Education Opinion

Practicing Democracy in Schools: The Essential Goal

By Deborah Meier — March 12, 2015 4 min read
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Dear Joe (and readers):

Should operating schools democratically be an option, as you suggest, or a mandate?

It amazes me that for all our preaching about democracy how reluctant we are to practice it. Voting (which Americans are also peculiarly reluctant to do) actually comes after the real work of citizenship has been conducted.

Our reluctance suggests that democracy is not intuitive, not part of our genes. It needs to be trained. We need to live it, taste it, and study it until we find “natural” the habits that sustain it. Is there any more natural and safer place to do so than in K-12 public schools?

So, I’m for mandating it for any school that rests on public funds. But, just as there is no single best form of democracy, we shouldn’t mandate the form, just the intention. I also think we need a very short list of state mandates beyond this--mostly regarding, civil rights, health, and safety. The “real world” (employers and colleges) sets enough subject-matter mandates that will duly (or unduly) influence any school.

(By the way, I just rediscovered Educating the Democratic Mind, edited by Walter C. Parker. I recommend it.)

Joe responds:

Thanks, Deb. Here’s a brief, three-part response. First, Sarah Tantillo, a New Jersey educator asks the following--and I wondered the same thing based on your comments earlier this week: “How would you measure the success of schools? [Your] point about principals being held accountable for fiscal integrity and the health and safety of staff and students seems to suggest by omission that principals should NOT be held accountable for academic performance. Is that what (you) believe?”

Second on the issue of schools operating democratically": Yes, I agree that preparing youngsters for participating in a democracy does require some modeling of democratic principles. So key question becomes, which democratic principles should be required, where should they be applied in a public school, and how much discretion should there be?

For me, part of education in democracy should require all schools helping students learn how they can be active, constructive citizens. I’d make this mandatory. It could be done via community service projects that are part of a class, or in other forms. Again, I’ve found the What Kids Can Do website to be enormously valuable in this regard.

The system of school governance that you propose should be one, among various options, for governance. I’ve previously suggested the teacher-led school as another option, and the more traditional principal and teachers approach can be a third option. Much more information about teacher-led schools can be found here and here.

Overriding all this is a belief that schools can make a huge positive difference with youngsters. That does not mean schools can solve all of society’s, or our students’, problems. But both experience and research convince me that schools can be a major positive force in youngsters’ lives.

We should be working simultaneously inside and outside of schools to help build a more just community, country, and world. Do you agree?

Deborah Responds:

Dear Joe.

You raise two complicated issues. (1) How do we define and measure our success? (And who do we hold accountable?) (2) Can we define democracy sufficiently to make it meaningful and sufficiently flexible so that neither the feds nor the states are dictating too much.

Each is worthy of a book!

But here’s my short-hand response: I think each school community needs to develop a way of defending their answer to these questions. Are your students being prepared to nourish and defend a democratic society? Are they in a position at the age of 18, when they can vote, join the army, and serve on a jury, to function as independent citizens of a complex modern society? Plus any other missions special to each community. For example, have we helped them develop strong skills, interests, and passions worth pursuing? What habits define a democratic mindset? After all, even totalitarian societies want “good citizens’ and skilled workers, but what they mean and what we mean are, I hope, quite different.

Once coming to agreement on these matters, schools should develop ways that help them measure success--in terms, perhaps, of graduation exercises graded by independent monitors whom the community and state respect, as well as follow-up studies of their graduates. Finally, everyone in the school’s community should be responsible for its success and be a party to revisions as needed.

Then comes the delicate task of distributing powers amongst the various constituents. CPESS and Mission Hill gave the faculty a very dominant role in designing the curriculum, assessment, scheduling, and the evaluation of staff. But they also built in checks and balances that insured a decisive voice for parents, community and students.

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