Lucas Chu and Mahmoud Abdellatif
December 20th, 2020Students Improving Schools
The American K-12 schools can and must do better. Ever since when we were just kids, peers and faculty have been complaining about how the education system is faulty and continuously failing us. This has been evident from themes that have carried through the entire semester. We began the term by wading into the debate between administrative and pedagogical progressives. Administrative progressives like Edward Thorndike employed a scientific curriculum. In practice, this meant they infused principles of business innovation and scientific efficiency into schools. They tested and differentiated students by IQ level, and then they attempted to match kids to specific jobs in society depending on their test results and skill level. In this sense, the progressive administrative agenda was entirely focused on preparing a child for their future. They saw children as “apprentice adults” (Labaree, 2005). Championed by John Dewey, pedagogical progressives, on the other hand, advocated for students to pursue creative, original thoughts. Dewey thought that a society could be true to itself only if it is fully committed to developing every individual in its web. Unfortunately, Dewey’s hopes have never come to fruition. As Education, Professor Ellen Lagemann said, “One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward L. Thorndike won and John Dewey lost” (Fay/Merseth, 2020).
However, Labaree pointed out that administrative progressives had been able to shape education in practice. Pedagogical progressives’ legacy remained in how professors spoke about education. That is to say that they spoke in the same lofty ideals that Dewey floated decades earlier (Labaree, 2005). Yet with administrative progressives being the only ones who shape education in practice, students have not had a say in their educational experience. As a result, education is not as student-centred as it could, should, and would be.
Inadequate education policy has made it so that children receive drastically different educational experiences based solely on where they were born. Although this statement was worsening, it is reaching all-time highs during the COVID 19 pandemic. It has surpassed all-time high from school closures all across the world. In a study from UNESCO, they claim that at the peak, 1.38 billion students were impacted by school closures.
With the equipped knowledge of the failing education system, an important voice that is often overlooked the most important one yet is students. Students’ lack of engagement with their school administrations has worsened this problem heavily, and sadly this was never addressed. This is not a trivial matter. Just as Paolo Freire argued, we want students to be critical of the structures that help shape them (Freire, 1970). Since students are not merely the recipients of knowledge, but learners, they have power. To address the scarcity of student engagement at an administrative policy level, we planned the Students Improving Schools Conference, a policy hackathon for increasing student voice in American high schools.
For the conference, our guiding theory of change is that by providing students with the framework, the correct guidance, and connections to propose changes, we can give everyone a more extraordinary voice in their educational experience. Through individualized attention and work, participants begin to feel like active stakeholders and leaders of their schools. With the carefully designed workshop we constructed we emphasize the thought of looking deeper into systemic failures of their education system and propose policy to change said systemic failures. In hopes, the students will engage more critically with education and take it upon themselves to improve the quality of education for themselves and their peers. This will encourage them to stay more engaged with their education in the long-run. While our proposed theory of action has several weaknesses, most notably student and administrative apathy, we decided the best way to find the limitations to our proposed reform was to try it out.
The Students Improving Schools conference (1 pm 12/12 to 1 pm 12/13) emerged from this problem and guiding theory of change. The conference had two parts: the policy workshop and the policy competition. We held the workshop from 1:00 pm EST to 4:00 pm EST on Saturday, and we based it off of the PTA approach which is to find a problem, develop a theory of change, and finally determine how to assess success. We kicked off the opening ceremony with breaking the ice with music. We asked every student to share what song fits their mood, and then we created a playlist of all the songs they submitted. This icebreaker was inspired by one that Head TF Garry Mitchell used one day in a lecture. Once the icebreaker concluded, we shared the above rationale behind the conference. Next, we had the pleasure of inviting Director Stefan Lallinger to the virtual stage to discuss the importance of galvanizing the community, timing, data, small wins, stakeholder buy-in, job security, and COVID response infrastructure technology funding. After a brief Q&A stressing key points, things to keep in mind (like unintended consequences), and demographic variables, we had our 16 volunteers introduce themselves before pairing up to lead breakout rooms of 10 high school students.
In those rooms, each leader began with icebreakers and general introductions of themselves and their schools. After this, each student was asked to present their high school on google slides. In this activity, we made the students give us the context of their high school, and then we focused on the question, “How have they coped with COVID-19?” This was primarily the start of the foundation to address the glaring problem of their schools administration. When this session concluded the breakout room was given a brief break. After a brief break, the speakers talked about their experiences in education and led a discussion about purpose, excellence, and equity. After this to stimulate the students who will be writing these policies leaders of the breakout room were told to further seminar-like discussion and briefly talk about the six distinct purposes of school: Academic Attainment, Economic, Individual/Personal Growth, Social Change, Socialization, and Democratic. Students were told to picture and envision how their school accomplishes one of the said purposes and how should excellence be measured.
