an impact on the Santa Clara University students involved.” Throughout the process, we have amplified our own internal voices, further developing leadership skills and spiritual and personal growth. Another student remarks that “spiritually, [she has] also grown. [She has] improved [her] mindfulness practice and continue[s] to find comfort in the message of RFP.” We hope that this video inspires other students to serve their local communities and accompany program participants throughout the research process, so that they, too, can become more resilient themselves and achieve both personal and professional growth.

Keywords:Resilience, Family, Community, Resilient, Families, Intervention, Student, Research, Promotoras, Health, Mindfulness, Science, Problem, Solution, Poverty, Researchers, Action, Community-Based, Sustainable, Sustainability, Hispanic, Latino, Educating, Program, Voices, Leadership, Spiritual, Personal, Growth, Practice

Download PDF: May et al.(2016)_IJSV1(1)


Creating a shared ownership for learning: Instructionally focused partnerships

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 1, Number 1                                           IJSV                              October 2016

Creating a Shared Ownership for Learning: Instructionally Focused Partnerships

Cristine Chopra

California State University, Monterey Bay

Citation: Chopra, C. H. (2016). Creating a shared ownership for learning: Instructionally focused partnerships. International Journal of Student Voice, 1 (1).

Abstract: This qualitative study was designed to examine the creation and facilitation of adult-student collaborations at one urban high school. Building on a growing literature on student voice in school reform, the study explored how, if at all, adult-student collaborations reshaped instruction and what effects these collaborations had on teacher and student behavior and outlooks. Data for this two-year investigation consisted of document collection, observations of collaborative practices, and semi-structured interviews with 12 students and 15 adults. The findings suggest that a university-school partnership aided in building capacity for adult-student collaborations and that the collaborations had some influence on adult and student behaviors, outlooks, and classroom practice. The model of intermediary organizational partnership and adult-student collaboration at this school contributes new insights into the types of school leadership and professional learning structures that are beneficial for designing organizational routines where adults and students work collaboratively and continuously for instructional improvement.

Keywords: student voice, youth-adult partnerships, school reform, professional learning, intermediary organization partnerships

Creating a Shared Ownership for Learning: Instructionally focused Partnerships

School improvement initiatives often embrace phrases that “keep students at the center.” Yet while students may be at the heart of these initiatives, they are rarely a part of the discussions and decisions concerning the design or pedagogical practice of their schooling experience (Fielding, 2001; Mitra, 2008; Lincoln, 1995; Levin, 2000; Rubin & Silva, 2003; Scalon, 2012; Zhao, 2011). In classrooms that emphasize active teaching and learning, students may be deeply engaged in discussions that are part of their academic work, and may even have a fair amount of choice regarding the projects or content on which their learning will focus. Still, they tend to be excluded from the thinking behind, planning for, and construction of their learning environments, and they are rarely asked for systematic input into efforts to evaluate or improve them. From one point of view, this situation is natural enough—they are “professional” matters, after all, and students are not yet professionals. But seen from a different vantage point, as educators concerned about student voice do, it is a serious omission, a missed opportunity for students to help realize educational reform goals—that is, revitalize their learning environment, as well as enrich their own learning.The recent popularity of student voice has inserted student perspective in discussions involving school improvement, student advocacy, school governance, teacher evaluation, teacher education, and professional development (Cook-Sather, 2006, 2010; Lodge, 2005; Morgan, 2011; Mullis, 2011; Rudduck & Fielding 2006; Yonezawa & Jones, 2007). A substantial body of research describes student voice within schools, revealing the ways it can affect student agency, educational outcomes, professional efficacy, and school climate (Demetriou & Wilson, 2010; Fielding, 2001; Fielding & Rudduck, 2002; Mullis, 2011; Rudduck & Flutter, 2004). This research has begun to shape our understanding of the possible benefits of student voice programs that aim to engage students as partners in school reform, curriculum, and instruction (Cook-Sather, 2010; Mitra, 2008).

While student voice research has addressed various effects on students and school culture, there has been less discussion of the ways in which the adult-student partnerships within student voice initiatives affect educators or their instructional practice. Commonly, student voice initiatives with the expressed purpose of school reform concurrently aim to improve academic performance. Working with students to improve schooling, however, requires a deeper exploration of how students and adults can develop partnerships in ways they both find meaningful, particularly in historically-underserved schools where resource shortages are most acute, with high percentages of administrator and teacher turnover, and where educators grapple with high poverty rates and spotty student attendance.

One such school, Viewland High School,[1] presents an illustrative example of how a school facing significant challenges can implement adult-student collaborations focused on improving instruction. Initially Viewland held a bad reputation in the community in that there was a perception that the school lacked academic rigor, thus people were choosing not to send their children there. Viewland looked to change this perception by establishing a partnership with a professor with expertise in school renewal and by investing resources over several years into a handful of school-wide professional learning practices, including Data-in-a-Day (DIAD), Lesson Study, project vetting, and Student Instructional Council (SIC), which were designed to foster new partnerships with key stakeholders (Lewis, Perry, & Murata, 2006; NWRL, 2000). Each practice systematically engaged students in providing instructional feedback. Over time, these processes, to be described later, became well established in the school, thereby affording a window through which to view how instructionally-focused adult-student partnerships can shape instructional practice and teacher-student relationships.

Key to the examination of Viewland was exploring what, if anything, changed as a result of student-adult collaborations. This study examined Viewland as a school that developed and refined adult-student collaboration practices for six years. To capture the individual and organizational implications of these practices I focused on several main questions:

1) In what ways, if any, does leadership within the school in the context of an   intermediary partnership relationship enable (or inhibit) the development of adult-student collaborations within the school?

2) In what ways, if at all, do adult-student collaborative practices reshape what goes on in classrooms and instruction itself?

3) How do different forms of adult-student collaborations affect the outlook and behaviors of teachers and students, in and out of the classroom?

4) How do power relations in the school change, if at all, inside of classrooms, or elsewhere, as adults and students participate in collaborations around the quality of instruction?

In exploring these questions, I addressed several problems of practice. First, how can schools interested in developing instructionally-focused student-adult partnerships take the first steps toward this goal? Second, how can schools develop these collaborations so that giving and receiving feedback is “safe” for both students and teachers? For students, feeling “safe” to provide feedback to teachers would indicate that students feel adequately prepared to comment on instructional practice as well as feeling assured that, if their feedback is met with negative reactions, there would be no retribution on the part of teachers. Similarly, for teachers to feel safe receiving feedback from students there may need to be assurances that the feedback provided by students would not be used in an evaluative capacity. Finally, this study considered how, if at all, schools can maintain adult-student collaborations.

Study Design and Methods

This study was designed as a “basic” interpretive qualitative study (Merriam, 2009) with data collected between 2011 and 2013 from one critical case, Viewland High School, a northwest urban school with a diverse student population. This school was information rich in that it had implemented and maintained student involvement practices developed in partnership with a university professor with the aim to facilitate instructional improvement. In this way, Viewland provided a context from which we might gain an in-depth understanding of the process and outcomes of these activities (Merriam, 2009; Patton, 2002).

Site Description and Background: Viewland as a Context for Student Voice

Viewland consists of roughly 750 students and is considered high-poverty because of its free and reduced lunch count of 70%. In addition to the large African-American community at the school, many students speak a language other than English at home. The largest groups of recent immigrants at Viewland are from Africa, Vietnam, the Philippines, Central America, China, and Samoa. In January 2004, the then-principal, Principal Massey, intended to increase student enrollment at Viewland by increasing student engagement at the school. In 2006, after attending a presentation by Professor Margery Ginsberg, Principal Massey invited her to speak at Viewland to share aspects of her school reform work regarding student motivational theory. Shortly after, Principal Massey leveraged school resources to send the entire Viewland staff to a summer workshop at Professor Ginsberg’s university, designed around her work about motivation and motivational conditions in learning (Ginsberg, 2001, 2011; Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2000). At this workshop, teachers were introduced to various ideas and practices that encouraged engaging students in more active roles within their leaning environment.Over the next year, Professor Ginsberg met informally with Principal Massey and presented at a staff in-service. Next, a “memo of understanding” was drafted between Professor Ginsberg, the school district, and Viewland. In describing the initial agreement Professor Ginsberg noted, “There was no pay involved in any of this. They were basically just letting me in.” Professor Ginsberg volunteered a percentage of her time to the school to help shape professional development there, and Principal Massey made commitments to use the principles of Professor Ginsberg’s motivational framework in their school transformation plan. The school’s commitment to the motivational framework included a staff pledge to school-wide collaboration as well as a willingness to experiment with various professional learning strategies such as DIAD and Lesson Study (described below). Many of Professor Ginsberg’s proposed strategies already included students as participants, and in this sense, the initiation of the school-university partnership was explicitly concerned with the notion of adult-student collaboration as a central part of the school improvement equation. From these initial practices new structures and activities emerged such as the Student Instructional Council and curriculum project vettings that allowed for deeper interactions between students and teachers. These ongoing cycles created a formal system for providing teachers with student feedback.

Professional Learning and Student Voice at Viewland

Data-in-a-day (DIAD). This initiative was originally developed by Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL) as a way to include students in school improvement (Ginsberg, 2001; NWREL, 2000). DIAD typically unites students, family members, educators, and community members in teams as observers of specific aspects of instructional practice in a variety of classrooms throughout one day. DIAD at Viewland was launched in 2007 and persisted through three different principals. In one DIAD cycle several teams—each of which was led by one or two Viewland students and was comprised of four (or more) members—collectively visited approximately 25 classrooms for 20 minutes each to learn from and provide feedback on instructional interactions. Each member of the team focused on one of the four conditions of the motivational framework for culturally responsive teaching: establishing inclusion, developing a positive attitude, enhancing meaning, and engendering competence. (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2000). Viewland adapted these conditions to fit with the district language including “the four R’s:” relationships, relevance, rigor, and results.DIAD feedback is not specific to a particular classroom. Rather, it is based on universal themes that the teams notice across classrooms. Although not scientific, DIAD is designed to provide information about how teaching and learning appear to observers on a single day in several classrooms as well as to allow non-educators and educators to listen to each other’s perspectives. After visiting classrooms teams compile their observations into categories depicting things they saw that related well to the four conditions of the motivational framework as well as the questions they had about what they observed.

The feedback generated from the DIAD teams was then presented to Viewland staff by an administrator or teacher leader and several participating students. Among the professional learning strategies that Viewland adopted DIAD involved the greatest number of students and teachers, thereby providing significant opportunities for teachers to listen to what students had to say about instructional practice at the school. Eventually students took ownership of DIAD, with guidance from the academic dean, becoming responsible for planning and facilitating each session as well as compiling and presenting feedback to the staff.

Student instructional council (SIC). Initially SIC was formed as an extra-curricular activity with the purpose of building on DIAD visits by providing additional feedback about classroom instruction from a student perspective. The idea of SIC was conceived by Carla, the academic dean and former Viewland teacher, as a way to satisfy requests from teachers for more individualized feedback. SIC eventually became a credit-bearing course designed to formalize the practice of student driven instructional feedback. SIC students were introduced to issues in school reform and studied instructional language and observation techniques. Upon request, groups of SIC students observed teachers in their classrooms and provided them with feedback in the form of jointly written instructional memos.

Lesson study. Lesson study (Lewis, Perry, & Murata, 2006) is a collaborative process that includes developing, watching, and critiquing lessons with involvement from a small group of peer teachers. In a lesson study, teachers typically bring a lesson in the formative stages to a small group of colleagues for feedback and group input. After the lesson planning is complete the group watches the lesson being taught by the teacher who had proposed it. Then the group meets again at the end of the day to discuss the lesson and to set instructional goals.

