Student Agency: How Will You Answer the Call for Change?


What Do We Know About Student Engagement?

Administrators often talk about the importance of student engagement for student learning and growth.  When walking through classrooms there is an enthusiasm and engagement in the learning experience that is easily observable in early elementary schools that does not occur as frequently at the secondary level.  In a 2013 article Jung-Sook Lee examined the relationship between student engagement and academic performance and found that behavioral and emotional engagement “significantly predicted reading performance” (Lee, Journal of Education Research, 2013).  There are many other studies that make similar connections.  Students who put forth effort and showed perseverance and felt a sense of belonging in the classroom performed better than their peers who did not.  The chart below was based on data from a Gallup Poll and posted in an Education Week article.  Student engagement seems to decline as students progress through each grade in school.  Clearly we need to address this issue, but what variables drive this decline (secondary school culture, instructional strategies, curriculum, school structure, educator expectations, student development, parent engagement, etc.).  Why does engagement dip at the secondary level for students?


Interestingly, in a survey done by School Administrator in May 2017, 95% of kindergarteners said they loved school compared to only 37% of ninth graders.  This almost correlates exactly to the percentage of students who feel engaged in the table above.  There are a few factors that may contribute to the love of school and high level of engagement kindergarteners have, which if continued through all grades may make a difference such as:

1) ensuring the curriculum is relevant and making impactful connections between the students and the content

2) student centered learning where the students are actively and collaboratively working with the content

3) leveraging technology to support and enhance the learning experience. 

This is often easier said than done, but some of the most dynamic educators in middle and high school are doing many of these things effectively and it is having a positive impact on student engagement, a student’s sense of belonging, and ultimately their learning.  At the core of this work is capturing student’s passions and empowering them to have more agency in their own learning.

What Do We Mean by Agency?

According to Hitlin and Elder (2007), there are four types of agency that people can exhibit:

  1. Existential agency:  The idea that all human beings have free will to exert influence on our world and environment around us
  2. Pragmatic agency:  Instances when people make choices in day-to-day decisions rather than following routines
  3. Identity agency:  When people take actions to maintain their social identities or how they are perceived by others.
  4. Life-course agency:  When people take actions in order to affect our future outcomes

In applying these constructs of what agency should look like into education, student-centered learning environments are places when students have control and autonomy in their learning.  Authentic student agency places students in the driver’s seat in actively seeking learning experiences, and having choices about how and where they will show mastery.  When students have agency, they have identified their purpose in their learning.  A piece of student agency, which is really easy to increase in school environments is to capture student voice.

Student Voice is a Form of Agency


Grace Knewton writes:

“Student agency refers to the level of control, autonomy, and power that a student experiences in an educational situation. Student agency can be manifested in the choice of learning environment, subject matter, approach, and/or pace. Authentic assessment, experiential or project based learning, and mastery-based learning all provide opportunities to increase student agency. With more student agency can come higher levels of engagement and commitment to the learning process.”

So why is all this important?

important-2794684_960_720Russell Burt speaks to the fact then when students feel empowered and enabled, they perform at a higher level. Mark Osbourne refers to the Quality Teaching for Diverse Students in Schooling: Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration (BES), in pointing out that students achieve at a higher level when they are allowed to control their learning and have a voice in it. As the Raikes Foundation concurs, students feel a greater sense of belonging in a school when they have they have a sense of belonging in a class. The Values Centered Schools discovered school agency, refers to empowering students through curriculum approaches that; engage them, are respectful of and seek their opinions, give them opportunities to feel connected to school life, promote positive and caring relationships between all members of the school community, promote wellbeing and focus on the whole student, relate to real-life experiences, are safe and supportive.” Ultimately, schools want students to be successful and feel like they belong. Student agency accomplished both of these in an engaging and powerful manner.

18210221868_cb2f8b2d60_bStudent Agency is not about about removing structure in the classroom, minimizing the role of the teacher, or not teaching the standards. There is actually greater structure in the classroom, more dependence on the planning of the classroom teacher, and greater detail in following the standards.  Two examples of creating space and time for agency are through makerspaces and genius hour/20%time.

Makerspaces: Creating Space for Agency

We asked Ashland High School’s Makerspace Lab teacher some questions about his class and student voice and agency and his answers are below.  If you are interested in more information on Makerspaces, Edutopia provides a great example of what a Makerspace Lab looks like. 

Question: How these classes actually require more structure not less?

“The concept of structure is possibly misleading. Students do have more freedom of choice in some classes (Student Technology Assist Team-STAT) and more directed lessons in others (Engineering the future). However, in both situations, students are given clear expectations on what they are going to be doing as students: problem solving. In order to do this, students must have a clear understanding of the structure of problem solving, and must approach each day with the expectation on fulfilling on the goals at hand.”

