School & District Management Opinion

Most Schools Don’t Model Democracy

By Deborah Meier — December 02, 2014 5 min read
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Deborah Meier’s conversation with Leo E. Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute continues today.

Dear Leo,

This was originally written to be published last week. I have a few other things on my mind as I edit this, including the Ferguson decision. I’m sadder and more worried than when I wrote this, but it will take time to digest enough to write sanely about it. But maybe there’s a connection with what follows.

So, Leo, yes, there is a spectrum of good and bad “traditional” public schools. But it’s not, unfortunately, close to a normal curve when it comes to democracy, unless we dumb down its meaning. Those at the far right end of the curve are more benign, but schools that are (by the usual definitions) democratic communities of even just adult faculty are few and far between. They barely fit on the curve at all. Universities have become less democratic as well, as more and more of the staff become part-timers or untenured.

Richard Kahlenberg, in his mostly friendly book on charters, notes that while he found two Washington charter schools that served rich and poor in heterogeneous classes, he found none in which teachers have a voice in making school decisions. He found one in Baltimore that did both. He’d do no better if he was looking at regular public schools. It’s not entirely the fault of “society,” but also of where we—as trade unionists—have put democracy on our list of priorities. Having the union have a voice substituted for our all having one. And now we’ve almost entirely lost the union’s voice in one state after another! But our schools themselves hardly represented any form of democracy.

But, as you suggest, there are qualities about many schools and even more classrooms that help the young begin to grasp what democracy might be about, that helped them build a repertoire of habits of mind that led them to be active and often powerful citizens. It’s probably even more true of progressive private schools. The Friends schools, the Ethical Culture schools, etc., spend a lot of time thinking about how their curriculum and standards promote democracy and tend to invent more ways for students and faculty to be involved in a school’s development. I know your classrooms fell into this category.

Despite this, to quote you: “The public character of public schools remains the indispensable foundation of democracy.” Even public school choice, which I have long been a fan of, is risky for democracy. Why? Because schools of choice disrupt community, which is already badly disrupted. Unless we change the way our politics operates, we are stuck in a society that builds representation upon the existence of geographic communities. Of course, as less and less power rests in those communities I suppose it becomes less and less important how they are represented politically.

I’ve always been intrigued at the attack on elected school boards (disclosure: I once served on an elected New York City school board) because they bring out so few voters. It’s an argument that could also be made of mid-terms. Let’s get rid of them since a very small percentage of the potential voting public decides on the composition of the entire House of Representatives, which is hardly a powerless institution.

But the hierarchy of schools needs more explaining to our students. It’s doubly apparent in elementary schools. Do they ever wonder why we adults put up with it? The very rich and powerful once hired tutors for their children and then sent them to private schools modeled after the kind of society they expected their children to rule over. They wanted their children to honor hierarchies. But the rest of “us” were once taught, if at all, by very disrespected single women for a few years of our lives when we weren’t generally big enough to be threatening. And for only those months when the young weren’t essential to the working of the economy. We’ve moved on, and by the time I entered the field, the treatment of teachers in urban public schools attended by low-status children was still a shock to me. Maybe it’s less obvious in high schools both because of size, departmentalization, and maybe because they have always had more status and were largely all-male.

We can do something about it as your story of Bard reminds us. If we are determined to make that a priority. And, I suspect, only if we find mechanisms—like Mission Hill’s—to include families and neighbors in the rulership. Plus students, especially as they come close to reaching the age when they will become full-scale citizens.

It’s this notion of citizenship—which rests on taking responsibility for the common good—that is just much too complicated and subtle to just “catch on” when you reach 18. In a grossly unequal society in which many are totally disfranchised and others might just as well be, it’s perfectly natural for those with vastly more power to place their interests before that of others. There will always be exceptions, but a democracy that rests on such exceptions doesn’t last long in any form. And when intentions are the very best, the balances, tensions, and trade-offs that are inherent in any institutional environment—but especially democracies—aren’t easy to learn in the absence of any first-hand observation and experience.

I’m reading a thesis written by William Martin about John Dewey and Robert Hutchins. The author argues that both saw their ideas as essential to the future of democracy, even though they seemed to be in opposite corners in their time. Having been the product of both a Dewey’ian and a Hutchins’ian form of schooling, I agree. I’d enjoy being part of a community that had responsibility for learning from both these intellectual giants. But note that (I think) neither addressed democracy in terms of the schools’ adult roles.

Yes, while it’s true democracy is never complete, we do kids and ourselves a disservice to pretend that our schools are living examples of even an imperfect democracy. They bear no resemblance to one in terms of decisionmaking and power relations. Worse, they generally encourage habits of heart and mind that leave democracy unprotected.


P.S. Three good references for thinking about schools as institutions are Upton Sinclair’s Goose Step: A Study in American Education (1922), and John Goodlad’s A Place Called School and Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise (both in 1984).

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.