At Viewland students partnered with teachers in modified lesson studies several times. One lesson study was entirely student driven in that students identified a problem of practice and then worked along with educators on a lesson design team to develop a lesson to address the issue. These students found it difficult to invest in reflective writing practices, such as journaling, without a clear understanding of what was expected and how teachers would provide feedback. In designing the lesson students discussed how the process might look based on their motivational needs. The teachers involved designed the lesson, incorporating their instructional goals. The lesson was then taught by a volunteer teacher to language arts students. Afterward the design team met to discuss their perceptions and talk about the implications of the experience. In another example, a team of students and teachers designed a lesson on stereotype threat (Steele, 1997). Twelve students and ten math teachers participated in teaching the lesson to all tenth-grade students in their advisory period prior to the administration of state standardized tests. At the conclusion of the lesson the team met to critique the lesson.

Project vetting. Project vetting with students emerged in part from SIC. Viewland was oriented toward project-based learning, and teachers typically vetted project ideas to their peers. Project vetting with students was a process that SIC students and teachers developed to strengthen the potential of project-based lessons. To vet a project a teacher brought a proposed curricular project to a small group of peers and students; presented the goals, scope, sequence of the lesson; and solicited feedback. For example, one teacher vetted a project about Newton’s three laws of motion in which students produced a Google SketchUp and created a new safety system for vehicles during a car crash based on Newton’s three laws. Several students who participated in this particular project vetting had completed the project in prior years as students. Given this unique insider perspective they were able to draw on their personal learning experience as well as what they had learned about curriculum and instruction through participating in SIC. With these experiences in mind the group made several suggestions, including adding a new component which included a physical 3D model. Project vetting practice does not involve real-time observation, and for that reason it is less challenging to schedule than is a lesson study. Although teachers had been vetting projects to one another for approximately three years, vetting projects with students was a new practice.

Researcher Role and Positionality

Prior to selecting Viewland as a research site, I regularly visited the school in my capacity as a university pathway program manager, a community partner who participated in DIAD, and a graduate student who had taken a course with Professor Ginsberg. This previous contact and experience at the school allowed me to supplement data with my own participant observations based on my historical understanding of the context. In the role of researcher, I was mostly an observer as participant (Merriam, 2009). However, there were times when this role shifted to that of participant as observer as I engaged in activities such as DIAD.

Participants and Data Collection

Data consisted of semi-structured teacher and student interviews, focus groups, administrator interviews, observations, and document analysis. The participant sample was based on the representativeness of the individuals’ participation in adult-student partnership activities (Strauss & Corbin, 1990). Teacher participants were chosen to represent a diverse population in terms of gender, number of years teaching, subject matter, and age of students taught. Student participants represented a range of age, race, ethnicity, and level of academic success. Table 1 provides an overview of participation by various individuals and groups in semi-structured interviews and focus groups. Tables 2, 3, and 4 provide information regarding participation by administrators and intermediary organization partners, teachers, and students.

Interview and Focus Group details

Administrator and intermediary Organization Partner Participation Chopra Table 3

Student Participants

Interview and focus group questions were designed to generate perspectives of the cumulative influence of student-teacher partnership practices on individuals and the school. Central to the design of interview and focus group questions was the goal of understanding the perspectives of teachers and students—the ones who have the most direct or active involvement—to explore the ways they came to participate in these collaborations; how they were prepared; how they felt about the experience; and how, if at all, their participation changed their personal perspectives or professional practice.Observations were conducted of activities where students were engaging with adults in some aspect of the practices associated with professional learning. The study consisted of nine observations including planning and team-preparation sessions, classroom observations, debriefing discussions, and group sharing of findings. Observations focused on how the activities were structured, the various roles of teachers and students, the extent to which students were considered partners, and the extent to which teachers appeared to value student feedback.A portfolio of school improvement documents provided a behind-the-scenes glimpse and insight into the purpose and development of practices, contributing depth and quality to other data. Documents were collected at various events and from the academic dean and Professor Ginsberg. Some of these documents included meeting agendas, activity descriptions, feedback and data summary posters, copies of lessons used to prepare students to provide written feedback to teachers, and lesson study materials.

Open and axial coding was used to analyze data (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Patton, 2002; Stringer, 2004). Analysis was ongoing, and data were coded inductively for specific categories of student involvement to identify students’ and teachers’ perspectives relative to the four professional learning practices. The initial coding focused on instances of student voice, perceptions of the experience, teacher and student perceptions of each other in the process, perceptions of the feedback produced from each instance of student participation, and descriptive accounts of the impact of student feedback on instructional practice.

Effects of Adult-Student Collaborations on Teacher and Student Beliefs and Instructional Interactions

Adult-Student Collaborations in Practice

Viewland High School’s experience reveals how collaborations between adults and students require structure, preparation, and practice. While Professor Ginsberg was a driving force in the conceptual components of each of these practices, she collaborated with Carla in much of the planning and implementation of the practices at the school. In 2007 Carla was a humanities teacher and the professional development coordinator within the school. In 2011 Carla created the SIC. Eventually Carla moved out of the classroom into the position of academic dean, and she continued her support of these practices. As a school insider who garnered respect and credibility within the school, Carla’s influence in implementing student-inclusive professional learning cycles was influential. With the introduction of each new practice Professor Ginsberg and Carla scaffolded effective ways to provide feedback for both students and teachers and prepared participants using role play, video, and examples from other school sites. In some sense each practice gave way to new forms of collaboration. As teachers began to open their doors to each other, parents, and students through DIAD they became more receptive to engaging in collaborative planning and teaching through lesson study. Carla illustrated this parallel, saying, “Without question, part of what contributed to the transparency of our school was our partnership with Professor Ginsberg and those first DIADs.” It is notable that Carla, with her collaboration with Professor Ginsberg, was a driving force in sustaining these practices through several changes in school leadership.According to a school publication, DIAD began in 2007 and “catalyzed the exploration of many kinds of instructional change and professional learning.”[1] By 2009 students were participating with teachers in lesson studies, and by 2011 SIC was established. It appeared that as students at Viewland gained more experience in providing constructive feedback through DIAD, teachers became more interested in hearing what they had to say. Carla explained, “When I communicated about SIC with teachers all but a few were comfortable with it…. Many teachers were eager for this feedback. To this date none of the teachers have exercised their right to opt out.” Formal structures such as SIC provided an avenue for teachers to request and receive student feedback. By allowing teachers to request a SIC observation, or to agree to it beforehand, teachers were more willing to allow a shift in the traditional student-teacher power paradigm. Additionally, teachers who had SIC visits or who participated in project vetting spoke of the practices at staff meetings to encourage their colleagues to take advantage of SIC, thus providing a credible recommendation.Importantly, DIAD and SIC provided opportunities for a wide variety of students to participate. Student leaders at Viewland, who were regular participants in DIAD, were encouraged to recruit other students. Additionally, Carla sent emails out to all staff, requesting recommendations for diverse participants, and non-traditional student leaders. This recruitment technique helped to include the perspectives of students who could be considered on the fringes or who might otherwise be disengaged from school. A credit-bearing course such as SIC also offered a structured system for a variety of students to gain training and experience in providing instructional feedback.

Enhancing Teacher-Student Relationships

Data from students and teachers at Viewland suggest that, when properly prepared, students can provide teachers with instructional feedback that educators find informative and beneficial. Initially teachers expressed a level of astonishment at the ability of students to provide feedback about instruction. One teacher noted, “I was surprised … they can be incredibly informative and provide very good feedback on an adult level. It surprised me that they have that capability.”Allowing teachers to work in collaboration with student observers during DIAD was one way in which teachers’ perspectives of students were changed. During DIAD each classroom observation was followed by group debriefs in which team members discussed what they observed in the classroom and related it to what they had learned about effective instruction. These conversations allowed teachers and students to discuss instruction on somewhat neutral ground. Additionally, as teachers observed their students in other classes during DIAD they were able to see the strengths various students had in different subjects as well as the different ways students responded to other teachers. Allison, a science teacher in her 13th year, illustrated this phenomenon:

It was really powerful to see kids in other places and amazing to see how other teachers were interacting with those same kids and getting different results. I know that all my students are smart, but I couldn’t see those parts of them before.

In this way, Allison’s perspectives of her students was altered as she began to see her students in a new light.

Students also reported changes in their perspectives. Many students indicated a new interest in instructional practice and in school overall. Several became aware of how and why teachers used specific strategies, indicating an appreciation for the thought behind lesson construction. Some students noted a change in perspective about particular teachers and in teaching overall. Shawna, a sophomore, commented:

I’ve learned to appreciate teachers because I learned how hard it is to be a teacher. You have to be that coach and that mentor, and you have to accommodate everybody’s needs. So I know it’s really hard to be a teacher and I appreciate them for that.

According to school documents, “Students who observe during DIAD self-report that they feel a stronger connection to and understanding of the work of teaching and learning.” These changes in perspective are notable in themselves, but they are important for building a sense of reciprocal respect between students and teachers. In the eyes of one student this reciprocal respect had, quite simply, “made Viewland a better place.”

Changes in Instructional Practice and Classroom Behavior

Teachers who participated in one or more of the feedback cycles reported changes in their practice and/or behavior. These changes appeared to make classrooms more responsive to their students and to contribute to improved instructional interactions. Teachers indicated a desire to continue instructionally-focused interactions with students or to increase the amount of student feedback they received. In discussing student feedback Bradly, a first year teacher commented:

I definitely change things up now, like how I structure directions, or if we do a lecture, I break it up differently. Things like that. So it does affect my practice directly. And it makes me think of the bigger picture. Like, how do I keep getting their feedback? And then, what am I going to do with their feedback?

While teachers like Bradly noted specific changes in practice some teachers discussed the ways collaborating with students changed the way they thought about teaching and how they constructed learning experiences. Amy, a math teacher in her 15th year noted:

[Student feedback] motivates me to grow and give them more of what they need. Now I ask myself: Is it meaningful? Am I doing this because I really think it’s going to improve their learning, or am I doing this just because somebody else did and I’m just following their lead?

Students took note of these changes and appreciated them. Latonna, a senior, recognized that some of the teachers she had observed and to whom she provided feedback had begun to do things differently. She found satisfaction in these changes as well as motivation to continue the work. Latonna’s observation of change in teacher behavior and her noted motivation for future partnerships with educators could indicate a strengthened sense of efficacy or a belief in her ability to contribute to her educational experience.

Teachers at Viewland also noted that their experience participating in DIAD led them to solicit feedback informally in their own classrooms. In this sense the formal adult-student partnership practices at the school seemed to increase the rate at which teachers solicited informal student feedback. This phenomenon could play a part in facilitating a shift in overall school climate where students feel that they have input regarding their instructional experience. For example, Dan, the teacher most resistant to DIAD, expressed concern about the participation of some of the non-traditional student leaders in DIAD when he reported that in his perspective, “One particular student [who participates in DIAD] is one of the biggest zeros there is here, and for him to provide feedback to teachers is just ludicrous.” Yet he then noted that he now solicits student feedback in class saying, “Yeah, it is useful as long as you are getting real feedback. I might end a project early or change it if they are not enjoying it.” This possible increase in the occurrence of student voice within classrooms could be an important way that adult-student partnerships are enduring.

Teaching and Learning as a Partnership

Students and teachers at Viewland noted personal changes as well as instructional shifts as a result of the adult-student practices at the school. Students expressed an increase in their level of confidence in speaking to adults as well as in their belief that their actions could impact their learning environment. Teachers noted a change in their perceptions of different students and their ability to provide insightful feedback. Principal Sanders felt that as a result of the various feedback cycles teachers had begun to acknowledge that their practice might benefit from formalized student feedback saying, “Those student responses—concrete responses, those are what helps teachers make some concrete changes. That is what teachers are talking about.” This shift was demonstrated by teachers like Dan who were initially resistant to the idea of student feedback and now reported an understanding of the possible benefits of student perspectives. As a witness to the ongoing evolution at Viewland Carla said:

All but a few teachers recognize the goodness of that kind of transparency and the goodness of students taking part. It is hard to discount the incredible investment that students have in their own education. And so denying them the chance to give thoughts on what they think might be going on is hard to justify.

