Across the social sector, momentum is building in the movement to “get proximate” (as Bryan Stevenson has coined) to the individuals whom philanthropists are seeking to help. Listening to the voices of those individuals is a powerful way for givers to increase that proximity, which in turn helps them better understand what the people they are seeking to help truly need — and where their charitable dollars can be of most use.

One example of this listening in action is YouthTruth, an initiative of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) that harnesses student and stakeholder feedback to help school leaders and education funders make better decisions that lead to better outcomes for students. YouthTruth operates under the conviction that the best way to understand how students experience school is to go directly to the source and ask the students themselves.

In 2016, having built up an aggregate dataset of student perceptions since its founding in 2008, YouthTruth launched a new series of analyses called Learning from Student Voice to bring data and insight to bear on pressing challenges related to school experience and improvement. Through this work, YouthTruth has analyzed survey response data from hundreds of thousands of students across the country, revealing key data points on issues that educators — and the donors supporting organizations doing important work in the education space — can draw insights from to inform their work.

Here is a sample of what YouthTruth has found in its analyses of student perception data on three key topics that educators and funders must pay attention to: bullying, college and career readiness, and school culture.


In a recently released study released, YouthTruth analyzed anonymous survey responses from more than 160,000 students across 27 states about their experiences with bullying. When it comes to an issue as serious as bullying, it’s essential that educators, parents, and education funders go directly to the students themselves to understand what is truly happening.

YouthTruth has analyzed student perception data on bullying in the past, and the new analysis finds sobering trends in how bullying is changing. One in three students — that’s 40,000 students total — reported that they had experienced bullying in the most recent school year, an increase from the 2016-17 and 2015-16 school years (31 percent and 28 percent, respectively). Furthermore, the increase in bullying is steeper for certain groups of students. When comparing the 2017-18 data with data from the previous school year, in schools in which the majority of students are white, students of color saw a seven percentage point increase in bullying, compared to a three percentage point increase for white students.

To create more equitable schools, educators and donors need to understand how different groups of students can experience different rates and types of bullying. Listening to students and understanding the data can help shed light on where to target improvements to ensure a positive school environment for all.

College and Career Readiness

A critical question for educators is how schools are preparing high school students for what’s next, whether it be continuing their education in college or beginning a career. When YouthTruth analyzed anonymous survey responses from more than 55,000 high school students, it found that most students (84 percent) want to go to college. However, when asked about their plans after high school, only 68 percent reported that they expected to attend either a two or four-year college after finishing high school.

Furthermore, across all high school grade levels, only around 50 percent of students said they feel their school has helped them develop the skills and knowledge they need for college-level classes. When it comes to support services, students find them helpful — but most aren’t actually using them.

This data underlines the need for educators and education funders to listen to students so they can better understand what can prepare them for the leap after high school. When schools have an understanding of their students’ experiences, they can better identify areas for growth and smartly prioritize resources to ensure that all students are prepared for life after high school.

School Culture

When schools focus on improving culture and climate, they see a number of positive outcomes, such as higher achievement and lower teacher turnover, as a growing body of research shows.

YouthTruth analyzed anonymous survey responses from more than 80,000 6th- to 12th-grade students to learn more about student perceptions of school culture. The analysis shows that there’s work to be done. Only one in three students (across all grade levels) rate their school culture positively, and less than half of students feel that discipline at their school is fair. On the latter data point, there’s a gap in how students of different races and ethnicities are experiencing discipline. When broken down by demographic subgroups, 49 percent of Asian students, 39 percent of white students, and 39 percent of Hispanic students agree that discipline at their school is fair, while only 28 percent of black or African-American students agree.

There are further differences in students’ experience of school culture when it comes to the gender identity of students: just 16 percent of students who identify as other than male or female report positive perceptions of school culture.

Every student’s voice matters, so to create inclusive school environments, it’s important that educators and education funders are aware of which students are experiencing school culture differently than others. The only way to fully build this understanding is to ask students directly about their experiences. With that foundation of understanding, schools are better equipped to build the healthy and supportive environments that enable all students to thrive and achieve.