August 1, 2012
In suits and ties, they’re spending the summer in making speeches before thousands of people, bolstering their online presence, and pushing for changes to state governance.
But some of them aren’t even old enough to vote.
A handful of New York State high school students have banded together to create Student Voice, an organization devoted to empowering students. Their first project is to get representation on Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission, where they say students are imperative to conversations about teacher evaluations and technology policy.
Two of the three students behind Student Voice come from Long Island high schools. The third, Matthew Resnick, is a senior at Manhattan’s Eleanor Roosevelt High School.
“It’s like a detective conduncting a criminal investigation without interviewing the victims,” said Zak Malamed, a recent high school graduate from Great Neck, about the commission. “We are the victims of the system’s flaws, so we should at least have a voice.”
The organization started this spring when Malamed realized that through the internet, he could connect to hundreds of other peers interested in education policy. That’s how he met Resnick and Nikhil Goyal, a senior at Syosset High School, who helped him launch the group.
“The trigger was realizing that I’m not the only one, I’m not an anomaly in wanting to change the education system as it is,” Malamed said.
In mid-May, Malamed organized a Twitter chat with the hashtag #StuVoice. He expected 10 or 15 students to participate, but the numbers were much larger, he said, and adults joined in as well. The experience made Malamed realize that students needed a central outlet to share their ideas about education, and their stories from the ground, and StuVoice.org was born. The site formally launched on Tuesday with short essays from high school and college students from across the country.
In the meantime, he began to collaborate with Resnick and Goyal on Student Voice’s big project — getting student representation on the New York Education Reform Commission. After the trio sent a letter to Cuomo making their case, the governor responded with a letter that said the commission had already capped out at 25 members but encouraged the students to show up at hearings.
Malamed said he was happy just to get a response.
“They responded in a week, and to respond to students in a week, you don’t expect the governor to do that,” he said before quickly adding, “Even though he should!”
The local group is also planning to focus on New York City’s 2013 mayoral election. Goyal, a 17-year-old Syosset resident, said he has not been a fan of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education policies, and he’ll be urging candidates to listen more to students about issues ranging from school closures to social media in the classroom.
He said the next mayor should look to Newark Mayor Cory Booker (with whom Goyal also disagrees on policy points) about how to engage with teens. Booker launched a social media site centered around Newark public policy last month.
“He’s giving teens a voice, and eventually they’re going to be voters,” Goyal said, who has an e-book, ”One Size Does Not Fit All: A Student’s Assessment of School,” coming out next month and speaking engagements lined up in places as far-flung as Austria and India.
Malamed, Resnick, and Goyal all spoke today at the 92nd Street Y during a conference about the influence of social media on education.
Student Voice’s core members don’t always agree. In his book and in letters to the editor published in major newspapers, Goyal makes clear that is critical of current trends in education policy. He panned the trend of toughening teacher evaluations in a letter to the Wall Street Journal, and last week he wrote on his personal blog that the education commission’s New York City meeting had been “overshadowed by ridiculous charter school evangelists and corporate reformers.”
Resnick, on the other hand, subscribes to a more aggressive brand of education policy. In two Huffington Post pieces this spring, he advocated for tougher evaluations, crediting the group Educators 4 Excellence for informing his opinions.
Recently, a representative from Students For Education Reform, a group backed by 50CAN and Teach for America that mobilizes college students, reached out to Student Voice to discuss a partnership, Resnick said.
But Malamed said the group would never come out with a single policy platform — that’s not the point.
“We recognize that a student in Des Moines, Iowa, is going to have different needs and different views than a student in New York City,” Malamed said.
And although starting a national organization won’t look too shabby on a college application, the University of Maryland-bound teenager said that’s not the point, either.
“When you’re a student, a lot of it can become about resume-building and a lot of egos can get in the way,” he said. “So we’re trying to put that behind us.”