Vice Principal Grady asserted that engaging students as instructional partners changed how students viewed school. He felt that students had begun to treat school as less of a “prison” and more of a place where both teachers and students communicated expectations of good educational practice. He described that this newly developed partnership was evident “in the ways students and teachers talked about being at school together.” This was a shift that was also evident to students. As Jason, a junior, noted,

I have been doing this since I was a freshman, and a lot has changed. There is a lot more student work in the classrooms, art on the walls, a lot more collaborations with teachers, and better relationships. Everything has benefited us in the classrooms. As a junior now looking back I have to say it’s an evolution that’s going on here.

What Viewland Tells Us About Adult-Student Partnerships

Viewland represents a site, like many busy urban schools, with multiple and changing priorities. The intermediary partnership between Professor Ginsberg and the shifting administration likely withstood these changes through the consistent commitment of Carla. However, teachers there also seemed to recognize that the focus on student learning, adult learning, and student-adult relationships was more than the usual surface reform. Often school reform focuses on curriculum materials or school and classroom organization. The approach that Professor Ginsberg employed recognized that school change can and should be a convergence of multiple resources. The complexity of educational reform, and the difficulty of capturing concrete changes, can sometimes make it easy to underestimate the work. This difficulty is often compounded within high-poverty schools where stakes are high and resources are scarce. Thus it is important to highlight what Viewland’s development and implementation of instructionally-focused adult-student collaborations can tell us about the process of designing such collaborations, as well as what it can tell us about reform and education in urban schools in general.

The Role of Intermediary Partnerships in Establishing Norms and Practices

The extent to which adult-student collaborations developed and took root at Viewland would most likely not have been possible without the partnership of Professor Ginsberg. In many ways the partnership between Viewland and the university aided in establishing instructional transparency and collaboration as a cultural norm of the school. As such, broad-based student participation in adult-student collaborations was consistent with the school-wide expectation of transparent and continual instructional improvement. Some key factors in the functioning and practice of the partnership, as noted by both Professor Ginsberg and by teachers at Viewland, were the development of ownership and local control of new practices. Professor Ginsberg helped establish these aspects through “establishing a strong stable leadership team with both teachers and administrators” and the co-planning and co-facilitation of practices with teachers and students. She said, “I always did planning with the leadership team, and when it came time to facilitate, I had Carla or the students out there.”While the concept of student voice can sometimes conjure images of bottom-up reforms, where students bring forth issues of concern and are given resources to make change, there is also the reality that adults cannot simply relinquish control entirely or listen to students without engendering some form of collective action. The idea of adult-student collaborations addresses this gap but, like at Viewland, it is a process that must be taught, learned, and practiced by all involved. Student participation in school improvement can be tokenistic if adults are unprepared to engage with students as partners (Fielding, 2004, 2012; Hart, 1997; Mitra, 2005; Rudduck, 2001). Furthermore, if both students and adults are not allowed safe arenas to try out these collaborations, giving way to new ideas and suggestions to strengthen the process, the practice could stagnate. Given the highly-charged nature of adult-student collaboration rooted in power paradigms, a safe arena for practicing these new interactions can prove fruitful. At Viewland Professor Ginsberg helped to provide this environment by serving as an important resource, confidant, and source of encouragement for faculty members, administrators, and students who were venturing to attempt new forms of partnership. This pattern of ongoing support suggests a larger need in such school settings. Some source of neutral support, offered through an intermediary partnership (or some equivalent arrangement), appears to serve a critical role in the process of establishing the norms and practice of adult-student collaboration.

Fostering an Open and Committed Disposition to Student Collaboration

The support of the university partnership enabled several developments within Viewland that reveal what it may take for adult-student partnerships to take root. As mentioned, many teachers at Viewland moved to a disposition in which they genuinely felt students might offer valuable insights, or that they were seeking student collaboration—some reached this disposition more quickly than others, and some never really got there. But attaining this disposition, at least in some degree, made it possible for there to be real action based on the exchange. Principal Sanders discussed the evolution of teacher attitudes towards student-adult collaborations, saying:

The first thing that made the broader community realize how important student voice is, is when students participated in DIAD. DIAD really made visible the potential of students as instructional allies and people who could help improve the school as a whole. Out of that came a whole set of learning experiences with teachers and students.

This disposition is no small feat, for as Damiani (2014) asserted, “Many adults, who don’t share the same backgrounds as their urban students, struggle to view students as collaborators that can potentially inform their practice” (p. 202). Further, without establishing this disposition, teachers may often not be willing to listen to students, whom they view as possessing no academic/educational or social capital. Establishing an open and committed disposition to student collaboration is necessary in order to for teachers not only to listen to student feedback but be responsive and take action.

At Viewland, as in many schools, there was a range in commitment to adult-student collaborations correlating to the amount of participation and exposure teachers had to student collaborations and feedback. This range suggests that with some form of structured encouragement and safe arenas to experiment with partnerships, even resistant teachers may be willing to engage in such collaborations. The findings of this study reinforce the idea that, as teachers become aware of student preparation to engage in such collaborations, their interest in participating in adult-student collaboration increases. Carla noted:

One thing I am proud of in terms of facilitation of the group is the work we did on the writing of the letters and students being as kind of camera like in their data, focusing on observable data … and providing low inference kind of notes…. Several teachers have told me their instructional memo was impactful…. Even the teachers who were most resistant to DIAD see SIC feedback as useful.

Research has demonstrated that adult allies, like Carla, who have demonstrated excellence in teaching and leadership and who are thoughtful about ethical issues within education, are an important factor in building student capacity to engage with adults in collaborations, and they may also be influential in encouraging other teachers to explore student-adult collaborations as a way to improve instruction (Mitra & Gross, 2009). Teachers need help not only in beginning to view students as collaborators, but they also need support to interpret the feedback students offer. A developed cadre of adult allies within the school and administration can help faculty navigate these interactions.

A “Multiplier Effect” of Improvements in Teacher-Student Relationships

Given open dispositions on the part of adults and beginning demonstrations of what adult-student collaborations can look like, the case of Viewland suggests that momentum develops and has a “multiplier effect” on the quality and reach of subsequent adult-student collaborations. Instructional collaborations between teachers and students at Viewland influenced instruction and other aspects of school governance in ways that appeared to snowball. According to a conference presentation by Carla and a Viewland graduate, “Students point out that even students who don’t participate in the Student Instructional Council still can see their work in classrooms, which creates a ripple effect to student’s perception that student voice on teaching and learning matters at our school.” Further, as students began to experience teachers’ willingness to listen and possibly be swayed by their feedback, they became more confident and open to talking about learning in deeper and more personal ways with adults. One student noted, “There was this one teacher who was new. We went to her classroom and wrote her a memo. Then later that year I came back and saw that she had made her classroom better … and I saw other teachers did things different, too. It motivated me to do more visits and [give] more feedback.” Concurrently, when students are afforded an opportunity to reveal that they have worthwhile things to say about instruction, and they can communicate these appropriately to teachers, adults are more apt to find the courage to continue to seek out these opportunities to collaborate with students. For example, Nancy, a teacher of 15 years, described how she came to project vetting:

So I had students come through my classroom, and I asked another student what class it was for. He’s like, “Oh, it is a class we are taking called [SIC] … we do all kinds of cool stuff.” That prompted me to think, “Well, I could vet a project with them. Why not?”

In many ways this snowball effect may occur as a result of increases in positive relational characteristics between students and teachers, affording them both a new level of respect for each other that contributed to improved communications.

This phenomenon is echoed in other researchers’ observations, as well as in action research studies which suggest a powerful connection between students and teachers that has so far been underutilized (Rudduck & McIntyre, 2007; Kane & Chimwayange, 2014). These studies find that disruptions in entrenched educational and classroom roles could open the door to transformations in classroom and administrative practices. However, to capitalize on this snowball effect, systems and structures to create a supported and sustained approach to adult-student collaborations could be helpful. Like any new practice, it cannot become a school norm unless it occurs frequently, as a part of professional learning, and in ways where students can see patterns in teachers as well.

Consistent Communication of Purpose and Process

Along with the issue of shifting school norms and addressing underlying teacher beliefs about the potential of adult-student collaborations, several other factors help to establish consistent and continual application of such practices: a clearly communicated description of the purpose behind collaborations and a defined and established structure for engaging in the practices. Further, if faculty members are involved in the planning process, then those who may be initially resistant or wary of adult-student collaboration might buy into the process. For example, students and teachers who have taken part in developing collaborative structures and who participate in communicating this experience to other students and staff members might have more success in establishing the school’s perception of the practices as a form of personal and professional growth. Within this transparent communication, leaders could message a clear definition of growth vs. evaluation. In this way the fear of constructive criticism used as formal evaluation (with possible consequences for the staff member) could be alleviated. When reflecting on his SIC observation one teacher said, “I was open to getting student feedback but then I was like, whoa, wait a minute. Is this evaluative or not?” Another teacher discussed her hesitancy in project vetting:

Vetting a project even to adults is kind of scary. But let alone to students, that may be your former students, that’s really scary. Like are they going to pass along their feedback to other teachers or administrators?

While assuring faculty collaborators that student participants are not there to serve in an evaluative role, student participants may also benefit from clarity around their collaborative roles without diminishing the importance of their partnership. One teacher asserted that every student and adult involved should have some idea why such practices are encouraged at the school and how they can be important for instructional practice. In the absence this type of communication, some teachers may continue to be dismissive of student collaboration or otherwise feel threatened.

Another issue related to the communication of the purpose and process of adult-student collaborations revolves around the extent to which the school provides formal opportunities for student voice that make student participation feasible and beneficial for students. Viewland students often participated in adult-student partnerships at their own prerogative, negotiating complex and compact schedules with work, family, studies, and extracurricular activities. While many student participants found intrinsic value in their participation in adult-student collaborations, adults may want to consider that student participation could be abused or taken for granted. The reward of compensation for student time is often equally important as compensation for adults. When asked about why they participated in such partnerships given their busy schedules, one student noted, “Doing this is detrimental to some of my other things like band and getting sleep. But if teachers ask for my feedback and take the time to listen, I can take the time to give feedback.” The establishment of SIC proved an important step in addressing these issues and clearly communicated to both students and teachers that student voice was a valuable component in the functioning of the school.

Complexities of Power Dynamics

Clear communication around purpose and process of adult-student collaborations can serve to alleviate many of the issues that arise from such interactions due to student-teacher power dynamics. As Fielding (2004) noted, as of yet, “[t]here are no spaces, physical or metaphorical, where staff and students meet one another as equals, as genuine partners in the shared understanding of making meaning of their work together” (p. 309). In the establishment of formal spaces and structures for adult-student collaborations, there comes more flexibility and willingness to engage in collaborative practices.

The reluctance of some adults to engage in adult-student partnerships may be related to ingrained power dynamics which establish clear roles of expert and learner. One teacher described his initial reaction to a student observation by asking, “How am I supposed to take feedback from you when you don’t even show up to class or put any effort in?” However, he continued, “Then I realized that maybe if I listened, or that other things were in place, he might show up more.” In an effort to alleviate some of the issues around power, more could be done to be transparent about how students are chosen to engage in collaborative practices and how they come to be prepared to participate. This transparency is of particular importance when engaging nontraditional student leaders in providing feedback to educators.

Unanswered Questions and Possible Future Research

The Viewland case suggests that the norms and practices established under the supportive umbrella of an intermediary partnership may be sustained over time, beyond the end of that partnership. Consider the fact that DAID is (at the time of this writing) still occurring at Viewland. Further, according to Carla, now the assistant principal, student voice at Viewland has continued to evolve. For example, student led conferences are now a “stable tradition” and students are still involved in classroom observations through a course called “Leadership.” Additional inquiry into the ways students in this course are trained to engage in adult-student collaborations and the roles they take in other aspects of instructional renewal at the school, in absence of Professor Ginsberg as a collaborator, would also prove illuminating regarding issues of sustainability.Setting aside questions of sustainability and future actions at Viewland there also remain unanswered questions about the present functioning of adult-student collaboration at Viewland. For example, if teachers who are new to Viewland express hesitation to adult-student practices are invited to participate in instances of DIAD or project vetting, would they accept the invitation? Further, would the experience of collaborating with trained students from SIC create a transformative experience for these teachers that might change their beliefs about students or influence their practice? Or might they use the experience to further reinforce their established beliefs about the value of students as instructional collaborators? Finally, could it be possible that adult-student collaboration at Viewland influence teacher hiring practices in that teacher candidates who indicate resistance to collaboration with students might not even be brought on board?