Question: What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

“With this type of structure in place, the role of the teacher is that of lead learner. We challenge students in ways that also encourage teachers to grow and learn. We can demonstrate what we know, but we can also take on the task of showing students how to learn more, how to research, and take chances. The classes are designed to be open ended. If the teacher can provide guidance, ask questions, and help push students to push themselves, then the teachers and students are often finding high levels of success in developing new skills and gaining new knowledge.”

Question:  How all standards are addressed?

“Our classes tend to cross many curriculum areas, but the key focus depends on the class. In most cases we are covering appropriate Science, Technology and Engineering standards. This is done through a series of project based, or challenge based assignments. We do not rely on lecture alone, if at all. Instead, we expect students to experience the content. Based on “Activities before Content, Concept before Vocab”. Following up key lessons by discussing and highlighting what students just experienced and learned, they will then better grasp the concepts we are trying to drive home from the standards. We also cover the newly for Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards in the appropriate courses. These new standards lay a strong foundation for all students to walk out of high school with a basic experience and framework for technology use and computer science.”

Question:  How does student voice increase engagement and achievement?

“Students are the centerpiece of these courses. They are often the ones asking questions, designing experiments and pushing into new knowledge. Not every course in the space is the same though, and each course brings a different challenge for teachers and students. Therefore, it is critical that the teachers take the enthusiasm and voice of the student and help shape their questions and insights towards the goals of each course. STAT and our future course MAKE are examples of courses where student voice is not only important, it is vital to the design of the course and experience for the students. In this model, students determine their own trajectory, and find their learning takes shape organically. From each prior day experience, students shape new experiences that may or may not match their classmates. They learn by asking new questions each day. The teacher helps shape their learning by asking key questions along the way, and helping the students develop honing skills as they focus in on one task at a time toward building the bigger picture.”

Question:  Why do students love it?

“I always ask students what they think of this class and classroom. The number one thing they love is having agency over their learning. Even our most reticent students want to learn. They just don’t always want to learn what we want to teach them. Given the opportunity to work in a space like the Ashland Innovation Center, students are more empowered to make those decisions and then put their hands and minds to use making it happen.”


Genius Hour/20% Time: Creating Time for Agency

In addition to having a Makerspace and instituting district maker challenges, another approach to increasing student agency that the Mendon-Upton Regional School District (MURSD) has taken has been to provide students time to pursue their own learning interests through instituting a genius hour or 20% time into courses.  Genius Hour originated with Google, who allows its employees to spend 20% of their time on projects they are interested in.  As their employees work creatively on their own passion projects, many outcomes such as Gmail or Google News resulted from the 20-time projects.  These principles have transferred to the classroom when teachers set aside an amount of time for students to take on passion projects.  

Some examples of this in the Mendon-Upton Regional School District include a third-grade teacher who begins each Monday with Genius Hour time for students when they return from the weekend.  In the 8th grade history classes, they are taking every class on Mondays for the next three months for students to work on Genius Hour projects.  At the high school, one teacher took it one step further and created a course called Generation Think where students are able to pursue their passions for the entire course.  

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How Will You Answer the Call?

The chart above is one of many examples of how school leaders and educators can begin to move practice for our students.  This chart displays a continuum of choice from compliant participants to bold entrepreneurial students.  Where would you like your students to be on that continuum?

One approach to look for making change is through the question posed by A.J. Juliani and John Spencer in their book Empower,  “What decisions am I making for students that they could make for themselves?  In their book, they described that all of the learning decisions were made by the teachers:  “I chose the resources.  I chose the content. I asked the questions. I wrote the instructions. I managed the project progress.  I chose the tasks. I wrote the objectives.  I picked the standards.  I decided on the format. I determined whether or not the work was any good.”  

Think about the power of switching that role.  What if we switched all of those tasks to students?  What if students determined the questions being answered, the resources gathered, or what mastery would look like?  What if students were the agents of their own learning?

We leave you with this one question, if as educators we want to feel empowered in our classrooms, why shouldn’t we want the same for our kids? We hope you empower your students, give them voice, and take that risk.



Building Leadership Capacity One Teacher at a Time: Unleashing the Teacher Leadership Bench

“The giant resource of teacher leadership must be unleashed in support of school change.” (Katzenmeyer & Moyer, 2001, p. 16).

As district leaders, one of the most important functions of our roles is building leadership capacity across our school districts.  When we begin each school year, set goals, and therein set in motion the work of the year, it is important to consider how we will feed and fortify the culture while we ask the organization to implement new initiatives.  Each of us hopes that the work we do, the initiatives we implement and the culture we cultivate lives beyond our tenure or beyond the goal cycle on which we are currently working.  In order to do so, we must deliberately consider how to build leadership capacity in our organizations. To that end, we share some thoughts on the topic.  We plan to explore how to identify and select potential leaders, distributive leadership, creating a leadership ladder, modeling and mentoring, and women in educational leadership.