At 3 pm, the framework was introduced with the leaders outlining the 5 Whys Root Cause Analysis (Serrat O. (2017) ) showing how to get to the root of any problem in American education. We then put students in pairs in breakout rooms to have them identify a problem and use the 5 Whys Analysis to find its root cause. We encouraged them to focus on one of six specific tracks: Standardized Testing (and ESSA), Mental Health, Racial and Socioeconomic Equity, Grading, Improving Online Teaching, Special Learning Needs, and Extracurriculars and Sports. Next, we explained the Logic Model and showed how to identify resources, activities, and outputs that could be used to achieve short-, mid-and long-term outcomes on the way to addressing any identified root cause. After we explained this framework, we sent students back to their breakout rooms with their partner to fill out their logic model for their root cause. Finally, we explained Coburn’s 4 Dimensions of Scale and asked our students to consider their own problems through the criteria lens of Depth, Sustainability, Spread, and Ownership.
Once the workshop wrapped up at 4:00 pm, we transitioned into the second half of the Policython: the policy competition. At this point, participants became competitors and had 24 hours to draft, revise, and submit proposals on any education policy of their choosing. At 4:00 pm, the mentors stayed on the Zoom call to host Office Hours to work with around 30 competitors on their proposal. We stayed on both to facilitate this service over Zoom and to help competitors ourselves. During this time, competitors could receive feedback on their proposals before submitting it to be judged.
As Office Hours wrapped up, students continued to spend the night working on their proposals. On Sunday, we held a last-minute office hour and then the closing ceremony to celebrate the students’ work and to hear from 3 more speakers: Chinmayi Balusu, Sabrina Rokerya, and Dr. Jessica Huang. Chinmayi, the founder of SimplyNeuroscience, talked about the importance of neuroscience in learning to engineer and gaining perspective. Ms. Rokerya, a UN linguistics consultant who speaks nine languages fluently, emphasized the idea that “you guys are the leaders” as well as the themes of belonging, empathetic storytelling, and plurality. Finally, Dr. Huang discussed fighting misinformation with strategic silence, conversation, and accessibility (contextualized and localized). Finally, we went through the reflection described below before wishing everyone well and starting judging.
In total, we had 89 student participants. Most were American high school sophomores and juniors, with the plurality from NYC. However, we had a handful of students tune in from all over the globe, with the farthest logging on in the early hours of the morning from New Delhi, India.
After just one night, our students produced an impressive range of fascinating proposals, telling us anything from reminding a principle that racial and socioeconomic inequality affects learning and mental health to arguing against school-wide mental health days to proposing reinstatement of all sports to starting specialized high school to middle school ambassador programs to requesting guidance counselor information. While the letter subjects varied, most letters brushed on topics of mental health, and the recipients of the letters were mostly the NYC DOE or a principal. Selected purposes from submissions:
“To create more culturally diverse curriculums for literature in English classes, as well as try and strip away the whitewashing of history classes.”
“To implement a sex education program in middle schools and high schools that provides inclusivity for BIPOC and the LGBTQ community.”
“To improve elementary art education amongst minorities and low-income students.”
“The Hermes plan aims to close the socioeconomic wealth gap first on a local scale in the Bronx and develop into a federal plan.”
Best Nonprofit Idea
Top Participant Nominations
Mmachukwu Osisioma, Ray Nobuhara, Tatyana Cruz, Stella Vayner, Jayanth Mammen
Word Cloud of Letter Audience:
Word Cloud of Letter Subject:
Word Cloud of Letter Purpose:
Overall, we were thrilled with the outcome of the Education Policython, and so were our attendees. The overwhelming majority of all participants, including organizers, mentors, and participants, thought the conference was great or excellent, and only one student (calling in from Bahrain!) would not do it again.
85 out of 89 participants submitted a letter, which is a phenomenal completion rate of 113% (out of the 75 that students confirmed). From personal experience, Hackathons average a completion rate of around 25%. As expected, scores followed a binomial distribution. Only one paper, the winning letter, received a 20.