Within this study, several findings invite further examination. Student participants appeared to attribute more value to the sanctioned or “formal” practices of adult-student collaboration, while teachers found “informal” interactions to be more influential. Thus teachers had a tendency to increase their solicitation for informal student feedback within their classrooms while students expressed a desire for an increase in their opportunities to provide feedback in formal settings. Such a differential in attributed value, and the reasons behind this discrepancy, might prove helpful for others when conceptualizing new structures for adult-youth collaborations as they are both clearly important in different ways to both parties.

It may be significant, if possible, to document any changes in instructional practice as a result of such collaborations. Perhaps this “unseen” multiplier effect influences school culture and reform more than other practices. While research supports the benefits that student voice activities have for students, such as increased agency, attachment to school, increased effort in classroom interactions, and new understanding of the complexity of teaching and learning, we could focus more on the benefits these practices also bring adults and the situation of school within the community. Along these lines, it could prove interesting to explore if and how much student participation in adult-student collaborations within the school affect parental involvement at the school.

Finally, the viability of a shared ownership for learning in schools seems to emanate from some form of policy and school leadership. In this vein it seems important to explore how the new understandings adult-student collaborations provide about the educational experience can inform the ways in which we think about educational leadership, organizational culture, curriculum theory, and teacher education.


While there may be a continual need to document and categorize various aspects of adult-student collaborations, it remains more important to legitimize this work for the pragmatic value it offers the students and teachers who reside daily in schools. Given the ability of students to advocate and give voice to a range of their peers, this work could be important for students who are in schools that are considered traditionally underserved. In these schools, students may be more likely to lack the social capital, skills, or confidence to communicate effectively with adults who are in positions of authority. This study provides an example that may be of use to others who are looking to design new organizational routines and infrastructures for instructional improvement that include students as partners. Further, by contributing another example of adult-student collaborations to the literature we can begin to address how to construct programs that work under a wide range of circumstances.School reform grinds ever forward, yet as Cook-Sather (2002) has noted, “Decades of school reform have not succeeded in making schools places where all young people want to and are able to learn” (p. 9). Further, it is not entirely clear that our schools are places where adult educators want to spend their careers. It may be time to spend energy and expertise to prime the ground for students and teachers to find equally enriching and fulfilling experiences. For school reform to move forward it would be beneficial to include students as participants. In this process, teachers, students, and the public might need to re-envision what the roles of student and teacher entail (Fielding, 2004). Further, to create schools where student-adult collaboration is encouraged and youth agency is not underestimated, there would need to be spaces where students and adults can work as partners and where issues of power can be minimized or eliminated for a time (Fielding & Rudduck, 2002). Unless policy makers and educators begin engaging students—even the ones they feel most unable to reach—about schooling, reform efforts will likely continue to lack potency and enact little change. In schools like Viewland we can see how students and adults can grow intellectually and professionally as they create new structures to communicate and develop mutual respect.

Yet some level of transformation, or rupture of the normalized social hierarchy and organizational structures of schooling, seems to be in order. It would be a process that is ongoing and messy. However, as we now look to the pressures schools face to implement core standards, it seems timely. Common Core implementation in schools presents a new pressure on administrators, teachers, students, and schools. Can and should students play a part in sharing the design and implementation of their education? Can students serve as a bridge to their parents and communities to further unify these goals? While these aspects of student-adult collaboration may seem dangerous and subversive, it may be the one untapped resource, requiring little funding, that may provide lasting change. In this exploration of adult-student collaboration we might discover, or realize, educational settings where there is a shared ownership for learning and what Fielding (2002) described as a “radical collegiality” between the educators and students who reside there.


  1. School names and names of individuals are pseudonyms.
  2. Quote is taken from a school document designed to describe DIAD’s history and purpose at the school.


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Unlocking students’ perspectives of school leadership: Toward a theory of engaging students in school leadership.

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 1, Number 1                                        IJSV                                 October 2016

Unlocking Students’ Perspectives of School Leadership: Toward a Theory of Engaging Students in Leadership

Jonathan Damiani

Nagoya University of Commerce & Business

Citation: Damiani, J. (2016). Unlocking students’ perspectives of school leadership: Toward a theory of engaging students in school leadership. International Journal of Student Voice, 1(1). Retrieved from: unlocking-students-perspectives-of-school-leadership-toward-a-theory-of-engaging- students-in-school-leadership .

Abstract: The need to define principals as the ones who seek out the opinions and perspectives of those they serve, rather than making decisions for them, is a significant but necessary departure from more traditional approaches to leadership. This study examined whether and how principals take their lead from students, and use student voice, to create more responsive schools and more responsive models of leadership. Using a mixed qualitative approach and data collected from interviews and observations with students and principals in urban, suburban, and rural schools I explored what elementary school students perceive to be the biggest challenges they face in school, and whether and how their principals help them with their challenges. This article employs a bidirectional interaction framework in an effort to address roadblocks to responsive leadership in schools. This model and data gathered using a cogenerative qualitative approach have revealed a new shared theory focused on improving administrative function, providing students with a voice, and engaging students in school leadership.

Keywords:Student Voice, Student Agency, Educational Leadership


Principals today are spending more time than ever before focusing on teaching and learning. This shift away from the office implies that more direct relationships between principals and instructional programs are necessary (Day, Gu, & Sammons, 2016) if new models of leadership are going to replace earlier models that limited contact with students to matters of discipline and classroom visits to teacher feedback, supervision, and modeling (Hallinger & Wang, 2015). Research into issues of administration has emphasized reflective and inquiry-oriented approaches to working with teachers (Blase & Blase, 1999). As a result, principals now collaborate more with others before making decisions, and many employ models of distributive leadership in which adults share in responsibilities that were typically overseen by the administrator (Spillane, 2001). Despite these efforts towards reorganization, schools have neglected to include students in more responsive models of leadership, and research has largely ignored the inherent possibilities of student engagement.

The purpose of this study was to discover how leaders of students have performed in their role as instructional leaders, and to determine by what means their thinking or behaviors associated with this role have been shaped in part by students. This study examined whether and how principals take their lead from students, and use student voice, to create more responsive schools and a more responsible principalship. To describe and explain whether and how principals have used students’ perspectives to meaningfully structure their experiences of schools and learning, further investigation into how students can naturally inform the work being done by principals may help to bring students’ attitudes and feelings about principals into the dominant discourse on effective leadership practice.

Rather than focus on one aspect of educational leadership (e.g., visibility of the principal), this article focuses on the instructional behaviors of principals as seen through the eyes of the students, the administrators themselves, and my own observations of the interactions between these two often disparate members of the school community. By capturing the work that is being done in schools where students, principals, and parents are interested in developing a meaningful dialogue about learning and leadership, I have begun to better understand how the relationships between students and principals may lead to more efficient instructional programs, increased communication, and student empowerment.

I begin with an examination of the research on educational leadership, exploring how students’ perspectives have been used in schools and highlighting approaches researchers have taken when studying youth. I then describe the theoretical framework that has helped me structure my understanding of the literature, how this study might inform the literature, and the mixed qualitative approach I have used in an effort to answer these research questions: (a) What, from the perspective of students, are the most significant challenges faced by students in schools? (b) How do principals help children cope with the challenges they face? In an effort to depict the lived realities of the students and principals that produced this article’s data, I next present some key data collected from each research site. A brief cross-case analysis that summarizes findings from the data is then provided. Finally, I present my emerging theory—one that includes students and student voice in models of school leadership.


In this section, I review the extant research on educational leadership alongside research that has included students’ perspectives on a range of factors affecting their experiences of learning and school. I also review research that has been conducted using young and marginalized people(s). Finally, I present Allen’s (1986) bidirectional interaction model as a theoretical framework for this study.

Educational Leadership

The principal’s role historically has been that of manager. More recently the expanding job, and its increasing focus on accountability, standardization, and resource allocation, has necessitated the emergence of an instructional leader (Cooley & Shen, 2003; Walker, 2010), capable of impacting student achievement (Leithwood, Harris, & Strauss, 2010; Waters, Marzano, & McNulty, 2003). Today, changes brought on by federal mandates have forced principals into the spotlight at a time when many schools are coping with significant changes in the socioeconomic composition of their student body, adjusting to a steady influx of English Language Learners (ELL), and pushing toward inclusion of students with special needs in regular education classrooms. More current descriptions of the leadership role include: initiators of change, educational visionaries, curriculum and assessment experts, budget analysts, special program administrators, school managers, personnel administrators, and community builders (Darling-Hammond, 2007).

Just as the relationships between principals and schools have changed, so too have the relationships that principals are having with teachers and students. Principals are spending more time observing teaching and learning than ever before. The old model of formal, one-person leadership is no longer realistic (Klocko & Wells, 2015), and with the increase in job demands principals now collaborate more with others before making decisions and employ models of distributive leadership (Spillane, 2001) in which adults share in responsibilities that were typically overseen by the administrator (DiPaola & Tschannen-Moran, 2003). Despite these efforts towards reorganization, schools have neglected to include students in more responsive models of leadership, and research has largely ignored the inherent possibilities. While research tells us that principals have indirect effects on students and student learning (Marzano, Waters, & McNulty, 2005), it has ignored the possibility of principals’ having a direct and profound effect on students’ experiences of school and learning (Walker, 2010). By exploring the topic of leadership through the eyes of the student, we can begin to see whether and how principals are directly impacting students in more concrete ways.

A few arguments have traditionally been advanced in support of school leaders’ considering student participation and involvement when making decisions.First, teachers and school-based support teams have been involved in helping principals make decisions for years. These same arguments apply, at least in theory, to students as well. While most principals would argue that it is their job to make the decisions that affect their school, many actively involve teachers in conversations about the school’s instructional program on a regular basis (Kraft et al., 2015). Differentiating support of teachers has improved the overall quality of teaching and made principals into more responsive leaders (Brezicha, Bergmark, & Mitra, 2014). If principals were to involve students in similar conversations about their experiences of teaching, learning, and even leadership, students might also become more empowered as learners, and principals would become even more effective leaders.

Second, students have a moral right to be involved. When principals do not involve students and ignore students’ basic needs, such as the need for social/emotional support, autonomy, and respect, students are left to wonder if their principal actually cares (Gentilucci & Muto, 2007; Louis, Murphy, & Smylie, 2016). Students have a right to a voice in decisions that affect their experiences of school and learning and will become more responsible learners if they have a higher morale.

Third, student involvement enhances cooperation and reduces conflict between all members of the school. There is evidence that when students’ personal needs of accomplishment and meaningfulness are met by adults in schools, students’ agendas, goals, and perspectives will align with those of adults (Allen, 1986; Baroutsis, McGregor, & Mills, 2015). When these goals and perspectives align, students and adults are more likely to work together toward improving student learning outcomes. Active involvement in the school’s instructional program also provides students with opportunities for their voice (as it relates to problems and dissatisfaction) to be heard by those who matter and who can address their needs before they manifest themselves in a negative way.

The rationale for giving students a voice and involving them in decisions about the work of learning and leadership is clear. Just as teachers have valuable information about the instructional program, students also have information that leaders need to make good decisions. Students also have a need and a basic undeniable right to feel committed and connected to their experiences of learning. When principals do not actively consider students as valuable to the overall success of the school and involve students in decisions that affect the work of learning, students in turn get the message that their participation and involvement are not valued by all members of the organization.

Students’ Perspectives of Leadership

Few studies have examined what students perceive schools do to impact their learning, and in these few studies the emphasis has largely been on issues such as student satisfaction with school, perceptions of school climate and culture, issues of motivation, classroom management, and expectations of teachers (Ogbu, 1974; Wilson, 1994, 2011). As useful as these lines of inquiry were, none reveals much about what students think and feel about principal leadership and its effect on academic achievement, arguably the most central aspect of student life (Cook-Sather, 2009).

