The heated back-and-forth about how to improve education in America usually glosses over one incredibly important question: What if we gave students more power to ensure successful schools?
It’s a tantalizing idea that inevitably makes some people uncomfortable because it points towards turning our hierarchical education system on its head. However, new research suggests we should give it a harder look. It is possible that “student activation” could help to radically improve education outcomes.
Professor Robert Crosnoe of the University of Texas has leading research showing how radical role reversals for high school students, in which they shoulder the responsibility for the achievement of fellow students, could lead to positive change. For example, imagine a team of high school students taking responsibility for raising their school’s college-going rate, or for reducing the number of ninth-graders who drop out. This goes a step beyond simple empowerment, in which we ask kids their opinions more frequently and help them own their learning. This is about building a sense of compassion and service in students by asking them to take responsibility for and drive the achievement of all of their classmates.
We have behavioral science to back up the potential power of this approach. Peer influence—for good or ill—motivates teenagers because of how their brains are developing. The parts of the brain that derive pleasure from peer relationships develop rapidly at puberty, out of sync with the functions that help us control ourselves, which develop much later during the transition to adulthood. According to Crosnoe, though the negative side of peer pressure gets all the attention, peers are just as, if not more, likely to have positive influences on one another. In one study, Crosnoe found that positive peer influence raised math achievement by one full grade level for 10th-grade girls who had previously failed courses. The key is to help students aspire to win peer approval for achievement.
At Emerson High School in New Jersey, students trained through the Center for Supportive Schools mentor at-risk ninth-graders, cutting their drop-out rate by 10 percent. The student-run Mouse Squad of P.S. 161 in West Harlem created and led tutorials for school staff and students on set-up and use of iPads across the entire school. In Los Angeles’ August Hawkins RISE High School, peer leaders trained by the nonprofit College Summit (where I serve on the board) have taken ownership of the schools’ college-going rate, designing and running peer campaigns that increased the percentage of 12th-graders filing FAFSA financial aid applications from 48 percent to 93 percent in two years. Nationally, we have identified over 500 high schools in low-income communities enlisting students to drive the achievement of their peers. Large districts, including Prince George’s County, MD, are implementing this approach system-wide.
This work is not easy. Traditionally, schools are not designed for students to take charge. Teacher training programs focus on helping educators “manage” classrooms, not guide student leaders. Students, new to taking ownership, will sometimes struggle with their responsibilities. And if they fail in driving key school functions, who will be held responsible?
Yet what students lack in experience, they make up in deep knowledge of how to communicate with and influence their classmates. The entire school benefits when students are accountable for one another. As former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold Levy, who currently leads the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, says, “School culture changes when students see cool students take charge of everyone’s success.” Of course, the student leaders benefit most. After a year of running college access campaigns in their own low-income high schools, College Summit’s peer leaders attend college at a higher rate than even high-income Americans.
If we seize on this truth, then one day every high school in America will have teams of students taking responsibility for the achievement of their fellow students. Building on College Summit’s design principles of “peers, purpose, and power,” schools and nonprofits can create student activation opportunities.
Next year, the president could celebrate our nation’s exemplars with an annual Peers of the Year Award, modeled after the national award for teachers. Even better, we could rally student teams in every American neighborhood with an incentive—call it Peer Corps—awarding modest college scholarships to student leaders who achieve high impact with their fellow students.
High school students disengage when their hunger for responsibility gets met with elementary school-level expectations. Just because Americans are living longer, we shouldn’t delay the expected age of maturity. High school students can and should take charge of the success of their schools.