Selecting your Bench

Leadership capacity building begins with selecting the right people to take on formal leadership and support roles.  

As Jim Collins described in his book Good to Great, it is essential to get the right people on the bus, if you want to steer your organization in the right direction.  In considering future teacher leaders to be on your bench, have you considered what you value in a teacher leader?  Which of the qualities below are your own non-negotiables?  Are there currently people who are in those positions, who do not meet your criteria?  

The following are a list of typical qualities of effective teacher leaders:

  • Ability to collaborate with others
  • Consensus builders
  • Respected by peers for instructional skills
  • Open-minded
  • Has positive relationships with others in school
  • Optimistic
  • Enthusiastic
  • Confident
  • Display initiative
  • Expertise in specialized areas such as curriculum, assessment, instruction, content, data analysis, etc.
  • Understanding of adult learners

Superintendents often lament that it is difficult to find quality candidates for building leadership openings.  This is partially due to the fact that we want our leaders to have all of the qualities and strengths that we see across the best leaders, which is unrealistic.  It is also a function of the nearly impossible expectations we can have for our leaders.  Building a “bench” of potential building leaders is important work for a district so that the vision, mission, and strategic plan can move forward without the disruptive stops and starts changes in leadership can sometimes cause.

Identifying, selecting, and supporting future leaders can be a tricky business.  Effective teaching practice requires a skill set from educators that can be different than what is necessary for successful leadership of a department, school, or district.  Leading educators and providing actionable feedback to adults can be very different than teaching and leading students.  For example, Milford Public Schools runs a seminar series that allows aspiring educational and instructional leaders to explore the roles, responsibilities, and realities of building and district leadership positions.  The honest conversations with their building and district leaders provide a window into the principalship and assistant principalship.  These programs led some teachers to pursue an administrative license program and others to reflect that either this was not the right time or the right path for them.  Both are equally valuable.  They also support aspiring school leaders in one district (and in some cases other districts) by allowing shadowing and practicum experiences.  These experiences, seminars, and conversations can also provide a glimpse for both the aspiring leader and the district in terms of fit at the school, district, and leadership team levels.

Leadership development can require you to self assess or assess the team.  When selecting your bench it is also important to hire people that complement your weaknesses. It is only natural to want to hire people like you, who may not threaten or challenge the way you think and lead. However, it is critically important to change this mindset and do the opposite. Eric Bloom writes:

Regarding hiring to your strengths, it’s of course, extremely important to always hire great people. However, if you only hire people that are just like you, namely with your strengths, weaknesses, experience, and perspective then you open up yourself and your department to:  

  • Quality issues caused by overall skill set deficiencies  
  • Reduced possibility of innovation due to a lack of team diversity  
  • Experience and knowledge gaps in potentially important functional areas  
  • Reduced team flexibility caused by all of the above

As Lolly Daskel writes, “There is a great difference between knowing yourself and understanding yourself. Take the time to reflect on what your deficiencies are and what you need in a particular position on your team and go out and hire the best people to fill that role.”  This type of introspection can be challenging and requires vulnerability and honesty.


Distributing Leadership

Those on the bench and those who might have potential to sit on the bench in the future need to be given agency and opportunity to participate in leadership work even if they do not hold the “formal” role.  


In order to be an effective leader and grow an organization, you must build your bench and empower others. It takes a strong leader to get others to join your team and help you accomplish your mission and implement your vision. The above graphic helps to illustrate many attributes a leader must possess in order to create that capacity in a school to have others want to participate in the vision. What do each of these 10 traits mean do you? How do you personify them in your school day?

Outlining Your District’s Career Ladder

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All staff, from day one of their time in your organization, should know the leadership steps and ladders available to develop themselves in your district.  Is this discussion part of your hiring process?

Part of your new staff orientation?

Part of your on-boarding/induction programs?

If not, it should be!

Defining options for all types of leaders and learners in your district ensures that more people share the leadership vision for the district and see themselves as having a place and a future place within the organization.  

Defining options for growth and development mean that district leadership can be owned across more sectors and generations of the district.  When Collins talked about seats on the bus….people need to know what seats exist so they can understand where to sit!

Guiding Questions

In helping to build your district’s leadership ladder, it is important to provide guidance to your potential teacher leaders as they consider new opportunities.  Shelley Burgess and Beth Houf, in their book Lead Like a Pirate, talk about knowing when to take the leadership leap. Not only must you know the steps to take, but you need to know if you are ready for the leap; both go hand in hand. The following questions by Burgess and Houf are helpful guiding questions to consider before taking a leap:

  1. What is the purpose for wanting to make the leap?
  2. Are you moving into a situation that matches your passion and workstyle
  3. Who will this position change the quality of your life?
  4. Do you have supports in place to make this leap?
  5. Are you making the leap to have a greater impact of students or for personal gains
  6. What does your intuition tell you?
  7. How does your district systematically provide support for those making the leaps?