While the departure from a more traditional, managerial role has been critical for principals who want to appear more accessible to both the students and teachers in their schools (Fullan, 2008), there is evidence to suggest that these new roles only in part fulfill what students are looking for in a strong instructional leader (Gentilucci & Muto, 2007). Teacher and student engagement data related to these instructional behaviors have been recorded (Quinn, 2002), and secondary students have been able to talk about how they perceive these behaviors (Shultz & Cook-Sather, 2001), but no study to date has considered elementary school student perspectives on this topic. Promoting student voice and agency has been heralded as one of the keys to successful schools (Cook-Sather, 2014; Beattie 2012), yet rarely is youth participation considered in educational research or applied work (Mitra, Serriere, & Kirshner, 2014). Many schools are struggling to create instructional programs that are suited to the members of the organization who will inevitably determine whether or not the school is successful. To understand what students are looking for in their educational experience, we must first ask the students what it is they think their principals do.

We know from data provided by adults that principals’ behaviors, such as maintaining a visible presence on campus, are correlated with higher student achievement (Waters et al., 2003). However, we lack data explicating such findings from the perspective of students. Schools are not measured by how well teachers, superintendents, or even principals perform; they are measured by the strengths and weaknesses of their students.

Youth Studies

Teachers today have become more adept at using student voice and collaborative approaches to learning in classrooms (Mitra, 2004), and administrators have involved teachers in inquiry-based approaches to leadership (Lambert, 2002). These collaborative models have long been shown to lead to improved teaching and, as a result, increased student performance (Talbert, 1995). Yet administrators still rarely use student voice to structure their reform efforts or students’ experiences of school. More modern definitions of student voice, such as Mitra’s (2008), highlight the power student voice holds for impacting schools on a much deeper level:

The ways in which young people can work with teachers and administrators to co-create the path of reform. This process can enable youth to meet their own developmental needs and can strengthen student ownership of the educational reform process. (p. 7)

They also draw our focus to new relationships between students and adults. This concept of adults’ learning from or working alongside students to shape the climate of schools may sound to many practitioners and researchers like a radical departure from more traditional methods (Jones & Perkins, 2004). These relationships between students and adults have resulted in more collaborative learning environments, where students accept more responsibility and share authority (Panitz, 1996). These new and more meaningful models of shared leadership have begun to receive attention from researchers focused on understanding how schools can best use student voice initiatives to drive reform efforts (Beattie, 2012; Simmons, Graham, & Thomas, 2015). Research has demonstrated that cooperative efforts between students and adults can develop schools in a way that students and adults acting alone cannot (Kirchner, 2005).

While schools and principals have for decades used student voice in relation to maintaining the status quo, or to manage and organize student activities and student behavior, student voice has been largely subjected to limiting school-established parameters (Quinn & Owen, 2016). These parameters have rarely been designed to include students’ perspectives of teaching and leadership, arguably the two most important aspects of student life. Many adults, who do not share the same backgrounds as their students, struggle to view students as collaborators who can potentially inform their practice (Biklen, 2004). Despite this lack of perspective, we know from research that when adults listen to what students have to say about their learning and meaningfully use student voice to shape their experiences of school, they can empower students as learners (Warner, 2010).

Theoretical Framework

The theoretical model that best suits my research comes from a study on students’ perspectives of teachers as classroom managers (Allen, 1986). Allen’s (1986) model (see Figure 1) of the relationship between student and adult perspectives is bidirectional (Hargreaves, 1972) and is based on symbolic interaction theory (Becker, 1968; Hargreaves, 1972). This theory assumes that in the interaction between two groups, individuals act from a group perspective based on the norms of their group. Therefore, students’ behaviors are based on the norms of youth culture (Morrill, 2000; Murdock, 1972) and teachers’ (or principals’) behaviors are based on the norms of adult culture.

Allen’s (1986) study on students’ perspectives proposed two essential research questions that relate to this study. The first was to establish that students use certain strategies to achieve goals, which form their classroom agenda. The second was to establish the degree to which these strategies influence teachers in establishing how the classroom is managed. While Allen’s study was not able to determine which students’ strategies influence teachers, and subsequent studies have failed to determine which strategies influence principals and their instructional leadership, it is important to note that ancillary data from Allen’s research suggest that adults are influenced and school management affected by students’ strategies. This suggestion highlights the bidirectional influence between how students’ strategies and goals can affect those of the principal. Just as students have an agenda that includes strategies to help them achieve their goals, these same strategies also help students adapt to, or circumvent, the goals of the adults in school.

diamani figure2 Figure 1. Bidirectional classroom interaction model (Allen, 1986).

The framework places the two parties beside each other so as to highlight the bidirectional influence students and teachers both have on outcomes such as academic achievement and classroom management. This framework provides an alternative to more hierarchical and unidirectional approaches to understanding the connection that exists between adults’ strategies for improving the instructional program, and students’ strategies for succeeding in school. While the relationship between these two groups has been discussed at length from the perspective of the adult, this model serves to demonstrate the importance of developing a new line of inquiry that not only includes the student’s perspective but also places it beside that of the adult.

This model emphasizes the important role student voice plays in empowering students as learners and also guides my query into how student perspectives can be used to shape and guide new forms of leadership behavior in schools. While the theoretical framework does depict a relationship between students’ strategies and goals and teachers’ strategies and goals, it is important to note that principals’ perspectives and agendas may also be connected or developed in response to those of the students.

Research Methods

This study was designed as a multi-site ethnography of how elementary school principals empower students and use student voice to develop their principalship. With this study I describe and explain how principals have (or have not) used students’ perspectives to structure their experiences of school and learning. Here I describe the study settings, participants, and methods for data collection and analysis.

Participating Principals and School Settings

The participating principals included in this study were recruited based on these criteria: a) recommendations from colleagues at local universities and regional schools who identified candidates based on my descriptions of principals who work directly with students to find meaningful ways of promoting student learning and shaping their principalship, b) face-to-face screening interviews I then held with possible candidates where I asked about specific strategies they had in place (or were developing) that incorporated student voice and/or empowered students, and c) principals who expressed excitement about being included in a study that was designed to support the work they do with students by involving students in the work they do as principals.

Principals were also purposefully selected from a variety of elementary school settings. This study includes two urban schools, one suburban school, and one rural school. Since few studies have investigated what students perceive principals do to influence their academic achievement (Gentilucci & Muto, 2007), and the majority of principals struggle to find time to devote to working with kids (Walker, 2010), it is important to provide both researchers and practitioners with evidence of how these student-centered administrators lead in schools that represent a number of different populations.

Participating Students

Another group of participants was elementary school students. As I did not want to actively interfere in any of the students’ instructional time in schools, I gave the principals opportunities to decide when I would be given access to small focus groups of students (four to six students per focus group). Each focus group was meant to be representative of the overall population of the school. The groups were randomly selected from classrooms at grade levels determined by the principal, where parents were willing to complete and submit consent forms. At Forest Hills, Lodi, and Everton, I was granted access to two groups of students at each site. These groups consisted of students in grades 3-5. At Carter, I was given access to one group of fifth grade students. All students fell between the ages of 8 and 11.

Data Collection

The research goals of this study were to understand how adults use student perspectives to structure their approaches to leadership. Research has shown that using different kinds of data to understanding a single topic can produce results that are both confirming and powerful (Denzin, 1978). My research produced a mixed-qualitative approach that researchers and practitioners can use to structure their approaches to leadership, empower students, and create more meaningful dialogue between children and adults. In the following section I describe the different qualitative approaches that were taken during interviews with principals and students and visits to the schools.

In-depth interview. My first formal interview with the principals lasted approximately 60 minutes and was conducted before I spoke with the students near the beginning of the spring semester. Questions in the first interview concerned descriptions of a “typical” day, success stories, challenges and hurdles, ways student-based initiatives were presented at the schools, and interactions with the students. Data collected from these interviews were used to inform my questioning during my subsequent focus groups with the students. A second interview, which lasted between 60-90 minutes, was conducted with each principal after my first focus group with the students. The questioning from this interview was created in response to the analysis of my first student focus group, was informed by my observations at the site, and gave the principals an opportunity to respond to any questions and/or concerns posed by the students.

Focus groups. Researchers have used a number of strategies to conduct focus groups with children (Liamputtong, 2011). In addition to conducting the two focus group interviews at each site, I employed three of these strategies in an effort to conduct fun, age-appropriate activities focused on the research topic. The first strategy was the use of a warm-up activity with students from all groups. The warm-up involved practicing some of the basic skills necessary for participating in a focus group. I introduced the subject at the beginning of the first interview by using a free association activity where students were asked to identify images of various adults and take turns describing the same images.

Next, in my attempt to provide the students with an opportunity to tell their story as transparently as possible, before I began my line of questioning, I asked each student to provide me with a drawing that they created in response to an initial brainstorm about principals. Students were provided with colored pencils and a standard (A4) size piece of paper and were asked to draw what they thought their principal does. A third activity I used to start my second focus group interview was to introduce the topic in a read-aloud of an age-appropriate children’s book about principals (Creech & Bliss, 2001). After the story I asked the students to talk about the story as it related to our first discussion and as a prompt for our more focused second discussion. Focus groups were conducted twice with each group of students at each site, once at the beginning of the semester after my initial interview with the principal, and once at the end of the semester after my second interview with the principal.

Observation. I also used observation as a tool for understanding and interpreting the data I collected in my interviews with students and principals. At the schools I observed principals in their natural interactions with students. Since principals often schedule specific times for these interactions, principals invited me to join them in these interactions at various points throughout the semester. I arranged for a minimum of four days of observation at each research site.

Data Analysis

Data analysis began during the data collection process and was conducted by the students, principals, and myself. The initial interview with the school principal was used to inform my questioning during the subsequent focus group interview with students. Likewise, data collected from this focus group of students was used to inform my probing of the principal during our second in-depth interview. This approach is based on Elden and Levin’s (1991) model of cogenerative dialogue and models of narrative inquiry (Polkinghorne, 1995; Riessman, 2008; Rolling, 2008). This model suggests that more participatory approaches taken by the researcher and subjects during the data collection process can help the participants, in our case students and principals, develop a shared framework that can be tested through collective action or used to produce a new general theory that can be used to inform and improve their situation in the future.

Both during and after the data collection process I used an analytically inductive method to develop codes for my data. This method allowed important categories to emerge as the data were collected, produced, and analyzed by the students and principals throughout the study. My two classes of participants and bidirectional framework both suggested that I first develop two sets of codes based on the data collected, one for principals and one for students.

The resulting two sets of codes were then merged and assigned to field notes from my observations at the site, interview transcripts, and any artifacts I collected from the students during the focus groups. More general categories for coding the interview data were based on what students and principals said, what they did, how they interacted, and how principals helped students learn. More specific codes included student responsibility, challenges faced by the students, assumptions, personal inclination, high/low influence leadership behaviors, direct/indirect leadership behaviors, dialogue, communication, structuring student experiences, student voice, shared decision making, student achievement, and nontraditional role of the principal. These codes were then organized into the four general categories described above, and each of these categories was then purposefully connected to one of the two research questions.

Case Studies

This research study included case studies of different groups of students and their principals across four elementary schools in New York state. In this section, I provide a brief summary of all four schools based on conversations I had with students, principals, staff, my own observations at the research sites, and any artifacts shared by the students or principals during my visits. The first part of each school’s case will focus on describing the school and data from observations and interviews with the principals. The second part of each school’s case focuses on the students’ perspectives of the challenges they face, factors that relate to their experiences of school, and where data from focus group interviews and observation will be shared.

