Bring Student Voice Back To Kentucky

Although Kentucky has now dropped this practice, one informal factor of teacher evaluations used to come in the form of student voice surveys.

The surveys were introduced back in 2013 as part of Kentucky’s new professional growth and evaluation system (PGES), designed to make sure that teachers are growing in their skills and being held to high standards.

As the Kentucky Department of Education’s Cathy White explained to Kentucky Teacher, the surveys were “a way for teachers to look at their professional practice and decide what they are doing well and what they can improve.”

To do that, students would respond to statements like “In this class, we learn a lot every day,” or “In this class, my teacher accepts nothing less than our full effort.” For each of these statements, students had a series of options they could respond with: “Totally true,” “mostly true,” “somewhat true,” “mostly untrue,” and “totally untrue.” Those statements are aligned with categories like support, discipline, and engagement.

The student voice surveys were never a formal part of Kentucky’s accountability system, and teachers’ reactions were mixed. However, that didn’t necessarily stop teachers from taking it seriously.

In a 2015 op-ed, former Kentucky State Teacher Fellow Joseph Harris praised the power of student voice: “A teacher can use this data to reflect and inform his or her Professional Growth Plan; however, moving beyond a one-time survey to authentically integrate student voice into classroom planning and decision making is a crucial next step for Kentucky educators.”

For Harris, student voice is more than just a survey. Student voice is a process of putting reflection into action, allowing student perspectives to be powerful agents of change in the classroom and beyond.

Now, I worry that might get lost in the shuffle.

Kentucky is no longer prioritizing student voice like it once did, thanks in part to some major policy changes with Kentucky’s accountability system.

Making Student Voice A Priority

It’s no secret that good teachers take their students’ needs, abilities, and interests into account.

In fact, that’s why the National Board and the state of Kentucky consider what students have to say when making decisions about certifying teachers. Student perspectives are considered a valid and important source of feedback for teachers and administrators, and they should be taken seriously. After all, students are often the ones most affected by major policy decisions.

However, with the passing of last year’s Senate Bill 1, Kentucky is scrapping the whole thing. Schools are no longer required to implement student voice surveys, and at least for now, districts can choose whether they want to use them or not.

That might send the wrong message to teachers.

It’s just human nature: if something isn’t a requirement, it usually isn’t a priority. With Kentucky dropping its biggest student voice initiative at the state level, I fear that teachers may back away from student agency as well. That’s not a battle we can afford to lose.

I say bring student voice surveys back to the Commonwealth. They may be messy, and they may be imperfect, but we have to recognize that student voice won’t flourish unless we cloak it with legitimacy. Student voice surveys, at the very least, give us that.

As formed Secretary of Education Arne Duncan once stated, “Students know what is working and not working in schools before anyone else.” If our schools aim to educate young people, we can’t allow just teachers, just administrators, or even just adults to decide what’s best in schools.

We have to give students a seat at the table.


Photo by the Alliance For Excellent Education, CC-Licensed.

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