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Voices, Not Numbers

Towards a Greater Democracy in Education

Carl A. Grant is Hoefs-Bascom Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
Every child has the right to say what they think in all matters affecting them, and have their views taken seriously.

—UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 12

U.S. educational policy and practice adhere to the old proverb that “children should be seen and not heard.” However, Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child declares children’s right to express their views on all matters concerning them; to have their views given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity; and to participate effectively in decision-making processes concerning them. Arguments for children—often made by children themselves—having voice and taking action on matters that affect their lives are rarely taken seriously. Adults, it is argued, are the protectors of children, whose perceived immaturity and lack of knowledge and experience make them unfit to decide questions of their upbringing and schooling. Nevertheless, protecting children’s welfare need not exclude inviting them to speak on education issues. In some countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, Portugal, and the United Kingdom, children’s voices and opinions are considered vital to helping both students and teachers, especially new teachers, fulfill their potential.

Helen Demetriou and Elaine Wilson at the University of Cambridge state: “Evidence from research in the UK and internationally, suggests that pupil voice strategies can ameliorate experiences for teachers and for pupils. Such research has shown how pupil voice strategies have impacted on teaching and learning in the classroom, and in a range of different settings, from small, rural primary schools, to large, inner city comprehensive schools facing challenging circumstances.”1 Likewise, Jean Rudduck argues that “pupil voice is the consultative wing of pupil participation. Consultation is about talking with pupils about things that matter in school.”2

Goretti Horgan, another UK education researcher, notes that “while there is a growing amount of literature giving voice to the views of teenagers, much less is known about the views of younger children.”3 In her research, however, Horgan reports that children as young as four have developed views about school and understand the benefits of an education. Young children also understand the importance of school as more than mere job training. In addition, Horgan asserts that while children in more affluent schools see education as a way of ensuring a stable, prosperous adult life, children from disadvantaged schools see the purpose of school as a means of escaping the dangers and stressors that often surround them. In other words, education for black and brown children has a more urgent mission than to be a social “equalizer”; it is a saver of lives. Horgan also contends that children are keenly aware of differences and discrepancies in schools’ treatment of students. They are savvy about who is designated “at risk” and who is succeeding or struggling academically. They notice if some of their peers receive preferential treatment, and often understand why. Children, Horgan observes, are not just aware of the ways schools are organized and run; they have ideas about how to improve the organization and ethos of their schools. In other words, children “get it.” They understand that school is more than just a place you go when you reach five years of age; it is a place that deeply affects their lives.

In the United States, children’s voices are not sought out. They are most often the “objects of inquiry,” according to M. Elizabeth Graue and Daniel Walsh, who write that “researchers see children as either a window onto universal psychological laws or as indicators of treatment effects. In both cases, the children themselves are simply instruments…vehicles for measuring outcomes.”4 Black and brown children in particular are made into “objects of inquiry,” and are accordingly more watched, restricted, and disciplined. Since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, countless studies of black and brown students, by multiple and varying groups of academics (social psychologists, economists, educators, and others) have scrutinized nearly every aspect of their social and educational lives. Black and brown children’s bodies, behaviors, families, school and after-school activities, achievements, and aspirations have been studied. From these inquiries, black and brown children have been marked with negative labels, including “at-risk” and “culturally disadvantaged,” and moved into classes where many remain trapped until they quit or are pushed out of school.

