Common Core author David Coleman shocked a crowd of educators in 2011 when he declared, “…as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give a sh** about what you feel or what you think.” Around the same time, headlines blared, “How Self-Expression Damaged My Students.” The actress Hilary Swank became a symbol of education reform run amok by playing a Los Angeles teacher who told her students, “Write down your stories or no one is going to remember you.”
Student voice was on its way to becoming a relic, a symbol of liberal excess in the face of the hard world where students needed to learn facts and skills. But what if the educators who complained about the pendulum swinging so far left were just as guilty of a swing too far to the right? What if these ardent reformers missed how student voice, when integrated with an exceptionally strong curriculum, is an anchor to engage reluctant learners and address the needs of students one, two or three years behind grade level?
Enter One World Education, a nonprofit organization started a decade ago by charter school teachers in Washington, D.C., to addresses two primary problems. First, 50 percent of students report that they are bored in school. So, getting students to perk up and pay attention is job #1.
The second problem is that only about a quarter of U.S. students write well enough to be ready for college. In cities like D.C., it’s even lower, and in many neighborhoods where One World works, it’s closer to 5 percent. The bill for this instructional failure is billions of dollars in remediation and re-training costs annually.
One World leverages student voice by having learners identify social justice topics of importance to them. With their voices (and hearts) anchored in their topics, One World’s programs fuse their engagement with the skills needed to secure evidence to support their arguments. Then, a series of process-based writing exercises grow into a final essay.
Makaio is a 10th-grade student in DC Public Schools who participated in the One World Program last school year. Makaio’s father described him as having high potential, but disengaged in school and traumatized by his brother’s incarceration. While One World’s programming helped him express his pain and anger, it also taught him to collect and critically analyze evidence to support his claim about mass incarceration. Makaio’s father said that researching the issue and expressing himself with such power transformed Makaio into an avid writer determined to pursue higher education.
Makaio is one of 5,000 students annually served by One World, and 90 percent of schools using the program make statistically significant gains in research and writing skills. For many D.C. students, One World guides them toward writing their first college-level essay. These skills transfer to other assessments.
While curriculum matters, the investment in its development falls short if it cannot engage reluctant learners. The nation has made too little progress over the last decade—especially in low-income neighborhoods—to overlook a simple strategy that empowers an often-ignored population. Student voice can play an important role when connected to a cohesive curriculum and training, and One World’s success should direct education reformers to give student voice a second listen.