Building the capacity for student leadership in high school: a review of organizational mechanisms from the field of student voice

Date10 April 2020
Publication Date10 April 2020
AuthorLindsay Lyons,Marc Brasof
SubjectEducation,Administration & policy in education,School administration/policy,Educational administration,Leadership in education
Building the capacity for student
leadership in high school: a review
of organizational mechanisms from
the field of student voice
Lindsay Lyons
Department of Leadership and Change, Antioch University, Oak Ridge,
Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA, and
Marc Brasof
Arcadia University, Glenside, Pennsylvania, USA
Purpose The purpose of this paper is to understand the organizational mechanisms by which schools can
increase opportunities for student leadership.
Design/methodology/approach A review of the student voice literature conducted in high schools was
used to identify organizational mechanisms for enhancing student leadership.
Findings Five leadership-fostering organizational mechanisms were identified: consistency, research, group
makeup, governance structure and recognition.
Originality/value This paper examines the existing body of student voice research to identify
organizational mechanisms for fostering student leadership in schools. Researchers can use this to
operationalize student leadership mechanisms and study their impact. Practitioners can implement these
mechanisms in schools to support youth leadership development.
Keywords Secondary education, Organizational structures, School reform, Student voice, Youth leadership
Paper type Literature review
While the notion of listening to students in the classroom is certainly not new, scholars have
concretized this idea through research on student voice,a field which has gained popularity
within the education arena over the past two decades. A search of the term in the Web of
Science Citation Index indicates the number of items (including empirical studies, editorial
articles, literature reviews, book chapters, book reviews and conference papers) containing
the term student voicehas increased from ten publications in 2008 to 96 in 2018. Bridging
the gap from research to practice, the term student voiceis now commonplace in teacher
professional development workshops. While research has identified a number of benefits of
student voice (e.g. Deci and Ryan, 2008;Mitra, 2018;Yonezawa and Jones, 2007), the full
potential of student voice is not being realized. In practice, student voice initiatives are often
for youth who can participate in after-school activities and who fit into traditional adult views
of well-spoken student leaders (Holdsworth, 2000). This monolithic concept of student voice
as a singular term may prevent educators from acknowledging the importance of a diversity
of voices weighing in on issues relevant to studentslives (Thomson, 2011). This paper
reviews research discussing the school-wide, organizational mechanisms that make it
possible for more students to take part in and reap the benefits of student voice initiatives.
This review synthesizes the existing research and identifies five organizational mechanisms
schools can use to foster student leadership research, consistency, governance structure,
recognition and group makeup. These five mechanisms will enable researchers to more
closely examine the effectiveness of organizational structures on the development of student
leadership, a powerful but rare form of student voice (Mitra and Gross, 2009), and help
leadership in
high school
The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available on Emerald Insight at:
Received 2 May 2019
Revised 30 August 2019
2 November 2019
15 January 2020
27 January 2020
11 February 2020
Accepted 15 February 2020
Journal of Educational
Vol. 58 No. 3, 2020
pp. 357-372
© Emerald Publishing Limited
DOI 10.1108/JEA-05-2019-0077
educators identify practical strategies to build capacity for a wider range of student
Benefits of student voice
Extant research has demonstrated student voice initiatives can positively impact students
and schools. Mitras (2018) recent literature review of the student voice field discussed
developmental and academic benefits for individual students as well as organizational
improvements to school climate. Providing opportunities to be authentic leaders in school can
improve studentspositive self-regard, feelings of competence and engagement (Deci and
Ryan, 2008). It can also improve relationships between students and teachers (Yonezawa and
Jones, 2007). Furthermore, organizational decision-making that involves diverse stakeholder
participation improves organizational outcomes (Kusy and McBain, 2000), so involving
students in school governance is in the best interest of the school itself.
Isolated initiatives
While student voice initiatives have yielded positive impacts, the inclusivity and
sustainability of such initiatives has been limited. Rather than foster inclusivity, the way
in which student voice activity is carried out can actually reproduce existing inequalities
(McMahon and Portelli, 2004). The phrase student voiceitself perpetuates the illusion
students are a homogeneous unit (Thomson, 2011), and thus marginalizes disenfranchised
students. Tokenistic student councils are often restricted to social event planning and are
rarely able to address educational issues (Holdsworth, 2000;Thomson, 2011). When students
do voice their opinions on important issues, adults often fail to act on the information shared
(Thomson, 2011). Student leadership relies on stakeholdersability and willingness to critique
systemic issues, yet many school communities lack these capacities (Fielding, 2004), and,
instead, they exclude marginalized studentsvoices, preferring to maintain the status quo
(e.g. Silva, 2002).
Brasof (2018) explains the lack of sustainability as an organizational improvement
paradox (Goodman, 2000) that occurs because student voice initiatives often operate in
isolation from the rest of the organization (Mitra, 2006;Thomson, 2011). Brasof argues that
the use of linkage theory can help uncover structural pathways that facilitate or hinder the
spread of student leadership activities within a school. To date, a dearth of student voice
research has focused on how student voice initiatives exist within or make adjustments to
schoolsorganizational structures and processes (Brasof, 2018). Identifying structures that
weave student leadership into the fabric of a school may enable a wider range of students to
experience positive outcomes (i.e. inclusivity) and ensure these benefits are extended to future
students (i.e. sustainability).
Recognizing the potential benefits of student voice initiatives for students and educational
organizations as well as the need for additional research on organizational structures, this
paper aims to help schools determine which structures and strategies mayhelp build capacity
for student leadership that is inclusive and sustainable. Considering that many of the student
voice studies that highlight school-wide shifts took place in high school settings, this review
focuses on studies conducted in secondary schools.
Conceptual perspectives on student voice
Fielding (2001) defines the term student voiceas studentsability to influence decisions that
affect their lives. Considering the many barriers to student voice, Lundy (2007) suggested a
model that draws attention to four components needed to overcome such barriers: space (the
opportunity to express ideas), voice (which may require adults to help students form ideas by
providing time, information and capacity-building skills training), audience (adults truly
listen to youth ideas) and influence (youth ideas are acted on, and if not, youth are given

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