With another election day upon us, we hear again the urgent call to exercise our right to vote so our voice can be heard. As a former social studies teacher, I taught high school students that our vote is our voice. Using our voice commits us to a personal investment in our future by empowering us to promote the virtues of our community and to remedy its shortcomings. Of course, the inverse is equally true. If our voice goes unheard-or unheeded-we disengage and amplify our criticism of shortcomings rather than work to fix them.

Which of these descriptions applies to your school? While school is not necessarily a democracy, we can’t escape some simple and relevant realities:

  • Students will invest in what they help create.
  • You can’t improve student performance without student engagement.

These themes are not new; they have saturated education literature for the past few decades. And they have sparked innovative leaders like NASSP President Jayne Ellspermann, who created a student-driven PowerHour at her central Florida high school, and Chicago-area Principal Jason Markey, who uses Google Apps to place each student at the center of his or her own learning. 

I am proud to say NASSP has long been a leader in amplifying student voice with its well-known National Honor Societies and National Association of Student Councils, and more recently with our newly created Student Leadership Advisory Committee that has selected global citizenship as its two-year initiative. Yet the most recent Gallup student poll indicates those programs offer massive potential still to be unlocked at schools: Only about half of all students describe themselves as engaged in school—and that ratio drops to one-third for high school students. Only 1 in 3 students feels they have a voice in the school decisions that affect them. Far too few of us have taken to heart the admonition of principal and Building School 2.0 author Chris Lehmann, who says, “Students should never be the implicit objects of their own education.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act calls us to renew our commitment to student voice by requiring student involvement in school improvement plans and grant applications. Schools with Honor Societies and student councils already have student-voice structures in place. By unleashing the full potential these programs offer, we will take one step closer to schools of the students, by the students, and for the students.

JoAnn Bartoletti 
Executive Director, NASSP