Further, black and brown children, especially in poor and urban communities, have had their humanity devalued against that of children in whiter, wealthier schools. Their parents may not actively participate in school affairs, and their teachers may not be well informed about their needs. Educational research reports that black and brown children often lack knowledgeable advocates when important decisions (often based on tests or psychological or sociological protocol) affecting their lives are made. A child of color’s parent(s) can be overwhelmed in a room with six to eight white strangers—counselors, social workers, administrators—insisting that they have the child’s best interests at heart, using a dense language of data and testing to mute any discussion or dissent that an informed teacher-advocate might offer. McDermott and Rothenberg note that parents of students of color often do not visit the “local elementary school because they [feel] the faculty has been biased against African American and Latino children and their families.”5 According to Jeannie Oakes and her colleagues, parental support and involvement are further complicated by diverse family arrangements and the vast sociocultural differences separating teachers and administrators from children and families.6

Instructors rarely acquire the deeper knowledge about students and their families that comes with years of teaching, because, as Nicole Simon and Susan Johnson point out, teacher turnover rates remain high in urban and low-income schools, whose teachers quickly flee to schools with higher achievement scores and with whiter, wealthier students. Such constant turnover can only hurt students and schools, because, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “Only those who have watched and guided the faltering feet, the misty minds, the dull understandings, of the dark pupils of these schools know how faithfully, how piteously, this people strove to learn.”7 Children are the major benefactors of educational services, and are equally the ones who suffer, in both the short and long term, the negative consequences of inadequate or inappropriate education. They therefore have a right to have their voices heard, and to have a say in the policies and practices designed to improve their educational experiences and outcomes. John Dewey argued that “true education comes through the stimulation of the child’s power by the demands of the social situation in which he finds himself.”8 How will children’s voices change the debate on testing and teacher accountability? How will children’s voices improve the education services they receive? These are questions we cannot yet answer, because their voices have not been given enough weight nor opportunities to be heard.

Numbers in the Classroom

Under contemporary standardized-testing regimes, numbers, not teachers or parents, become the authority in young children’s lives when they enter school. Opportunities in the classroom for young students to discover the joys of learning or develop their academic and artistic interests are sacrificed to testing. A decade ago, a report in Newsweek accurately captured “the new first grade”:

In the last decade, the earliest years of schooling have become less like a trip to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and more like SAT prep…. [R]eading lessons start in kindergarten and kids who don’t crack the code by the middle of the first grade get extra help. Instead of story time, finger painting, tracing letters and snack, first graders are spending hours doing math work sheets and sounding out words in reading groups. In some places, recess, music, art and even social studies are being replaced by writing exercises and spelling quizzes. Kids as young as 6 are tested, and tested again—some every 10 days or so—to ensure they’re making sufficient progress.9

Neoliberal discourses are predicated on the primacy of numbers, “quantifications,” and “datafications,” which “carry a special kind of influence in contemporary policy debates, where statistics are generally equated with scientific rigor and objectivity.” Meanwhile, the voices and experiences of individuals, especially children, are ignored or not received with the same validity. It is their “numbers,” their scores on achievement tests, that determine which disadvantaged children are exalted for “lifting themselves up by their boot straps” and which children are labeled “failures.” The same numbers determine which children may continue in the “regular” class as students with promise and which children are warehoused with other low-scoring students, ultimately to be written off and treated as expendable. Numbers, not past and present structural and racial inequalities, are translated into quantifiable, statistical causes—such as single-parent families, living in a low-income zip code—of students’ academic problems. David Gillborn argues that by treating educational inequality as the result of discrete and predictable processes, expressible in terms of the statistical profiles of individual students, quantitative research often blames the victim.10

Merely measuring and quantifying the prevalence of inequalities linked to race, class, gender, and family structure can give the impression that these problems arise from those identities themselves, rather than from social processes of domination and oppression. Thomas S. Popkewitz asserts that “numbers are seen as existing in a set of cultural practices that generate principles about what is thought about, hoped for, and acted on…. [T]echnologies of numbers are embodied in a grid of cultural practices that ‘act’ on teachers’ and children’s lives in classrooms. To talk about ‘achievement’ and the ‘achievement gap,’ shorthand for numerical differences between children, instantiates particular rules and standards of reason by which experiences are classified, problems located, and procedures given to order, classify, and divide.”11

I should perhaps clarify that in principle, the use of testing to measure student progress and differentiate data by race and class can serve a valuable purpose. When tests are designed and administered in order to determine what resources are needed to reduce racial and economic disparities in education, and to give teachers a second opinion about what is and what is not being learned and which students are succeeding or being left behind, scores and numbers can be important and even essential tools. No Child Left Behind’s legislative demand for such testing is the 2001 law’s sole positive legacy. Both advocates and opponents of current testing and teacher-accountability models agree that some form of differentiated assessment of standardized tests is needed. The point, however, is to focus upon the uses to which numerical scores are put. Here the disagreements are deep and consequential.

