US Education Policy

How and Why to Put Student Voice at the Center of an Opportunity Agenda

April 26, 2023  • Andrew Brennen

Given the bleak education statistics we’re all seeing and young people are unfortunately living, there’s no question policymakers must do more to address opportunity gaps in U.S. public schools. That won’t happen unless state and local leaders partner with students in meaningful ways.

Amid steep academic declines and a staggering youth mental health crisis, it’s notable that policymakers are starting to embrace an opportunity agenda. We need more leaders focused on ensuring students have opportunities to learn—and young people must be at the table and in the conversation.

One critical step education leaders can take to assess what opportunities are available, and for whom, is to develop strong feedback loops that capture authentic student views on opportunities to learn.

Shared governance models, in which students sit on state and local boards of education, are powerful. The idea is gaining traction but has also come under attack, which happened in my home state of Kentucky last year. As Republican state Rep. Killian Timoney said on the house floor when he successfully defended a non-voting student seat on the state board of education, “If we had an agriculture board without a farmer on it, if we had a police board without a policeman on it, if we had a bar association without an attorney on it, it wouldn’t float.” 

Student survey data and resulting school climate audits, in which the survey data is used to measure whether schools are actually meeting student needs, can also provide important information about opportunity gaps. While many districts conduct such surveys, students need more say over how these are designed and used. Too often school and district leaders fail to ask the right questions and get the right answers. And, too often, students do not get the chance to see and reflect on the findings, let alone through an opportunity-to-learn lens. The result? Nothing changes.

Here’s an example of how student voice has informed and advanced opportunities to learn e: A youth organization I co-founded, conducted surveys in Kentucky middle and high schools, capturing thousands of responses related to student mental health needs. Education advocates and policymakers then used the data to recommend solutions. Similarly, we conducted a survey on race and ethnicity in schools, collecting data that informed the legislative debate over what content to teach in Kentucky schools. 

Elevating student voice and advancing an opportunity-to-learn agenda must go hand in hand. States that leverage student voice are better able to see opportunity gaps.When states use an opportunity-to-learn framework, they are better-positioned to encourage meaningful student input. 

Policymakers can also elevate student voice and shine a light on opportunities to learn by supporting independent student journalism, including newspapers and other platforms run by students and supported by adult leaders. Student journalists nationwide have brought important opportunity gaps to light and, through their enhanced access, have covered student protests responding to anti trans legislation across the country. 

Taken together, elevating the voice of young people and improving the feedback loop can enable education leaders to center decision making around students. That will lead to more just and democratic schools and expand opportunities so all students can leverage the power of a great education to achieve success in the classroom and in life.

Andrew Brennen
Co-Founder of the Kentucky Student Voice Team and Associate at Omidyar Network


US Education Policy
State Efforts to Improve Failing Schools Must Address Opportunity Gaps
April 26, 2023 • Sara Heyburn Morrison