I start with Forrest Hills Elementary (FH).[1] FH is the most affluent of the four schools and is located in a mid-sized suburban district. Next I introduce the rural site, Lodi Elementary, which is located in a small town 30 miles from the closest urbanized center. Next, I present Everton Elementary, a school that was shut down at the end of the school year due to a daunting budget deficit being faced in its city district. I then introduce Carter Elementary, which is located in the center of the city and has a principal who took over just months before this research was conducted. Finally, I provide a brief cross-case analysis to summarize key findings.

Forest Hills Elementary

Forest Hills Elementary (FH) is our lone suburban site and has the smallest number and percentage of students on the free and reduced lunch list. The students, staff, and principal here make up what may appear for many readers to represent the traditional American elementary school. Joseph, an experienced teacher and principal in this district, is also a prominent figure in the community. Joseph took over the FH principalship just 18 months before this study began and brought with him 170 new students and nearly a third of the current staff. One of Joseph’s key strengths at FH has been his ability to coordinate the curriculum and help the teachers navigate the school’s instructional program. Joseph has also developed a positive school culture where teachers are able to focus primarily on instruction, and students enjoy learning. Joseph appears to do an effective job managing his resources, support staff, and a talented group of teachers to meet students’ academic and social/emotional needs; as a result, he spends the majority of his time between the buses and bells managing the ebb and flow of managerial responsibilities that come his way during the course of an average day.

For two reasons FH is the appropriate school with which to begin this analysis of how principals help students cope with the challenges they face. First, the school appears to be running as well as any school possibly could. Students are actively engaged in learning throughout the day and are being given opportunities to develop socially and emotionally in this very nurturing climate. Second, this principal’s approaches to leadership represent what may appear to many readers as the most typical form of primary school leadership in the United States. Unlike Joseph’s previous experiences at a district site where behavioral and academic issues were more of a concern, FH’s kids are rarely insubordinate, and the majority of students are testing at or above grade level. These characteristics allow Joseph to focus on more traditional managerial functions from the main office, where he does an excellent job coordinating his ample supply of support personnel and resources around a range of student and staff concerns.

However, here too I found the age-old tension between the principal’s need to have control and the student’s experiences of school as they relate to this control—a tension I did not anticipate before entering the field as a formal researcher. Neither my experiences working with student teachers at this site in the years before Joseph took over, or my screening interview with Joseph six months before the study began, prepared me for how this tension would eventually manifest itself. During my first interview with Joseph I asked him how students’ opinions and attitudes about school or teaching influenced his agenda. He responded in the following way.

Joseph: Everybody needs to be led. Everybody needs to be able to look to somebody for guidance. But we also have to have expectations. As we work with kids, and as we work with adults, the expectation of where we’re going needs to be out there. Because if the kids understand, the adults understand. If the adults understand, they can help lead students. So as kids work through it, you want to listen to the children, but you need to lead the children. You can’t let them control what we do.

This passage allows me to articulate two sides of Joseph’s approach to leadership simultaneously. One side acknowledges the value that student voice has for influencing the work of adults, and the other side chooses to ignore opportunities to do much more than listen in his role as school leader. Belief statements such as these serve to highlight a critical disconnect in what Joseph, and principals like Joseph, say about using students’ perspectives to drive their leadership and actually do to provide students with a sense of voice and agency in their own learning.

Students’ perspectives. Students’ challenges at FH were with specific subjects or with teachers. When asked how students dealt with the challenges they faced in class, they initally reported that they are likely go to a parent, peer, or sibling before speaking with an adult in school. For example, when I asked the students at FH to tell me about some ways they would deal with problems they were having with school, I was able to group responses I received at this site into two categories. The first included students who said they would talk with a sibling, a parent, a classmate, or their teacher about the issue. Members of the second group said they would work to get the principal’s attention, which was not surprising considering the context of many of my questions. What was surprising was the way this group of students would go about being heard. One example of focus group dialogue that occurred around this topic went like this:

Student One: You should act bad so that you can get the principal’s attention.

Student Two: I would start meeting with kids and have a strike, or campaign, or write a letter.

Student Three: I don’t really talk about my feelings, but I express them with yelling and screaming.

Student Four: I’d go on strike or protest.

Student Three: Seriously though, I’d have my little brother go tell the principal for me. He’s a crazy kid.

This exchange demonstrates how one group of students at FH said they would react to problems they were having with teachers, peers, classwork or at home. It also serves as our first example of how student voice could manifest itself when principals do not develop ways to honor student voice and/or give students opportunities to actively share their thoughts and feelings about school.

Despite (or perhaps, because of) the high level of student achievement at FH, students have had few meaningful opportunities to interact with their principal. Joseph is a strong leader of adults and spends his time helping them with the challenges they face at his new site. As a result, students perceive him as someone who is there to spread a clear and consistent message, help the school run smoothly, and occasionally act as a disciplinarian. While Joseph acknowledges the role students play in making the school function, he is not inclined to take their lead or use their voice to support their experiences of school or learning.

Lodi Elementary

Lodi Elementary is the smallest site in the study. It is located the farthest from a city center, and has a free and reduced lunch rate of 55%. There is significant poverty in this rural community, and it plays a role in the lives of many of these students. Mark, an experienced teacher and administrator at other rural districts in the region, is passionate about boosting the aspiration rate for students in this area. Mark sees his primary role as making sure he has the best teachers working in each of his classrooms, and that they have the resources they need to help the students achieve. When asked to describe his day Mark talked a lot about state and district initiatives, meetings, observation, and providing teachers with feedback. When I asked Mark to describe the interactions he was having with kids he chose to talk about how he worked to manage behavioral problems at the site. Due to the small size of this rural district, Mark has responsibilities that take him outside of the school more than he would like.

Many of Mark’s comments demonstrate that Mark has developed into the kind of principal that understands what students need not only from their school, but from their principal as well. However, like Joseph at FH, it is unclear as to how this principal is reciprocating that understanding. One lengthy analogy of school leadership that Mark shared with me during our first conversation went like this.

Mark: This building is like a car or a vehicle. There are people that are the engine of that car, and they’re the ones that really make the building go. [They] are the doers, and they step up to the plate. They’re here early, stay late, get involved in everything, are all about kids, and when I say we need to do something about instruction they say [mimics eager teacher], “What do I need to do?” And then we have the wheels. They’re the people that make the building move. They may not be the heart of the building, but without them we don’t go anywhere. And then there’s the chrome and the trim. They are the ones that are along for the ride that kind of make us look good but don’t really do anything. And as a principal, I’m sitting in the driver’s seat and stepping on the gas, breaking, steering, signaling which direction to go, and together all of us somehow get the organization down the road and moving forward. Sometimes I try not to be that autocratic principal, but there are other times when I’ll say, “This is what we need to do and we’re going to do it.”

Notice, if you will, that students are omitted from this analogy altogether. Are they in the passenger seat? The back seat? Maybe the trunk? While it is unclear as to what their role is in making the car go, it is clear that this principal, like Joseph at FH, is in the driver’s seat and making the decisions that affect all members of the school community, whether they are mentioned or not.

Students’ perspectives. Since Mark’s walk-throughs are largely focused on observing the adults in the building and providing them with feedback on their practice, many of the students perceived Mark to be more of an office principal who works behind the scenes to make sure they are supported academically and to make sure they are safe and cared for in school. Even though I had begun to see how Mark was making a positive impact on kids in this community, I was still curious to see what the students had to say about their experiences of school and their principal.

During my first focus group with students I presented them with four images. The first image was of a police officer in uniform, the second of a firefighter, the third of President Barack Obama, and the fourth of their principal. I asked the group to tell me what job each of the four people did, and how they knew that. The students effortlessly identified each of the first three images as police officer, firefighter, and president accordingly. When I asked how they knew that Barack Obama was the president, they pointed to the flag in the background, a pin on his lapel, and one student told me he knew because “He’s on TV. Plus, everybody knows he’s the president.” When I came to a picture of Mark however, they first guessed office worker, and then office man, before a third student guessed principal. While this may seem like a minor observation, I found it significant in that this was the only site where a percentage of the students struggled initially to identify their principal during this warm-up activity.

Students at Lodi also offered a range of responses when I asked them about what their principal did. One exchange between the students and I started like this.

Author: How is your principal different from a teacher?
Student One: He doesn’t teach much.
Student Two: The principal probably doesn’t get paid.
Author: Why do you think that?
Student Two: I think he gets paid a little bit but the teachers get paid a lot more because they teach all day and he doesn’t. He just walks around.
Student Three: I know, but he’s the boss of teachers.
Student Four: He [principal] keeps you on task. He doesn’t teach subjects like math and spelling. He’s more focused on keeping you safe, not hurting other people, not saying mean things, and just making sure he’s helpful.

These student perspectives serve as an example of how different students at this site hold different opinions about what the principalship entails. Some see him as a teacher leader, some as an observer, and others see him as the one setting the tone for the building.

When I asked students about their challenges at Lodi, they spoke about tests and classes where they had trouble with content. When I asked how Mark helped them with their challenges, they naturally responded that Lodi’s teachers were the ones they would go to for help with these problems. Students here were very responsive to questions Mark posed to me during our first one-on-one interview, and a meaningful dialogue developed between the two that was focused on direct leadership behaviors such as Mark’s approaches to speechmaking and his passive role as observer during walk-throughs, as well as indirect leadership behaviors such as the program schedule, open house, and the classroom makeup.

Everton Elementary

Everton, the first of two urban sites included in this study, has a principal that spends a great deal of time managing crises both inside and outside of the main office. Here I present how this principal has managed to maintain a sense of calm, despite the many challenges faced by her school and the community. While students at FH and Lodi have had their share of academic and social/emotional challenges in school, in addition to many of these same challenges, students at Everton are dealing with a range of issues unique to urban education. All the students at Everton receive free and reduced lunch. Everton is also the only school that has an on-site mental health clinic to help students with special needs or those with emotional issues.

  Leah, Everton’s principal, has 25 years of experience working as a teacher, a staff developer, and an administrator in this urban district. She was brought to Everton two years ago to manage the school through a situation of crisis. At Everton the challenges that students face outside school often manifest themselves inside the classrooms. As a result she is as responsible for keeping the building functioning as she is for providing the instructional support her students so desperately need. Leah’s key responsibilities included her role as a resource allocator for students, someone who listens to students and looks at what they need, an instructional leader of teachers, and someone who is actively involved in shaping the school culture. During my visits to the site it became clear that Leah has little choice as to how her days are spent. While systems have been set up to deal with academic and behavioral supports for kids (which Leah repeatedly referred to as “triage”), Leah spends most of her time at Everton putting out fires. Despite the frenetic pace of her work, she manages to maintain her poise and serves as an excellent role model to students who value her patience and passion for working with kids.

While Leah has spent most of her time at Everton reacting to problems associated with urban schools, she manages to keep a positive outlook on the work that she is doing. When I introduced a hypothetical situation to Leah and asked what she would do differently if she had the time and the resources, she shared the following comments.

Leah: The first thing I would want to do is start a student cabinet, and I would like to be directly involved with that. So if I were in an elementary school, it would probably be third through fifth graders working in an advisory capacity. I would present them with problems that we’re facing as a school. So maybe, bullying, or community service projects, or it might be around science and math, and I’d ask them how to get kids more excited about science and math. I’d like to create an advisory board and maybe have a tape recorder and have the school leadership team (teachers) listening to students talking about these issues. That’s what I’d do if I could have my dream time.

I found this passage interesting for two reasons. First, it is clear that while Leah would involve students in dialogue about school-wide factors like bullying and community factors like service, she said she would focus on asking the kids specifically about learning as well. Second, she has thought through this hypothetical scenario far enough to have considered the value that student’s perspectives would also hold for other members of the building. While I presented a hypothetical scenario similar to this one to each principal in this study, Leah’s response was the first that made me believe a scenario such as this one could become a reality.

Students’ perspectives. Students at Everton listed distractions in the classroom, physical challenges of the building, and misbehavior as their biggest challenges in school. Leah helps these students cope with these challenges by being actively involved in working with students in classrooms, and students seem to thrive on the extra support she provides. Leah’s focus is on making sure the students first feel safe and supported in communities where she says “high levels of academic and emotional support do not come naturally to many parents, and student efficacy often begins to diminish as early as the second grade.” While some of the students were distracted and even aggressive during focus groups, others saw their principal as a teacher, a counselor, and even a caregiver.

