Improving Learning Outcomes by Listening to Students | Steve Barkley

Improving Learning Outcomes by Listening to Students

“If you listen to kids, they’ll give you a different perspective. They are the primary clients.”

(Principal, Kambar Khoshaba)

I had the opportunity to record a podcast with Kambar Khoshaba, an experienced middle school and newly appointed high school principal. I learned about him while reading an article in Education Week, titled Students Sought Changes at Their Middle School. Their Principal Listened.

I asked Kambar about his focus on listening to students.

Kambar: “I use a business mentality of listening to my client to design a customized product for them. And the clients, of course, are the students. They’re the primary clients. Teachers, parents, community members are also clients, but it’s really the students, who, if we design programs for them, we need to hear their voice on whether or not they’re receiving our product the way we intended it to be. So obviously, it’s been several years since I’ve been a middle school student, so I can tell you what I think they would enjoy, but they’ll shoot straight and tell me whether something’s working or not working and how to make it better.

I inquired how Kambar initiated his plan for listening.

Kambar: “I started off with the staff. We created a social justice council with them. We met for five weeks and just took an article about leading equity through COVID and beyond. We spent some time talking about it. It went so well. I thought let’s see if we can extend this social justice council to students, not covering the same article, because we’re not talking about leading equity, but let’s see what’s on their minds and talk about some social justice issues. The students quickly identified our dress code as being racist and sexist. Under representation of minority students in honors classes was a second major concern.

One of the students suggested that she worried more about being dressed within the code than about what she was going to learn. Kambar challenged the students about their thinking, and they came back with six articles from around the country, illustrating that students of color are getting hit with more dress code violations than their counterparts and girls are getting dress code violations more than boys.

Listen and learn symbol. Turned a wooden cube and changed the word 'listen' to 'learn'. Beautiful grey background, copy space. Business, education and listen and learn concept.

Kambar: “So why are we creating a situation that is overly oppressive? If I have students feeling that way at my school, and I allow that to continue happening, then shame on me for being the principal of that kind of situation. I asked them along the whole way, I wanted to empower them to see that they have power in their voice. This is the first time that they really got to practice the democratic process of putting their voice out there. They did a presentation for our faculty, sharing four different dress code items they wanted to have adjusted. None of the faculty disagreed. I shared the results with the parents, asked them to contact me if they had any concerns and of course worked in collaboration with my central office. We changed the dress code policy. Four leaders of the social justice club did a presentation on the changes to their peers. They got all the credit because they deserved it. It was an inspiring story to see 12-, 13-, and 14-year-old students take a risk and put their hearts on the line, knowing that the adults had this policy in place for at least two decades without changes. They took a chance and it paid off.

I asked Kambar to share the equity question that emerged and how he responded.

Kambar: “Well, when we got to the social justice council, the kids said they didn’t see diversity in our honors and gifted programs. So, I got the data and again, they were right. On the year that we started this, our school was 37% black, and our honors program was 24% black. We had a 13% disproportionality rate. with zero being perfect proportionality, we were minus 13.

Kambar asked teachers to identify characteristics of successful students in honors and gifted programs. They listed seven criteria including organized, independent learners, ambitious about learning. Students who are avid readers, not advanced, but they want to read. Sharing the criteria with students and phone calls to parents, led to 83 students who hadn’t earlier enrolled in honors classes, enrolling. An additional change that the school implemented was modifying scheduling so students could take one or two honors courses without taking a complete honors track.

Kambar: “And this year, we went from a minus 13% under our proportionate rate for our black students, to plus 2%, over-identified black students in honors classes. I’ve had kids come to me this year on an individual basis saying, is there anyway, is it too late? Can I get an honors? I’m like, yeah, there’s no timetable on this. It’s all about kids who are ambitious, who want to secure a better future for themselves and us bulldozing any barrier that’s in front of them to allow them to realize their potential.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast with Kambar and google his name for several articles he has published. You can contact him at He reminded me that the value in seeking student voice is to listen and act.

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