Editor’s Note: The following view is that of the writers and does not reflect the opinions of Bethesda Beat staff.
Montgomery County Public Schools is winding down for the summer—a good time to reflect on how well MCPS includes students and their perspectives in its decision-making processes. About two years ago, MCPS experienced a locally historic change: After 40 years of deliberations, the Maryland state legislature passed a bill significantly expanding the voting rights of the student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education. This brought the voting rights of Montgomery County’s student member in line with school boards such as Anne Arundel County’s in eastern Maryland, and in states ranging from Tennessee to California.
This change has been beneficial for Montgomery County public schools, resulting in school board policies that are better informed by the perspectives of those who interact most closely with the consequences of education policy on a daily basis—students. However, despite the promises of this year’s school board candidates, most of the decisions and policy recommendations greatly affecting individual students are not made by the school board. They are made (for example) by central, systemwide workgroups, by “stakeholder” committees, and by leadership teams in individual schools.
We have had a combined 13 years of experience working closely with central MCPS decision-making, and we have seen first-hand how the vast majority of these groups have no student representation or input whatsoever—not in determining schools’ construction needs, nor in setting how or why students should be disciplined, nor in considering curricular or extracurricular options or aspects of school culture, and so forth. That is not because MCPS lacks structures for greater student input: Many of the system’s information-gathering and decision-making bodies and workgroups have representatives from the PTAs, employee unions and different county organizations. Nor does MCPS lack students or people who can work to include them: MCPS supports an active regional student government and has numerous positions—from the countywide student leadership coordinator to the associate superintendent of student and family support and engagement—who could fairly easily develop ways to formally and consistently include student input in MCPS’s existing information-gathering and decision-making processes. But there has been little attention or desire to do this.
A lack of formal inclusion of student input can have wide-ranging implications. It can leave central systemwide officials poorly connected to those for whom policies are designed and implemented. It can limit accountability throughout the school system and lead to abuses or arbitrary actions within schools that alienate students from their places of learning. Yet most of all, if MCPS wants to find innovative ways to make our schools as great as they can be, wide ranges of school policymaking need to include frequent and formalized input and dialogue with the people schools strive to help educate and flourish. MCPS has been blessed with some excellent, hardworking, and extensively experienced student members of the Board of Education, but a single individual in a large and diverse county can never be enough to provide the breadth and depth of student input that MCPS needs.
MCPS and other school districts have benefited greatly by more formally and consistently incorporating student perspectives into education policy decision-making. Two years after the expansion of student member voting rights, we are hopeful that MCPS will take further steps to better involve students in the years to come.
Richard Yarrow is a student at Harvard University and a graduate of Richard Montgomery High School. Ramida Phoolsombat is a student at the University of Southern California and a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School. Each has served as president of the Montgomery County Regional Student Government Association, representing MCPS’s nearly 50,000 high school students.