Academic journal article High School Journal

"They Listen to Me ... but They Don't Act on It": Contradictory Consciousness and Student Participation in Decision-Making

Academic journal article High School Journal

"They Listen to Me ... but They Don't Act on It": Contradictory Consciousness and Student Participation in Decision-Making

Article excerpt

The recent school reform movement of the 1980s and 1990s has been characterized by school-based management (SBM) initiatives and participatory decision-making arrangements. While much has been written about the need for teacher, parental and community involvement in school decision-making, the role of the student in these experiments has remained largely undefined and unexplored. This article considers the experiences of Chicago's Student Local School Council (LSC) representatives who share decision-making responsibilities with adults in their schools. These students were surveyed and interviewed to secure their perceptions of and feelings bout their participation on these decision-making bodies. My research suggests that while participation fosters a sense of equality and ownership among LSC student reps, they are not given a corresponding opportunity to substantively affect policy and other changes in their schools. LSC student reps experience their participation on two levels: 1) subjective considerations; and 2) objective conditions. There appears to be a disconnect between what LSC student reps say that they feel and what they say that they actually do.

I. Introduction

The concept of student participation usually conjures an image of elected student councils. However, a new generation of school reform experiments has brought to the fore a different kind of student leadership arrangement. The student council is no longer viewed as the primary mechanism for garnering student input; rather, the trend in student participation is now geared toward "more democratic decision-making modes" and "revised power alignments" (Schmerler, 1972). The idea is to "provide students direct access to administrative decision-making procedures" (Schmerler, 1977). Critics of traditional student councils have hailed this shift as a way to lessen the potential for co-option by administrators and faculty and as a means for increasing the legitimacy of the democratic process in the eyes of students (Calkins, 1974; Ryan, 1976).

In Chicago, where the school reform effort has been called "the largest and most radical SBM [school-based management] experiment in the United States" (Hess, 1996), high school students elected by their peers share with adults the responsibility for governing local schools. In 1988, the Illinois State Legislature passed the Chicago School Reform Act, creating 542 local school councils(1) (LSC). Each council was comprised of a principal, six parents, two teachers, two nonparental community representatives and in high schools, one nonvoting student member(2). However, after 1991, through collective action by CPS students, the student member gained the right to vote on all matters except personnel decisions.

While there have been some studies of Chicago LSCs (Hess, 1996; Easton, 1990), none have specifically considered the experience of student members. That leads one to wonder how Chicago student representatives feel about their participation. The question also arises as to whether the new participatory decision-making (PDM) arrangements between students and adults will result in a radical shift in power alignments in the schools or simply continue to be instruments for `managing' students. The answers to these questions can provide important information for other PDM experiments between unequal groups. This paper offers an empirical analysis of student representatives' perception of their participation in these decision-making bodies.

My research suggests that while participation fosters a sense of equality and ownership among LSC student members, they are not given a corresponding opportunity to substantively affect policy and other changes. I argue that students experience their participation on two levels: 1) subjective considerations; and 2) objective conditions. There appears to be a disconnect between what LSC student reps say they FEEL and what they say they actually DO. …

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