The students also remarked that she tries to keep their expectations high and focused on going to college. When I went on to ask Leah what question she would like to ask the students she requested that I ask, “Do they feel supported academically at Everton?”.I found it interesting when I posed Leah’s question to the students that the topic again came back to issues of safety and the important role that it played in the students’ experiences of learning.

Author: Do you feel supported academically here at Everton?

Student One: Yes.

Student Two: Yes.

Student Three: Yeah, they try working with us. Like in each subject that you’re struggling with, they can try to get you a tutor as quick as they can.

Student Four: Leah keeps us safe because sometimes she tells us, “You should feel safe,” and when there’s a bad person inside the school trying to get the child because what they did to the other child, the teachers should lock the doors and stuff. If she didn’t do that, the child would get harmed, and that would mean she wouldn’t care about that child.

Whether this final scenario is fact or fiction is irrelevant. Like a student at Lodi who drew a picture of his principal saving him from a wolf in the forest, this student perceives her principal to be someone who is there to protect the students in times of danger. It also points out the important role Leah plays in providing students with additional academic support and the message that learning is important. When it came time to ask the students if they feel there is a clear and consistent message being spread that they can go to college, all the students interviewed replied in the affirmative.

Carter Elementary 

Carter, our second urban school and the final school included in this study, has a new principal who has made a big impact on his site in a short period of time. Carter is another urban site where nearly every student qualifies for free and reduced lunch, and where there is a low rate of students succeeding academically. The largest school in this study, Carter also serves as a beacon for its community and provides a range of services to help students and their families experience some degree of stability and success in their lives. Despite the challenges faced by students outside the school, the new principal appears to have everything under control.

David arrived at Carter midway through the school year and has already had a significant impact on the school culture. David is the youngest of our four principals and the only African-American principal in this study. David delegates most of his managerial responsibilities to his support staff, which frees his time for more instructional contact with students. The majority of David’s time is spent in Carter’s classrooms, where he is able to monitor student progress, have direct instructional contact with students, and observe teachers. This principal’s work with students has allowed him to develop specific student-driven approaches to reform in an effort to streamline the instuctional program and provide opportunities for meaningful student involvement and student responsibility. Below, David excitedly shared a statement that speaks to his work around student responsibility as principal at Carter.

David: I’m big on responsibility. If kids make a mistake, whether it’s minor or major, I’m so elated if I can get that kid to take responsibility and communicate the choices that should have not been made or talk about what should have been done. That’s the real work. That’s priceless and is going to get you further in life than math, ELA, and science.

In a school like Carter, where there is clearly room for academic improvement, David’s emphasis on responsibility and communication between students and the principal is unique in that here systems are set up for these key elements to move in both directions. Not only is David communicating school goals and working to maintain a school vision, he is also asking the students to own this vision and to share their own visions for what they think works (or does not work) in school.

Another example of a situation where David used student responsibility to focus his school reform efforts is evident in the following passage.

David: We want parents to communicate with teachers and teachers to communicate with parents, but why don’t the kids have agendas and planners like the adults have so they can take responsibility for their own learning?

David believes that students, and their own experiences of learning, have often been excluded from the school reform agenda. Here at Carter is a principal who starts with the students and looks to see what pieces of their puzzle are missing in an effort to solve problems on a larger scale.

Students’ perspectives. Students’ perspectives at Carter reflected the seriousness and sense of urgency David brings to his work everyday. Students identified their key challenges as being confrontataion in the classroom, bullying, and factors outside the school that get them off track. All the students interviewed at Carter cited their principal as someone they could go to for help in dealing with a range of obstacles to learning. All the students at Carter also saw their principal as someone who helps them learn and who is out of the office and available to students when they need him. Still, these students wanted more of the instructional and social/emotional support he provides them.

At the start of my first focus group interview, I asked the group to draw me a picture of what they saw their principal doing and then describe what they saw. The very first student provided the following commentary when I asked him about what his principal does.

Student: So I wrote, “David walks to classes and sits in there.” I think he tries to see what we are learning. He talks with students. He sometimes talks to students about they are learning. David is a good principal.

While many students across the three other sites drew pictures of their principals observing instruction, this student was the first at any school in this study who mentioned the principal observing and talking to students about what they are learning. In just a matter of months, the students at Carter already see their principal as someone who is concerned about what they are learning and who is in control.

A second student chose to draw a picture of their principal looking into the classroom from the outside, but she too wrote about a principal who is “looking to see that students are learning and paying attention.” Like almost all the other pictures, this student also chose to depict a principal who is focused on student work and learning. When I went on to ask the group members (each of whom came from different classes) whether they saw the principal on the day of the interview, they all replied in the affirmative. When I asked where they saw their principal that day, one student shared the following comment.

Student: I see him in my class today, and we was doing a project, and he came to see what type of project, and then come in and says questions about our projects.

Another key aspect of my first conversation with students at Carter that caught my interest took place after all the students were finished sharing their illustrations and stories of their out-of-office principal. I asked the students if they ever went to talk to him, and the following exchange ensued.

Author: It sounds like he comes to see you a lot. Do you ever go talk to him?
Student One: Sometimes, like if I have a problem or something, I’ll go talk to him.
Author: What do you talk about?
Student Two: Like if we’re having problems with somebody, and we want the problem dealt with, we go tell him, and he’ll probably call the person down and talk about the situation and how to fix the problem, how do we get along.
Student Three: Or sometimes he talks to you about something is going on at home.
Author: How does he know if you have a problem at home?
Student Three: You could tell him, and he’ll talk to you about it.

Notice that three of the students in the focus group identified that their principal as someone they or others felt comfortable going to with problems they were having. These student data are dramatically different from the data at other sites where students said they would not go to their principals for a variety of reasons. These comments also represent what many students at Carter identified as challenges they face in school.

Cross-Case Analysis

After looking at all four of the cases, some key findings have emerged. First, principals’ perspectives on leadership, school, instruction, and students varied from school to school. These perspectives or beliefs were sometimes based on assumptions principals have about what works for their schools and students. These beliefs led to certain behaviors that broadcast to the students what the principals valued about school.

While the principals’ districts or even the state prescribed some of these behaviors, it is clear that each principal was able to choose how he or she spent some of his or her time in school. These choices represent what each of these principals values about their role as school leader. After speaking with the students it became clear that these choices, and even the principals’ beliefs in some cases, do not always match what the students are looking for in their principal. Students were able to clearly identify ways the principals could help them address challenges they were facing with school. Students were also able to identify which specific leadership behaviors had a high or low influence on their experiences of school.

Principals who had meaningful interactions with students, and who were effective communicators, were better at structuring students’ experiences. They were also more willing to engage in dialogue with the students about what they value about school. While some principals claimed that they value student voice, student responsibility, and shared decision making, it became clear that not all principals understood what that looked like, or if they did, were able to put their claims into practice. In addition, principals struggled to provide me with specific examples of student-centered approaches to leadership. While each of these principals demonstrated a range of approaches to the administrative function, it is clear that each principal has adapted his or her approach to suit the unique needs of each of their schools, their leadership backgrounds, and even their own expectations.

Conclusions: Toward a Theory of Engaging Students in School Leadership

In this section, I present my new theory on how principals can create more responsive approaches to school leadership by including students’ perspectives on school and school leadership in their own agendas, strategies, and goals. I begin by using an adapted version of Allen’s (1986) theoretical framework to capture and explain how students can be more actively considered as partners in co-developing approaches to instructional leadership and student achievement outcomes. This model also highlights the important role student voice plays in empowering students as learners and serves as a guide for how students’ perspectives can be used to shape and guide new forms of leadership. I then present the theory that has emerged from my research with students and principals, and in doing so describe what elementary school students perceive to be the biggest challenges they face in school and whether and how principals help students with the challenges they face. Finally, I present how student voice and agency manifested itself in schools as a result of this study.

A Shared Vision

Even though more decisions are now being made with shared goals in mind, there is evidence to suggest that both students and principals act from a group perspective based on the norms of their group. Therefore, students’ behaviors are based on the norms of youth culture (Murdock, 1972; Morrill, 2000), and principals’ behaviors are based on the norms of adult culture. Allen’s (1986) model (Figure 1) of the relationship between student and adult perspectives is bidirectional (Hargreaves, 1972), based on symbolic interaction theory (Becker, 1968), and provides this study with a useful way to explore how students can be more actively considered as partners in co-developing approaches to instructional leadership and student achievement outcomes.

I have chosen to adapt Allen’s (1986) bidirectional model from a study on students’ perspectives of teachers as classroom managers to this study on students’ perspectives of leadership. It not only highlights the important role student voice plays in empowering students as learners; it also guides my query into how student perspectives can be used to shape and guide new forms of leadership. This framework allows me to position the research on how students’ perspectives have been used in schools alongside the literature on leadership. While the theoretical framework does depict a relationship between students’ strategies and goals and principals’ strategies and goals, it is important to note that principals’ perspectives and agendas may also be connected or developed in response to those of the students.

diamani figure2Figure 2. Bidirectional instructional leadership model, adapted from Allen (1986).

The framework places these two often disparate members of the school community side by side so as to highlight the bidirectional influence students and principals have on outcomes such as academic achievement and school climate (See Figure 2). This framework provides an alternative to more unidirectional approaches to understanding the connection that exists between principals’ strategies for improving the instructional program and students’ strategies for succeeding academically in schools. The relationship between these two groups has been discussed at length from the perspective of the adult; this model serves to demonstrate the importance of developing a new line of inquiry that not only includes the students’ perspective but also places it beside that of the administrator.

Until now schools have given students few opportunities to help shape school culture and even fewer chances to meaningfully structure their instructional program. Principals that fail to use student voice are missing out on opportunities to affect student outcomes that are vital to successful schools, social development, and academic achievement. The role of the principal continues to change, and as it becomes more focused on improving instruction in schools, students’ perspectives of the work that administrators are doing will need to be used to develop schools that are intent on addressing more diverse sets of learning needs.

While students are capable of articulating their thoughts and feelings on a number of topics, including teaching and leadership, these perspectives are rarely used to inform the practice of administrators. This gap in the literature presents evidence that there is room to situate a unique counter-narrative beside those provided by researchers, teachers, and principals. The lack of research on principals’ direct relationships with kids is surprising when one considers the significant roles that both principals and students play in shaping school culture. Principals have been disinclined to solicit kids’ opinions because so many principals (and even teachers) argue that direct instructional leadership behaviors are unrealistic for principals (Browne, 2003). Despite this belief, there is evidence from research outside the United States that demonstrates how principals have adopted strategies that bring them into the classroom for more direct instructional contact with students on a regular basis (Hargreaves & Shirley, 2012; Jenkins & Reitano, 2015; Murdoch & Schiller, 2002).

Engaging Students in School Leadership

In this qualitative study, I explored what elementary school students perceive to be the biggest challenges they face in school and how principals help students with the challenges they face. After conducting interviews and observations at four different schools, I have developed a new theory that I present here in an effort to inform educators and researchers who seek to strengthen the opportunities of students and the leadership practices of school principals. Central to this theory is a call for principals to use more student-driven approaches to guide their principalship so that students can be empowered as learners and school leaders in their own right.

Schools teach kids about how to deal with problems based on how adults, such as these principals, deal with their own challenges. By better understanding principals’ perspectives of leadership (and their agendas, strategies, and goals), researchers and practitioners can see how they are connected or developed in response to those of the students. This concept of principals’ responsiveness is a core value of this study. Our need to define principals as the ones who seek out the opinions and perspectives of those they serve, rather than making decisions for them, is a significant but necessary departure from more traditional approaches to leadership. Principals who only use adult perspectives to shape their leadership practices leave students to circumvent or adapt to goals that in many cases will not square with their own and may impede their ability to develop socially and academically. Findings indicate that when principals look inside their school for help with solving problems faced by their students, instead of looking outside of school, more authentic and transformational approaches can be developed to create schools that are more responsive to students’ needs.