In spaces throughout the country where students of color attend school, numerical and literal fabrication of the inhabitants has a long history shaped by systemic racism and white political power. In Chicago, for example, black families who arrived in the city during the Great Migration could only live within a numerically defined boundary; it was a geographical area 30 blocks long and 7 miles wide. Known as the Black Belt, characterized by numerical location, it implicitly informed white people that if you go pass 12th Street on the south side of the city you are entering the black ghetto. It implicitly and explicitly told black people that they could not live north of 12th Street. The numerical delineation also told blacks when they took their dollars to downtown merchants, they should not linger—spend and immediately return to the Black Belt.

The media only amplified these messages of exclusion: from 1967 to 1992, “blacks averaged 57 percent of the poor people pictured” in major newsmagazines, and were represented in 75 percent of stories about welfare recipients.12 “In the beginning,” says Kuiussi Suyá, chief of the Suyá people of Brazil, “the white men tried to finish with us using guns, whips and diseases. Now they use numbers.”13

A Greater Democracy

What would happen if we treated the student as someone whose opinion mattered?

—Michael Fullan14

The call for children’s voices and a push against neoliberal education reform—which is part of a larger government disinvestment from housing, transportation, and social services—demands a “greater democracy.” The phrase is borrowed from the Welsh scholar Raymond Williams, who in his book The Long Revolution uses the term to describe movements of ordinary people against policies that obscure structural injustices that marginalize the poor and communities of color.15 Greater democracy rebels against narratives that claim discrimination no longer exists, or that any continued racial tensions are attributable to individual bigotry or to the stubbornness of black and brown people. A greater democracy demands that citizens resist efforts to divide America into winners and losers. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared corporate personhood, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it was a direct blow to the life opportunities of the poor and young people. Citizens United weakened democracy and undercut civil rights gains. It effectively waged a class war, strengthening the government’s role as an agent of the powerful and privileged.

In school, greater democracy demands that elementary and middle school students’ engagement with democracy should far exceed the limited, individualistic ethos of current curricula. Greater democracy in schools contends that the interpretation of active citizenship must mean much more than informing students to vote when they reach eighteen, learning about the three branches of government, and how a bill is signed into law. Students in elementary and middle school must learn how to make decisions both independently and collectively; they should be taught the meaning and practice of critical inquiry and the importance of diversity to public life, and they must receive an accurate account of U.S. history. Greater democracy argues that students need to learn how to take critical stances when they discover prejudice in their school. If students of color observe, for example, that the higher-level mathematics classes and other advanced classes are predominately filled with white students, they should be encouraged to inquire why this is so. Are placements mainly based upon calculative practices? Do placements negate teachers’ input and student interests? Greater democracy discourses correct distorted neoliberal narratives of a “postracial” society, which ignore multicultural instruction and engagement of students and families. Greater democracy empowers children and teaches the responsibilities that come with that empowerment.

Young people around the world are arguing for a greater voice in democracy through consultative processes, participation initiatives, and self-advocacy. They contend that they are much more than human capital to be controlled by markets. Young people want to assert their presence in the struggle against neoliberal policies that would reduce their humanity to numbers and labels. In a 1997 study conducted in Austria, children ages 13 to 17 stated that they want political information and participation; 93 percent wanted to be informed when new projects are planned for their municipality; and 65 percent wanted consulting hours with politicians.16 Young people are also discovering their rich legacy in fights for social justice. In 1889, 1911, 1914, and 1920, children in England went on strike for better education and discipline, and in 1999, at the Millennium Young People’s Congress in Hawaii, over 600 young people from over 100 countries met to decide priorities and a program of action for a sustainable future over the next thousand years. It was Emmett Till’s generation that aided Martin Luther King in Birmingham in 1963 after the initial attempts to desegregate the city were stalled. Young people restored the momentum of the civil rights movement when they walked out of their elementary, junior high, and high schools. Children marched and were arrested, but more importantly, their voices were heard, and they turned a stalled movement around. Young people contend, then as now, that when their voices are marginalized, democracy loses.

Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary General, has observed that “normally when we need to know about something we go to the experts, but we tend to forget that when we want to know about youth and what they want, that we should talk to them.”17 Similarly, Suzanne Soo Hoo has posited: “Somehow educators have forgotten the important connection between teachers and students. We listen to outside experts to inform us, and consequently overlook the treasure in our own backyard, the students.”18 Students want a say in their education, and they expect transparency in their parents, teachers, and mentors; they want honesty about the problems facing their country; and they want to be recognized as representatives of the future. Finally, you may have listened to the debate on testing and heard of the problems in urban schools for years, and you may have heard numerous perspectives from knowledgeable respected people—adults—covering different points of view. But have you talked with children, maybe your own son, daughter, granddaughter, grandson, or the neighbor kids about their thoughts on testing, or the problems in schools? Have you watched their reactions when testing is discussed? Children, when given the opportunity, want to talk about and to help shape the forces—good and bad—that affect their present and future.


  1. Helen Demetriou and Elaine Wilson, “Children should be seen and heard: the power of student voice in sustaining new teachers,” Improving Schools 13 (2010): 1–16.
  2. Jean Rudduck, “Pupil voice is here to stay!” Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 2004,
  3. Goretti Horgan, The Impact of Poverty on Young Children’s Experience of School (York, UK: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2007), 7; available at
  4. M. Elizabeth Graue and Daniel J. Walsh, Studying Children in Context: Theories, Methods, and Ethics (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), 1–2.
  5. Peter McDermott and Julia Rothenberg, “Why Urban Parents Resist Involvement in Their Children’s Elementary Education,” Qualitative Report, 5, no. 3/ 4 (2000): 5.
  6. Jeannie Oakes et al., Teaching to Change the World, 4th ed. (New York: Routledge, 2016).
  7. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks (New York: Dover, 1994), 12.
  8. John Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed (New York: Kellogg, 1897), 3.
  9. “The New First Grade: Too Much Too Soon,” Newsweek, September 10, 2006,
  10. David Gillborn, “The Colour of Numbers: Surveys, Statistics and Deficit-Thinking About Race and Class,” Journal of Education Policy 25, no. 2 (2010): 253–76.
  11. T. S. Popkewitz, “Numbers in Grids of Intelligibility: Making Sense of How Educational Truth Is Told,” in Educating for the Knowledge Economy? Critical Perspectives, Hugh Lauder et al., eds. (London: Routledge, 2012), 169-170.
  12. Martin Gilens, Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Anti-Poverty Policy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 114, 123.
  13. Kuiussi Suyá, quoted in Mariana Kawall Leal Ferreira, Mapping Time, Space and the Body: Indigenous Knowledge and Mathematical Thinking in Brazil (Rotterdam: Sense, 2015), 34.
  14. Michael Fullan, The New Meaning of Educational Change, 5th ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 2016), 138.
  15. Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution (London: Chatto and Windus, 1961).
  16. Gerison Lansdown, Promoting Children’s Participation in Democratic Decision-Making (Florence, Italy: UNICEF Innocenti Research Center, 2001), 7.
  17. Kofi Annan, quoted in “Joining Forces with Young People,” Youth Employment Network, 2007, available at
  18. Suzanne Soo Hoo, “Students as Partners in Research and Restructuring Schools,” Educational Forum 57, no. 4 (1993): 390.
2016, Volume 68, Issue 01 (May)
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