It is critical for teachers to answer these questions before moving up the ladder. Doing it for the wrong reasons can be disastrous to kids and to themselves personally.

Modeling and Mentoring

In the leadership realm, in corporate, creative and educational settings, the research literature on the power of modeling, mentoring and being “tapped” by a model leader for mentoring and leadership capacity building within an organization is deep.  

Modeling and mentoring are a deliberate process. It’s not enough to just have a newer leader observe and follow a more seasoned leader around.  There have to be conversations asking the leader to break down the layered and often internally-conducted processes of leading.  Demystifying the leadership process, having leaders break down their frameworks for thinking, ethics, sharing or decision-making help newer leaders use leadership templates from mentors to help shape their own emerging leadership repertoires.


Developing future educational and instructional leaders is important and essential work for current leaders both at the building and district level.  Schools require leadership focused on student growth and learning in positive and supportive school cultures. Identifying and providing opportunities for potential leaders within your district not only supports the career growth for these aspiring leaders, but it also can provide the continuity that supports success for your schools and district.  Allowing these leaders opportunities to engage in authentic tasks and make mistakes to reflect upon, further builds a culture of continuous learning, failing forward, and reflective practice.  

A Word from A Women’s Perspective on Capacity Building, Modeling, and Mentoring

      By Anna Nolin and Maureen Cohen

Research and popular media portrayals of women in leadership indicate that women are not tapped for leadership positions.  This is also true for women in educational leadership positions.

In fact, evidence indicates that at the superintendent level women participation is also significantly less than male counterparts. In a 2015 study of superintendencies by AASA, they found that only a quarter of superintendents were female.  Additionally, the study analyzed whether superintendents were hired from within the district or from a different district and determined that males were hired from inside their district at higher percentages than female counterparts.

Some reasons cited for this gap of women in leadership roles include:

  • Longer time spent by women in the roles as teachers than men, and a more diverse route taken to leadership positions than men
  • Many women choose to pass up opportunities to take on leadership roles due to a growing family
  • Underlying bias about what leadership should look like

Keeping all of this in mind, what can we do in our capacity building to ensure that we are encouraging and mentoring women to take on leadership roles?  

“Here is our story.” 

First, we had many mentors along the way who tapped us for leadership positions.  They literally tapped us on the shoulder and said, “You’d be great at this role, why don’t you try it?”  Maureen stills remember the moment one department chair handed her an application in the hallway and said, “You need to apply to be part of this leadership cohort.” Anna similarly remembers her director of human resources insisting she be included in principal training, leadership meetings and strategic planning conversations because he knew the district would benefit, even when her principal said he felt she should have children first and then consider leadership roles.

Second, women leaders need to build a network of support for younger women who might aspire to leadership positions.  

Maureen:  One of my greatest mentor is a colleague on this blog, Dr. Anna Nolin.  It was in my leadership cohort that she stood before me and shared her own research on how women can have a family and be a leader and be great at both.  It was because of her, that I learned that I did not have to put my career on hold just because I was having a family.  Men didn’t do that, why would I have to?

Anna:  Dr. Maureen Cohen and I have worked to capitalize on the network idea and have created a small women’s superintendent support network in our region.  This group is important to us and in our meetings, we are able to explore topics and needs we may not be able to explore within other state and district leadership meetings.

Third, women need to be offered a seat that the table.

Anna:  This is critical….like Maureen, I have been the beneficiary of many mentors who tapped me on the shoulder (men and women) and men who made a space for me at the right meetings, on the golf course and in training to lead in all aspects of the district.  Often times women suffer a confidence issue because there are not other women or few other women at the meetings to provide support or encouragement.  So being offered the seat and invited to participate, the confidence boost is there.  My current boss is masterful at this–he consistently puts me (and others he mentors) first to speak or points out the strengths we might have relative to the conversation or ideas at hand and generally makes it easier to be confident.

Maureen:  Not only do they need to be offered a seat that the table, but they also should be given a voice.  Sometimes a little bit of encouragement can go a long way in giving new women leaders the confidence they need to lean in and share their knowledge and opinions.  I have benefitted from people who have encouraged me after meetings by saying, “You should contribute more often to the conversation, as you have a lot to share.”  

We hope that you consider these personal reflections as a window into our personal experiences in leadership as you grow your own leadership ladders in your school districts, keeping in mind the importance of fostering women leaders in your process of unleashing your leadership bench.