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The Student-powered improvement framework

To understand the framework of student-powered improvement
Anyone engaged in student-powered improvement
Suggested Use
Learn and reflect individually or as a team
Time Needed
30 minutes
Placing our work with students on the framework helped our team see where we are and where we might go next.

Where and how do we engage students in continuous improvement efforts? We’ve created this simple framework to help your team position your work, imagine more possibilities, and prevent efforts that merely tokenize students.


Four ways to engage students


The student-powered improvement framework includes four different ways to engage students in improvement efforts: Empathize with students, involve students, share decision-making with students, and student-led improvement efforts. 

Empathize with students means to try to deeply understand the experiences, perspectives, and feelings of students and apply those learnings.

Involve students means to engage youth in events and processes with adults to share their unique needs, priorities, and perspectives.

Share decision-making with students means that students play a leadership role in decision-making and have some real decision-making power.

Youth-led improvement efforts means that student groups lead their own improvement efforts, from determining their areas of focus to carrying out those changes. 

Why is it important to understand different types of student participation in the first place? The ability to recognize and be transparent about which type of student participation you seek helps to avoid tokenism. The tokenism of students happens when adults use students to validate adult views, actions, or ideas. It happens when adults mislead students to think they have purpose or power when they actually do not. For example, a student may assume their participation will directly shape a decision, when instead adults use student input to understand a problem of practice. The lack of transparency of purpose in this example could lead to mistrust and disengagement in the future. 

The case studies in the student-powered improvement collection are organized by the type of student involvement. To explore more, check out these examples: 


  • What are the differences between the four ways to engage students in student-powered improvement? 
  • Have we observed or been part of any of these types of engagement? What type of engagement was it: empathize, involve, share decision-making or youth-led? 
  • Have there been times when our efforts have tokenized students? When? How?

Three aspects of continuous improvement


The framework also includes three aspects of continuous improvement: see the system, set a goal, and design change

A key idea in continuous improvement is that every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets. In order to improve results, systems need to be redesigned. And in order to redesign systems, we must first understand what is currently in place and resist the urge to jump directly to solutions. A systems perspective starts with examining the complexity and nuances of the problem you are trying to solve, including the root causes of the problem, from multiple perspectives. 

Why see the system with students? 

A student, Mia, explains it best:

I’m the one who sits in the classroom all the time. I see firsthand the policies you are implementing. I see where it works for me as a student and where it doesn’t. So if you forget that big piece of the conversation…you are always going to go wrong.”

Student experiences and perspectives will uncover root causes or a problem that adults may miss, or even point out a problem that is more pressing than the one the adults think needs attention. 


What are we trying to accomplish? In continuous improvement, teams set a long-term goal (often called an aim). To accompany an aim, many improvement teams choose to create a theory of improvement. This theory encompasses a team’s collective hypotheses about what key factors and changes will be necessary for achieving the aim. Improvement teams also set short-term goals for each change idea they design and test. 

Why set improvement goals with students?  Students’ experiences and perspectives can help set goals—and inform theories of improvement—to be more relevant than those only considered by adults. Students also offer important insights into conversations about whether goals are realistic while also ambitious.  

In continuous improvement, a deep understanding of the system lays the foundation to design and test new changes to it. Continuous improvement asks us to start small, test ideas, and use information from our tests to decide whether to adapt, adopt or abandon an idea. These efforts to create real change—and not merely add on to an existing system—are often called “change ideas.” 

Why design changes with students? When we center students’ lived experiences, the resulting solutions to the problem at hand are stronger and more enduring. 

Putting it all together

Now that you’ve learned about each aspect of the framework, examine how it all fits together. Each of the four ways to engage students is surrounded by three potential aspects of continuous improvement.

Framework Diagram

For example:

  • Feedback partners:  students are involved in order to see the system and design change
  • Student survey: Adults empathize with students to see the system and design change
  • Ambassador network is a youth-led improvement effort to see the system, set a goal, and design change




  • Where would we place our existing examples of student-powered improvement on the framework?
  • Where would we like to expand?