We really worked well together to get this conference organized in just a dozen days. The work included many meetings to coordinate a dream team of Mahmoud Abdellatif, Arnav Joshi, Priscilla Maryanski, Zoe Zizzo, and over 20 volunteers from policy for the People to put together hundreds of marketing emails, dozens of resources, and a mentor and judging team. The team was indubitably excellent and incredibly diverse, anecdotally spanning every continent, income bracket, and race. Most importantly, the majority of the volunteers were high school students themselves. In return for over 100 volunteer hours of pre-event and 100 volunteer hours during the event, we got around 600 hours of student time. See some screenshots of the zoom rooms, school slides, and organizer meetings:
Areas of Improvement
To improve the conference for next time and in general Mahmoud Abdellatif sat down with several participants and asked what we could improve in. The most common response was a less restrictive schedule. Although our meetings were already lean (15-30 minutes), we can reduce meeting time (the most significant time suck) in the future by working asynchronously, pairing people up better, and adapting more accredited materials. Another problem that was brought up is needing breaks during the breakout room. In the same discussion with Mahmoud, he asked, “What are tiny details that we did very well”. Everyone loved the icebreakers and enjoyed the logic models and accompanying information. Backing to the areas of improvement, since we curated a schedule that some leaders could not accompany we see the problems of needing a break. Aspects like the breakout room discussions were dependent on volunteers, three of which had to leave during the workshop. It’s worth noting they were assigned to the same room because they felt less confident, which resulted in a lack of clarity. Another area of improvement was judging, which took 90 minutes longer than expected since judges voted to double review proposals, as well as the google calendar invite, which allowed one participant to email the rest soliciting for volunteers.
We could also have a panel next time, e.g. on applying to college. The majority of our participants came from Mahmoud’s nonprofit, Finxerunt, meaning most of them went to selective high schools and therefore were the only representative of them in terms of equity and excellence. Next time we will partner with more student organizations, especially student governments, schools, and even corporations. For content, we’d like to get further into theory, especially quoting Labaree, Freire, Giroux, Mehta, Brighouse, Schneider, and Cuban from the course (GENED 1076). Lastly, we’ll suggest for nonprofits and districts to run their policythons to localize discussions. Unlike our conference, students, teachers, and administrators all work together to create a transformative educational experience. For the next conference, we’ll undoubtedly invite teachers and administrators. As for administrative apathy, the few we talked to were very excited, and we’ve encouraged all participants to submit their emails to schools, and will be following up in late January to survey how many actually did and how the recipients responded.
While our high school participants and competitors had excellent ideas, we would like to take this opportunity to add a few recommendations of our own. We have identified three ways to address our stated problem: blended learning, personalized learning, and participatory curriculum (see the Core Four). We hope to blend learning realization through frequent learning assessments. In practice, this may take the form of periodic pop quizzes that students can take when they feel ready. This is mastery-based education that gives students constant feedback that they can use to gauge their progress. Next, we hope that students have personalized learning. In other words, students can choose what, how, and when they learn. Each student has different specific learning needs, and students know themselves the best. By incorporating their input, teachers can attend to each student’s strengths, conditions, and interests. This core principle is inspired by Susan Patrick, CEO and President of the Aurora Institute. Finally, we envision that students will have participatory budgeting and curriculum. Not only will they have a say in how they learn, but they will also be able to have a say in what they learn and how their learning resources are allocated. This is another way that students contribute and exercise agency over their education. It is another way to ensure that education is a collaborative process that sets students up for success. Overall, between blended learning, personalized learning, and participatory budgeting and curriculum, we hope that students will have a more significant investment in their education. By giving them more control over it, we hope that they are more engaged with their education going forward.
Students Improving Schools was the first Harvard undergraduate, high school student-run, and open-sourced online competitive educational conference. During the 3 hour workshops, we inspired and educated 89 students to draft solutions to problems at their schools. Despite the relatively small conference size, we were awestruck by the enthusiasm and creativity of these high school students. During breakout rooms, there was never a silent moment, and students frequently asked questions, shared both their screens and some laughs. For us, if COVID-19 is a dark cloud, then getting to meet passionate students is the silver lining, and Students Improving Schools was a refreshing rain. We’ve described the resources, activities, outputs, and short term impacts, but now we’re looking to see how we can scale with our next event, the Education Policython, for long term impacts. We know that schools can do better, and now we know that students can make them better.
Website, including recordings:
Form for Submission:
Discord for coordination:
Feedback and Transcript:
Dewey, J. (1907). “The school and social progress.” In The School and Society. New York:
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Freire, P. (1970). Chapter 2. In Pedagogy of the oppressed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University
Press. pp. 57–74. https://commons.princeton.edu/inclusivepedagogy/wp-content/uploads/sites/17/2016/07/freire_pedagogy_of_the_oppresed_ch2-3.pdf
Labaree, D. (2005). ”Progressivism, schools and schools of education: An American
romance.” PaedagogicaHistorica, 41:1-2, 275-288.
Merseth, K. & J. Fay (2020). The Purpose of Schools. [Powerpoint slides]. Retrieved from https://canvas.harvard.edu/courses/75425/files/folder/Lecture%20Slides?preview=10671895
Serrat O. (2017) The Five Whys Technique. In: Knowledge Solutions. Springer, Singapore. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-10-0983-9_32