Even though principals today are supposed to spend more time focusing on teaching and learning than ever before, there is evidence that students and student learning often take a back seat to the work of adults in school. Conversations and observation at these schools also indicated that there is a discrepancy between what some principals say and what they actually do. While some principals acknowledge the value that student-driven approaches to school leadership have for empowering kids, and are able to talk about some ways they promote quality instruction for kids based on the instructional leadership vernacular, I found limited evidence that principals actively use student voice or interact with students directly in an effort to address problems in their schools.

Findings from the field indicate that principals choose not to use more student-driven approaches to guide their instructional program not because they lack time to engage students in this way. Instead, this research has found that principals choose to use these approaches based on whether they value receiving direct input from kids. Principals choose to let students’ perspectives affect their agenda, strategies, and goals based on whether they believe it is important. While some principals may be unaware that such a choice even exists, and thus take more traditional and managerial approaches to their work, there is evidence that some principals are aware that there is a choice and still make an active decision to not give students opportunities to share how they think and feel about school.

These observations reinforce the conclusions I drew from my findings—Principals who are not using student-driven approaches to guide their principalship are left with personal inclination or externally-derived models in their quest to provide structure to the school’s instructional program. Many of these choices are based on assumptions principals have about what students are capable of contributing to a discussion on what does or does not work in schools. These assumptions were largely based on (1) whether it had occurred to principals that using student voice was a possibility, (2) perceived competence as it relates to a student’s age, and (3) preconceived notions about whether students should have a say in their experiences of school. These assumptions existed when principals developed and demonstrated leadership behaviors that underestimate what students are capable of contributing to the school. While every principal in this study was willing to engage in an indirect conversation with students about the challenges they face, few others actively looked to see what students think about school, and even fewer used student voice to shape their approaches to leadership.

Student Voice and Agency

At FH, students shared stories about teachers that made them feel uncomfortable, and by the end of the study, they began to realize that the principal was someone who could help them with their problems. At Lodi, students wanted their principal to develop some new approaches to his interactions with students and also provided some ideas for restructuring school events such as open house and assemblies. At Everton, students’ behavior during focus groups alone demonstrated that they were having trouble engaging with the instructional program. They also cited a range of physical factors around the school (such as the condition of the classrooms and hallways) and factors inside the classroom (such as disruptive students and overwhelmed teachers) as hindrances to their learning. At Carter, students spoke openly about how they wanted more of the direct instructional and social/emotional support that their new principal was already providing.

Both my review of the literature and research data from the field indicate that principals who increase student responsibility and use student voice to drive their instructional leadership have empowered students as learners. This empowerment has resulted in better behavior, increased engagement in the instructional program, and the development of a more shared set of goals between students and staff. Principals have achieved these outcomes by playing a more visible and accessible role school-wide and in classrooms and by having more direct instructional contact with the students. Outside the classrooms these principals have also been able to speak with students about problems that affect their learning inside and outside school. The data suggest that instructional leaders can develop more specific goals using a vision that is shared by the students, reflects student concerns, and in which students had a voice in creating, if they want to create a school climate that is more inclusive, conducive to learning, and better equipped to respond to change.

In schools where students did not perceive their principal to be someone to whom they could go to for help with their challenges, student voice occasionally manifested itself as oppositional behavior. While these schools had fewer problems with insubordination based on a variety of factors including socioeconomic status, school resources, teaching experience, and school climate, findings indicate that students would react to conditions in ways that did not fit their principal’s preferences in order to get the principal’s attention. As a result, principals would then have to deal with student voice in the form of resistance or by way of parents, instead of using that voice to structure their approaches to leadership early on.

Students’ thoughts and feelings matter and can provide schools and the research community with new evidence that be used to inform the existing research on instructional leadership and administrative function in the field. This study has shown that principals are interested in what younger students have to say about their work. It has also helped principals realize the value these perspectives have for shaping their work as school leader. Reform-minded practitioners may find that developing this counter-narrative will help empower kids, structure their experiences of school, and positively impact their academic achievement.

Students have also been affected by this study. Students felt empowered when adults took the time to ask them about their challenges. When asked about what they would like to see done differently, some students were quick to ask for more instructional support from their principals. Others remarked that they would like to see their principals develop new ways of approaching their administrative function. Still others spoke openly about their teachers and peers or about how their principal could help support them socially and emotionally.

In each school, students had different sets of challenges and adults helping them with these challenges. In all the schools, however, students were clear about what they could use to help them learn better, and in each of these cases, principals were in a position to adapt their agendas, goals, and strategies to those of their students. Principals who underestimate student agency, have trouble addressing diversity, and fail to make themselves accessible to their students limit their own opportunities for reform.

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  1. All names of people and places have been changed.



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Book Review: Children’s Rights, Educational Research and the UNCRC: Past, Present and Future

International Journal of Student Voice

A peer-reviewed, independent, open-access journal

Pennsylvania State University

Volume 1, Number 1                                         IJSV                      October 2016

Children’s Rights, Educational Research and the UNCRC: Past, Present and Future

Edited by J. Gillet-Swan & V. Coppock

Oxford, UK: Symposium Books, 2016

Alison Kearney

Associate Professor at Massey University in New Zealand

Citation: Kearney, A. (2016). Book Review: Children’s Rights, Educational Research and the UNCRC: Past, Present and Future. International Journal of Student Voice, 1(1). Retrieved from:


  Children’s Rights, Educational Research and the UNCRC: Past, Present and Future edited by Jenna Gillett-Swan and Vicki Coppock, is a welcome and timely addition to the literature pertaining to issues of children’s rights. I say welcome and timely because while the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989) is the most ratified human rights treaty in history, controversy still remains about the notion of children having rights, particularly in educational contexts (Smith, 2016). For example, although it has been over 25 years since the inception of the UNCRC, disagreement persists regarding the extent to which these rights are embraced and actualized within societies (Coppock & Gillett-Swan, 2016).

The impetus for this book came from a roundtable discussion led by the editors at the European Conference on Educational Research in 2014. At this roundtable discussion, participants explored the ways in which the UNCRC had informed, presently informs, and may in the future inform educational research internationally. The papers that subsequently emerged from this discussion were brought together in this edited volume. The book, which seeks to provide international perspectives associated with children’s rights in education, comprises seven chapters written by scholars from Australia, Finland, Portugal, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

In chapter one, John I’Anson explores some of the ways in which the UNCRC has overlapped with educational research and some of the key themes that have emerged from this “imbrication”—a term used by the author indicating intersection. Specifically, he considers how the UNCRC has informed educational research and will continue to do so. I’Anson identifies a number of tropes or figures of speech that have emerged from educational research in children’s rights, such as “voice,” “participation,” and “ecological perspectives.” He explores the orientations of each of these terms in relation to different aspects of children’s rights. An interesting discussion of the current directions for research in children’ rights includes international comparisons, extending the reach of rights and the proliferation of theory. I’Anson identifies tensions within the field of children’s rights research, including those between notions of advocacy and criticality and translating rights into action. Relatedly, I’Anson notes the conflicting accountability agendas and inconsistent ontologies within children’s rights research. The chapter concludes with a brief discussion of future orientations for children’s rights research.

The next two chapters explore children’s rights education. In chapter two, Louise Phillips focuses on the much talked about, but seldom acted upon, Article 42 of the UNCRC. Article 42 stipulates that “States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the Convention widely known by appropriate and active means to adults and children alike” (UNCRC, 1989). As Phillips rightly points out, the UNCRC is not widely known to either children or adults. In this chapter, Phillips explores international actions and programs designed to promote the convention, including UNICEF Child Friendly Schools, UNICEF Rights Respecting Schools Award, and the World Programme for Human Rights Education. Phillips also explores some broad national initiatives, including curricula and policy, children’s commissioners, and media programs for children’s rights. In terms of making the UNCRC widely known, Phillips suggests that it will require shifts in attitude toward children, an emphasis on children’s rights in teacher education programs, and innovative use of media.

Using a case study in Sweden, the author of chapter three, Nina Thelander, explores the teaching of children’s rights, or children’s rights education. Children’s rights education is made up of education as a human right and education for human rights. In this chapter, Thelander addresses the questions of what, why, and how the content of human rights education could be approached in schools. This chapter will be of particular relevance to educators and curriculum developers who wish to develop and implement human rights education. There is a very useful focus on three aspects of human rights education: knowledge and skills; values, attitudes, and behavior; and actions.

A fundamental principle of the UNCRC is participation and children’s rights to express their views on matters that affect them. In chapter four, Teetta Niemi, Kristiina Kumpulainen, and Lasse Lipponen explore this principle through an action research study in one primary school classroom in Helsinki, Finland. While it is beyond the scope of this review to mention all aspects of this project, one feature that caught my eye involved children identifying and ranking classroom practices in relation to how positive they believed they were. The children took photographs of classroom activities, and these photos were uploaded to the class intranet. The children then individually identified and ranked the practices from the most positive to the least positive and provided anonymous narratives for each photo. The children and the teacher subsequently discussed possible actions regarding any issues that had been identified. Other aspects of this action research project included children’s participation in school meetings and the use of narrative learning projects, all of which contributed to actualizing children’s rights to participation and to expressing their views on matters that affect them.

In chapter five, Joana Lucio and Fernando Ilidio Ferreira discuss children’s rights in a context of Portugal’s economic austerity measures. They use the rights framework of “provision, protection, and participation” to show how children’s rights can be jeopardized in times of economic hardship. The authors provide an analysis of their research into pre-service teachers’ perceptions of their role in promoting children’s rights and highlight how the Bologna Process[1], which has influenced teacher training by way of emphasizing “academic and didactical perspectives” (p. 116), has been detrimental to the more humanistic approaches required for the realization of children’s rights.

Article 16 of the UNCRC (1989) states that “no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy, family or correspondence, nor to unlawful attack on his or her honor and reputation. The child has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.” In chapter 6, Gordon Tait and Mallihai Tambyah unpack this right showing how, over time, our societies have constricted, rather than expanded, children’s privacy. For example, Tait and Tambyah skillfully demonstrate how 21st-century anxieties and priorities within societies (including the societies of families and schools) have bought with them increased surveillance of children and collection of vast amounts of data. The authors provide thought-provoking illustrations of these practices. For example, in families there is a tension between the rights of the child to privacy and the notion of “bad parenting”—“good parents” are aware of the risks that children face, particularly in online environments, and monitor their children accordingly. In school, educators are required to gather volumes of data and report on the academic, social, and behavioral outcomes of their students. There are still no protocols governing who can access these data, or indeed, who owns these data in the first place. Similarly, educators are increasingly concerned about liability and, in response, closely surveil their students or risk being accused of negligence. The authors pose the question of the worth of the right if there is no redress.

The final chapter of the book focuses on the “future” aspect of educational research and the UNCRC (1989). Here, Gillett-Swan and Coppock provide a critical discussion of children’s rights, educational research, and the UNCRC in the digital world. In particular, the authors show how the landscape of children’s rights is changing with the increased use of technology.

This book is engaging and highly readable and will be of interest to all who are concerned for children’s rights. It has international appeal, due in part to the range of contributors from around the world, but also due to the relevance and importance of children’s rights to the international community. At times, I struggled with the overall coherence of the book as, in places, it felt that chapters were quite disparate. However, it is a thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening read that confirms the importance and relevance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) and the amount of work that still has to be done to ensure that children’s rights are known, respected, and actualized.

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Coppock, V., & Gillett-Swan, J. (2016). Children’s rights, educational research and the UNCRC. In J. Gillett-Swan & V Coppock (Eds.), Children’s rights, educational research and the UNCRC past, present and future (pp.7-16). Oxford, UK: Symposium Books.

Smith, A. B. (2016). Children’s rights: Towards social justice. New York, NY: Momentum.

United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, United Nations, Nov. 20, 1989, U.N.T.S. Vol. 1577, No. 27531. Retrieved from