The Unheard Voices Project broadens education policy debates

University Park, Pa. -- Important voices are missing from the tables where policies for the future of schooling are made, observes Alison Carr-Chellman, professor of instructional systems in Penn State's College of Education. To help bring absent voices to the table, Carr-Chellman and her research team launched The Unheard Voices Project, which is assessing four primary populations: prisoners, homeless, migrant workers and working poor.

The prisoner and homeless population studies are complete: the prison study being published in the International Journal of Educational Reform, the homeless study being presented in Poland to the European Sociological Association. The homeless study spawned a complementary dissertation focusing on homeless veterans by David Magolis. Also on the research team are graduate students Husra Gursoy, Luis Almeida and Brian Beabout.

"The notion isn't to create or design a school that would suit prisoners or homeless," said Carr-Chellman, "but rather to simply hear them, to make others aware of their existence and that they, too, have ideas about how schools can change."

Prisoners, she said, had some poignant things to say about making schools better places. Topping their priority list was ensuring that the places where education happens are safe; they cited many negative experiences with safety issues in their own educational settings. Both prisoners and veterans wanted uniforms and more structure in schools, as well.

All three of the populations -- homeless, homeless veterans and prisoners -- were negative about using the moniker "special education" and the associated peer labeling, said Carr-Chellman. Additionally, they stated that the primary changes they would like to see were, in their words, to have caring teachers in all classrooms, to have teachers who are willing to give extra help and go beyond their paychecks and job requirements, and to really teach.

As voices not heard at education policy tables, the needs they identified stand in stark contrast to the more constructivist and problem-based, learning-oriented reforms of research or policy-based conversations, she said.

"This has been among one of the most rewarding projects I've ever worked on," Carr-Chellman said. "My hope is that more and more people will learn of the project, and the voices will become increasingly amplified."

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Last Updated November 18, 2010