Written by Laura Buckner of WestEd’s Equity Accelerator team, this post first appeared on the Center for the Future of Teaching & Learning at WestEd blog and is posted here with permission. Project contributors include Christina Pate, Zoë Jenkins, and Zachary Patterson.

As part of the COVID Education Equity Response Collaborative, WestEd is leading a year-long Equity Accelerator to support California County Offices of Education (COEs) in aligning their whole-child and whole-school efforts around a vision of racial equity.

During this turbulent year, many educators have been looking for ways to be more responsive to the needs and aspirations of all students, especially students of color and other marginalized populations. To begin exploring how educators can promote racial equity, we spoke with the Director of the Equity Accelerator, Christina Pate.

The conversation focused on one specific component of achieving racial equity that all educators — whether they are working in classrooms or at a systems level — should strive to incorporate into their practices, policies, and decisions: listening to students about their experiences and giving them a real seat at the table when important decisions are being made. At the Accelerator, this practice is known as developing and valuing “student voice, agency, and co-creation.”

“When it comes to improving systems and achieving equity,” Pate says, “a paradigm shift that involves a shared vision of equity and a culture of co-creation is needed. A co-creation perspective affirms that value is created by students and that leadership and decision-making is shared with students. This requires a shift from doing ‘to’ or ‘for’ students to co-creating ‘with’ students.” A first step is engaging in authentic and actionable conversations with students about how to best design school systems that better respond to their hopes, needs, and aspirations.

What Is Racial Equity?

The Equity Accelerator defines racial equity as “the condition that would be achieved if intersectional racism was not a major predictor of people’s outcomes” – Rachelle Rogers-Ard & Christopher B. Knaus in Black Educational Leadership (2020, Routledge)

Intersectional racism refers to how a person’s race, combined with other social and political identities, leads them to experience different modes of discrimination and privilege. The term was conceptualized and coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw.

The Equity Accelerator’s selected definition of racial equity posits that one’s educational, health, economic, and (many, many) other outcomes depend primarily on race and other identities that impact the amount of power they have in mainstream society.

Student Voice and Co-Creation as Drivers of Equity

According to CalSCHLS school climate data, fewer than 30% of California secondary students report feeling that they have opportunities for meaningful participation at school, including having a say in how things work and helping to decide about school activities or rules. For African American, Latino/a, and American Indian students, those rates drop even lower. When adults miss out on hearing directly from students — especially students of color — it can deepen inequities in school systems.

In a recent virtual professional development session hosted by the Equity Accelerator on stakeholder voice, agency, and co-creation for equity in education (webinar recording and resources available here), student leaders Zoë Jenkins and Zachary Patterson discussed the many barriers and misconceptions that students and other stakeholders face that make it difficult to meaningfully participate in education decision-making.

The presenters explained that adults often dismiss students as unreliable, uninterested, or not quite competent enough to participate in major decisions shaping their experiences at school. Additionally, when students do weigh in, their contributions can be tokenized or not taken seriously by adults. Issues of access and accurate representation can especially impact marginalized students. For adults looking to bring more student voices into their decision-making, “intentionality is key,” stated Patterson. “Student voice is so much larger than just one student, or event just a few students speaking up.”

Both speakers emphasized the importance of seeking out voices and perspectives that are not traditionally included in feedback and decision-making. “We know that solutions that are co-created with students and other important stakeholder groups tend to be better solutions because these are the groups who know exactly what they need…You are going to be creating solutions that really address the nuance of the student experience,” said Jenkins.

Patterson shared a story of a school district that provided open access to its board meetings to invite participation from students and families. On the surface, this may seem like an effective engagement strategy; however, the meetings were held at central offices that were over an hour away from the district’s more remote communities, which also had higher rates of African American and Hispanic students. Decisions made at the meetings heavily impacted these students and families who could not get to the meetings to weigh in.

In Patterson’s example, if the topic of discussion was reducing chronic absence in the district (an issue that disproportionately impacts rural schools and those with diverse student populations) and the board decided to increase disciplinary measures against chronically absent students, that decision could lead to increased rates of dropout and involvement with juvenile justice systems for students of color who are already at higher risk than their white peers. This is not a decision that any district should make without input from the students and families most likely to be impacted.

Engaging Students: A Framework for Progress

While many educators understand that their county and district offices of education may not be designed to engage or act on student feedback, it’s often unclear how to begin changing that dynamic. To start making a change, Pate offers Hart’s Ladder of Participation as a framework to examine current programs or initiatives and identify what to aim for. The ladder describes degrees of student participation. The lowest rung of the ladder is manipulated, dishonest, or symbolic use of students in which they only appear to be involved in making decisions. From there, the ladder goes up to higher levels of participation that include consultation with young people, asking them to lead activities, and ultimately, sharing leadership and decision-making.

“Co-creation can be challenging for educators and it requires more effort, but it will increase engagement by young people and create more sustainable solutions over time,” Pate says. “Changes in roles can be challenging. Often those with power experience change as a loss — a loss of control, power, or identity. This requires adults to get comfortable with discomfort, embrace ambiguity, and let go of the need to control.”

Of course, the task is not to hand over all the responsibility to young people with no structure, boundaries, or accountability. “Rather,” Pate says, “it’s an opportunity for young people and adults to come together and understand each other’s needs and hopes and to reimagine and re-design in partnership.”

Pate offers a list of questions that educators can ask themselves as they strive to be more inclusive of student and other stakeholder voices:

  • What would it look like to partner with stakeholders to co-design education policies, practices, and services?
  • Do your current systems and practices acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate stakeholders’ wisdom and culture in ways that foster belonging and agency?
  • Do current policies and practices empower those being served or those providing the service? In other words, is emphasis being placed on control rather than on the true needs of stakeholders?
  • In what ways do your current systems and practices perpetuate white, adult-centric beliefs, values, and biases?
    • How can you begin to shift away from these constructs and toward true partnerships that recognize stakeholders’ capabilities, leverages their knowledge and wisdom, and utilizes their contributions?
  • In what ways might sociocultural identities like race and gender influence stakeholders’ expressions of voice, agency, and leadership? In what ways do dominant culture identities influence perceptions of stakeholder voice, agency, and leadership?
  • How are your organizational goals contributing to an overall vision of equity? Could they be revised to be more explicit?
  • How can you invite and facilitate bi-directional feedback between those who traditionally hold power in education systems and those who do not?
  • How can you ensure you are receiving feedback from all stakeholders, and not just the ones for whom it is easy or safe to give feedback?
  • What specific decisions could be made using stakeholder voice? What specific activities, programs, or policies can stakeholders co-create?

If engaging students as change leaders in your efforts to achieve equity sounds like a lofty and challenging project, it is! But you can expect a high return on the investment in students, and your efforts will become more sustainable over time. As the Equity Accelerator participants’ experience shows, there are concrete steps that anyone can take right now to reach out to students, hear and believe what they say, and start bringing their voices and their leadership into change efforts.